Archive | Three-and-a-Half Stars ***1/2 RSS feed for this section

Sharp Stick (2022)

21 Mar

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

In 2022, actor-filmmaker Lena Dunham had two new feature films released a few months apart. A majority would agree the better of the two is Catherine Called Birdy–and I agree, too. Watching it again on Amazon Prime recently, it’s even better than I remember it the first time. It’s witty, memorable, and could even be labeled as a new classic in the YA-story camp. It’s also Lena Dunham’s best work.

Dunham’s other film, released a couple months before “Catherine Called Birdy,” was “Sharp Stick.” This is what opened people’s eyes, as it was Dunham’s first film in 12 years (since the appealing “Tiny Furniture” in 2010). Most people were not impressed by what Dunham offered within “Sharp Stick,” and I’ll admit I wasn’t either–in fact, look back at my “Catherine Called Birdy” review and you’ll find me using words like “unpleasant” and “confused” to describe how I felt about it.

Well…after I rewatched “Catherine Called Birdy,” I gave “Sharp Stick” another viewing. Lena Dunham wanted to say something with this film–it is her first film in over a decade, after all. She deserves my time and attention. So, has my opinion changed on this film?

You saw the three-and-a-half star rating above. So you know I like it. Very much.

What was my problem with it initially? Well, the main character, played by Kristine Froseth, kept turning me off. Why does she dress the way she does? Why is she so naive? How is someone in their mid 20s this out of touch when it comes to sexual exploration? And is it really probable that she would put herself out there to try every position she finds out about online–just like that?

See, that’s not fair, is it? I realized that. So, what changed my mind?

Severe health issues are brought to the foreground. 26-year-old Sarah Jo (Froseth) had an emergency hysterectomy at age 15 and menopause at 17. That kind of medical crisis that young would probably cause someone to have severe embarrassment about their own body, and thus, Sarah Jo hasn’t pursued any intimate or romantic relationship because of such. And she lives at home with her hippie mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and influencer-dancer adopted-sister Treina (Taylour Paige, “Zola”) because they welcome her and because she’s always felt a sense of security with them. When I keep all of that in mind, I stop asking why she, as Chicago Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper put it, “dresses as if she’s an Amish pre-teen and has the emotional and intellectual maturity of someone half her age.” It’s more complicated than that, and I won’t pretend to have all the answers–but seeing the film again, with this knowledge in mind, I care more than enough to ponder them.

Oh, and I guess this is a good time to mention the controversy this film generated upon its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2022. People thought Sarah Jo was on the spectrum due to her extreme naivety and social awkwardness, got all up in arms about it, and caused Dunham to issue a statement saying, “Nothing about Sarah Jo was coded to suggest or convey neurodivergence.” The movies are generally subjective and you could look at the character as being a representation of something (there’s even a category on TV Tropes called “Diagnosed by the Audience”), but let me just say that I don’t think the statement was necessary and I don’t think it made things better for the complainers either. Maybe Sarah Jo is on the spectrum, maybe she’s not, but let’s move along.

Anyway, Sarah Jo is an emotional and exploratory virgin and “Sharp Stick” is all about her pursuing this part of life that she never thought about before. And why not? She’s 26, she’s kept a guard up for so long, she feels so many gaps in her life, and she’s going to explore it. Now, is moving from a secret affair with her employer, a “cool-dad” type (played hilariously by Jon Bernthal) who is the father of the special-needs kid Sarah Jo often looks after, to a list of many sexual acts with strangers pushing it? Yeah, one would definitely ask, “Where did this come from?” But again, it’s her exploration. It may be extreme, but it’s not so improbable to imagine how she gets there.

Now, as for Dunham telling this story through a fairy-tale-like lens, with sporadic animated sequences illustrating Sarah Jo’s feelings, I can see how people can find the shift from extreme realism to inner fantasy somewhat jarring. But if it went even further with no realism and all shiny visuals, I think I’d find it even more confusing. There’s a scene early in the film in which Marilyn tells Sarah Jo and Treina their “origin stories,” and while Sarah Jo is listening in awe as if she’s listening to a bedtime story, I can feel the emotional weight in Marilyn’s voice as we learn that this person has been there and done all of that–she’s been married five times, she wanted to be a starlet, she speaks freely about her sexuality, and more. Maybe it’s the way Jennifer Jason Leigh plays it so convincingly as well, but I believe Dunham was hinting at something more with this scene–it’s a setup to the pleasure and pain that Sarah Jo herself will face as the film continues.

