Archive | May, 2023


24 May

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

“Ms. Cole…do you know where you’re going?”

As Sam Cole’s story in “Shudderbugs” begins, she arrives at a secluded farmhouse in Upstate New York. This is a place that feels familiar yet alien at the same time to her: her childhood home, which she hasn’t visited in so long. She was supposed to be here to celebrate an upcoming birthday with her mother. But her mother has died, due to unclear circumstances. Sam looks around the house, soaks in all the familiar surroundings and memories (her bedroom is also decorated with childhood mementos, like drawings and a broken dollhouse), and yet feels uneasy because her mother is not here, she’s not sure what to do next, she doesn’t even know what’s changed around here and what hasn’t, and she doesn’t know how long it will take to get to that particular place of certainty and comfort.

Sam Cole may know where she’s going–but she doesn’t know when she’ll be there.”Sam Cole may know where she’s going–but she doesn’t know when she’ll be there.

“Shudderbugs” puts us in Sam’s current place of uneasiness and confusion right from the start (we don’t learn much about where she’s visiting from–we can only speculate from nightly phone calls to someone back home), and it feels so much like a thriller in that sense. Because of that, when new aspects relating to the mother’s death start to pile up (such as Sam’s shady neighbor being the one who discovered the body and Sam not knowing the cause of death while continually calling for a medical examination), I think I know where it’s going.

But as the film continues, I’m more interested in what Sam is feeling throughout all of this than what traditional thriller elements I feared would come along and, while not necessarily “ruin” the proceedings, possibly sour a very interesting character study. While seeing “Shudderbugs” at the Bare Bones International Film & Music Festival in Muskogee, Oklahoma, I’m sitting with intrigue and putting my trust in the filmmaking team behind it that they had created something better than that.

I couldn’t be happier that I did stay with it, because “Shudderbugs” is a remarkably moving and wonderfully made meditation of grief, remorse, and recovery. This is the type of film I would watch even if I was going through grief myself.

I won’t go into further plot details of why Sam is here, what she uncovers, or what that mysterious neighbor Noah (Brennan Brooks) is or was up to–instead, I’ll just say how mesmerized I was by the filmmakers’ ability to balance out thriller and drama so effectively that it feels like a disservice to refer to “Shudderbugs” by either genre. It is that impressive.

Now, about “the filmmakers,” as I keep vaguely referring to them. They are writer-director/co-producer Johanna Putnam, who also stars in a brilliant performance as Sam, and co-producer/cinematographer Brennan Brooks, who plays Noah (and also quite well, I should add). They, along with a skeleton film crew, utilized every bit of their resources to make this film in a farmhouse they had easy access to, made great use of their isolated environment, and crafted a film that is purely from the heart.

I also appreciated that they included levity to even out the story’s grim subject matter. There’s a running gag involving a VA (called Brenda) that doesn’t feel forced and a subplot involving aggravating phone calls with a prying insurance agent, the punchline of which had me applauding in the theater. But there’s also a beautiful scene that begins as a lighthearted moment of frolic and ends as probably the most touching part of the film. (I won’t give it away here, but it involves a butterfly.)

We see Sam Cole struggle with so many emotions, modify so many scenarios as a result, and rise up after continuing to struggle, modify, and learn about herself and her environment. The way the story progresses and the way Johanna Putnam plays the character, I felt like I would follow her anywhere. I was pleased to follow her in “Shudderbugs” and felt grateful to be in her company, to the point to where when she left (i.e., the end credits rolled), I wished her the absolute best–wherever “Ms. Cole” may go.

I loved, loved this film, and I embrace it wholeheartedly. And as soon as it’s released via streaming, I’ll update this article so you can enjoy it too. (And you can keep track of its progress here.)

Bones and All (2022)

5 May

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Confession time–I’m not entirely sure what I understand Luca Guadagnino’s “Bones and All”…but after seeing it four times as of writing this review, I’m fascinated enough to want to understand it.

This is especially because director Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name,” arguably his best known film, was so deep and heartwarming and lively that I still gain more input from it five years later. (It’s a new favorite of mine now.) And his follow-up film, “Suspiria,” may have been annoyingly alienating in many ways but rather hauntingly beautiful when you look beneath the surface. (I’ll admit, it took a while for me to warm up to it because it was so slow and off-putting–but when I gave myself to it, I found it wonderful.) “Bones and All” is like a happy medium of both films, in terms of tone and atmosphere, which can either work for the film or against it. (And indeed, most of the critics who hated “Suspiria,” like Reelviews’ James Berardinelli and Chicago Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper, don’t much care for this one, either.) There’s also a mainstream appeal to this one in that it involves our two young leads embarking on a road trip while partaking in a very strange romance–so much so that the marketing campaign practically tried to sell “Bones and All” as a new version of “Twilight.” (Judging by the film underperforming at the box office, I don’t think the strategy worked.)

