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The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

21 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Based on a true story.” The Hollywood studio system loves to use those five words in an attempt to sell their products even further outside their target demographic. Even if the films they’re promoting only sound slightly similar to events that have taken place one way or another in reality, they will find some way to include that old familiar saying. (They may even remove a word and alter the tag to “inspired by true events.”) When it comes to horror films, particularly those that delve into the supernatural, using that tag creates a very thin line between what audiences are willing to believe and what they’re choosing to ignore. Take “The Conjuring,” which was marketed as “based on a true case files of the Warrens”—are we really supposed to believe that the events portrayed in that film really happened the way the filmmakers interpreted it?

That is why something as unique as Scott Derrickson’s (“Sinister,” “Doctor Strange”) underrated courtroom-drama/supernatural-thriller “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” cannot be ignored.

From that title, what do you expect to see in this film? Exorcism. Demonic possession. Death. All sorts of odd, ominous, spiritual elements going bump in the night. And a girl named Emily Rose, who indeed is part of an exorcism. If the film were as simple as that, it’d be just another supernatural-horror film. But it’s not as simple as that. Why? Well, let me explain the story first.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is loosely based on a German woman named Anneliese Michel, who in the mid-1970s underwent a Catholic exorcism not long before her death. She had already been diagnosed with epilepsy and given many psychiatric treatments, neither of which proved effective. As her condition got worse and she claimed to hear voices (among other things), her family believed her to be possessed by a demon and thus called for two priests to perform the deed. When she died of dehydration and starvation, her parents and the priests were found guilty of negligent homicide. Since then, there have been posthumous notes that point to her being under the influence of a demonic being.

So then lies the question of whether or not Anneliese truly was possessed. Are the simplest answers always the true ones? Is the way I described the event sounding more credible? I believe that there are things in this world that we may never fully comprehend and that things are never as simple as all that. Maybe she was really sick, as her psychiatrists have testified. But what about the priests and the exorcism? The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t take the concept lightly, as far as I know; so, they must’ve had some idea that something was more wrong than trained professionals have thought. Then there’s the audiotape of the exorcism, which was handed in as evidence during the trial—it’s pretty unnerving and points more toward the possibility of something supernatural overtaking this girl, but it also could have been evidence of enabling the psychiatric torture she must have been going through also.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” knows this. How do I know it knows this? Because it chooses a brilliant method in telling the story—instead of going for a straightforward approach in telling this story, in which one side of the belief system is obviously right, it looks at it from both sides. This is a masterstroke of storytelling for this kind of film, because it allows us, the audience, to decide for ourselves what we choose to believe. The best part is the film doesn’t cheat in ways that make everything so easy for one to believe something in particular. It shows why something must have happened this way or why it also could’ve happened another way. One way is the simpler way of explaining, but is it the most true? That’s the beauty of it—we’re the judges.

The protagonist of the film is defense-attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), who has been brought on as the lawyer of Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson). Father Moore is a priest on trial after the death of a teenage girl named Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) following an exorcism he attempted onto her. The church doesn’t want the public attention, and so, he’s advised to plead guilty to reckless endangerment. But Father Moore doesn’t wish to plead guilty, because he wants Emily’s story to be told, not caring in the slightest about the consequences for himself. Thus, we get an intriguing court case, in which Bruner, an agnostic, is forced to carry through the ordeal and defend her client, and the prosecutor, a churchgoer named Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), has to prove against what can’t be easily proven. Emily Rose was possessed. Emily Rose was sick. Father Moore made things worse. Father Moore did too little. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is there a “right”? Is there a “wrong”?

Taking influence from “Rashomon,” we’re told the story of Emily Rose through various perspectives, each being told from witnesses taking the stand in court. They all contradict each other, so that we see the supernatural side of things (and get our traditional modern supernatural horror movie this way) and then see what can easily be proven to non-believers. It’s a “look-at-it-this-way” scenario each time we cut back to the courtroom, and it really works.

Bruner represents the general moviegoer—someone who needs proof in order to believe in something. Father Moore assures her that “demons exist whether you believe in them or not,” and the further she dives deeper in this case, the more complicated things get. By the end of the film, she isn’t entirely a believer, but she has found herself open to more possibilities. This results in a remarkable, telling closing-statement that is so well-crafted, I found myself rewinding the film and listening to it several times. (I’m not kidding.)

