My Favorite Movies – The Dirties (2013)

29 Jun

By Tanner Smith

I’m a big admirer of the found-footage gimmick. From “The Blair Witch Project” to “Rec,” from “The Sacrament” to the “Creep” movies, from “Paranormal Activity” to “The Visit,” there’s so much to admire about films and filmmakers that do so much with so little.

Those are horror films. The Dirties may contain the slow-burn horror element, but there’s far more on its mind than that…despite being available on Shudder, the horror-film streaming service (and if you read the reviews on the Shudder page for “The Dirties,” you notice people were expecting something far less than what the movie actually is–and that’s a shame).

This is a movie about an approaching high-school massacre, which is such a morbid topic that you’d think no filmmaker would make something that was other than artistic or (God forbid) exploitative. But the main character is so likable that the fact that he transforms into a killer is very difficult to comprehend.

That’s exactly the point–and what’s even better is that this movie ends where the typical news report would begin.

What drives Matt to kill? There are both obvious answers and not-so-obvious ones that I can’t help but consider the more times I watch the film. All we know is what we see in what is essentially his movie–but even his behavior is in question as he’s often called out for play-acting for the camera so he doesn’t have to deal with reality.

I wrote an essay about what I thought it all meant, but I’ll admit I may have gotten some things wrong. You can read it here.

Very haunting stuff–and not in a morbid film. “The Dirties” is a strange and memorable film that offers a lot more than your typical Shudder subscribers usually want.

And to me, it’s the high-standard that found-footage films need to try and meet.

Tsunami (Short Film)

28 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Tsunami” is a short drama about a couple arguing as sad truths are revealed and the gloves are off. The topic of a supposed-loving couple’s intense argument makes for intense drama in films such as Before Midnight and “Malcolm & Marie,” in which we got to know about the couple prior to (or even through) the confrontation–but in the case of “Tsunami,” which at a brisk 15 minutes doesn’t have a lot of time for very thorough characterization, we don’t really know much about this couple at the center.

HOWEVER (yes, me spelling “however” in all caps was intentional), when we’ve heard the cases stated by both parties involved, gained some revelations in a character’s privacy, and ultimately empathized with what is truly on display here (and I’ll do my best not to give away any plot spoilers here*)…you realize you know what you need to know about these people in a short character-based/conversation-driven drama.

You also realize that you may have been here before, whether you want to admit it or not. (Even if you haven’t, the purpose of many films of this nature is to allow you to empathize with other people, so there you go.)

The couple in question in “Tsunami,” directed by Joel Shafer, is Raymond (Earl McWilliams) and Janine (Franchesca Davis, who also wrote the film). The opening shot shows us a typical wedding photo of the lovely couple on their special day before tracking over to a bitter Janine walking around their apartment, waiting for Raymond to come home from work. As he enters, he’s chatting on the phone (well, not “chatting”; more like he’s arguing already with someone else) and doesn’t even notice Janine’s bitter facial expression…even when he gets off the phone, casually kisses his wife on the cheek like nothing’s out of the ordinary, and goes on about how messy his day was.

Oh Raymond…you should pay more attention.

This brilliant introduction (shot beautifully, as is the rest of the film, by Devonte Brown, whose long one-camera-takes add to the film’s atmosphere) speaks volumes about where this couple is in life–so much so that you might want to brace yourself for where the uncomfortable situation is about to go as Janine wants to have a little talk…which may or may not affect their future together. The resulting centerpiece of “Tsunami” is a brilliantly written and acted verbal battle that had me concerned as well as invested.

(NOTE: The “Tsunami” in the title is a metaphor–the film’s IMDb description reads: ‘[Both Raymond and Janine] have always managed to weather the storm, however this particular storm may by the demise of their relationship. Can it survive?’)

A certain topic (one that is the cause of many separations and divorces) is brought up that escalates the argument and it helps not only raise the tension but also to get us in the mindset of these two. There’s also a surprising development at the end that truly got to me. (And just to get us in the feels, we even are treated to a flashback of a better time between the once-romantic couple.)

