The Rental (2020)

2 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Thanks to today’s modern conveniences, we can go online and check for highly positive ratings on a restaurant or a hotel or an Airbnb homestay (instead of just take a chance on it regardless of customer reviews)…but we forget that there’s always that one chance that something will still go terribly wrong with our own experiences there.

How bad could it be? Well…worse than a one-star rating would suffice, let’s just say.

The characters in the low-key, chilling, stylish, and witty horror film “The Rental” are a small group of people who rent a large remote seaside dwelling for the weekend. Nothing wrong with a little time away from home…but this is a horror film, so even if they don’t know something’s bound to go horribly wrong, we sure do.

Directed by Dave Franco (brother of James and actor in films such as The Disaster Artist), making his feature directorial debut, and co-written by Franco and mumblecore king Joe Swanberg (who directed Franco in the Netflix series “Easy”), “The Rental” is very sly in setting up these four main characters as real people with moral dilemmas and easing the audience into the terror that is to come. Without giving away many particulars, lest I spoil the fun of discovering them for yourself, it begins as two couples–Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife Michelle (Alison Brie), and Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand), who is also Charlie’s business partner–take a trip to this house on the Oregon coast for a weekend getaway, get high on ecstasy the first night, and, uh…Mina and Charlie hook up in the shower.

So far, we’re a half-hour in and “The Rental” just seems like an ordinary indie “dramedy.” It isn’t until about 10 minutes later that a chilling discovery is made that could kick things into high tension.

Oh, and why don’t Charlie and Mina call the police when they make this discovery? Because then, it would expose their little fling to Michelle and Josh! Priorities, of course.

That’s about as far as I’m going to go in describing the story of “The Rental” because going into the more chilling aspects of it cold is part of the fun, as things go from relaxing to uncomfortable to straight-up nightmarish for these people who don’t even suspect that there’s far more here than meets the eye. When answers are revealed, some may be turned off due to its ability to negate many other parts of the film, but that’s another reason I liked it–it uses an old-fashioned Hitchcockian approach to unraveling this chilling mystery.

I’ll sum up my final thoughts: The actors are solid, their characters are well-defined, Franco proves to be a capable director, the cinematography from Christian Sprenger captures the perfect establishing moods for both day and night, and what begins as an effective ensemble character piece smoothly descends into a twisted horror film. All of that, plus the creepiest ending (or rather, ending-credits) I’ve seen in a long time, makes “The Rental” more than worth recommending.

Echo Boomers (2020)

1 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Echo Boomers,” the feature debut from director Seth Savoy (whose work in short films I’ve admired in the past). is about a group of millennial activists who break into wealthy residences, steal valuables, trash the place, and get paid for what they consider a hard day’s work.

Did I say “trash the place?” I meant they f***ing DESTROY each house they break into.

Their general political message is to make middle-aged rich people suffer while their generation is struggling to make ends meet–and as a result of delivering/selling their stolen items to Mel (Michael Shannon), who runs a legit business while also providing the youths with the addresses to rob, they live carelessly. Of course, the irony of making money while partaking in heavy criminal activity (their own “Millennial Mob,” if you will) is that they’re self-entitled a**holes who spend everything on heavily expensive items such as clothing and cocaine, because what the hell, they’re gonna get more of it anyway.

Robin Hoods, they are not…necessarily.

A common criticism I’ve seen against this film is that it “takes itself too seriously,” and indeed, I was about ready to agree, especially when Michael Shannon’s Mel takes this operation just as seriously as the young people when (in my opinion) a toned-down authority-figure type would have been more effective. But the reason I appreciate this film more than other crime movies involving young adults, like “The Bling Ring” and “American Animals,” is because while those movies included youths who committed crimes due to apathetic boredom, these characters feel more of a purpose. Whether you agree with their statement or not (and like I said, it can be difficult to root for them), it’s more interesting to follow them. Because of that, I do admire how seriously the material is taken.

The film’s frantic kinetic energetic style keeps the audience on-edge as we see just how much joy these kids get out of what they do and especially when things start to go wrong, which they inevitably do. It’s the familiar message about how gaining more makes you want even more of it and so forth (that’s just how it goes).