Belief and proof do not always interconnect. There are differences between facts and possibilities. And what makes “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” special is that it stands by those two statements from beginning to end. That, plus the top-notch acting (especially from Linney and Carpenter), makes up for most of the film’s problems (such as the slow pacing and some standard horror tropes). The good outweighs the not-so-good here, and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is a film that I think more people should talk about. “Based on a true story”? You be the judge.

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A Ghost Story (2017)

24 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What was it I said in my 2017 Review post about David Lowery’s experimental supernatural-based film “A Ghost Story”?*

“I just didn’t get it. I know many critics are praising this film as one of the best of the year, and I admire what director David Lowery attempted to do with this untraditional “ghost story.” But it just didn’t do anything for me, except cause me to wonder, “I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie.” But I dunno, maybe I need to see it again…”

Oh, and see it again, I did…about five or six times. No joke—I checked out the DVD from my local library about five or six times, simply because…I wanted to see it again. Maybe “see it again” isn’t the right expression; “experience it again” is more appropriate for this film.

Here’s how it goes. Casey Affleck (“C”) and Rooney Mara (“M”) play a young couple living a comfortable life in rural Texas. Their relationship is rocky, as he’s an aspiring musician who is so wrapped up in his craft that he puts most things aside, including her. Before we even have much of a chance to get to know them, he dies in a car accident. After she identifies the body at the hospital, he rises in the very sheet he’s covered with. (Thus, the ghost spends the rest of the film looking like a child’s Halloween costume, complete with two oval-shaped holes for his eyes to see through.) From that point forward, the silent and unseen C goes on an existential journey, going back to the house where he watches as M grieves and tries to go on with her life and ultimately becomes witness to events that occur in the present, the future, and even the past. (We also get somewhat of an answer as to why ghosts tend to make a mess of things in haunted houses in horror movies.)

The first time I saw “A Ghost Story,” it threw me off. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, and I wasn’t sure writer-director Lowery was even sure of what he wanted his film to be. It’s a nontraditional ghost story that I think had something to say about existence and time, as it simply shows (with as little verbatim as possible) what a deceased person experiences in the afterlife. Even when I was watching it for the first time, I knew there were parts of it that were simply beautiful in effectively disturbing ways…then there were other parts that I thought could have been summed up a lot quicker than the film thinks we could understand. I mentioned in the aforementioned quote that “I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie”—that’s in reference to a scene in which Rooney Mara, playing a widow in mourning, sits alone on her kitchen floor and, in one unbroken take, eats a pie in real time. We get it—she’s grieving, expressed through stress-eating. But we’re stuck watching this scene go on and on to the point where instead of feeling the appropriate emotions for the character, all I’m thinking is…”I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie.”

(Side-note: She apparently did not. Who could blame her? It was made of vegan chocolate, according to IMDb Trivia.)

But yes, critics did praise “A Ghost Story” as one of the best films of 2017. Having it given it a few more chances, I can definitely say I see why. The film is a unique experience. It’s perhaps a little too full of itself, but I can’t deny it’s still unforgettable. Maybe I was a little too fidgety when I first saw it and wasn’t ready for this small film to enthrall me with its intriguing vision of the mysteries of life and death (and after that). But now, I admit, albeit ambivalently perhaps, that “A Ghost Story” is one of a kind and worth recommending. (I can’t even work up the nerve to give a three-star rating, so three-and-a-half it is.)

Lowery apparently loves to take us on a neat ride, with many twists and turns as he takes us through time, whether it’s forward or backward. It’s to his credit as a filmmaker that breaking traditions in a film’s usual timeline is one of the important things that makes “A Ghost Story” all the more intriguing. More importantly, he’s also not afraid to challenge viewers to think about their own existence as well as existence in general. We don’t get any easy answers, but the questions are worth discussing about. (Though, I could’ve done without the scene in which a would-be philosopher practically spells out the basic theme of the film—that’s the one scene that seemed forced to me.)

