Archive | Four Stars **** RSS feed for this section


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.)

Personal History

29 Mar

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

What a special gem this was to behold at the 2023 Kansas City FilmFest International—a wholly original film that made me grin, ponder, and ultimately feel. With a deft and delicate touch given by director/writer/co-star/cinematographer (among other credits to this film alone) Tyler W. Moore, “Personal History” manages to deliver a nicely-observed gentle comedy along the same lines as a Christopher Guest mockumentary crossed into the territory of an existential parable. And I promise to you, I am not making this up…

It even brought a tear to my eye.

Yes, “Personal History” went places that I didn’t expect. And it fooled me, delighted me in doing so, and made me feel things.

“Personal History” is a faux-documentary feature, in which the story is crafted by filmmaker Josh Harmon (Moore). His primary focus is his friend Monica (Samantha Montero), a history major who is researching for a grant and comes across an interesting discovery within a home-building business. Upon close inspection of the business’ photographs from decades past, there seems to be one constant: a man named Arthur D. Perkins (Patrick Poe), who looks exactly the same despite appearing in photos ranging from the 1950s to the modern day.

It’s true, Arthur D. Perkins has not physically aged in over 100 years. As Monica interviews people involved with the business (as documented by Josh, who makes sure to capture on camera everything he feels is important to a certain narrative—the faux-documentary approach really works well here), it’s only by luck that Monica is able to conduct a sit-down interview with Arthur himself.

The initial interview doesn’t quite go as she expected. Despite Arthur having experience serving in both World Wars (WWII was when he started to notice he wasn’t aging), Arthur doesn’t have much to say that is of interest to Monica. But Josh, still documenting the progress, pushes her to dig deeper and capture the true essence of what it means to be immortal.

Where “Personal History” goes from there, I won’t give away. But I will say that where the film goes, once Monica and Josh interview Arthur again and find themselves more into his life, takes the audience along on an emotional journey. We find ourselves questioning the concept of immortality and how we perceive it. We think about how hard it must be to outgrow our loved ones—the best scene in the film illustrates how tough it was for Arthur’s “gift” of immortality to take its toll in his marriage with loving wife Judith (Lolo Loren). (That’s where the aforementioned tear came from.) And when Monica and Josh learn more about what Arthur has done with his long life and how he lives today, they find themselves asking those very questions.

There’s a subplot involving Josh’s sister Mae (Bryna Vogel), with whom he seems to interview with his camera often, that seems ineffectual at first—but then it becomes one of the most emotionally gripping parts of the film. That’s all I’ll say about it.

There are not enough words to describe just how good Patrick Poe is in the role of Arthur. In playing a person who has lived for about 120 years or so, he has the body language down (he moves sort of slowly as if the youth left his looks years or decades ago), he portrays the mix of pain and wisdom in his voice, he makes subtle glances when he’s asked difficult questions, and maintains a calm manner throughout, making me constantly wonder what the character is thinking in this particular moment. I admired Poe’s work in Almost, Sorta, Maybe (which he co-directed with Loren), in which he played a completely different type of character—with “Personal History,” he shows more of his versatility as an actor. He’s great here.

The ending to “Personal History” pulled the rug out from under me (and also a friend who was in the same theater as me). As soon as it was over, I had to approach this talented filmmaker, Tyler W. Moore, and the star, Patrick Poe, both of whom were at the screening I attended, and congratulate them both on a job well done. “Personal History” is a beautiful film.

TÁR (2022)

20 Dec

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

In the exceptional 2015 Steve Jobs biopic “Steve Jobs,” the most impactful line of dialogue aimed at the titular egomaniacal genius is as follows: “You can be decent and gifted at the same time.”

While that film ended with Jobs becoming a little more decent towards his family, friends, and colleagues, I believe the central character of “TÁR” would scoff and laugh at that very insight.

Meet Lydia Tár. She’s an amazingly gifted, wildly tenacious, world renowned classical music conductor. She’s also a caring (and very protective) mother, a passionate partner, a giver, and a major influence for many.