And that helps my point–you don’t need to know everything about a couple to think about what they’re going through. In “Tsunami’s” 15 minutes, I was able to catch on to a lot of things and satisfied to find myself pondering about the rest. With the aid of expert direction from Shafer, terrific cinematography from Brown, and of course great acting from McWilliams & Davis (the latter of whom also wrote brilliant dialogue for the script), “Tsunami” is a raw, effective display of marital conflict and domestic verbal confrontation that got under my skin.

*Yes, I know it’s unfair not to give away spoilers for a short film I cannot share at this moment–when it is released online, I’ll come back and share it with you. Then you’ll see what I mean (I hope).

Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022)

28 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is the sophomore effort from actor-filmmaker-auteur Cooper Raiff, whose debut feature, S#!%house, is one of my favorite films of the 2020s so far.

In my review of “S#!%house,” I referred to Cooper Raiff, who is now in his mid-20s, as “the real deal”–his work feels so sincere and unpretentious; it even makes the works of other talented auteurs like Zach Braff, Lena Dunham, and Josh Radnor feel forced by comparison.

Now, with “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (does he pick these titles himself?), Raiff maintains the same sincere, unpretentious charm for a more mainstream-friendly (and perhaps a little predictable at times) yet still delightfully offbeat and smart new film.

In addition to being a good filmmaker, Cooper Raiff is also a good actor. He has an awkward charm to match his handsomeness with an eccentric, easygoing attitude.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” (and yes, “Cha Cha Slide” by DJ Casper does play once in this movie) stars Raiff as a recent college graduate named Andrew, who has no idea what he wants to do with his life, like many people fresh out of college. His girlfriend left for Barcelona (and most likely is never going to see him again), he works a boring job at a “meat-stick” fast-food joint, and he lives at home with his puberty-stricken kid brother (Evan Assante, very good), bipolar mother (Leslie Mann), and stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett), who is so dismissed by Andrew that he even refers to him as “Stepdad Greg.” (Even David, the kid brother, has to tell him to lay off because their mother loves him.)

We’re not sure what dreams Andrew had as a kid–I’m not sure Andrew remembers them either. We do get a prologue in which we see Andrew as a kid pining over an older woman at a dance party and experiencing his first heartbreak upon expressing his feelings toward her. (An awesome tidbit: said-“older woman” is played by Kelly O’Sullivan, who wrote and starred in “Saint Frances,” another underrated indie released in 2020, same as “S#!%house.”) Now, Andrew is 22, graduated, aimless…and now pines over another older woman he meets at another dance party. (Guess he has a type.)

How did this happen? Andrew chaperones David at a neighborhood Bat Mitzvah party, where Andrew gets David’s shy classmates on the dance floor (which then leads him to head the dances of other parties in the neighborhood)–this includes Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), a shy, autistic girl with large headphones. (How Andrew gets Lola to dance is both funny and sweet.) Andrew also meets Lola’s mother Domino (Dakota Johnson), who takes a liking to him the moment he talks her daughter into dancing. She even asks Andrew to babysit Lola every now and then, which then leads to Andrew and Domino getting to know each other better and grow closer together…

Whether or not this develops into a May-December romance, I’ll leave for you to discover. You may even be able to see where it goes, but that’s not a bad thing–a film isn’t about what it’s about but more about how it goes about it, to paraphrase Roger Ebert. What drives the narrative forward is the relationships Andrew shares with Domino, Lola, David, his parents, and others. (Side-note: I’m very thankful that the addition of the character of Domino’s attorney fiancé Joseph [Raul Costillo] didn’t go the way I was afraid it would go.)

And what also aids “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” as with “S#!%house,” is the way Raiff makes something fresh out of familiar cliches while embracing them at the same time. (I’m telling you, Cooper Raiff is a remarkably great talent.) For that matter, Raiff also isn’t afraid to make his own character look downright pathetic and idiotic at times–as with his character in “S#!%house,” Raiff’s Andrew has his own admirable qualities and empathetic, but he messes up, just as we all do; it helps him grow on this coming-of-age journey.