Better late than never. I may have misunderstood “A Ghost Story” the first time around. Maybe I didn’t even want to understand it. Either way it goes, here’s my apology for my first viewing…and also my apology to you for never taking Smith’s Verdict seriously again.

*2017 Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/01/09/2017-review/

Gerald’s Game (2017)

14 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

2017 was undoubtedly a banner year for Stephen King in terms of media adaptations based on some of his works. Within just a couple of months (August 2017 to October 2017), there was a solid TV series based on his novel “Mr. Mercedes” (part of a trilogy, with a second season based on the second novel “Finders Keepers” getting a release), the cinematic version of his “It” became one of the highest grossing horror films of all time, and there were two other gripping King adaptations released exclusively to Netflix: “1922” (based on a King short story) and “Gerald’s Game.” One has to wonder what King did with his residual checks, but it’s good to know he has little reason to be ashamed (for the most part).**

“Gerald’s Game,” the subject of this review, is based on King’s 1992 novel with an interesting hook: a survival-thriller/character-study about a woman who is handcuffed to a bed in an isolated cabin…and is still bound when her husband suddenly dies of a heart attack. The admittedly-thin premise becomes a great conduit for terror and survival, but the novel is more about character than about horror. Who can come in to bring more humanity and depth to what would otherwise be a passable (but not particularly special) thriller? Mike Flanagan, the director of a tragic disintegrating family drama disguised as a supernatural thriller (“Oculus”), the prequel nobody wanted but became a well-crafted horror film with believable characters (“Ouija: Origin of Evil”), and a brilliant home-invasion thriller with unexpected twists (“Hush”).

Mike Flanagan is the best director working in the horror film genre recently, because he knows how to draw in an audience and keep them on-edge while treating them with respect. His films are chilling for all the right reasons. And that includes “Gerald’s Game,” which is faithful to its source material, and more.

As I mentioned, the central character, a woman named Jessie (Carla Gugino), spends most of the story handcuffed to a bed. This was part of a kinky sex game her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) wanted to play with her at their remote vacation house, and it’s quite disturbing when the game consists of imagining rape with a captive. Jessie isn’t too eager to play, but she’s already tied to the bedposts when she calls out her husband on how sick his fantasy is. The married couple has already had problems before, and this role-playing game doesn’t make matters any better. Jessie demands Gerald unlock the cuffs, Gerald refuses…and then Gerald has a heart attack and dies. (Whoops.)

With no way of calling out for help and no one in the area plus a rabid stray dog that comes in the house to take bites out of Gerald’s corpse, Jessie is stuck on the bed, alone with her own thoughts as she tries to figure out how she’s going to get out of this predicament (if she ever does). Much of the novel is told through inner monologue and memory—how does Flanagan handle the delivery of exposition? By having Jessie partake in hallucinatory conversations with imaginary versions of Gerald and herself—these two sort of play as Jessie’s devil (Gerald) and angel (a stronger version of herself) on her shoulders, if you will. It’s an interesting move that’s played very effectively, and it also helps give more insight into Jessie’s thought process.

We get some good chilling moments of t&t (tension & terror) from the idea of the hungry meat-eating dog coming and going as he pleases to the possibility that there may actually be somebody coming into the house at night and not just another hallucination Jessie is imagining. And we also get compelling moments of survival that rival moments from “127 Hours” and “Buried” (two other movies in which a character is stuck in one place for a long period of time), such as how she manages to get drinks from a cup of water left on a shelf above the bed. But more importantly, “Gerald’s Game” works brilliantly as a character study. We get a well-rounded portrait of Jessie, not just with fantasy conversations with manifestations of her fear and her strength but also with flashbacks that reveal the origins of her guilt and her mental bindings. These scenes involve Jessie’s father (played by a surprisingly chilling Henry Thomas), who does something more chilling and disturbing than anything the flesh-eating dog does in this film. With his other films, Flanagan has always shown how important his characters are while also remembering he’s still making horror films, and with “Gerald’s Game,” he knows how important King’s characters are as well.

The acting is top-notch. Carla Gugino is excellent as Jessie. She captures the weight of the situation her character feels throughout the film, and she’s able to play with different emotions she goes through, from fear to sadness to relief, among others. We like Jessie, sympathize with her, and root for her when she attempts the inevitable escape. But I can’t leave out Bruce Greenwood, who has an arguably trickier role—he not only has to play Gerald but he also has to play Jessie’s exaggerated version of Gerald.