The young actors, who include Patrick Schwarzenegger as the lead, Alex Pettyfer, Hayley Law (great in Spontaneous), Gilles Geary, Oliver Cooper (welcome back, Costa), and Jacob Alexander, all turn in good performances. And as much as I criticized the character portrayed by Michael Shannon…c’mon; it’s Michael Shannon. The guy could play a mobster in “Kangaroo Jack” and he’d still be incredible to watch.

There’s just such a heart and energy to “Echo Boomers” that I have to congratulate Seth and his co-writers Jason Miller and Kevin Bernhardt for. And I look forward to seeing what they do next.

I Used to Go Here (2020)

1 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s right there in the title–“I Used to Go Here.” You ever go back to your old school (whether it be grade school, middle school, high school, or college) and expect the ghosts of your old classmates to still hang around the cafeteria or the student center? That feeling is perfectly captured as the protagonist in this wonderful indie gem, “I Used to Go Here,” visits her alma mater and notices what has changed and what hasn’t. She even attends a house party in the place where she used to live, now mingling with today’s students as if she never even left.

Written and directed by Kris Rey (whose previous film was the underrated Cobie Smulders indie dramedy “Unexpected”), “I Used To Go Here” is about a 30ish-year-old writer named Kate (played by Gillian Jacobs) who is invited to her alma mater to read from her newly-published novel. Her book tour has been cancelled due to low ratings (as established by her overly cheerful publicists) and plus her fiance dumped her, so why not go back to school? While there, she reconnects with her favorite writing professor (Jemaine Clement) and finds herself connecting with a group of new students who now live in her old house. But more importantly, she comes to terms with weighing both her successes and her failures long after college.

Side-note: it’s such a strange coincidence that I’ve been chatting with a buddy of mine about how things have changed and/or not changed since college, and now here’s a film about a person in a most uneasy time for her, in her mid-30s, when her college dreams didn’t quite pan out (and she also learns that things that did work out didn’t do so the way she expected). I’m in my late 20s, and I already identify with her. (And my buddy would too.)

Anyway, “I Used To Go Here” is a delightful little film. Gillian Jacobs, a comedienne whom I’ve liked in shows like “Community” and movies like “Don’t Think Twice,” delivers a wonderful performance as Kate–she keeps the film on a grounded level; honest yet lighthearted at the same time. My favorite scene is when she reads from her book to a crowd–it feels like even she knows she’s lucky her novel got published in the first place.

And then there’s A LOT of colorful supporting characters–I was surprised to find not only how funny these people are but how memorable they all are. Screenwriter Rey clearly has an affinity for each one…well, except for Jorma Taccone’s bit part as Kate’s old college acquaintance–the film just sort of forgets about him after a couple brief scenes. Jemaine Clement is smooth, authoritative, and a bit blunt as the professor; Cindy Gold is brilliant as the no-nonsense B&B proprietor (do not lose your keys!!); Zoe Chao is very funny as Kate’s best friend whom Kate calls from time to time; and then there’s the group of helpful, likable college kids played by Forrest Goodluck, Josh Wiggins, Brandon Daley, Khloe Janel, and Hannah Marks, all of whom make good company for Kate and have their own little quirks. (Particularly, Daley as “Tall Brandon” has a payoff late in the film that was so funny, I had to pause the movie to collect myself.)

Oh, and there’s also Rammel Chan as Kate’s guide Elliot, who is very, VERY enthusiastic about his duties–he’s my favorite character in a film that is rich with character.

Even when Kate and the kids go on a little half-baked mission to expose someone’s implied wrongdoings, I was happy to go along for the ride with these people. And in the end, I just hope for the best with Kate and her future career as a writer–hopefully she’ll write a better book, one that’s more from the heart.

I’d read it.

