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Get Out (2017)

24 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In the horror film “Get Out,” a white woman, Rose (Allison Williams) takes her black boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), to the countryside to introduce him to her family. They’re all accommodating, seemingly well-meaning white people who try to make Chris feel welcome, but something feels wrong. Things start off as awkward when Rose’s liberal parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) and jock brother (Caleb Landry Jones) deliver one cringe-inducing (albeit benign) race-related comment after another. But when Chris meets the only other black people in town, he notices odd behaviors about them, which causes discomfort that only raises when the family’s friends gather at the house for a picnic…and that’s all I’ll say about “Get Out.” If you haven’t seen the trailer, just see this movie—the less you know about the story, the better.

That’s as much of the story as I’ll describe here, so I’ll just continue with the review. “Get Out” is the debut feature of writer-director Jordan Peele, best-known for comedic acting & writing, especially for the sketch comedy series “Key & Peele.” I’d say it’s an interesting departure for Peele to make a film like this, but then again, a good chunk of the first 45+ minutes of “Get Out” reminded me of a prolonged “Key & Peele” sketch, in which race relations (or lack thereof) is a factor and there is humor to be found in the sheer awkwardness/discomfort of one moment after the other. And the humor is also there to offset the more uncomfortable moments that leave audiences believing there is something wrong here but not knowing what it is, what will happen, when it will happen, and so on—to get to its ultimate final act, the audience has to endure one awkward moment after another as they try to determine what’s really happening here. The best way to relieve tension in these scenes is with laughter.

“Get Out” is a great mix of comedy and horror. It’s not downright satiric nor does it become overly serious; it’s just the right amount of both that entertains and also makes nearly every stomach in the theater churn. Peele is a bright-enough filmmaker that he’s actually able to approach the material with as much discretion as possible to make it work. He also doesn’t go too deeply into the subject of race relations and the pomposities and resentment that can sometimes come into play. He does have something to say about it all, but overall, it’s used to craft a unique story that I think Peele does a brilliant job putting together.

He gets great aid from his actors as well. Daniel Kaluuya is easily relatable as a man feeling out of place without knowing precisely why. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener as both funny and chilling, whenever they need to be each (or both). And I can’t neglect to mention the comedic highlight of the movie, and that is Lil Rey Howery as Rod, Chris’ best friend who is able to conduct his own detective work when Chris calls him via cellphone with clues. He provides the film’s biggest laughs himself.

What does all the oddness and awkwardness amount to? I won’t give it away here, but what I will say is much is revealed with effective twists, and while the final act may be paced a little too slow, I have to credit it for making me even more tense as I was A) waiting for answers and B) desperately wanting Chris to make it out the messed-up situation once those answers were revealed (and C) making me want to see the movie again, now that I have the answers). As is the case with the best slow-burn thrillers, I can’t wait to see “Get Out” again, knowing what I know now. And in addition, I also can’t wait to see what Jordan Peele comes up with next.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

21 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING!

In 2001, one of the most highly anticipated movies in renowned filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s career was to be released. Why was it so heavily awaited? Because it was Spielberg’s attempt to bring his own version of a Stanley Kubrick film to life. The late Kubrick, director of such stylistic, mostly bleak & calculating films as “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange,” admired (and maybe even envied) Spielberg’s vision (and vice versa, I believe). So, when Kubrick brought his idea of a “sci-fi version of ‘Pinocchio’” to light, he wanted Spielberg to direct it. Both directors went through years of collaboration (and arguments about which of them was better to direct the film), and Kubrick wrote a 90-page story treatment. When Kubrick died in 1999 (the same year his film “Eyes Wide Shut” was released), Spielberg decided to bring Kubrick’s vision to life himself.

The result was “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” a film that many audiences & critics saw as an ambitious mess upon theatrical release. They saw it as a clash of two different directing styles from a director trying to mimic another director’s trademarks. Spielberg was traditionally seen as a sentimentalist/optimist, and for him to go more artful and deep by way of Kubrick (who seemed to have a dim point of view about human nature) caused people to scratch their heads. (We’ll get to the ending…)