See what happens when you give a movie another chance? This time around, I found “Sharp Stick” to be funny, honest, and heartfelt. I admired the deeply layered lead character of Sarah Jo and thought actress Kristine Froseth did a wonderful job. Bernthal handled both the comedic and heavy moments very well, playing a guy who never really grew up. Scott Speedman is hilarious as Internet porn star Vance Leroy, whom Sarah Jo declares is her favorite upon doing more “research” online–it’s because his masculinity doesn’t come off as toxic as most of her male callers as of late. And Dunham’s script is smarter than I initially gave it credit for.

So yes, I like “Sharp Stick.”

Lena Dunham is doing good work. As a filmmaker, she’s 3 for 3. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance (2023)

21 Mar

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

Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 sleeper hit “Magic Mike” was a winning film. It had a good mix of arthouse and mainstream appeals, it took the audience into the world of a male stripper who had other aspirations (it also helped that it was loosely based on its star Channing Tatum’s experiences as a stripper before he became an actor), and I’m sure it also spoke to a certain demographic that just loved to see scantily clad men put on a show in scene-stealing numbers.

I don’t think it needed a sequel, especially one as silly as 2015’s “Magic Mike XXL.” But it was enjoyable enough for what it was, and it was nice seeing Mike in a different light while returning to the spotlight for “one last dance.” (But I still think it would have been more interesting if Cody Horn’s love-interest character from the first film returned–I don’t know what fans were talking about in their hatred towards her.)

Now, over a decade since the original film, we have “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” which has a mix of the grittiness of the original and some of the wacky antics of the second. (But despite differing tones, all three films feel like they belong in the same universe. Credit for that goes not only to Soderbergh, who produced but didn’t direct the second film and returns to the director’s chair for this one, but also screenwriter Reed Carolin, who wrote all three.)

Maybe it’s because I admire what Soderbergh, Carolin, and returning star Channing Tatum bring to this franchise that I don’t mind the tonal shifts and I still rather enjoyed “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” even more than “Magic Mike XXL.”

When we first see Tatum’s Mike Lane in “Last Dance,” he’s a bartender for a catering company, after the global pandemic caused his furniture business to crash. (I like that this film shows us characters struggling in economic crisis, just as the original “Magic Mike” was a statement about the post-2008 economic crash.) In a fun little cameo appearance, Caitlin Gerard’s Kim returns from the original film as one of Mike’s former clients–Mike pretended to be a cop to put on a show for her. Kim works as a lawyer for business mogul Maxandra “Max” Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault), who is hosting the fundraising event for which Mike is tending bar. When Max, who is depressed and struggling herself, hears of Mike’s former vocation (the stripping, not the furniture business), she invites him inside her luxurious Miami estate and pays him to give her a dance.

And does he ever, proving that even in his 40s, Channing Tatum still has some moves. He puts on a hell of a show for Max, and wouldn’t you know it–this is only the beginning…

Max pays Mike to accompany her to London for some time. (But nothing physical is to happen–how much you want to bet something physical does happen between these two? I joke, but Tatum and Hayek do share good chemistry together.) It’s only when Mike is in London with her does he realize why he’s there: to direct a stage show at a theater called the Rattigan, owned by Max’s divorced husband Roger (Alan Cox). Though reluctant at first, Mike accepts Max’s request to turn a stuffy period-piece romance into a wild male-stripper fantasy show with a message of female empowerment.

It’s very much “hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show” as Mike and Max bring in new dancers to turn this show into something special. But it’s not as flashy as you’d think–it’s surprisingly subdued in the scenes where they rehearse and put their all into it. Any other film, it’d feel more joyous–but this is “Magic Mike,” after all.