All the Bright Places (2020)

1 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a film on Netflix that tackles grief, bipolar disorder, and suicide…but this isn’t “13 Reasons Why.” “All the Bright Places,” based on a YA novel by Jennifer Niven, is not an easy film to sit through, as it takes these issues very seriously. But it is an important film to get through because of that same reason. (The producers even went out of their way to list many helpful resources on the film’s website. There’s also a note during the end credits: “This film is dedicated to those who have been impacted by mental health concerns, suicide, or grief. If you’re struggling or know someone who is, you can find more resources at allthebrightplacesfilm.info.”)

Netflix was already in hot water because “13 Reasons Why” premiered with a depiction of a teenage suicide in graphic detail, so much so that they had to edit that scene out two years later. In adapting the book “All the Bright Places” into a film and dealing with teenage depression and suicide, Niven, her co-screenwriter Liz Hannah (“The Post,” “Long Shot”), and director Brett Haley (Hearts Beat Loud) agreed with Netflix that they need to take extra care while presenting tragedy as earnest as possible. (They even brought mental health professionals on board as consultants.)

Btw, there are mild spoilers from this point forward.

The film is about two high-school teens, Violet (Elle Fanning) and Finch (Justice Smith), who are each grappling with their own personal demons. Violet has survivor’s guilt after surviving a car accident that killed her sister, and Finch has manic episodes, which puts him on probation in school (where students refer to him as “the Freak”). When he first meets her, she’s standing at the ledge of a bridge, contemplating suicide.

Finch decides to help heal Violet, and as they work together on a class project, his advances work in helping her come out of her shell. But when she tries to help him in return, he doesn’t go for it. And things get more complicated from there…

If you’re looking for a typical Netflix teen romcom, check out The Half Of It or “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” or “Candy Jar,” because “All the Bright Places” gets pretty heavy.

There is a death. It occurs off-screen, leaving it open to our interpretation what exactly happened, as details about the death are left purposefully vague. Was it suicide? Was it an accident? While “13 Reasons Why” delves deep into meanings about why its suicide happened, “All the Bright Places” asks us to open a conversation about its tragedy ourselves. Why? Because what happened and why it happened is never as simple as we might like to think.

Some of this is even explained in more detail in the book, but author Niven agreed some things should be left vague in the film. “All the Bright Places” is not manipulative or exploitative in the slightest–it was made by people who genuinely wanted to help other people.

And for that reason, it’s one of my favorite films of the year.

The Hike

13 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

NOTE: The film I’m reviewing has not been released yet, so consider this an “early review.”

“‘The Hike’ Drinking Game: The Next Time You Watch This Film, Take A Shot Everytime Vinnie Almost Falls Down Or Touches His Face. You Will Not Make It To The End…” -Post-credit stinger for “The Hike”

“The Hike” is a horror film made for cheap by a group of friends–a group you can tell just wanted to go up to some mountains and make a fun indie horror flick. It’s set in the woods, as a couple (played by co-writers Vinnie Vineyard and Kandi Thompson, who collaborated with the film’s director Luke Walker) go on this titular “Hike” for a camping trip–anyone who has seen any horror film knows that when you think you’re alone and isolated…someone with malevolent intentions might be creeping around. (There just aren’t enough dramas about camping, are there? They all have to be horror films.)

The couple comes across some disturbing photographs and a camera with something apparently even more disturbing (we never see what’s on the camera, but a change in filter indicates something is wrong before the characters can announce it). But why should they let a trek towards a ranger station (so they can report this evidence) get in the way of a good time when they could be trying out some ‘shrooms? By the time they get further along the trail and come across some troublesome folks (and yes, they’re burly mountain men with huge machetes and a bow-and-arrow), they’re already in danger.

There’s nothing that is particularly groundbreaking about this amateurish production, save for a particularly laughable extended sequence in the final act that had me going, “Are you kidding me? Is this really what we’re doing right now?” But the spirit of the thing kept me invested in staying to the end. I knew the people who made this film were making a film not for critics but for fun–and who am I to get in the way by stating what they already know and criticizing it for that reason?