The story is set in a distant future and centers around David (Haley Joel Osment), a robotic (or “mecha”) child who is the first of his kind—a mecha programmed only to love, invented after its creator (William Hurt) discovered a robot can feel pain. David is brought home to Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor) by her husband Henry (Sam Robards), who works at Cybertronics (the mecha factory) in New Jersey. David is a test project for Cybertronics and somewhat of a substitute for Monica and Henry’s natural son Martin (Jake Thomas), who is in a coma. David and Monica form somewhat of a bond, but complications arise when Martin awakens and gets David into trouble, causing things to go awry and Monica to get rid of him. But rather than take David to be dismantled, she instead leaves him in the woods where he and his robotic toy bear (named “Teddy”) have no choice but to brave the world they aren’t familiar with. This includes becoming part of an event that destroys mechas (called a Flesh Fair), a travel through Rouge City (imagine Las Vegas if it was taken over by “The Fifth Element”), and a journey to an underwater Manhattan. By his side is Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a mecha designed for prostitution purposes who David meets at the Flesh Fair.

Where the “Pinocchio” aspect comes into play is when Monica has already read the story to David, who has become genuinely fascinated by the concept of The Blue Fairy. When he is taken out into the world because he feels his “Mommy” doesn’t love him anymore because he’s a machine, David embarks on a journey to find The Blue Fairy and wish to become “a real boy.”

Think about what I just wrote—“David [a mechanical child constructed by man] is ‘genuinely’ fascinated” and “he ‘feels’ his ‘Mommy’ doesn’t love him anymore.” Why would a machine care or feel about anything other than what it was designed to do? For that matter, how can “love” be programmed at all? I don’t know, but in science-fiction, there’s always the reasonable answer of machines learning just as humans do, the more times interaction is a factor. David could have simply developed more than he was programmed to, by simply watching, listening and learning. That reasoning would also help explain why Gigolo Joe, who when we first see him seems like he’s being framed for murder of one of his clients, runs away when he could have stayed with the body, because after all, why else would a robot feel the need to save himself? And then later, when he joins David on his quest, he can’t help but express cynicism about the concept of a real Blue Fairy.

But then again, it can be argued that these emotions are simply part of the coding, because after all, artificial intelligence is simply that: artificial. All these machines can do is run programs that may fool us by being like them. So, perhaps, rather than actually learning and thinking, these androids are advancing in their programs—David furthers along his journey because he’s programmed to love and he’s taking it to the highest degree; Gigolo Joe is cynical and self-preservative because he’s supposed to behave like anyone would in a city like Rouge City.

I don’t know; no one knows for sure. But this kind of thing is fun to think about and discuss with fellow audience members. Far be it for me to bring up a lesser movie, but there is a line of dialogue in an ‘80s family film called “D.A.R.Y.L.” that actually sums up this film’s idea perfectly: “A machine becomes human when you can’t tell the difference anymore.”

What turned many people off when they first saw this film was the fact that it’s not always easy to determine the concepts of a robotic child programmed to “love” and it left them with more questions than answers… Isn’t that a good thing? Shouldn’t entertainment leave audiences wanting more? Well…that’s not the only thing. As I mentioned above, Spielberg and Kubrick were on opposite sides of the directing field, so audiences were uneasy with one trying to replicate the other. They felt Spielberg’s vision contradicted with that of Kubrick’s. But what really confused and angered many audiences about the film was its epilogue. Let me explain:

David and Teddy are trapped in a vehicle underwater where they find a statue of The Blue Fairy at a submerged theme-park attraction. David stares at The Blue Fairy as time goes on and on, wishing his dream of becoming a “real human” will come true. Does this make him less human or more human? It could be argued…both. 2,000 years later, humans are extinct and now-highly advanced mechas roam the world. David and Teddy are found and are thought of as special, as they are the only surviving mechas to know humans, thus giving them understanding to their existence. They reward David by bringing Monica back to life, so he can spend a single day with her as her son. Monica tells him she always loved him, David feels more or less real, and they lie peacefully together in bed as David’s journey to become real has finally come to a close…

It’s a highly sentimental (and as some would say, “schmaltzy”) ending that broke the film for most audiences, especially those who thought it was unnecessary, false, and went against what Kubrick would have originally intended. They put the blame on Spielberg because they believed Kubrick would have ended the film with David underwater wishing and praying, and Spielberg added on the extra half-hour to give David a happier ending. Even film critic James Berardinelli of reelviews.net stated in his original review, “There is no doubt that the concluding 30 minutes are all Spielberg.” What they didn’t realize until later was that the whole story was from Kubrick, and that included the much-maligned ending. Spielberg has gone on record saying that he tried his best to bring his late friend’s vision to life as best as he possibly could, even when his collaborators thought it wouldn’t work. He felt that if he didn’t do it, he’d be betraying him, and he simply couldn’t do that.