She is also a master manipulator, toxic, and extremely narcissistic–and a sexual predator.

Not that all of that is thrown at us at once. While the film opens with an extended sequence in which Tár is interviewed in front of a large audience in New York City, not everything is revealed to us. She tells New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik (played by actual New Yorker journalist Adam Gopnik) simply what you would find on a Wikipedia article or an autobiography. (And indeed, Tár has one coming out soon–in the movie, not in real life.)

Side-note: We do get a hint of how superior and self-satisfied people like Tár and her fans feel about themselves when Gopnik, in his introduction about Tár, mentions that she is one of five “EGOT” (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners and everyone laughs at the mention of Mel Brooks as another.

Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár, who is also about Lydia Tár and only Lydia Tár. Everyone else is a supporting character in her own personal story and she isn’t self-aware enough to realize her methods in the Berlin Philharmonic where she rehearses, in the home with her violinist wife Sharon (Nina Hoss) and adopted daughter (Mila Bogojevic), and in a Juilliard classroom where she teaches are questionable. Lydia is hiding things from Sharon, fiercely protective of her daughter to the point where she threatens a little girl for bullying her, and in one very impressive unbroken 10-15 minute take, she ridicules a Juilliard student for not taking an interest in Bach’s music because of his identity politics. She also seems to be grooming a Russian cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer) perhaps the same way in which she took interest in another protégé Krista before it advanced to something more that didn’t work out, leading to Lydia blacklisting her and ruining her musical career.

Even when Lydia asks her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) to remove any and all emails that mention Krista, it’s quite clear this is going to come back to get her. Her inability to handle certain things around her (which also include insomnia, sensitivity to sounds, and a neighbor who cares for a dying mother) only makes things worse, and when she doesn’t acknowledge flaws that could harm others, she digs herself a deeper hole.

I would have thought “TÁR” was based on a real person if you had told me, and I would have believed you. But no, this character is an original creation from writer-director Todd Field’s original screenplay, and it’s a remarkable character study made even more effectively disturbing in this post-#MeToo world, in which powerful people cannot get away with hurtful methods anymore. And without giving too much away, that is essentially what “TÁR” is about.

Cate Blanchett is nothing short of amazing in this role. She lives and breathes Lydia Tár. I don’t know if Blanchett trusted Field or if Field trusted Blanchett or if they had a great understanding together–but I can tell, in many of these long sequences in which Blanchett has to hold our attention in a single shot that goes on for several minutes at a time (such as the aforementioned 10-15 minute unbroken take), that Blanchett knows this character inside and out and both Field and his cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister are showing her (and in effect, showing us) the world of Lydia Tár.

And upon further research, apparently Cate Blanchett had to learn German and conduct an orchestra as well as re-learn to play the piano for the film. Her hard work has certainly paid off in this reviewer’s eyes, and I’d give her the Oscar and Indie Spirit right away.

Where this fascinating yet terrible individual’s life goes is intriguing and engrossing. (And as someone who doesn’t especially care for movies over 2.5 hours, and this one is two hours and 37 minutes, it should say something that I was never bored by this material.) “TÁR” both a character piece and a cautionary tale with an intelligent screenplay from Todd Field and a remarkably excellent leading performance from Cate Blanchett. The result is like a fine concerto of many and all emotions.

Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022)

5 Dec

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

A special kind of ending can affect the overall impact of a film. It can make you look at the film in a whole new way, making subsequent viewings all the more special. This is especially true of a “whodunnit” mystery-thriller story. When the “who” in “whodunnit” is revealed, it can do one of three things: seem totally obvious and very much like a copout, make you feel nothing at all because it’s still unsatisfying, or immediately make you want to think about what you just saw (and then see it again and/or maybe discuss it with friends).

To say the whodunnit-styled horror-comedy “Bodies Bodies Bodies” succeeds in the third aspect would be understating it. The way it was going leading up to the resolution, I thought it would end one way and I maybe would have been fine with it–but I also would have wanted something more or less fitting. But, and I wouldn’t dare give away the big secret, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” managed to fool me and both enthrall and entertain me in doing so.