Dakota Johnson is wonderful as Domino. I’ve liked her in movies like “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and “Our Friend,” but here, she gives what is probably her best work as a sad, lonely woman who loves and cares for her daughter, loves her fiancé even when he’s away for work too often, feels a connection with this 22-year-old man but doesn’t always know how to react upon it, and also feels as alone as Andrew at times. There are many layers to her character that help make this my favorite performance of Dakota Johnson’s by far.

Everyone in this film does fine work–Raiff, Johnson, Mann, Garrett, the likable younger actors, Costillo, and also Odeya Rush (in a small but still nicely-done role as Andrew’s friend-with-benefits). But It’s Dakota Johnson and Cooper Raiff who deserve credit for giving us a charming feel-good movie that’s as important as it is charming.

Available on Apple TV+.

The Black Phone (2022)

28 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I was curious to see the horror film “The Black Phone” just because it features one of my favorite likable everyman actors, Ethan Hawke, playing against type as a child-snatching masked madman/killer–it’s also from Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill, the same director and writers behind another Hawke-centric horror film, Sinister, which I really liked.

I think “The Black Phone” is even better. I mean it, guys–this film got me GOOD!

It even got me in the first act. It takes about 25 minutes before our lead kid character, Fin (Mason Thames), is snatched by the aforementioned scary-ass creepo-psycho known as The Grabber (Hawke)–but well before then, I was already scared for this kid and his sister/buddy Gwen (Madeleine MacGraw), as they deal with not only school bullies but also an abusive alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) who beats them with his belt. Somebody get these kids some help!!

All the while, we keep hearing of the disappearances of local kids who are last seen (sadly, by only the audience) with a creepy black van approaching them. One of them was a friend of Fin’s; another was a brief acquaintance at Fin’s baseball game, calling Fin’s pitching arm “mint” (the film is set in 1978; thanks to the 1979-set “Super 8,” I know what “mint” means). Vibes of IT with stranger-danger undertones get me creeped out before Fin even encounters the Grabber…

Can I just take a moment to say Ethan Hawke is pretty much perfect in this role? I’m familiar with him as the likable everyman in the “Before” movies, “Boyhood,” and “Training Day”–but here, he’s having a lot of fun playing pure evil. We don’t get a lot of background on this Grabber character, let alone a name, but all we need to know is he is very unstable, has a particular and sinister mindset, loves to play with his victims, and has disposed of many innocent children already. Even though he wears a mask most of the time (and I mean many different creepy masks), I can feel his facial expressions change underneath it…and it’s disturbing. Very disturbing.

Anyway, Fin gets locked in a basement dungeon by the Grabber who says he wants to “play a game” with Fin. But Fin knows anyone who has ever been down here has never resurfaced alive. There’s a black phone connected to the wall that is disconnected and doesn’t seem to work…or does it? Whatever its use is, it could help Fin find a way out, escape with his life, and/or dispatch the killer.

Every attempt Fin tries to escape and every encounter he has with the Grabber whenever he comes downstairs to visit him (he even watches him sleep at one point….yikes) gave me THE CREEPS. I don’t use that expression often, but that’s what “The Black Phone” did to me–this film gave me. The. CREEPS. Shivers up and down my spine. Half a dozen times.

You get the point (I hope).

Derrickson’s direction is on-point and I can tell both he and Cargill both have a passion for great horror filmmaking. And they also both know that in a great horror film, you can’t have horrificness without love or compassion–that’s where Fin’s loving sister Gwen comes in; Gwen has psychic visions and has had glimpses of previous victims before and now she’s determined, some would say hellbent, to find her brother. (She’s even allowed to have a few funny moments here or there too, particularly when she’s praying to Jesus for help and uses some particular choice words.)

With the aid of a hella scary villain in Hawke, two excellent juvenile actors playing characters I root for, and a great sense of atmosphere and care, Derrickson & Cargill have taken a short story by Joe (son of Stephen King) Hill and turned into a horror film that I think is determined to be treasured and revered for years to come.