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There is a lot you can read into this—like Kubrick wanting to make the Spielberg movie he always wanted, Spielberg understanding Kubrick more than we thought, and so on. And even if the movie doesn’t work for someone, it can’t be argued that there wasn’t a lack of understanding behind the scenes.

And thankfully, people who didn’t particularly care for “A.I.” before have since revisited the film, which resulted in softened views and opinions. Roger Ebert only gave it a slight positive review upon initial release (only to include it in his Great Movies collection ten years later). Doug “Nostalgia Critic” Walker has softened up on it, as seen in his 40-minute video review of the film. English film critic Mark Kemode even apologized for maligning the film severely, years after he first saw it.

There’s something special about “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” whether it be in front of me or behind the scenes. The visuals are outstanding, Spielberg’s ability to duplicate the style of visual storytelling Kubrick was also known for is remarkable, the concepts of what makes someone human are fascinating to think about and discuss with people, and the story of Spielberg working hard to make his late friend’s wish come true is something to be admired. I thought differently about this film too, when I first saw it like many other people. But also like those people, upon second viewing, I found myself with a deeper appreciation for it that has me coming back to it every once in a while.

NOTE: If you think for a moment that Spielberg was defending himself for the ending by putting all the blame on the late Kubrick, think about two things. One is, it makes sense that Kubrick would end a sci-fi film with human extinction (which is essentially what it adds up to, being in a world dominated entirely by super-advanced robots) because if you look at many of his films, you can see a pattern containing actions of the worst of humanity (possibly even a reflection of what he saw in the world he lived in). The other is, Kubrick was Spielberg’s dear friend to the end. Spielberg tried his absolute best to bring Kubrick’s vision to life, by copying styles and atmosphere Kubrick himself was infamous for. Why would he add on anything more than what Kubrick originally intended? Think about it.

The Invitation (2016)

17 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s something to be admired about the Slow-Burn. It’s when you know something is coming (but you’re not exactly sure what), and you’re allowing yourself to be patient enough to ride it all the way through. And then, when the ultimate resolution arrives, it makes you look at the whole film a different way, thus making you want to see it again. (I keep using “you,” but I really just mean myself. But judging by the Internet reception of the film in question, I’m not alone in this.)

Not many recent thrillers have the Slow-Burn, which is why I deeply appreciate the time and effort that was put into Karyn Kusama’s masterful thriller “The Invitation.”

“The Invitation” is a psychological thriller about the dinner party from hell. It begins as Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) arrive at a party at Will’s old house in the Hollywood Hills…and they were invited by Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), whom Will hasn’t seen in about two years. (Awkward…) She is now remarried to David (Michiel Huisman), whom she met at a grief-support group meeting. (Little hints at characterization are flashed throughout the film, giving us somewhat of an understanding at Will and Eden’s past.) Also at the gathering are old friends, who join in on Eden and David’s way of establishing “new beginnings.” But there are two mysterious strangers (strangers to the guests, not to the hosts)—Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). These two are part of a cult that helps deal with trauma, and they have an interesting recruitment video to show the guests…one that ends quite disturbingly. This gets Will (and us) a little on-edge and paranoid, especially when he notices little things the others don’t catch on to.

What are these strange people getting at? What’s the secret to Eden’s newfound calmness after tragedy? Why does David keep locking the doors? Is there something to fear? What’s really happening here? Is Will imagining things or should everyone run for their lives? Without giving anything away, “The Invitation” manages to answer these questions in a major way.

It requires a lot of patience and attention to get to where “The Invitation” ultimately builds up to, and I’ll admit my patience was tried a little with each possible answer they could give us to rising questions (without giving us the actual answers most of the time). But somehow, I knew the answer wouldn’t be as rational as characters would like Will to believe (or the audience to believe, for that matter), so I stayed with it, wondering what would happen, when it would happen, and how it would happen. And as much as I would love to talk about the back half of the film, when everything in the story goes to hell, I will leave it for you to discover, because believe me…it is worth it.

Operation Avalanche (2016)

28 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Some day, I’ll write a “Revised Review” for Matt Johnson’s debut feature “The Dirties.” I originally gave it a three-star review, but then as time went on, I wrote an in-depth column about its themes and meanings, after repeated viewings. Now, after seeing it about 40-50 times, I’m unashamed to say it’s one of my new personal favorites and it deserves another review.