There’s just something to “Bones and All” that continues to intrigue me and keep me wondering about what it all means. Maybe it’s because it looks good or it feels good or I’m just remembering many striking moments from it–but I’m just saying, there’s something special to this film that I can’t shake off.

How strange that a film about cannibals on the road would leave such an impression. But here we are.

And yes, that is what “Bones and All” centers on: cannibalism. Based on the novel of the same name by Camille DeAngelis, “Bones and All,” set in 1988, focuses on teenager Maren (Taylor Russell), who has an uncontrollable urge to devour human flesh, as evidenced when she’s invited to a slumber party by a girl from school…and she bites down on the girl’s finger. Not a great way to make friends. Her father (Andre Holland) is aware of her particular hunger, and after this incident, he and Maren pack up and leave town (something they’ve apparently done a few times before).

When Maren is safe, her father abandons her, leaving her with cassette tapes and other information regarding her backstory. So, Maren sets off to find her mother who abandoned her years ago. Along the way, she comes across a strange fellow named Sully (Mark Rylance)–he’s a cannibal (or “eater,” as he puts it) just like her, only he can smell others like him from a distance. And trust me, that’s not even the creepiest part about him–I won’t even mention his special continuous keepsake from each of his victims.

I don’t know what exactly Mark Rylance is doing with this performance, as a somewhat timid persona (with long, stringy hair and an exaggerated Southern drawl) covering unbelievable psychopathic tendencies. But I’m sure not going to forget it anytime soon, either. (And thankfully, the Film Independent Spirit Awards agree–he was nominated for Best Supporting Performance for his memorable work here.)

After getting away from Sully (although, that’s not the last we see of this scary person), Maren encounters a young rebellious emo-type about her age named Lee (Timothee Chalamet). He’s another “eater,” who often cruises unsuspecting victims–though, he has particular standards, such as not eating anyone with a family. He seems more trustworthy than Sully, so Maren rolls with him. Naturally, while on the road together, a relationship sparks between the two, and they start to wonder what it would like to settle down together and live a “normal” life. But how long can a “normal life” last when the hunger for people returns?

Naturally, being a road-trip story, Maren and Lee encounter other bizarre characters aside from the scary Sully. There’s a couple of backwoods eaters (Michael Stuhlbarg, hardly recognizable here, and David Gordon Green, best known for directing*), one of whom doesn’t share the other’s cravings and just likes to be a cannibal. There’s Lee’s sister Kayla (Anna Cobb), who lives in Kentucky, is unaware of Lee’s cannibalism, and doesn’t understand why Lee has to leave the family ever so often. And there’s also Maren’s mother (Chloe Sevigny), who also has a problem with “eating” to the point where…well, I won’t give it away, but it’s very disturbing.

It’s a bizarre, strange, and unusual journey that reminded me of “Badlands” crossed with “Near Dark,” and I was interested in taking the ride. Maybe part of the reason I was invested is because we don’t often we get a story like this–and yeah, most people don’t want to see a story like this because parts of it are disgusting and one can only imagine the harm that eating people can do to one’s digestive system. Maybe it’s because of Guadagnino’s direction, solid leading performances from Taylor Russell as Maren (she was also great in films like “Waves” and “Words on Bathroom Walls”) and the always interesting Timothee Chalamet (Guadagnino’s star from “Call Me by Your Name” and who continues to impress me with each film), gorgeous cinematography from Arseni Khachaturan, a good feel of small-town America, and a haunting score from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross…that I was fooled into thinking “Bones and All” is truly about something when, for all I know, it’s merely an experimental presentation of depravity.

But that’s a key reason to celebrate film: it’s whatever you want it to be. Is it a poetic self-discovery tale? Is it a romance horror film? Is it an allegory for being an outcast in society? Is it a shocking arthouse film? Whatever it is, I like it a lot. It’s something I feel, and it’s the reason I keep coming back to it.

*David Gordon Green was originally set to direct “Suspiria.” Maybe Green and Guadagnino found common ground? Whatever the case, it was good to see him here.