There are some funny one-liners, such as when the couple argues about whether or not their potential oppressors are “rednecks” (she says they can’t be, because of their shoes), and Vinnie Vineyard is sincerely dopey as the male lead. And being a horror film, there are at least a couple of moments that I found particularly unnerving, such as when a character is alone with a lighter in a dark cave. There’s also a continually surfacing legend involving something called “Spearfinger” that may or may not be relevant to anything the characters are facing, but you never know…

I dunno, I just had fun with “The Hike.” Call it the side of me that appreciates both the art of filmmaking and the spirit/passion that comes from people working together to make something. All I know is I wouldn’t have fun picking on “The Hike,” and so I recommend it instead.

Spontaneous (2020)

8 Oct

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s just a normal day at school until something totally unexpected and truly terrifying happens when a student suddenly dies. No, it’s not a school shooting, though one parent admits to fearing that was the case upon hearing of the tragedy. Instead, it’s…spontaneous combustion.

That’s right–a high-school senior just suddenly explodes like a balloon filled with blood, sending the whole town in a panic. No one knows why it happened or even if it will happen again. But things get even scarier when it does happen again…a lot. More of the upperclassmen at Covington High School are randomly exploding without rhyme or reason. The crowd is celebrating a high-school football game–one of the players goes kaboom! Our young protagonist enjoys a nice drive with friends and then suddenly…well, you get the idea.

That’s the setup for Brian Duffield’s “Spontaneous,” a terrific dark comedy with plenty of surprises in its cynical humor and (I’m not kidding here) its smart insight in how modern-day teenagers react to tragedy around themselves. As funny as this film is (and it’s very funny at times), it’s also quite moving and sincere when it needs to be.

After the first tragic combustion, a kind boy named Dylan (Charlie Plummer) sees this as a sign to live life to the fullest, which not only includes buying his own car (or in this case, his own milk truck–how random) but also revealing his true feelings to his crush from afar. That would be Mara (Katherine Langford), the film’s sassy, sarcastic narrator who doesn’t take everything seriously, let alone her own future. Not even the explosions of her own classmates seem to faze her all that much–she and her bestie Tess (Hayley Law) can only comment on how weird it all is.

Anyway, after Dylan starts up conversation with Mara (by sending “Dick” pics of Richard Nixon–“Sorry if it’s crooked,” texts Dylan), they start hanging out together and connecting like they wouldn’t have before. Thus starts a relationship that continues even when the rest of their class is in quarantine while the government tries to come up with some kind of cure to prevent further kids from blowing up.

After that, well…I’ll leave that for you to discover. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this film, which is not only very funny in a dark, cynical way (the way that Duffield, the writer of the Netflix bloody gem “The Babysitter,” could deliver–and this is his directorial debut)…but it’s also very insightful and pretty moving, again, when it needs to be. When you think about these kids who think nothing bad can happen to them and their whole lives are ahead of them and then suddenly this unexplained epidemic comes along, think of how much anxiety and fear comes from such a wakeup call.

(Note: It’s amazing that this film came out when it did, considering it was made two years before the COVID-19 global pandemic. You can make many parallels to it, strangely.)

Mara goes through the stages of it all–jokes about the situation, then denial, depression, lashing out irrationally, everything–and it’s an intriguing, compelling character growth that comes out of it. All I’ll say about the ending is that I think it’s perfect for this material. It’d be somewhat preachy if it weren’t so damn funny.

What helps elevate this film from typical “cult movie” status, which I think it’s destined to become*, is the interesting relationships that many characters have with each other. Mara and Dylan are cute, funny, and lovely together and they complement each other perfectly. Mara and Tess are a wonderful duo of best friends (the best “best-friendship” I’ve seen in a long time), as their witty banter develops into something more as the film progresses and they fear one or the other might explode. And Mara also has a nice relationship with her parents (played very well by Piper Perabo and Rob Huebel)–funny, loving, obviously concerned, and even going as far as to allow their daughter to do drugs with them. (They know she’s not good at hiding her marijuana.)

“Spontaneous” could have just been your typical cynical dark comedy just to provoke a shocked response from the audience–it’s more than that. By the end of the film, I’ve laughed, my heart leapt for these characters, I bought the romance, and I believed in what the film got across in the end. This is an ambitious dark comedy that pays off in a superb way.