It’s earned a definite spot on my year-end list, that’s for sure.

S#!%house (2020)

10 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Don’t you love it when you tell people that you’re highly recommending a genuinely sweet indie dramedy…and it’s called “Shithouse”?

Well, that’s what I’m doing because “Shithouse” (stylized as “S#!%house”) is one of the most touching and beautifully insightful films I’ve seen in a long time. (I missed it when it was released in 2020, but I guarantee it would have ranked high on my year-end list.) So what makes a movie called…”S#!%house”…so special? I’ll try and explain.

The story: Alex (Cooper Raiff, who also wrote and directed the film) is a young college freshman dealing with loneliness. He’s far from home; he has no friends; he doesn’t get along with his party-animal roommate Sam (Logan Miller–Martin from Love, Simon); and he regularly calls his mother (Amy Landecker) and kid sister (Olivia Welch) to chat. (Even when Alex attends a frat party, at the titular dwelling, and gets hit on by a gorgeous young woman, he makes up an excuse to leave and call Mom. This Alex kid isn’t your typical college-movie character even at the start–he needs help. Bad.) It’ll take a special someone to get him out of his comfort zone, and he finds that “special someone” in his dorm’s RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula), who invites him to her room to “hang out” (even Alex knows what she means by that). After hooking up, they spend a pleasant night of conversation (as well as misadventures about town) together.

Sounds very much like Before Sunrise, right? Do we need another “In Search of a Midnight Kiss”? (Maybe, but that’s not the point.) Well, it’s not that simple. By the time their night ends, we’re only at the halfway point of the film. And where “S#!%house” goes from here is where it truly shines, as freshman Alex goes on an important coming-of-age journey where his innocent emotional vulnerability puts him in conflict with sophomore Maggie’s experienced and attitudinal (and self-isolated) flair. It’s not pretty and it’s quite uncomfortable at times, but as I watch it unfold, I realize that it doesn’t matter that “S#!%house” is set in college days–this is a film I needed to watch now, in adulthood. This is a film about connecting with new people, coping with loneliness, stepping out of your comfort zone, learning (and maintaining) boundaries, and knowing when to say OK. And I think we could all use a film like it.

Cooper Raiff is this film. He made “S#!%house” on a micro-budget at college with his friends, and he approaches the material with honesty and special care. There are laughs in his film, but never at the characters’ expense–they come more from a place of relating; even the comic-relief a-hole roommate (played by Logan Miller, who is too good at playing brash jerks in movies) has more dimensions than we’d initially give him credit for. (There’s also a comic device involving subtitles from a stuffed dog Alex keeps on his bed–even that gives us insight into Alex’s thought process.) It’s all about how this kid, who is away from home for the first time and has an idealized version of relationships, grows up after learning harsh truths. Raiff wrote, directed, and starred in the film as the kid in question–not only can I feel the energy and passion he brings to the script, the production, and the role, but I’m also a little hard-pressed to find the right comparison to his mix of DIY filmmaking and heartfelt storytelling. (Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” for instance, didn’t feel nearly as honest as this–nor did Zach Braff’s “Garden State,” which involved a lot more than your typical DIY passion-project style.) Cooper Raiff is on the right track for his debut feature; I eagerly anticipate what he does next. (He’s also a very good actor, which makes it easier for us to care for him when he does something like send his would-be girlfriend way too many Instagram messages, not remotely aware he’s being clingy.)

“S#!%house” shows that the DIY style of filmmaking is alive and well and reminds us that new voices demand to be heard. And more importantly, it’s just a really terrific film.

That is an unfortunate title, though. “S#!%house”? I get the feeling Cooper Raiff gave it that title so the Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus would use this clever pun: “this Shithouse don’t stink.”

My Favorite Movies – The Puffy Chair (2006)

5 May

By Tanner Smith

I’ve made it no secret on this blog that I’m a fan of Mark & Jay Duplass (aka the Duplass Brothers), pioneers of micro-budget filmmaking. From directorial feats like Baghead to Cyrus, from producing gems like Safety Not Guaranteed to 7 Days, they make a great impression by making small films feel important.