There’s a 10-minute epilogue that ties up all loose ends in the film. In the novel, this took about 50 pages to wrap up and is considered to be some of King’s least successful writings. Seeing the film for the first time on Netflix, I thought the final 10 minutes was unnecessary. But seeing it again, I realized it was absolutely necessary. It gave Jessie the redemption she (and to an extent, we) needed after going through her own personal hell, and it made the film overall less of a standard horror film and more of an appreciated character drama.

Mike Flanagan knows what he’s doing. With “Oculus,” “Hush,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “Before I Wake,” and “Gerald’s Game,” he’s already made five effectively solid horror films. Let’s hope for five more, because he knows what it takes to make us fear and, more importantly, he also knows what it takes to make us care. “Gerald’s Game” is probably his most accomplished work; Stephen King should be proud.

**Yes, there was also the badly publicized “Dark Tower” movie released in cinemas before any of those other projects. Why bring up the negatives when there were many positives

Don Jon (2013)

12 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A man is addicted to porn. A woman is addicted to romance films. They go out together. But it doesn’t last. Not because one addiction gets in the way. But because both addictions don’t serve them well. The message of the film “Don Jon,” written and directed by (and starring) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is that one-sided relationships lead to unhappiness.

And that’s the big surprise about the film that continued to impress me with repeated viewings: its ability to portray addiction in a way that affects romantic relationships. Addiction to anything can overwhelm someone’s life, but it can also impede on a promising relationship. “Don Jon” is a comedy, and it is a funny movie, to be sure. But its heavier aspects, while subdued, are more relevant to keep filmgoers coming back to it.

The film’s protagonist is Jon (Gordon-Levitt), a regular working-class New Jersey “guy’s guy”—works out, hangs out with his bros (Rob Brown & Jeremy Luc), and is all about the one-night stands, hooking up with random chicks he meets at the bar. But, as he explains in voiceover narration, even though he gets plenty of action from picking up random women nearly every night, nothing excites him more than climaxing while watching online pornographic videos. He loses himself in Internet porn because he can’t lose himself in real-life hookups, and so he can’t bring himself to any sort of commitment with any woman.

Jon has a pattern he repeats throughout his young-adult life that’s changed when he finds himself in an actual relationship, with a gorgeous blonde named Barbara (played by Scarlett Johansson). (Every other girl he picks up is either an “8” or a “9,” whereas Barbara is a “10,” or a “dime.”) She’s a Jersey goddess who could make any man’s dream come true, once said-man has cracked her tough shell. She teases Jon and promises a lot but keeps things on hold, thus giving Jon more of a challenge—one that makes him more active in attempts to please her. But as the relationship continues, Jon realizes more and more how unhealthy it is. Sex with her is disappointing, because there’s still something missing. It’s also abundantly clear that just as Don is addicted to a fantasy world given to him by porn, Barbara is addicted to a fantasy world given to her by theatrical romances. Both addictions give them different visions for ideal partners, which is what Jon ultimately realizes, thanks to encounters with Esther (Julianne Moore), an older classmate at a local community college. She’s more experienced in life and in romantic relationships and is able to let Jon know a thing or two.

“Don Jon” is a dark comedy with important matters to address when it isn’t making us laugh. It has quite a few things to say about the shallow ways men attempt (or even don’t bother to attempt) ways to relate to women, and vice versa, and there are things that are said about how different forms of entertainment can mold someone’s way of thinking toward the opposite sex. Therein lies the problem with Jon and Barbara’s relationship—they don’t know a thing about how to really relate to someone romantically; they’re both getting their imaginations from something that does not come from a real place (for Jon, it’s porn; for Barbara, it’s Hollywood writing). That’s what makes Jon’s friendship with Esther, which develops into something more as the film continues, all the more special, because Jon is learning more about what it really means to connect with somebody personally, which a lot of people will say is the ultimate key to any working relationship. (Esther even warns Jon at one point, after spying him watching porn on his phone in class, that the activity he watches isn’t real.)