But this review isn’t about that. It’s about Johnson’s next film, “Operation Avalanche,” another “faux-documentary” (which shows to be a good style for Johnson, who clearly loves film and filmmaking). Johnson is clearly a filmmaker who loves to take chances—his previous film (“The Dirties”) involved a school shooting, and this one…has a pretty interesting backstory.

“Operation Avalanche” was made illegally (practically), as Johnson and his crew managed to get into locations such as NASA and Shepperton Studios, by disguising themselves as a documentary film crew. Technically, they were telling the truth; but what they were keeping secret was the fact that they were actually making a faux-documentary narrative set in the late-1960s, when NASA was about to launch Apollo 11. (But wait—it gets better.) In the film, they play the film crew hired to stage the moon landing… It’s so crazy, it actually works.

Set in the late ‘60s, the film stars Johnson and Owen Williams (playing themselves, as they did in “The Dirties”) as Ivy League film geeks who are recruited by the CIA and assigned to locate and expose a Soviet spy in NASA. Armed with cameras and two camera operators, they pretend they’re making a documentary about the upcoming race to the moon, and they bug the phones in an attempt to find the spy. But they learn that the U.S. can’t land on the moon, as it’s years behind schedule on the plans. That’s when Johnson comes up with a plan even trickier (and riskier) than the infiltration plan—make a film that simulates a moon landing and make it appear as if it’s Neil Armstrong walking on the lunar surface. They rent a warehouse for a set, build a giant prop that resembles Apollo 11, import sand from certain areas that supposedly resembles the lunar ground, and even get help from Stanley Kubrick (like, the Stanley Kubrick, using photographs and CGI to bring him to life for a brief scene—“Forrest Gump,” eat your heart out). But a hoax this controversial requires the CIA to eliminate any and all participants/witnesses if it all fails…even if they don’t know whether or not it will.

As a filmmaker, Johnson shows how bright he can be when making a film on a micro-budget—he makes the material consistently engaging, he helps us to believe in the story and the execution, and even though he doesn’t like to refer to his films as “found-footage,” it’s hard to deny he knows how to breathe new life into a subgenre that was growing tiresome before. He’s also a very good actor—he’s charismatic and knows how to gain the audience’s attention with his screen presence alone. And as I stated before, he loves to take chances with his films. “Operation Avalanche” could’ve been an easy failure, harping on the popular conspiracy theory that still has people debating to this day. For this film, he presents us with not necessarily his factual interpretation as to the behind-the-scenes of the moon landing (whether it was faked or for real) but with a “what-if” scenario. What if the landing really was fabricated? How would that have been done? What troubles went into it? Etc. Johnson has fun with it.

As with “The Dirties,” “Operation Avalanche” is about an ambitious, film-loving young person wanting to push the boundaries of what he can do with film, without thinking ahead about the consequences first. He wants his fame in helping the government pull off the greatest scam of all time, but what does it matter to anyone but himself? If America found out about it, he’d be the most hated man in the country. And there are also dire consequences for the people helping him. The final moment, in which everything has become all too real and bitter for Johnson, is probably the very best thing in the movie.

But again, as with “The Dirties,” “Operation Avalanche” is also very funny, particularly when it comes to his new film equipment and especially when Johnson is directing Williams in a space suit to hop slowly as if he’s walking on the moon. And there’s also a lot of fun in the film’s in-jokes relating to other films such as Kubrick’s work, which leads to an amazing sequence in which Johnson sneaks his way into Kubrick’s “2001” set to figure out how to use “front-screen projection.” A highlight of this scene—Johnson manages to get Kubrick’s autograph.

The film can also get very tense too, especially in the final act, which includes a car chase shot from inside the pursued car in one take.

“Operation Avalanche” is in the same vein as something like a Christopher Guest mockumentary or an episode of “Documentary Now,” not necessarily “mocking” the style of filmmaking but more appreciating/celebrating it (as well as positively satirizing it). It’s compelling, it’s fun, and it’s yet another example of what a talent Matt Johnson is. I eagerly await his next project, whatever it may be.