And it began with their debut feature: “The Puffy Chair.”

After making no-budget improvised short films (some of which were accepted at the Sundance Film Festival) with very few resources, brothers Jay & Mark decided to make a feature film with the same spirit and passion that they put into the shorts. (And their parents, who are credited as executive producers, loaned them $15,000 to shoot it.) The result is “The Puffy Chair,” an indie-dramedy feature that focuses on relationship issues–for example, it’s one thing to say you’re going to commit to your significant other; it’s another thing to actually commit. (How did Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” put it? “Sh*t or get off the pot.”)

It’s as indie and as “mumblecore” as it gets, with then-unknowns casting their girlfriends and friends (and paying them $100 a day), using minimal camera equipment, and improvising a good chunk of the dialogue. But I’ll say this (and I don’t know if it’s controversial or not)–when it comes to the indie-mumblecore era that was prominent in the 2000s, I get so much more out of “The Puffy Chair” than I ever do with others. (All respect to mumblecore grads like Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, whose works I also admire–I like their later works better than their mumblecore entries.) Much of it has to do with the likability of the actors (which include Mark Duplass himself and his then-girlfriend/now-wife Katie Aselton, both of whom co-starred in the FX series “The League” and collaborated on Aselton’s feature film Black Rock, in two of the three leading roles), the universal theme of relationship trauma, the raggedy nature of the filmmaking, and some good laughs to balance out the emotional elements.

Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton star as Josh and Emily, a couple in their mid-20s. They’ve been together for years, but now, they’re simply coasting, with no real future plans in mind. Josh is waiting for either something really good or really bad to happen to decide for him whether or not he should propose–while Emily wants him to propose. In the film’s prologue, we see these two having fun together before she gets angry at his subtle ignorance and storms off, leading to him pulling another charming move (imitating Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything”–except he left his Peter Gabriel CD at home) and inviting her on a road trip with him from New York to Atlanta for his father’s birthday.

On the way, they pick up Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), Josh’s neo-hippie brother. (This is news to Emily–she knew they were visiting him; she didn’t know he’d be the third wheel on this road trip.) And they’re also going to pick up a purple La-Z-Boy recliner (the titular “puffy chair”) that resembles one Josh & Rhett’s father had a long time ago and Josh purchased on eBay–they plan to deliver it as their dad’s birthday present. Being a road-trip movie, you expect things to go wrong and they do–Josh keeps showing his well-meaning but constant inefficiency (which causes friction amongst him and Emily), a motel night-stay goes wrong, the chair is terribly worn-out (can you get a chair reupholstered within 24 hours for a few hundred dollars?), Rhett meets a woman named Amber (Julie Fischer) which then leads to further complication, and so on. By the time they reach their destination at the end of the film, Josh has to make a decision with Emily, whether to grow with her or stop kidding himself for both their sakes.

The film is all about Josh & Emily’s relationship trauma, and we even get hints of some of the things that caused the complications–Josh used to be a musician (now he’s a booking agent) and his touring schedule resulted in much time away from Emily, and it’s also hinted that she caused him to leave his band. Is there a future for them? (A road trip may just be what they need to truly evaluate where they are at this point…) At times this dysfunctional-couple dynamic is painful to watch, but it’s always realistic and it’s also very funny, particularly in the ways the three main characters work off each other, the misadventures they go on together (particularly at the first motel, when they try to get a cheap room), and especially what the puffy chair in question must go through before the trip is over.

It’s all beautifully handled, and the ending to “The Puffy Chair” is both satisfying and bittersweet–though, you may not be all for it upon initial viewing; when you stop to think about it, however, it seemed very inevitable.

“The Puffy Chair” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005 and was released theatrically in 2006. Little did Mark & Jay Duplass know that it would pave the way for a bright and successful career for both of them (and for Katie Aselton, who’s now a prominent character actress) and light the way for budding filmmakers they inspired.