(By the way, if you’re wondering, yes, there are bits and pieces of Internet porn videos scattered throughout the film, which do contain nudity. The film is rated R, so there isn’t much pornographic activity that would supply an NC-17. Even this plays an interesting role—in order to further the point that porn is nothing like the way things are in real life, the physical activity between the actors is more subdued, meaning not much revealed skin.)

Oh, and there’s also a subplot including Jon’s family, such as his overbearing father (Tony Danza) and shrill mother (Glenne Headly)—these two are funny but not very necessary, in my opinion. (I don’t think we need to be shown that Jon gets his chauvinism from the way his parents relate to one another.) But out of those scenes comes an effective mike-drop of a resolution for Jon’s sister (Brie Larson), who spends most of her screen time playing with her cellphone silently. She’s the Quiet Observer, not unlike Silent Bob in Kevin Smith’s films, who speaks only when the protagonist needs to hear something very important. When her time comes, it’s wonderful.

Gordon-Levitt, already proven to be a fully capable actor, proves with “Don Jon” to also be a fully capable writer/director. The way he shapes the story is effective, even in the ways he shows how repetitive his character’s life is in early-to-mid stages of the film (the concept of “routine” isn’t always successful in other movies). He also has an ear for the way people talk and communicate with one another, whether personal or casual, making for some really good dialogue for his actors (and himself) to deliver. And of course, he delivers a great performance in a role that could’ve easily been detestable.

In the end, Jon learns how to lose himself in someone he actually wants to share a deep connection with (and who actually wants to do the same with him). And it’s taught in a way that a lot of people could learn from as well, particularly those who are merely obsessed with “image.” Best of all, it doesn’t feel artificial or forced—despite the film’s quick pace, there are still ways for Gordon-Levitt to find ways for story aspects to occur more or less naturally. Small flaws be damned (I already mentioned how Jon’s parents’ scenes didn’t really work for me), “Don Jon” is a terrific film.

Call Me by your Name (2017)

14 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I could try and analyze the meaning of the flies. There are flies buzzing around visibly on-screen throughout Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by your Name,” and I thought it was just a coincidence…until one came back in the final shot. That’s when I thought there might have been something more to them in this film. Like, maybe Guadagnino is trying to say that a fly’s life is short and not appreciated until it’s too late, or something like that. But if even Guadagnino is declining to explain the meaning behind them, why should I bother trying to figure it out myself?

Thankfully, there is more to “Call Me by your Name” than…flies. (The moment I started typing that, I immediately realized it could be the weirdest sentence I’ve ever written. Hence, the ellipsis.) Nearly every other review of this film brought up the flies. I’m not returning back to this film for the damn flies; I’m returning because it’s a beautifully made, emotionally atmospheric film that works brilliantly as a study in mood and passion.

The film is a lovely equivalent of a lazy, breezy summer day. When it shows our main character alone in his room, with nothing but his thoughts and the diegetic sounds of the world outside, it’s difficult not to feel like I’m there with him or not to feel like I’ve been there before. When he’s swimming with family and friends or going on a nature hike with someone, the atmosphere of the surroundings is felt all throughout. The outside world is a character in itself; Guadagnino and his cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom are inviting us to become part of this powerful atmosphere, and it really works.

Now, this I can analyze! “Call Me by your Name” is a film about finding hidden passions within one’s self, and nature can allow those things we keep deep within ourselves to shine through. Think about it—have you ever gone away somewhere like the woods or the boonies or an isolated country home and felt like you were inspired to pursue something special that you weren’t entirely sure about before? Well, in “Call Me by your Name,” the countryside of summer-1983 Northern Italy and the boredom surrounding it pushes the characters on their journey of self-discovery.

It’s even paced like a slow, worry-free summer day. Guadagnino is patient about showing us what the characters are going through while letting us take in the beautiful scenery & environment. There’s nothing to do in this location anyway (except to discuss philosophy, music, art, and such), so there’s nothing to hurry about either.

Oh, right. I should explain who these people are. They are 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio is a precocious artistic teen who joins his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) to the family summer home in Northern Italy (or, as the opening caption states, “*Somewhere* in Northern Italy”). What’s there to do here? “Wait for summer to end,” he bluntly tells Oliver, a hunky American doctoral student staying with the family for a summer internment. (Elio’s father is a professor of Greco-Roman culture who takes in a new student every summer.) Oliver is everything Elio isn’t. Elio is shy and awkward and gangly and unsure of himself, while Oliver is ultra sure of himself and built like Michelangelo’s David sculpture.