Picture “Scream” mixed with an Agatha Christie mystery, and you pretty much have “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a sharply satirical horror-comedy about a group of young people (in this case, Gen-Zers) who band together for a good time in a big house–only to turn against each other when they get killed one by one. In a time when so many young people live in the moment, cling to their smartphones for comfort and guidance, and completely miss what’s happening around them, this example of social commentary couldn’t be more effective if Zoey Deutch’s narcissistic character from “Not Okay” (released around the same time as this film) suddenly entered the picture.

That’s the agenda that director Halina Reijn and screenwriter Sarah DeLappe went into with this film–not only does it truly work, but it could also speak to Gen-Zers. (This is not to say Reijn, a filmmaker in her 40s, is attacking or looking down on the characters in this story–I give her massive credit for sympathizing with them and treating them like real characters instead of archetypes.)

The film begins as former drug addict Sophie (Amandla Stenberg), fresh out of rehab, brings her new girlfriend Bee (Maria Bakalova) to meet her longtime best friends: jackass David (Pete Davidson), self-obsessed model Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), arrogant (and Sophie’s ex) Jordan (Myha’la Herrold), and hella fragile and ultimately indecisive podcaster Alice (Rachel Sennott, hilarious). Oh, and there’s also middle-aged hippie beefcake Greg (Lee Pace), who Alice brought along as her new boyfriend–watching him be the mature one among this crowd gets a huge laugh each time. They’re all here at David’s rich-ass parents’ mansion to party-hardy and ride out a hurricane. (An example of how they could care less about what’s happening around them: they turn off the news of the hurricane because it’s “depressing.”) David’s parents are gone, so they’re here to drink, smoke weed, and pretty much be terrible to each other each chance they get because they’re all rich and privileged–poor Bee, who seems the most empathetic and sincere, tries to fit in, but I just want to pull her aside and tell her it’s not worth it to get the respect of these idiots. After a murder-mystery game of “Bodies Bodies Bodies” (some call it “Werewolf” or “Mafia”), actual bodies start piling up for real as it seems someone is actually killing them off…

Who is the killer? What is their motivation? Does it matter? Not to me–I kinda want to see the would-be victims fend for their lives at this point, as the plot goes from “Mean Girls” to “Lord of the Flies.” The power goes out, they have no cell service, everyone turns against each other, secrets are revealed, harsh words are said, and of course, the bodies continue to mount. It’s as funny as it is suspenseful, especially when the characters are so clueless to their own lack of self-awareness that it’s not only pathetic but also fatal.

The actors are excellent, the commentary is brilliantly witty and observant, the production design within this big house is clever, both the direction and screenplay are extremely sharp and intelligent, and again, that ending makes it all well worth it. It made a good film a great film and a three-and-a-half star film into a four-star film. (And I’ve seen it four times as of now.)

Pearl (2022)

3 Dec

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

I wasn’t even that frightened of Mia Goth as Pearl in X because she was a frail old woman (who killed people)–and honestly, if I didn’t know that was her underneath all that old-person makeup in “X,” I would never have guessed. But here in this origin story, called “Pearl,” in which we see Mia Goth as a younger version of Pearl…yikes is she scary! I don’t think I’m ever gonna look at her smile the same way again (especially after that last shot…I’m gonna have nightmares about this film’s last shot!!).

It’s a performance that is determined to give a casual moviegoer chills and even the biggest fan of “X” shivers–and Mia Goth is giving it her all; I see her winning numerous awards for this complicated, multilayered role that she must’ve had a ton of fun playing at the same time.

I’m not kidding–Pearl is the most memorable and frightening horror-film psychopath since Najarra Townsend’s Claire from last year’s The Stylist.

Set in 1918 on the same secluded Texas farm from “X,” Pearl is a lonely young woman who is sick of being kept on the farm with an overbearing mother (Tandi Wright) and disabled father (Matthew Sunderland). Instead, she escapes into the movies and takes bicycle trips to the local cinema in town where she is enamored by the idea of being a dancer for the big movie screen.