*There are already plenty of reviews for “Spontaneous” that reference an obvious comparison: the ’80s cult dark teen comedy “Heathers” once or twice. I personally feel like this film is more mature, but don’t quote me on that.

Under the Sun (Short Film)

7 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Sad as it is, we still need more movies serving as anti-prejudice parables because there are still many groups of people in today’s society that are victimized and often attacked by other groups of people who have their own idea of “normal.”

Take the 28-minute short film “Under the Sun.” What is the conflict? Well, it’s an unspecified time in the future–you can tell because it’s set in a bleak city that looks like sunset all day every day, people don’t often dress in color, and there are glitchy florescent advertisements on wall screens. No wonder people are miserable…oh, and there’s also a breakthrough in medical science that allow people to undergo surgeries that result in cybernetic augmentations (while their human minds remain intact).

Dem derrty rerberts dernt berlerng wit’ uss nerrmal ferrks! Subtitled: “Them dirty robots don’t belong with us normal folks!” That’s over-the-top hater speak for “I do not particularly care for those with that kind of alteration.”

“Under the Sun,” written and directed by Kansas City’s Samuel Tady, conveys this idea very effectively, with good commentary and skillful filmmaking. (For a short sci-fi film made on the cheap, the production values are pretty impressive.) We do see this kind of thing happening today, with violent hate groups and casual bystanders (you know, the kind that “support” a cause without actually doing anything), and this film comments on the complicated issues of all sides through a science-fiction parallel–one in which the remaining humans who haven’t been augmented look upon the half-cybernetic individuals as a threat to society and thus treat them like second-class citizens.

Solymar Romero plays Meadow, a woman with a replacement robotic arm. Her journey gains interest in an audience because she feels halfway between human and cybernetic. When she sees a cybernetic person being attacked by a hate group, she turns away. When she sees the story of his attack on the news, as the victim’s cousin Dominic (Alfredo Mercado) expresses his disdain for how the situation is being handled, she starts to listen. After meeting a new augmented friend, Zetta (Valeri Bates), and having her eyes opened wider by everything happening around her, she learns there’s a time when something has to be done about current wrongdoings.

The film is surprisingly rich with character. (I shouldn’t say “surprisingly,” but I’ve seen many sci-fi stories where characters are more of a side thing to the environments they inhabit.) I’ve already mentioned Meadow, Dominic, and Zetta, all of whom are interesting protagonists to follow. But there’s also the group of anti-cyborg demonstrators, led by Daina (Meredith Lindsey) and Nick (Samuel Kelly), who take a new recruit: James (Zachary Weaver). We don’t know where their hatred of cyborgs comes from, but I can’t pass them off as one-dimensional violent bully types because there are sadly more people like this in the real world (again adding to the film’s social commentary, whether the augmentations stand for race, disability, sex, or whatever). Of the trio, James’ story is predictable but still well-handled due to a solid performance from Weaver–when he sees the extent of what these people do in order to spread their anti-cyborg message, he starts to question his morals/ethics. He’s an angry college-aged kid trying to find a place in this world, so he’s at that point where he needs to figure out what to do. Predictable, yes, but it works.

There’s also a character who represents the type we know all too well: the well-meaning but socially-unfocused type of person who will voice their support without actually taking the time and effort to do something for a certain group or cause. (Instead, they use semi-sincere statements such as “I have a friend who’s [such-and-such]” or whatever makes them look good.) That character is played by Meadow’s all-human friend Stella (Debbie Diesel). Her interaction with Dominic, whom she saw on TV news, is the most priceless moment in the film.

Stella also has a brilliant payoff at the end, in which all key characters (Meadow, Zetta, Dominic, James, Daina, Nick, Stella) are fatefully brought together to partake in a climax in which there is a clear winner and loser…or is there?

“There’s thousands like us,” one of the villains states, regarding the anti-cyborg demonstration. True, but A) who exactly is “us”? And B) There are more of the rest of us than one would like to think. It’s just a matter of who stands up first (or next). I think that message is at the core of “Under the Sun,” and I recommend the film for its well-meaning, imaginative, and powerful storytelling.