These two young men start off trying to one-up each other, but before long, Elio takes notice of Oliver’s bravado and physique. Eventually, it becomes revealed that Oliver has strong feelings for him. When they succumb to the mutual lust they’ve developed, that’s when a complicated relationship begins that will change Elio forever.

There are no worries or any concerns that would be addressed or dealt with if the film was set anywhere else at this time. Setting it in the early ‘80s in a carefree summer surrounding allows a same-sex relationship such as this to properly develop, whereas if it were set someplace else, with it being outside the norm, narrow-mindedness would have gotten in the way.

However, it is a bit disconcerting that this relationship is happening to a teenager and a 20something, especially when Oliver seems to be leading Elio on half of the time. (Though, apparently, the age of consent in Italy is 14. Take from that trivia what you will.) But, for the sake of character development, let’s look past that and see it as a true coming of age for the Elio character. He’s not as smart as he thinks he is, and thanks to this fling with the older, more mature and sophisticated Oliver, he’s able to deal with something as drastic as heartbreak (you know this isn’t going to end well once the summer ends) and possibly learn from it later in life. (By the way, the final shot that shows us an unforgettable development in Elio is so well-done, it will haunt me for years to come.)

And speaking of “later in life,” Guadagnino has confirmed that he is indeed planning a sequel to this film that will catch up on these characters years later. As someone who admires the concept of revisiting people in films (the “Before…” trilogy, the “Up” series), I’d like to see it. If the same mood and atmosphere is brought to that film as it was to this film, I think something special will come of it.

That’s not to say the film is without flaws. As I mentioned, it feels slowly placed, intentionally. And because of that, it includes scenes that could either be trimmed down or cut out entirely. I get what the intentions were, to make us feel more and more what this particular summertime feels like. But at two hours and 10 minutes, I think we already get the point here or there. (That’s why the rating for this review is three-and-a-half stars rather than four stars, despite what seems like over-praise.)

But back to the praising. Timothee Chalamet was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and deservedly so (again, that ending shot…wow), but I’m a bit disappointed by the snubbing of Armie Hammer for his equally impressive work. I’ve seen Hammer do well in films like “The Social Network,” but here, he shows a great deal of complexity and range that could lead to more roles similar to this in the future. And then there’s Michael Stuhlbarg, who doesn’t have much to do in the father role (and as a professor, we hardly even see him do any “professor” duties). He makes up for that in a scene near the end, in which he’s allowed to give a brilliant speech to his son about how he shouldn’t forget the experience he’s had.

That speech lets you know what the film has been about this whole time. Life contains a lot of pain, and it’s important to embrace it rather than try to forget it. Pain is essential to growing in life, because we carry things with us that make us who we are today. It’s how we deal with it that truly matters. What happened between Elio and Oliver did happen, it came and went, and it’s a memory and a secret that Elio will keep forever. And on that level, “Call Me by your Name” works wonders.

I get that more than I ever will get…the flies.

NOTE: Something else I want to praise is the music, particularly two songs by musical artist Sufjan Stevens: “Mystery of Love” (which was nominated for an Oscar) and “Visions of Gideon.” There are many times when song placements in movies just seem desperate to me. And while these songs are certainly used to make us feel what the characters are feeling, even though the acting is already doing that job well, there’s something about the ways they’re used here that makes it all work like magic.

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…)

Brigsby Bear (2017)

13 May

brigsbybear

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING!

Originally, I wasn’t going to write about “Brigsby Bear.” Why? Well, because I think the best way to see this movie is to not know much about it beforehand. I came into this movie cold, without much knowledge of the plot, other than it involved some kind of children’s program involving a guy in a ratty bear costume, with a gigantic bear helmet with a moving mouth. And so, I thought it was best for everyone else to do the same…not that many people read my blog anyway—when I had that in mind, I thought, just do it already.

Anyway, I’ll repeat: SPOILER WARNING!