Although, the influence of “Magic Mike XXL” does come in a strange moment where the dancers must convince an uptight bureaucrat on a bus to approve the theatre renovations in preparation for the big finale. That felt a bit out of place in this film, but…eh. It made me laugh, so it gets a pass.

And the show, which takes up the film’s final act, is wild enough that it was worth the wait. It’s well-choreographed, well-shot, and rather exciting.

So maybe “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” isn’t as gritty or as sexy as the original film, but why criticize it as such? I enjoyed it more than “Magic Mike XXL,” which I liked for what it was, and I enjoy “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” for what it is. And even if I can see Mike and Max’s romance coming a mile away, I still applaud it. Mike deserves some happiness in his life–I think Salma Hayek Pinault can give it to him.

But you uptight “Magic Mike” fans better not cause her to be written off like you did for Cody Horn’s character! (Yeah, I don’t think I’ll get over that.)

They Wait in the Dark (2023)

10 Feb

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

To begin my review of Patrick (“I Am Lisa”) Rea’s new micro-budget horror film, “They Wait in the Dark,” I would like to mention how refreshing it is (for me, anyway) when a young child is terrified rather than enchanted by a mysterious, ghostly presence. Does that annoy anyone else, when a kid in a horror film is too dumb to believe this is more than some “imaginary friend”? (Remember Lights Out? The film in which the kid is too scared to sleep at night because of his mother’s malevolent “imaginary friend”? Could we get more of that, please?)

Well, in “They Wait in the Dark,” young Adrian (Patrick McGee) has one strange encounter with an invisible force during his first night in an abandoned house; the following night, he meets it again and repeatedly shouts at it to “GET OUT!”

But, of course, the kid’s mother doesn’t believe there’s anything haunting this house except for bad memories. So, there they stay. Let’s see what happens.

Adrian and his mother, Amy (Sarah McGuire, The Stylist), are fleeing from Amy’s ex-girlfriend, Judith (Laurie Catherine Winkel). We don’t get a lot of backstory of what led to Amy & Adrian’s situation (thankfully, filmmaker Patrick Rea’s script keeps us guessing), but we do get an idea what they’re avoiding as we get the sense that Judith is abusive and unhinged and we also see how good she is with a knife, as well as what happens when one unfortunate trucker catcalls her. (Oh, and Amy is treating what looks like a stab wound at her side. Yeah, I think it’s safe to assume Amy & Adrian are better off without Judith.)

Amy reunites with an old friend, Jenny (Paige Maria), who helps them get refuge at Amy’s old family farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. It’s not Amy’s ideal hiding spot, but it’s also unlikely Judith will find them there. As more about Amy’s troubled past comes to light and her own parenting towards Adrian becomes questionable (for every moment she’s kind towards him, there’s a moment in which she’ll randomly snap at him), it quickly becomes clear to us (and to the kid) that there’s most likely something sinister dwelling in this house.

Who or what is to be feared the most? I love it when a supernatural thriller poses that question. It makes for a film that is as intriguing as it is disturbing, and “They Wait in the Dark” is no exception. The main reason for its effectiveness comes down to the character of Amy–most notably actress Sarah McGuire’s excellent performance as well as director-writer Patrick Rea’s careful guidance. Amy’s enough of a mystery to keep us wondering and enough of a human being to be engaging, and with more than enough complexities for McGuire to tackle head-on. It’s a remarkable character study.

When character and atmosphere share the same importance as terror and gore in a horror film is when I appreciate the filmmaker’s endeavors even more. (“They Wait in the Dark” was made for peanuts in rural Kansas. I can tell this was a labor of love for Rea and his cast/crew–and it looks great too, with help from cinematographer Hanuman Brown-Eagle.) But I don’t want to deny the fear factor either–for instance, the first (visible) sign of the haunting presence pushed me back into my seat the moment it appeared. (Very well-done jump scare.)

From the film’s mysterious opening to its eerie middle to its volatile finale, “They Wait in the Dark” kept me invested in these questions: which threat is to be feared more, whether Adrian will be safe or not, and even whether Amy is to really be trusted or not. I was not disappointed by the answers. And I was grateful to see that this film had a lot more on its mind than I was anticipating.