Before you can call her Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” however, it’s very clear early on that there’s already something wrong with Pearl, who kills small animals and feeds them to a nearby alligator in a swamp just for amusement.

Oh, and what she does with a local scarecrow…let’s just say Dorothy would NEVER do that.

Pearl is resentful of what little she has, especially since her husband Howard has gone off to fight in WWI. She feels that she deserves better and her stern mother will see to it that she makes the most of what she has. Well, THIS isn’t going to end well, is it.

I can now see why the older Pearl in “X” felt the adult-film star Maxine (Mia Goth again) reminded her of herself at a younger age, as the film “Pearl” feels like an alternate-universe look at what might have happened to Maxine under different circumstances. It makes me even more curious to see the new film in this series, called “Maxxxine.”

“Pearl” is a character study about a budding serial killer–even if you hadn’t seen “X” and wouldn’t know where it went, you still expect this unstable, tortured, young farm girl to inevitably snap and it still doesn’t disappoint for the same reasons certain films of this sort are remembered for years/decades to come. It has its own unique style and structure to it.

That leads to another element to praise about the film: Ti West’s work as a director. It would have been so easy to make this film in the same vein as “X,” with the same story/execution–however, not only is “Pearl” its own film (with the same locations from “X” and other neat little Easter eggs) but the style is different too. While “X” looked and felt more like a ’70s slasher film with unique newer touches, “Pearl” feels like an old-fashioned Technicolor family film of an early age. (We also get fantasy dream sequences that aren’t unlike any you’d see in a Hollywood musical. I half-expected Pearl to break out into song.) Both “Pearl” and “X” display Ti West’s versatility as a director.

“Pearl” also kind of reminded me of a 2000s thriller called “May,” in which people around the quiet shy girl are intrigued and fascinated by her…until they get to know her better and are suddenly scared for their own safety. This feeling happens at least twice in Pearl. There’s one scene in particular, in which she is asked by a supportive friend to spill her secrets and say why she’s so unnerved lately…you SURE you want to know?

What results is a truly well-written and well-performed monologue from Pearl that will even give Mia Goth some serious awards consideration. I’m terrified and yet I’m clinging onto her every word in that scene. Pearl may not be the “star” that she dreamed of being, but at least Mia Goth has achieved that status by now.

Both “X” and “Pearl” are terrific contenders for my year-end list this winter. They both disturbed me for different reasons and provided further evidence that this is a good time for good horror films.

New West (Short Film)

30 Aug

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s difficult to review a good comedy. When its key purpose is to make you laugh, there are only so many different ways a reviewer can say, “That’s so funny!” And because humor is subjective (meaning, there will also be so many different ways another reviewer can say, “That’s not funny!”), it’s even more difficult to get across in a written (and relatively straight-faced) review what made this reviewer laugh out loud.

However, I was one of 200+ audience members who laughed repeatedly and consistently at (and with) a 45-minute energetic, hilarious, and unapologetically raunchy/crude comedy, titled “New West,” upon its theatrical premiere in Little Rock, AR on August 25, 2022. If you don’t believe my recommendation, consider one of the others’.

There. That’s it. Review over? Well, no, because I should probably describe the story to give you an idea of what kind of film I’m reviewing here.

Here’s the setup: cowboy Gene (Zach Keast) and horse Trigger (co-writer Coty Greenwood in a latex horse mask) were a duo of bandits and performers. (Their biggest act was as a singing duo, with a jolly old-Western song that I still hum to myself five days after seeing the film.) But then they split up, with Trigger holding onto (and enjoying) the wealth he carried over and Gene enduring life in a downward spiral. But when circumstances cause Gene (now played by Matt Jordan) and Trigger to team up against some vicious gunslinging varmints (many of whom wear black suits and sport Dia de Los Muertos masks), it may just be what they needed to come to terms with the past and the present. And they’re gonna have a crazy adventure along the way…

“New West,” directed and shot by Jordan Mears, is a laugh-a-minute romp in the same comic rhythm as the best spoof movies (such as “Airplane!” or “Naked Gun”) albeit with the gutsiness of the works of Trey Parker & Matt Stone (“South Park”) and the viscera and profane bite of a Quentin Tarantino flick. But it also has a heart to it–if anyone stays with the ridiculous amount of scatological humor throughout the entirety of the film, there is a moving story of friendship and reconciliation.