My Favorite Movies – War of the Worlds (2005)

3 May

By Tanner Smith

I KNOW, I KNOW!!! Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” isn’t a great movie. I’m as annoyed by Dakota Fanning’s Rachel as much as the next person. I’m not entirely sure why Tim Robbins’ crazy survivalist had to be there. And the arc with Justin Chatwin’s Robbie could have been handled a lot better. I KNOW! I’m not going to try and defend this movie like I always seem to do with Signs, a superior alien-invasion thriller. I’m aware of this movie’s faults……

But every time I watch this movie, all the good stuff in it is so freaking good that they make the movie worth seeing again and again!

Maybe I’m a little biased towards “War of the Worlds” because of my first viewing of it at age 13. My family and I saw it in a theater, on the biggest screen with the best surround-sound in the old Malco cinema in Jonesboro, AR–to me, it was INTENSE! Everything was blowing up, everyone’s running for their lives, I felt like I was there in the middle of it…honestly, I can’t think of another theatrical experience like it–it just blew 13-year-old Tanner away!!

I remember stepping out of the theater with my family afterwards and being relieved that everything was still here, we were still alive, everything was OK.

So what is it about Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” that makes it so powerful?

Well, for one thing, Spielberg keeps the perspective on ground-level. We’re with Ray (Tom Cruise) every step of the way, so we see the horrible invasion through his eyes. We don’t even learn how far this attack has spread until HE finds out. It makes it feel more real that way. A lot of the time, we don’t even see the action–we just see the aftermath of it, such as an airplane that has crashed into the house where Ray and the kids were sheltering. There are also dead bodies floating along a river and a passing train whose cars are ablaze. This is like a dark version of “Close Encounters,” to reference another Spielberg film.

In addition to the twisted parallels of “Close Encounters,” there’s also this key difference of father figures–in “Close Encounters,” Richard Dreyfuss abandoned his family to pursue the aliens; in “War of the Worlds,” Tom Cruise tries to keep his family as far away from the aliens as possible.

The first attack, of which Ray is right in the middle, recalls some images of 9/11, made especially clear and terrifying when Ray returns home and realizes he’s covered in the ashes of the deceased. Spielberg, soon after making this movie, also made Munich, which was his way of trying to comprehend the war on terror–“War of the Worlds” is more about trying to survive it.

“Munich” is a great film–“War of the Worlds” may not be great, but I still love it.

My favorite scene: Ray and his kids manage to get the only car operating and escape the second wave (and again, we’re kept with the characters, at the car, so what we see of the action is very limited). Ray tries to explain what’s happening, Robbie tries to calm a panicking Rachel, and all while we’re focused on them riding in a speeding car, this all takes place in one shot! Spielberg, you madman.

Haunt (2019)

16 Apr

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A group of young people go out partying on Halloween night and come across a secluded haunted-house attraction where the psychological scares are evened out by real sadistic masked killers that threaten to pick them off one by one…

That is the intriguing premise of “Haunt,” the 2019 horror-thriller film from writing-directing duo Scott Beck & Bryan Woods, best known for writing the original draft of the groundbreaking horror success “A Quiet Place” (before director/co-writer John Krasinski took the reins). “Haunt” is more of a slasher horror film than the former film, but while many people will say they’re tired of the “slasher” subgenre because there isn’t much that’s added to it these days, those people tend to forget there are still new ways to make it good these days.

“Haunt” feels more like a “Saw” movie than the more tonally melancholy “A Quiet Place,” as the central characters move from one deadly contraption to the next in this claustrophobic literal house of horrors (and this isn’t necessarily a spoiler, but some of them don’t survive the traps). Most of the action takes place in this danger house, making “Haunt” worth watching again if only just to appreciate the production design at hand. The traps are elaborately staged and…well, let’s just say the killers don’t mess around. (Actually, they do play with their prey’s heads a little bit–THEN they go for the kills. They also sport neat, scary masks and heavy cloaks, like a club or a cult–who these people are is never explained, but it’s intriguing to think about what they’re all about.)