Hollywood Stargirl (2022)

14 Dec

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

“Hollywood Stargirl” is the sequel to Stargirl, a wonderful Disney+ film that came out in 2020 (and made my best-of-2020 list). And strangely, even though “Stargirl” was based on a book series (by Jerry Spinelli), “Hollywood Stargirl” is its own sequel to the film rather than an adaptation of the novel sequel.

I didn’t know how to take that. “Stargirl” (the movie) was made for Disney+ at a time when no one knew what Disney+ could become and there needed to be a lot of original content to start from. When I heard about “Hollywood Stargirl,” this sequel (which, again, is not based on the book “Love, Stargirl”), I assumed it was nothing more than pandering to a certain demographic.

Also, in the first movie, the Stargirl character herself didn’t interest me as much as her co-star Leo, who felt more genuine and real and likable (he was also the main character; Stargirl was more or less a Manic Pixie Dream Girl). But here, it’s all Stargirl and no Leo. My cynical mind asked: how good could it be?

I took a chance on “Hollywood Stargirl.” I saw it was still directed by Julia Hart and co-written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz, who not only made the first “Stargirl” movie but also three indie gems (Miss Stevens, Fast Color, and “I’m Your Woman”)–so I just had to know, would “Hollywood Stargirl” make this talented duo of Hart & Horowitz 5 for 5?

To my astonishment, yes. But how?

Well, for one thing, now that Stargirl is actually the lead character this time, they give her more time to develop, thus making her more human. Her genuine nature was hinted at in the first movie–but here, she’s shy, she’s uncertain, she’s not as confident as she likes to make others believe, and I’m able to accept it as this is what she’s like under different circumstances (such as moving to a new town, to LA no less, and finding ways to fit in with people who are just as strange as she is). I think it’s because she’s this unique that it makes it more believable that people would lower their defenses around her and even be a little happier in her presence. (It also helps that actress Grace VanderWaal’s acting has greatly improved–she shines here, and not just in a MPDG way.)

So what’s “Hollywood Stargirl” about, seeing as how it’s an original story and not based on “Love, Stargirl”? Stargirl and her mother (Judy Greer) move to LA when Mom gets a costuming job on a Hollywood movie set. (Go figure, Mom thinks working for a studio film sucks.) Stargirl quickly makes a friend in her neighbor Evan (Elijah Richardson), who hears her singing (Stargirl often sings her own renditions of classics such as “Love and Mercy” and “Make Your Own Kind of Music”) and decides she’s the perfect addition to his and his brother’s student film. At first, she’s reluctant, but then she gets in the spirit of hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show and gets others excited to join in, gosh darn it!

Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. Happy-go-lucky, sunny, and hopeful, even veering dangerously close to manipulative. It’s not as honest or fresh as the first movie (which I still highly recommend as a damn good teen film in an era filled with damn good teen films–and made by DISNEY, of all studios). But I accept this sequel’s tone for two key reasons–because this formula is done well and because we all could use some good sunniness every now and again.

But it could also be because I love movies in which people make movies or music–and in “Hollywood Stargirl,” they make both a movie (actually, it’s a “sizzle reel,” whatever that is) and music. (Oh I get it–Stargirl loves the song “Make Your Own Kind of Music” and now she’s making her own kind of music.)

Judd Hirsch co-stars as a grumpy neighbor who has a heart of gold and, wouldn’t you know it, lowers his defenses the more Stargirl connects with him. Uma Thurman also co-stars as a boozy reclusive singer-songwriter who recorded one album decades ago and disappeared since then–well, it turns out she’s a regular at the bar where Evan’s brother Tyrell works, Stargirl instantly recognizes her (she and her mom are fans of her album), and if she can get through to her stony facade, maybe…just maybe…she can help the kids out. And hey, maybe she could answer Stargirl’s question as to why she hasn’t recorded another album?