“Brigsby Bear” is an original piece of independent cinema; one that I think should be cherished and studied. Even when it’s in danger of becoming one of those indie Sundance-fitting “dramedies” that seem too high on their own spirits, it continues to bounce back with loads of charm and sentimentality (and originality) that I can’t help but want to hug this movie for being what it is. And what it is, is one of my favorite films of recent years. (This would have been high up on my best-of-2017 list, had I seen it a few months before. But better late than never, right?)

I’ll tread lightly here as I go into the story of “Brigsby Bear.” For starters, just who is Brigsby Bear, anyway? Well, he’s the star of a low-budget, educational sci-fi television show that teaches unusual moral lessons such as “curiosity is an unnatural emotion!” He’s a heroic bear with loyal sidekicks (the Smile Sisters) with whom to team up and battle a dastardly villain called the Sun Snatcher. Each episode features something new and educational (including complicated math problems) and ends with a lesson addressed to the show’s viewing audience. (If you thought Barney was too much for little children, wait until you see what Brigsby Bear has to offer. We do get to see many clips of the show, and it’s a riot.)

Who’s watching the show? James. He has an obsession with the show and everything within it, having grown up with it throughout the years. James (played by the film’s co-writer, Kyle Mooney) is in his mid-20s and has collected every VHS volume of the series since childhood. He’s way too old to still be trapped in the world of Brigsby, and yes, you could say it’s an unhealthy obsession, but then we see his upbringing and we see that it’s all he knows. This is where things get even stranger, particularly with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), who speak to him with the tact and sensitivity a parent gives to a young child, and his home, which is actually an underground bunker. (I watched this film with my fiancée, and her reaction was the same as mine: what’s going on here??)

OK, that’s the setup. Where is this going? There are many ways this story could go from here. Are they in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, in which they’re the only survivors? Is that why they wear gas masks when they go outside? Well, it turns out that James’ “parents” aren’t his parents at all; they abducted James when he was an infant and created this whole ruse to keep James from going outside. Not only that; they created the Brigsby Bear show themselves, to teach James about the way things are outside to keep him entertained, to educate him, and to keep him from wanting anything else out of life.

Now rescued by police and reunited with his birth parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), James has to adapt to a whole new world with a whole new family (including a younger sister, played by Ryan Simpkins), numerous activities, and all kinds of different pop culture. Much of it is nice and welcoming, including people who want to help him (such as a friendly cop played by Greg Kinnear, a therapist played by Claire Danes, and a creative teen played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and entertaining movies (such as a satirical look at family sports comedies), but everything else overwhelms James, as it’s all too much for him to take in, making him feel lost in this strange, big universe. He’s also still transfixed on the power brought to him by Brigsby, which makes sense as it’s the only source of entertainment he’s been used to for decades. He needs to see the next episode…or make one on his own…

And this is where I, as an aspiring filmmaker, fell in love with “Brigsby Bear.” Much of the movie involves James, his new friend who likes to experiment with visual effects, and many helpful others making their own Brigsby Bear movie, complete with costume. If I thought the making-a-movie sequences in “Be Kind Rewind” where wonderfully strange and whimsical, I hadn’t seen anything yet. What’s even better is that it’s also sweet.

And that’s where I’ll stop writing about the story. There’s more to enjoy about “Brigsby Bear,” and I don’t feel like I’ve spoiled too much of the movie. But again, I warned you there would be spoilers and that it’s best to go into this movie as cold as possible. Maybe I’m writing this review for myself, because I immediately felt like writing about it after I saw it.

It would’ve been so easy to make James the butt of so many mean-spirited jokes about how he doesn’t understand the way the world is and/or how socially awkward he is as a result. But thankfully, this movie treats the situation delicately, because Mooney, director David McCary, and co-writer Kevin Costello like James and don’t want to embarrass him. That’s what I admire most about “Brigsby Bear.” (I dare even say I actually enjoyed this fish-out-of-water story a lot more than “Being There,” with Peter Sellers, an obvious comparison.)

“Brigsby Bear” is a wonderful film with a good sense of humor and an even greater heart to go with it. If there’s anything more important than a comedy that can make you laugh, it’s a comedy that can make you feel. That’s exactly how I describe “Brigsby Bear.”