Check out the film on YouTube.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls (Short Film)

17 Jul

By Tanner Smith

I remember over six years ago, this 40-minute short film closed out one of the Arkansas-short showcases at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival. When the end-credits rolled, the audience went wild with loud applause and even louder cheering for over 30 seconds.

I was among the audience members making that noise. I saw many exceptional short films in that festival, but there was something about this one that truly stood out. When it won the award for Best Arkansas Film at the end of the festival, I knew it felt…right.

The film was writer/director Mark Thiedeman’s “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls.” And six years later, I still enjoy watching it from time to time.

Harrison Tanner Dean is immensely likable as Max, a conflicted Catholic schoolboy who attends boarding school and is struggling with both his sexuality and his religious beliefs. That inner struggle is what gives the film its key interest–someone coming to terms with who they are in what is already an awkward time for all of us: the teenage years. This character of Max takes us through the film, which is a great collection of moments in this time in his life–confusing moments, comfortable moments, harsh moments, and victorious moments. All of that makes for an effective coming-of-age film, and by the end of this film, we can’t help but feel (or at least hope for) happiness for Max.

Dean is excellent here, and so is Quinn Gasaway as Andy. Andy is the wisecracking rebel on campus who breaks numerous rules and tries to get under the skin of Father Alphonsus (C. Tucker Steinmetz), who punishes students by humiliating them. He becomes Max’s friend and confidant, leading to a wonderful scene late in the film, in which the two sit at a riverside and talk about their beliefs. It’s short, but it’s an open, frank, and understanding discussion that puts us further inside their heads.

And speaking of solid characterization, I also got that out of Father Alphonsus. Upon first viewing, I saw him as a two-dimensional strict archetype, especially since he seems to punish Max simply for being gay. Watching it again, there was a scene that made me think there was more to this guy than meets the eye–a scene in which Andy serves detention time under him and receives a stern lecture about why he’s not going to kick him out of school. Alphonsus uses a parable about a similar type of student as Andy. That scene gave me an idea as to how Alphonsus’ methods are effective…they’re hardly condonable, mind you, but little things like that let you know how he thinks.

The cinematography from David Goodman is fantastic. I learned from one of the film’s extras that it was shot mostly in natural light, which was a smart choice. The effect made me feel like I was there attending this school with Max and Andy and their classmates. It also helps that the acting from all the other boys is spot-on–early in the film, when they’re goofing off together before class is in session, I could have sworn I was watching a documentary.

Also delivering solid work are Karen Q. Clark as a friendly nun who seems to be the only person who understands and cares for Max, Jim Linsley as a sex-ed teacher who has an unusual way of warning students against masturbation, and Schafer Bourne, delivering a Tom Cruise-like cocky charisma as Max’s bully Kirby, whom Max has to fight in front of the whole school (as part of Alphonsus’ ultimate punishment).

But the real standout of “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls” is Mark Thiedeman himself. As writer and director, he shows how he truly cares for his characters, delivers an atmosphere for them to explore, gives them a few laughs and a few troubles, and teaches them (and as a result, us as an audience) that while it’s easy to give in to the bullying that threatens your identity, it’s harder to grow and to embrace who you are right in their faces. You can tell he put his heart and soul into this project. (I haven’t mentioned that he loosely based the film on his own school experiences in real life–I don’t think I needed to.) And more importantly, it feels true.

I can’t recommend “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls” enough. You can check it out here on Vimeo:

The Half Of It (2020)

13 Jul

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I don’t review enough Netflix teenage romcoms, but I have seen my fair share, from the good (“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”) to the mediocre (“Tall Girl”) to the pretty-bad (“Sierra Burgess is a Loser”) to the laughable (“The Kissing Booth”). Why review those movies when I could review the one Netflix teen flick I think stands high above the rest? So let’s talk about Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever”…

I apologize—that’s a series, and I rarely review series. You want my review of that? Here it is: “Never Have I Ever” is the best Netflix Original teen romcom yet. There you go. Now let’s talk about writer/director Alice Wu’s “The Half Of It,” which is a step above “good,” which means it’s pretty darn good. 

