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Awesome Remix, by Tyler Smith

2 May

I was not a big fan of the first Guardians of the Galaxy. While many people praised its offbeat tone and crazy characters, the whole thing seemed surprisingly conventional to me, especially when one considers director James Gunn’s previous work. The film certainly had the distinction of changing the way superhero movies would be marketed, using classic rock and witty banter to show that these films could have a sense of humor about themselves, but that hardly redeems it (in fact, it might actually condemn it all the more). So, as I walked into Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, I was trepidatious. It seemed to me that Marvel would have a hard time not doubling down on the successful elements of the first film and simply serving up more of the same. Thankfully, the studio seemed to see the success of the first film as license to allow James Gunn to cut loose and tell a truly unique story, realized with some genuinely gorgeous visuals and several exciting action (and comedy) sequences.

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Complex Honesty, by Tyler Smith

23 Dec

It’s easy to classify J.A. Bayona’s beautiful new film A Monster Calls as just another family movie about grief and sadness, like Bridge to Terabithia or Where the Wild Things Are. But, while those films are perfectly good, it would be wrong to do so. That would be too simple, and A Monster Calls is not a simple film. Quite the opposite, in fact, as on its surface it would seem to be about loss, but is at its heart about something much deeper, something more complex. This is a film about honesty, truth, and the often contradictory nature of both. Not exactly light material, and Bayona – directing from a script by Patrick Ness, adapting his own novel – chooses not to attempt an artificial lightness. Instead, he embraces the feelings of its main character; namely a deep sadness and a need for escape.

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Stay on Target, by Tyler Smith

13 Dec

Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One is a worthy entry in the Star Wars saga. The first major motion picture to step outside the “episode” format, Rogue One feels appropriately like the scrappy cousin in a large, respected family. This is to its credit, as the Star Wars films are always at their most effective when they portray makeshift families and ragtag bands of misfits coming together in service of something greater than themselves. And given that the story is about what is essentially a suicide mission, Rogue One certainly fits in nicely with the larger themes of the series. In fact, it is really only in the film’s desperate desire to connect to the rest of the series – bridging the gap between Episodes III and IV – that it stumbles. Whenever it is telling its own story, though, the film is focused, poignant, and entertaining.

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One of a Kind, by Tyler Smith

4 Nov

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Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter is a beautiful and fascinating work of art. It is a film of intangibles, borrowing its tone and imagery from various genres while never belonging to any of them. Somehow it manages to stand alone, defying categorization. That the film was the sole directorial effort of Laughton – a venerable character actor since the 1930s – only adds to its mystique. Not only is it difficult to speak about the film in regards to genre, but it also sidesteps any discussion of auteurism, as we have no previous nor future works by the director to compare it to. Given the surreal, dreamlike quality of both the visual and thematic elements of the film, it seems appropriate that it would remain so academically elusive. It is a film that insists we first view it on its own terms, rather than try to fit it into any larger theories.

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Eternal Significance, by Tyler Smith

4 Nov

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Just when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was starting to bore me, along comes horror director Scott Derrickson to completely re-energize it. This film not only feels like a breath of fresh air narratively, but visually, as well. It’s been a long time since a movie’s visual effects left me stunned, but Doctor Strange features such virtuoso filmmaking that I found myself asking not merely how the director did it, but how he even conceived of it. That is the mark of true creativity and freshness. While so many other films in the MCU were phoning it in, Doctor Strange sets out to genuinely intrigue and astound its audience.

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Real Heroism, by Tyler Smith

23 Oct

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Clint Eastwood’s Sully is the director’s latest film about real life heroism. Starting with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima in 2006, Eastwood has made several films based on inspirational true stories, though often from an odd angle (telling Nelson Mandela’s story as a function of the rugby World Cup, for example). With Sully, however, Eastwood – ever the deconstructionist – has decided to approach what could be a straightforward story and treat it as an opportunity to meditate on the very nature of heroism itself.

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No Escape, by Tyler Smith

6 Jul

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Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows is an effective little creature feature about a young woman trapped on a rock in the ocean, two hundred yards from shore and terrorized by a huge great white shark. As the tide rises and the rock slowly begins to disappear, our heroine must figure out how to outsmart the shark and get back to the beach. Everything is fairly straightforward and the film is sturdily-made, featuring a handful of thrills and a sustained tension throughout.

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The Only Thing, by Tyler Smith

24 Jun

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“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

So says a particularly incisive fashion designer in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. The quote is a bit on the nose, but certainly seems to be the mantra of Refn himself. His films have always been visually striking, even when treading familiar narrative ground. Refn’s ability to marry sound and image, crafting an overall tone that is both jarring and haunting, distinguishes him as one of the most unique directors working today. And while I haven’t always responded to the stories Refn has chosen to tell – and felt them to be somewhat incongruous with the style with which he tells them – The Neon Demon seems like the film he was born to make. Finally, the vapid shallow beauty inherent in Refn’s preferred filmmaking choices matches that of the characters we’re watching. The film is ultimately gorgeous, meditative, and extremely trashy, making it one of the most interesting cinematic experiences of the year.

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Effortless, by Tyler Smith

5 May

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At this point, the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are fairly easy to make. We know the characters and the world; we just need the new conflict explained efficiently and we’re off to the races. This is not a good thing. Movies should not be by-the-numbers, regardless of how deep into a specific series or franchise they are. In fact, with each new entry, we should see more effort put into the finished product, not less. Rather than simply give us a variation on what we’ve seen before, the filmmakers should at least attempt to present us with something new. By pitting its heroes against each other, Captain America: Civil War had the opportunity to show us something we hadn’t seen before. It could have divided our loyalties and made us question the motivations and philosophies of these characters that we’ve come to know and love over the years. And while it does tease us with that for a few minutes, the film mostly abandons that in order to give us more of the same.

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Throwing Down the Gauntlet, by Tyler Smith

20 Oct

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I walked into Andrew and Jon Erwin’s Woodlawn with my usual skepticism. Most Christian films leave a lot to be desired, both artistically and theologically. In an attempt to appeal to a neglected Evangelical audience, these films will oversimplify every element of their stories and themes, creating art meant to inspire its viewers, but that instead panders to them in the worst way. These films often fail at every artistic level, but are forgiven because their hearts are in the right place, as though a filmmaker’s intention is the only thing that matters.

And so when I was told that Woodlawn was the best Christian film in a while, I was understandably hesitant. A film that depicted faith amidst the trappings of a sports movie (a genre that often has pandering problems of its own) didn’t do much to inspire hope for me. But, while Woodlawn is far from perfect, it left me feeling engaged and entertained, which is more than can be said for any other faith-based film. For this reason alone, I consider Woodlawn to be the best Christian film I’ve ever seen.

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