Archive | June, 2022

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.”