“The Half Of It” is Wu’s queer take on the “Cyrano de Bergerac” story. And when I first heard that, I groaned because another Netflix teen romcom (“Sierra Burgess is a Loser”) already used similar elements, and not to good effect. But to quote the late Jean-Luc Godard, “The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.” Thus, “The Half Of It” succeeds where the other movie failed. (I know there are fans of “Sierra Burgess,” and I don’t want to dump all over that movie so much, but it just didn’t work for me at all.) 

“The Half Of It” stars Leah Lewis in a star-making performance as shy, awkward, intelligent high-schooler Ellie Chu, whom her classmates pay to write their essays for them. Because she’s so good with words, a goofy football jock, Paul (Daniel Diemer), hires her to write a love letter to his crush, the pretty popular girl Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Though reluctant at first, she agrees to help him woo her. In the process, Ellie and Paul become good friends…which makes things very difficult as she also develops romantic feelings for Aster. 

That’s basically the gist of it. Even though many parts of “The Half Of It” feel familiar, the way Wu plays them does not. From the visually intriguing opening scene, which illustrates the idea of a “soul mate,” we already know we’re in good hands. Wu also more than enough care for her characters to make them more than the archetypes we’ve read about in young adult novels (or seen in young adult novel-to-film adaptations). 

“The Half Of It” is a film about desire. Ellie hasn’t felt anything towards another person because she’s so closed-off—and now, she experiences friendship with Paul and a growing longing for Aster. Paul feels something for Aster, even if he isn’t entirely sure what it is (though he’s pretty certain he’s in love—a lot of us remember what that high-school self-assurance is like). Aster is trapped in a constant loop with the in-crowd on campus, and thus isn’t allowed to express her true desire just yet. (Again, it’s high school—you do what you can do.) Aster kind of reminded me of Lea Thompson’s character in the John Hughes dramedy “Some Kind of Wonderful,” struggling between placement in the high-school hierarchy and truly expressing herself.  All three key characters are well-developed and also wonderfully acted. 

Wu’s script and direction, which I’m guessing (having not read many articles about the making of the film as of now) comes from a place of semi-autobiographical truth, are tender-hearted and result in numerous scenes that made me feel for these people. Another character my heart reached out to is Ellie’s father, played by a wonderful Collin Chou—even before his inevitable big speech in the final act (because these movies always have one), I loved this guy.

Speaking of speeches, there’s one scene that felt false to me. (And it’s not the scene involving a character’s homophobia—I think given the film’s small-town setting, there were enough subtle touches to set that up.) It’s a scene set in a church where our key characters each get a chance to give speeches about what they’ve lied about and what they’ve learned and so on. It’s a “courtroom-outside-a-courtroom” moment, which usually don’t work. However, I’m willing to give it a slight pass because I found the payoff to be pretty hilarious, resulting in my favorite line, “Now THAT’s divine intervention!” (That line, by the way, was delivered by an effective Becky Ann Baker as a teacher. As someone who grew up with “Freaks and Geeks,” it was great to see her in another teen flick.)

But even with that bit of forced melodrama, I still very much enjoyed “The Half Of It.” I loved what these characters had to say to each other (whether it’s about artists or loneliness or God or even something called “taco sausage”). I loved Leah Lewis in the lead role. I loved how Wu was able to turn the small-town setting into its own character. And with the exception of the church scene, I also loved how so many issues were handled with just the right touches. I haven’t seen Alice Wu’s previous film, “Saving Face,” made 16 years before this one. I’ll happily check that one out, as well as whatever Wu delivers in the future.

Palm Springs (2020)

12 Jul

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Tell me if you’ve heard this before: this is a movie in which the protagonist is stuck in a time loop, repeating the same day, over and over, again and again AND AGAIN…unless they can find a way to become a better person and/or inspire everyone around them.