Split (2017)

20 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I never lost faith in M. Night Shyamalan. He gets a bad rap because his failures failed tremendously, especially taking his earlier successes into account. But that’s really not fair because other famous directors have gone through career slumps and came back from them; yet for some reason, it’s “cool” to make fun of Shyamalan. I knew some day, he would find himself back on the right track. With his previous film, “The Visit,” he seemed to find his footing, and even though it wasn’t “great,” it was still a welcome return for Shyamalan after such disappointing messes as “The Happening,” “After Earth,” and especially “The Last Airbender.” It was like he let the studio system corrupt him after he’d done many good things for it (particularly “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” and “Signs”), and he made a smaller movie in an attempt to find the magic of filmmaking again.

Shyamalan’s follow-up to “The Visit” is another “small movie” called “Split,” and while I don’t think it’s quite up there with “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” or “Signs,” it still shows us why we held Shyamalan in high regard in the first place. This is an imaginative, tense, even funny psychological-thriller that shows the talent of M. Night Shyamalan on display.

“Split” begins as three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, Haley Lu Richardson as Claire, and Jessica Sula as Marcia) are abducted by an odd man (James McAvoy). While kept in an underground bunker of sorts, they find that he’s a man of many personalities. It turns out he has dissociative identity disorder, with 23 different personalities (a few of which we get to meet, like mischievous 9-year-old Hedwig, feminine Ms. Patricia, and obsessive-compulsive Dennis). But there seems to be a 24th personality awakening soon—one the others refer to as “the Beast,” who will “feed” on the three girls. Meanwhile, as the man has frequent sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, the self-proclaimed “crazy old lady from ‘The Happening’”), Dr. Fletcher has to figure out what exactly “the Beast” is before it’s too late.

(And that’s as far as I’ll go in describing the story. Don’t worry—this review is spoiler-free.)

Shyamalan still has tricks up his sleeve when it comes to the plot. There are many neat twists and turns in his storytelling; the more that was discovered about what’s really happening here, the more tense everything became. By the time this film reached its final act, I was on-edge, with goosebumps that wouldn’t go away until the film ended…and even then, I had trouble shaking it off. Good job, Shyamalan.

Almost a majority of “Split” is kept in this undisclosed location somewhere underground (flashbacks of last year’s “10 Cloverfield Lane”), and with Shyamalan’s direction as well as the superb cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, it’s easy to feel the confinement and the anxiety of each situation that comes.

Shyamalan also isn’t afraid to make us laugh at times, particularly when it comes to the weirdness of the disorder and how the girls react to it in both confusion and fear. Some of the comedic bits belong to the personality of Hedwig, the 9-year-old troublemaker within McAvoy…as well as some of the most frightening bits.

James McAvoy takes center-stage, and he turns in a brilliant performance as a man of many identities. McAvoy has a complicated task to pull off, differentiating each personality from the other (and the other…and the other…), and he amazingly succeeds. This is an actor’s dream come true, and McAvoy goes all out for this role. One particular moment for which I have to commend McAvoy is a close-up shot in which he instantly transitions from one role to another—how he did that, I would love to know.

Of the three girls, only Anya Taylor-Joy (who was also very good in “The Witch”) makes an impression. She plays Casey, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time after being invited to a birthday party of one of the two other girls out of pity (and she was riding home with the others when they were captured). As the film starts, we see her as an uninteresting, stereotypical outsider-girl. But as the film continues, we get glimpses into her past to make us understand more of who she is, which makes us glad for moments when she starts to grow as she tries to find ways out of each predicament in this claustrophobic hellhole. Even when we’re questioning why she doesn’t do certain things at times, we get to understand it better, the more we find out about her.

However, the other two girls (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) aren’t given the same treatment. I didn’t particularly care for them, as they were only there to cry, cower, and say obvious things like “we have to get out of here” and “I’m scared”. Granted, we don’t want to see anything bad happen to them, but they don’t do much to make us care much for them either.

I would love to talk about the final moment. But again, this review is spoiler-free and there aren’t any hints or clues or anything given by me. All I will say about it is it will delight people and annoy others—I have to say, it took me a while to think about how I felt about it, but I couldn’t help but admire it. I even bought it more after thinking about it. That’s all I’ll say about it…but, by God, I’d love to talk about it! (Sorry, lost myself for a moment there.)

M. Night Shyamalan is having fun with his movies again, and it definitely shows with “The Visit” and “Split,” two inventive thrillers. Since “Split” is, by definition, probably more intriguing than “The Visit” (and that was a damn fun movie), then it’s safe to say that Shyamalan is back in the game. “Split” has its problems (including a slow first act), but as it progresses, it becomes a neat thriller that reminds us of what Shyamalan can do when he puts his heart and soul into it. Let’s hope he keeps up the good work in the future.