While the characters aren’t much to write home about, they are likable and played by good actors, including Andrew Caldwell as the comic-relief, Lauryn McClain as the sensible one, and Shazi Raja and Schuyler Helford as their partying friends. Will Brittain, an actor I liked in films such as “A Teacher” and “Everybody Wants Some!!,” does solid work as Nathan, a sensitive-jock type who makes friends easily and even has some funny moments during this horrific nightmare as well. But it’s Katie Stevens who shines as the would-be final-girl named Harper, who is suffering quietly from an abusive relationship with an alcoholic boyfriend (Samuel Hunt) and also has had her own traumatic experiences with a haunted house in the past. (Also, at one point, she refers to one of the mysterious masked figures by her boyfriend’s name, which makes room for thought-provoking angles.) After watching her go through some of the most torturous, injury-inducing antics in this place, you’ll want to applaud her for surviving even longer and root for her even harder to see the end credits.

Speaking of which, stay through the end credits–not because there’s an after-credits surprise (there isn’t), but because the song that plays over the crawl is musician Lissie’s acoustic cover of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula”–and it’s surprisingly (forgive the pun) haunting. I didn’t know I needed that in my life, but here we are.

Just about everything goes wrong from the moment the characters turn away their cellphones, sign consent forms, and are warned not to make physical contact with the “characters” in the haunted house–and while they do make your typical horror-movie mistakes (like splitting up when they shouldn’t), I’m not groaning so much as I’m having fun with the skilled mindset of Woods & Beck, who themselves embrace and have fun with cliches and conventions.

And the ending, which I won’t give away, is ultimately satisfying (and earns the aforementioned “Dragula” cover over the credits).

The Fallout (2022)

27 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Not long ago, I praised a brilliant film called Mass, about the aftermath of a school massacre–and now here’s “The Fallout,” about roughly the same subject. Like “Mass,” “The Fallout” doesn’t focus on the incident but on the effects it has on the survivors. We don’t even see the killer or the spree (or even the victims, for that matter)–we just hear the horrifying gunshot sounds from inside the girl’s restroom, where two teenage girls, upon hearing the first couple pops, hide in one of the stalls while shaking in fear. It’s a brilliantly chilling sequence, being with these characters (plus a boy who rushes in and hides with them) who don’t know what’s happening outside or if this will be their last moment alive.
From there, we cut immediately to the aftermath, and that’s what the film focuses on–the days and weeks of these young people going through several different emotions: guilt, anger, emptiness, confusion, among others.

Also like “Mass,” “The Fallout” is the directorial/screenwriting debut for an actor-turned-filmmaker–in this case, it’s Megan Park, probably best known for “The Secret Life of an American Teenager,” with Shailene Woodley…..side-note: my mind is blown that Shailene Woodley is old enough to play a therapist in this movie–was “The Spectacular Now” really 9 years ago?? Boy I’m getting old!

Where was I? Oh, right–Megan Park. She does great work here. She knows to let a scene play; she communicates with her actors; she knows when to bring in levity; and it’s clear she has a vision here. I look forward to seeing what she does next.

The actors are great too, all convincing and effective. Jenny Ortega is terrific in the lead role of Vada, who copes with her emotions not as easily as she might think. Maddie Ziegler is just as good as Mia, who is an influencer and what some may see as a social butterfly but is really just as lost and confused as Vada and many other classmates. (The more she does films like this, the more likely people are to forget about “Music.”) Also good are Niles Fitch, the boy who copes with the loss of his brother (who was killed in the incident), and Will Ropp, Vada’s best friend who can’t seem to relate to her at this point due to his own coping mechanisms.

“The Fallout” ends on an ambiguous and unsettling note. I think Vada will be OK…but it’s going to take a lot more than one movie to mend what’s been broken.

“The Fallout” is available to stream on HBO Max.