Yes. I looked. It is there. It’s amazing what you can find in a ridiculous and fun film when you’re not scoffing at its other, less “sophisticated” material. And if you’re going to criticize a film for doing what it set out to do in the first place, chances are you probably couldn’t do it any better.

Let me put it this way–it’s one thing to laugh at Trigger, a character who always wears a horse mask throughout the entire film, but it’s another thing to not only accept it but to feel for the character too. And that itself is funny to me.

Look, all I can tell you about the rest of the comedy in “New West” is that it’s shot well, it’s executed flawlessly, the timing is on point, I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I did what Jordan Mears wanted me to do when watching this comedy: I laughed and laughed and laughed.

So, there you go–that’s my way of saying, “That’s so funny!” And it wasn’t as difficult as I thought, either.

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).

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.”

7 Days (2022)

27 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“7 Days” is the latest from Duplass Brothers Productions (executive produced by Mark & Jay Duplass, two of my favorite people in the indie-film world) and it recently won the Indie Spirit award for Best First Feature. So, what did I think of it?

“7 Days” is one of my favorite films of the year and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

It seems enough time has passed to accept more films centered around the Covid-19 pandemic. Next week, we’re going to get a pandemic-based comedy from the big-timers (Judd Apatow’s “The Bubble,” coming to Netflix)–this week, we get the more grounded “7 Days,” which takes mostly in one rural house during the first week of quarantine and is centered on two characters who are stuck together, don’t get along much, and then…well, you probably know the drill–but just because it’s predictable doesn’t mean it’s not fun or well-executed or moving.

But “7 Days” is indeed fun and well-executed and moving, for two obvious reasons: the acting and the writing.

Karan Soni, a likable presence in “Safety Not Guaranteed” (another Duplass Brothers production) and the “Deadpool” movies, plays Ravi, and Geraldine Viswanathan (the young reporter from HBO’s “Bad Education”) plays Rita. Ravi and Rita are two Indian-American young adults set up on a prearranged date by their traditional parents. It doesn’t go very well–he’s too forward and awkward (probably as a result of being too forward) and they don’t really click–even before Rita’s true self is revealed to Ravi shortly after their picnic date, Ravi is convinced she is not his “wife.”

Oh, did I mention it’s March 2020?

During their awkward date is when they get alerts from all over declaring everything closed and demanding everyone take shelter. Ravi has no car and the car-rental service isn’t reliable, so Rita lets Ravi stay in her home for a little while. This is when Ravi notices some things that Rita didn’t list on her dating-site profile: she’s anti-traditional, she eats meat, and she drinks, all of which turns Ravi off entirely. (Oh, and her house is too messy for high-strung Ravi’s liking–at one point the next day, he practically begs to clean.) Rita also has a secret of her own (only a bit of which Ravi overhears early on, in a hilarious moment) and she’s a bit impulsive (and she also does something to Ravi that no one should EVER do; even tight-assed people have boundaries, for goodness sake). Oh, and Ravi is still going on prearranged online dates (one of which is right in front of Rita who insists on texting him advice).

It’s a classic will-they-won’t-they scenario, as the trapped-together Ravi and Rita talk more, get to know each other, let down their defenses, trust one another, learn to relate with each other, and maybe…well…just maybe.

Both Soni and Viswanathan portray convincing, well-defined characters, are fun to watch, and more importantly for the material, are great together. Soni also co-wrote the script with director Roshan Sethi, and it’s a neat blend of screwball comedy and realistic drama.

I liked “7 Days” a lot–it’s very funny and sweet. It’s in limited theaters now, so see if it’s playing anywhere near you.