Rogue One (2016)

24 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

With the arrival of last year’s smash hit, “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” the “Star Wars” franchise was back, and Lucasfilm/Disney was going to prove it. Not only were there going to be two further “episodes,” but there was also going to be a series of “Star Wars anthology” films in between said-episodes. To every “Star Wars” fan, this was great news, and while they would wait for “Episode VIII” in 2017, they were definitely going to see the first entry in the anthology: “Rogue One.”

(By the way, I know “Rogue One” is marketed as “A Star Wars Story.” That’s not how I’m going to label it. It sounds too run-of-the-mill.)

If you thought “The Empire Strikes Back” (Episode V) and/or “Revenge of the Sith” (Episode III) was dark, you haven’t seen anything yet. “Rogue One,” set just before Episode IV (which spawned the franchise in the first place), is darker, grittier, and more of a war film than we would expect from the franchise (funny, seeing how it’s called “Star WARS”). It still has its share of spectacular, rousing moments of sci-fi adventure and lighthearted, witty one-liners, but when it takes its dark turns, it gets pretty heavy. When characters are in battle, you have to be able to accept that there probably won’t be any turning back.

“Rogue One” works fine as a stand-alone film, but it’s even better when associated with the other films. Actually, those who don’t appreciate the silly turns taken in the prequels (Episodes I-III) will appreciate this film more as “the prequel we’ve been waiting for.”

The film’s heroine is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a bright, spunky, heated soldier and criminal. She’s also the daughter of scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), who tried to escape the ruthless Empire before he was forced back in to design the planet-destroying Death Star. At first, Jyn wants nothing to do with the Empire or the terrorists that follow, but when she receives a message from Galen that includes crucial information about the Death Star, she joins a group of Rebels on a mission to retrieve the original structural plans and bring them to the attention of the Alliance. (It should probably come as a surprise to no one that they succeed. But like any good movie, what really matters is how they succeed.)

Among the band of would-be heroes are badass pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), extremist Rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker), defective Empire pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind monk warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), Chirrut’s friend & fellow warrior Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and comic-relief robot K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk)—a wonderfully diverse cast of characters.

Director Gareth Edwards (“Monsters,” “Godzilla”) was given some difficult tasks to perform in making this “Star Wars anthology” film—neatly tie it in to Episode IV, pay respect to George Lucas’ original vision, and make a war movie in the “Star Wars” universe. He succeeds in all three tasks. “Rogue One” is still set in the “Star Wars” universe, but it doesn’t feel entirely like what we’re used to. There’s something new and something old. It has to do with the execution, the feel of the piece, and also the way the war aspects in particular seem grounded and realistic. For example, when those giant mechanical-elephant things (and I’m sorry for forgetting what they’re called) are attacking, they’re seen from the ground perspective of the soldiers fighting them. This makes us feel the size and impending danger of these oncoming obstacles. You can feel the stakes are higher in this one.

Darth Vader returns in this one (and is again voiced by James Earl Jones), as many people were wondering before the film’s release. He’s only on screen for about five minutes total, but when he shows up…let’s just say there’s an action that reinforces the reason we were afraid of this guy.

And speaking of returning “Star Wars” characters, I can’t neglect to mention the reappearance of Grand Moff Tarkin, played in Episode IV by the late Peter Cushing. Using high-quality CGI effects, this character was brought back for somewhat of a supporting role. This easily could’ve been a downfall for the film, and yet, even though I’m distracted by the fact that this isn’t really Peter Cushing but a recreation of the deceased actor (with the aid of computers, a stand-in, and possibly a voice imitation), I have to say they did an impressive job “reviving” him and giving him a new performance. To my surprise, I buy it.

Also in terms of tying in to Episode IV, “Rogue One” managed to ingeniously resolve a flaw that has plagued many fans for decades. I won’t give it away here, but you’ll know it when you see it.

My only real problem with “Rogue One” is the villain. It’s not that Ben Mendelsohn doesn’t do fine work as Orson Krennic, the Empire’s Director of Advanced Weapons Research. But when you put him next to previous “Star Wars” villains like Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, he simply isn’t as memorable.