X (2022)

27 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I was very curious and excited about the new horror film “X,” because it’s writer-director Ti West’s return to the horror genre. (I got into his chilling works in my college days–“The House of the Devil,” “The Innkeepers,” and my personal favorite, “The Sacrament.” Until Mike Flanagan came along, I was calling Ti West the king of modern horror.) I liked his previous film, a Western called “In a Valley of Violence,” but I wondered what a return to his roots would’ve been like…

It didn’t disappoint. In fact, “X” may even rank superior to his prior horror works. I kinda loved it.

Oh and it’s from A24, the studio that produces horror films that are too twisted for Blumhouse to touch (films like “Hereditary,” “The Witch,” “Midsommar,” and “The Lighthouse”)…or maybe they just give horror films the extra care that others normally wouldn’t.

“X” is very much “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with a little “Boogie Nights” thrown in (and some callbacks to “The Shining” too, particularly in the music score). Set in 1979 rural Texas, “X” follows a group of filmmakers who make adult erotica. They rent a small cottage in the middle of nowhere, right next to a house where an elderly couple live, so the filmmakers can make their new adult film, titled The Farmer’s Daughters–guerilla-style, without the old folks knowing anything, and thus no one gets hurt…well, that’s the plan anyway. (You don’t really think things are gonna turn out smoothly in this atmospheric, depraved, chilling period-piece horror film, do you?)

Before the blood hits the fan (and it is a slow-burn movie), we get to know our lead characters–they’re all identifiable, somewhat relatable in one way or another, and they have an interesting dynamic together. We get to see them making their movie, and we also get to see them wind down and chill after wrapping for the night in a scene that also includes a nicely-done acoustic cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” (vocals by Brittany Snow and acoustic guitar playing by Scott Mescudi aka rapper Kid Cudi).

All of the actors are terrific. Mia Goth plays Maxine, a cocaine-addicted actress who wants to be famous (“like Lynda Carter”). Martin Henderson has a McConaughey-like smoothness as the film’s producer/mastermind Wayne, who has a knack for talking his way out of anything. Brittany Snow is the free-spirited Bobby-Lynne, who delivers the lion’s share of the T&A for the movie. Scott Mescudi (again, Kid Cudi) is solid as a Marine who is willing to step into this film genre and have some fun at the same time. Jenna Ortega (sheesh, this is the FOURTH movie she’s been in this year, after “Scream,” “The Fallout,” and “Studio 666”–take a break, kid!) is a PA named Lorraine–her character arc, I’ll leave for you to discover, but it’s intriguing and especially chilling in hindsight.

They’re all memorable and the actors all do capable work, but my favorite character was the film’s director: RJ, a young up-and-comer who is heavily influenced by the French New Wave style and determined to make this the first “good adult film”–however, everyone is reminding him that people will only watch the film for the sex and nudity; it doesn’t matter how good the filmmaking is. (Also, RJ is played by Owen Campbell, who starred in “Super Dark Times,” one of my favorite horror films from the last 5 years–it’s good to see him again.)

We get to know our villains a little bit too, with carefully chosen lines of dialogue and enough subtlety to give us what we need to know without informing us that we need to see a prequel involving this old couple. (And fun fact: there IS a prequel to this movie, supposedly already made by West in secret. Wonder how that’ll turn out.) It’s made even more fascinating when you find out who is the actress that played the creepy old woman in this movie…

I don’t think I’m giving “X” the credit it deserves by simply acknowledging the characterizations and the horror callbacks. There are also themes of blooming sexuality, moral values, judgment, and religion–every now and again, we’ll catch glimpses on an old TV set of a televangelist warning those who give in to the temptations of the human flesh. I’m going to see this film again just so I can try and interpret what this little detail means or what that small aspect meant. I love movies that allow me to do that.

Oh and it’s bloody. Very, very bloody.

But it’s also very funny too. (The humor, again, comes from the lead characters’ interactions with each other.)

“X” is a horrific, tense, atmospheric chiller about how real people get into a real horror of a mess they didn’t expect…and possibly can’t get out of.

Welcome back, Ti West. This is your best film yet.