No, I’m not reviewing the 1993 Bill Murray metaphysical comedy/drama “Groundhog Day,” but it’s the one movie we think about when we hear that premise. Every time its formula is carried over in other genres—science fiction (“Source Code”). action (“Edge of Tomorrow”), horror (“Happy Death Day”), high-school drama (“Before I Fall”)—we always say the same thing: “That sounds like ‘Groundhog Day.’” 

“Palm Springs,” directed by Max Barbakow and written by Andy Siara, is a romantic comedy with the same “Groundhog Day” formula…sort of. Let me explain:

We start off with our main character, Nyles (Andy Samberg), a 30something man-child trapped in an arrested development stage. Literally. Like Bill Murray’s Phil in “Groundhog Day,” Samberg’s Nyles is (I’m using the same phrase again) stuck in a time loop, repeating the same day, over and over, again and again AND AGAIN. When we first meet him, he’s already done it hundreds of times—he’s comfortably content with his situation by now. 

The day is Saturday, November 9. The setting is a posh wedding in Palm Springs, California. Nyles is the plus-one of his self-absorbed and humorously vapid girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), who is a bridesmaid. Oh, and she is also cheating on Nyles, who is well aware of it (but what can he do about it?). And every time the loop begins again, she’s the one to wake him up. Nyles and Misty’s sex life is practically empty since Misty doesn’t want to make love because it might smudge her makeup. But MEH. Doesn’t matter to Nyles—he can hook up with a wedding guest, no matter who it may be, and not have to worry about consequences because the next day is always a chance to start over again (LITERALLY). 

Nyles has already accepted being in his continual loop long ago. He can mess with people, he can live the life in this place, he can show up to the wedding and the reception in shorts and a bright Hawaiian shirt (sir, you are the king of Palm Springs weddings), he can get to know everybody present, and he doesn’t have to worry about the future because he’s always living in the now. 

What’s that? Why, yes, “Palm Springs” DOES contain effective commentary for this formula. And that’s one of many reasons I like this movie so much. 

Why is it always just one person experiencing a time loop in these movies? Wouldn’t it be interesting if the main character had some company? Well, here’s where things get even more interesting in “Palm Springs.” The answer (so to speak) for the loop seems to come from inside a nearby cave. After Nyles picks up the wedding bride’s older sister, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), something goes wrong, causing Nyles to retreat inside the cave. Despite Nyles’ warnings not to follow him, she does…and now she’s trapped in the loop too! 

Needless to say, she’s not happy about this. She demands answers from Nyles, who answers as best as he can. They’re both stuck in the same day. No matter what they try to do (and she even travels all the way from Palm Springs to Austin, Texas…only to wake up back in the Palm Springs hotel again!), they always reset every time they fall asleep. 

Well, sh*t. Now what? 

Well, now Nyles and Sarah can form a connection (I mean, after a lot of arguing, of course). Then, they can start having fun together with this opportunity to mess with people just for fun. Then, they can learn some deep life lessons. Then, they can learn about what they could mean to each other. And yeah, it’s a romcom formula to go with the time-loop formula, but you know what? It works. It REALLY works, because both these actors (Samberg and Milioti) are great together. And their characters individually develop into something more than we’d expect, leading to a third act that is actually pretty darn compelling and rich. 

Oh, and I forgot to mention there’s a strange man who seems to have it in for Nyles and continuously shows up at the wedding to kill him. I won’t go into who this character is in this review, but I will say he’s played by JK Simmons, just so I give you more reason to stream this movie on Hulu. 

Anyway, Nyles and Sarah start to wonder if there’s a chance for romance for them. But at the same time, the thought that’s always on Sarah’s mind is whether or not there’s a way out of this loop so they can have a future together. But Nyles, who has been living in the now so long he’s fine with it, isn’t sure he wants to have a future at all. 

“Palm Springs” is one of the most refreshingly original romantic comedies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s sweet, funny, and smart all at the same time, thanks to a great script. The characters (and the actors playing them) are appealing and winning. The directing sprinkles nice touches here and there (such as a party banner that reads “FOREVER”). And most importantly for any romcom, I care deeply about whether or not our main couple in question stays together. 

“Palm Springs” is available exclusively on Hulu.