But the heroes are an appealing bunch. Even though Jyn is the one we grow closer to, due to knowing much of her background, the others are still fun to follow. Cassian is a dashing pilot, which would inspire shades of Han Solo, but actor Diego Luna makes the role his own. (Plus, I like how he represents a side of the Rebel Alliance that not many would expect. This guy isn’t to be messed with.) Chirrut Imwe provides many of the more awesome moments of action plus some appreciated deadpan humor. And K-2SO is a great addition—this droid doesn’t whine as much as C-3PO, and he provides the film’s biggest laughs with his snarky manner.

Oh, and a friend of mine (who is a “Star Wars” fan) says I should mention the use of composer Michael Giacchino’s replacement of John Williams’ iconic “Star Wars” score. It’s fine. It’s a bit distracting, but it still feels very “Star Wars”-ish.

Simply put, “Rogue One” is a compelling “Star Wars” entry, with riveting action, a more grounded feel, and a perfect splice of this “anthology piece” and Episode IV. This can only be the start of something great for “Star Wars”; I look forward to the next “Star Wars anthology” film in addition to Episode VIII.

Green Room (2016)

18 Dec

960

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Just read the premise for writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room”: a punk-rock band must fight to survive a night in a bar run by ruthless neo-Nazis run by Patrick Stewart. Admit it—you want to see this film on the basis of that concept alone.

I’ll be honest and say I was expecting a more conventional (albeit fun and thrilling) film than the one I actually saw (thrilling but definitely not “fun” in the “conventional” sense). It’s a brutally realistic chiller that had my stomach knotted up and got under my skin. And it confused me; but it only confused me because nothing was happening the way I expected it to happen. Then I realize, that’s a good thing! Let me give an example—in this film, someone comes in to help and you expect him to save the day, but what happens instead? Out of the blue, he gets a shotgun blast to the face! No buildup, no tense music—it just happens. And I’m not even going to mention what someone does with an ultra-sharp razor blade.

This simple, straightforward thriller that begins with the introduction of our soon-to-be-in-jeopardy protagonists—a four-member punk-rock band called the Ain’t Rights. They don’t partake in social media, they siphon gas for their van in which they all live/sleep, and they’re not as “hardcore” as they like to think they are but they try. They go from gig to gig collecting as much money as they can, but their next gig is one they’ll wish they avoided. It’s a bar in a part of the Pacific Northwest populated by rednecks and neo-Nazis. After playing their set, all they have to do is collect their payment and leave. But oops—bassist Sam (Alia Shawkat) left her phone in the green room backstage and guitarist Pat (Anton Yelchin) has to retrieve it…only to discover a dead body in the green room. A murder has occurred, and before Pat can call the police, he and the band, including two other members Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner), are kept inside the green room while the bar’s owner, Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), tries to think of what to do. His plan: close the bar early so the patrons can leave, call in his band of brutes and thugs (as well as man-eating attack dogs), somehow lure the band outside, and murder them, thus eliminating all witnesses. Knowing the danger they’re in, the band, as well as a bystander named Amber (Imogen Poots), realize they must fight to survive if they are even going to consider leaving the room.

The film is an exercise in realistic violence in response to the question of what people can do to other people when facing against each other. I mentioned the shotgun to the face and the razor blade, but there’s also a hand that’s nearly chopped off, a machete to the neck, and even a dog after someone’s throat. This isn’t a film for anyone who’s easily squeamish. The violence is handled in an unpredictable way so that anyone invested in the material will be on-edge wondering what will happen next. As expected from a film like this, you wonder how the characters are going to get out of one situation before they get into another one. But this is a film that disposes of a few of these characters quicker than anyone would have expected.

Who is the right audience for “Green Room”? That’s a difficult question to answer. Certainly not people looking for a b-movie thriller where you whoop and cheer for the bad guys to get their comeuppance. This isn’t a gutsy, go-for-it thrill ride; it’s more of a nightmare, as one character proclaims by the end of the story. Nothing feels overwritten or exaggerated—it’s just a matter of saying, “This is what happens when this happens, so save your popcorn for a different movie.” In that sense, maybe “Green Room” is only for people who just want to see “what happens when this happens,” based on the premise I opened the review with.

“Green Room” is a well-executed thriller with an intriguing hook and a fascinatingly original take on the situation. The actors are terrific (especially Stewart, who is more subtle than a frothing-at-the-mouth bad guy), the cinematography is top-notch, and as was Saulnier’s intent, it left an impact on me that might have actually been better than what I expected.