Archive | July, 2020

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. 

The Assistant (2020)

2 Jul

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Assistant” got under my skin. This is a film about a day in the life of an assistant (or rather, an assistant to other assistants) in a prestigious movie studio run by an intimidating figure–an all-powerful, abrasive personality with predatory tendencies….if you had told me this studio was Miramax and the chief was Harvey Weinstein, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

Julia Garner plays the assistant, named Jane, who’s been working for this man for a couple of months and is noticing the shady goings-on around this place, not at all helped by the constant angry phone calls from the boss’ wife, demanding to know where he is. And on this particularly long and busy day, she does all the mundane tasks she’s asked to do (arrive just before dawn, turn on the lights, make the coffee, print the daily itineraries, etc.–and that’s just the beginning of her shift), but after a new young woman shows up for another assistant position…and the boss put her up at a fancy hotel and takes off in the middle of the day to meet with her…she decides to speak with the business lawyer.

By this point, we’re about 50 minutes into this quiet, subtle film, written and directed by Kitty Green, where we as an audience are as quietly observant as Jane is and just taking it all in, one piece at a time. And when this scene hits, it hits HARD. The conversation that occurs between Jane and the lawyer (played by Matthew Macfayden) is so painful to watch because it feels all too real. This young woman has protected herself by keeping her eyes open but saying as little as possible, and today, she decides to speak up about what she sees (but still, she’s nervous and trying to choose her words extremely carefully), and this guy thinks so little about her case that he makes her feel foolish for even thinking of speaking out.

An interesting and very effective motif that surrounds “The Assistant” is that we never see the studio chief himself. (We never even learn his name.) We hear his angry outbursts over the phone and we get hints of his behavior from the way others refer to him (jokingly) and evidence left in various spots of the office (such as a woman’s earring found on his sofa…found as Jane was washing off a disgusting stain on said-sofa). His presence is felt all throughout the office, which emphasizes that the main reason no one speaks out is because they’re afraid of him.

“The Assistant” is riveting stuff. It is slow-going, as is the point to show a day in the life of this person and her position in this company. But if you stay with it, I think you’ll be very intrigued (and all the more thankful that men like this pervert are being run out of business when enough people speak out against them).

Note: Upon further investigation, apparently this guy IS based on Harvey Weinstein (again, no surprise here). After the Weinstein scandal broke out, writer-director Green interviewed people who worked for him–including the assistants because they always know everything.

Secret Window (2004)

1 Jul

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“You stole my story.”

That is how Stephen King’s novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden” (part of his “Four Past Midnight” collection) begins, with a quote that directly accuses the protagonist, an author, of plagiarism. It’s that one simple quote: “You stole my story.” Right away, King has us–we’re hooked. And that’s why he’s one of the greatest writers, if not THE greatest.

The novella’s film adaptation, simply titled “Secret Window,” gets the audience on-edge when the accuser, John Shooter, is played with a terrifying presence, with a radiation of danger and malevolence as well as an off-putting Southern drawl and sh*t-eating grin, by John Turturro. From the moment he uses that line, “You stole my story,” I am immediately unnerved by this guy. No wonder author Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) is freaked out by this hat-wearing stranger who shows up at his door and claims he “stole his story.”

Anyway, that is where the story gets going, with this reclusive author Mort Rainey, who’s already going through mental-health issues mostly caused by a divorce from his cheating wife (Maria Bello), and now he finds that this stranger shows up with a manuscript that seems very similar to a book he wrote. It’s not enough that Shooter pesters Mort, however. He turns out to be very dangerous, killing his dog and threatening to kill him and those around him if he doesn’t get recognition.

“Secret Window” is a strange film for me, because while there are many parts of it that I find very slow, and like a lot of people, I’m not so sure I completely buy into the ending, there are still several moments in it that captivate me, particularly the story involving these two writers who are pretty much at each other’s throats most of the time before one of them gets very aggressive. All of that is very intriguing, and I’m always interested when Shooter pops back up again.

But that becomes a problem for most people who see this movie–that aspect of the overall story goes in a direction that makes it a lot less interesting. I won’t give it away here, but…I don’t know, I agree with people’s complaints about it, and yet at the same time, it is still interesting to me (but not as interesting as it could’ve been).

What “Secret Window” truly is is a parable for what writer’s block can do to a person when they’re lacking influence/inspiration on top of feeling a lot of stress, and on that basis, it is an intriguing type of story that only King could come up with.

I still like to watch “Secret Window” again for the setup in particular. Depp is delightfully quirky on top of playing a complex character, the domestic-dispute stuff between him and Bello is interesting enough, and again, I loved the dynamic between Depp and Turturro and the things that come from that. And I will say this about the twists of the final half…the very last revelation is very chilling in just how WEIRD it was. I’ll never forget it, and I think it made the overall film close enough for me to say “Yeah…it is a solid film. I’ll watch it again later.” I think it’s Stephen King’s writing that made it work no matter how crazy things became as a result of the twists in the final act.