Am I making fun of this film? Maybe. But I’m doing it out of respect and admiration. I liked “Hollywood Stargirl”–I liked the characters, I liked the dreamlike portrayal of Southern California, and I like its mix of real-world credibility and sunny optimism. It’s more of an escapist entertainment than the first Stargirl movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But c’mon…couldn’t Leo have at least made a cameo in this movie? I liked Leo. Leo was me in high-school. Leo was my spirit animal. Leo got me through 2020. Am I exaggerating? Yes I am, but you get it.

“Hollywood Stargirl” is available on Disney+.

Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood (2022)

13 Dec

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

I wasn’t especially fond of Richard Linklater’s previous film (“Where’d You Go, Bernadette”), and this new film was in the same rotoscope-animation style as a couple of his films that don’t do too much for me (“Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly”)–but could this new film win me over?

“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood “(I keep wanting to call it “A Space Age Boyhood” in reference to Linklater’s big hit “Boyhood”) is like a mix of “The Wonder Years” and Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer”–in that a whole lot of it feels very real, though it’s very doubtful that this is totally autobiographical (but you know Tom Sawyer liked to stretch the truth).

How’s this for a conspiracy theory? NASA put a space module too small for grown-up astronauts and trained and sent a fourth-grade boy up to the moon in it. (Hey, I’ve heard crazier theories.)

“Apollo 10 1/2” is more about the memories of growing up as a child in that era, when the world was bleak due to the Vietnam War, racial tensions, assassinations, etc.–but the hopefuls looked to the future which promised a lot of optimism, beginning with the television vision of the first man walking on the lunar surface…..and it just happens to come from the point of view of a man (voiced by Jack Black) looking back at his childhood as the glory days–especially when he remembers being able to walk up on the moon before Neil Armstrong did. (Like I said, it’s a stretch–but it’s a story, not a conspiracy theory.)

And I appreciated it for being more of a modest memoir than a glorified space opera–one I’ll keep coming back to on Netflix every now and again.

Soft & Quiet (2022)

11 Dec

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

SPOILER WARNING! I don’t know how I can get through this review without revealing certain plot points that filmmaker Beth de Araujo most likely intended to keep quiet–out of respect, I’ll try to be subtle…but I can’t promise in succeeding.

They look like your typical average everyday sweet (and white) ladies–but try to get to know them a little more because they just might be hiding something…something very serious and evil despite their pleasant demeanor. They might just get together and have their own little meetings–but not for a book club.

Well, even if they did discuss their favorite literature, it’d set off many alarm bells to those outside of these meetings.

The first few minutes of the intriguing and effectively disturbing thriller “Soft & Quiet” set us up in a brilliantly deceptive fashion, as we meet a pleasant-looking elementary school teacher named Emily (Stefanie Estes). Emily is crying because of a home pregnancy test that turns out negative. Emily is accompanying one of her students as he waits for his mom after school. Emily tells the kid to stick up for himself, singling out the janitor whose mopping caused the kid to slip in the halls. Emily even lets the kid read an excerpt of a children’s book she’s writing. Emily seems great–and she’s on her way to some place with a foil-covered pie she made herself, to share with others at a meeting at a small local church.

Emily (and I’ll stop beginning sentences with “Emily”) meets with other seemingly well-adjusted women and presents her pie to share with them–and de Araujo stays on the homemade cherry pie as it is unwrapped to reveal that carved into the upper crust is…a swastika.

Yep, this is happening and it’s not a joke–it’s a meeting with a far-right women’s group called “Daughters of the Aryan Dynasty,” of which Emily is the leader. (Did I mention the school janitor Emily pointed the kid toward wasn’t white? The questionable look she gave upon passing them says something else now.) These white ladies sit in a circle and discuss what they hate about minorities, liberal agendas, BLM, and other things that irritate their shared bigotry. Just when you think you have an idea of who Emily is and who these people she’s meeting with are, the rug is pulled out from under us as we endure a terrifying 15-20 minute conversation about the things they cannot stand seeing in modern-day America–the things that are assisting people apart from themselves, they speak ill of, and in many different ways too. (Each member represents a type of white supremacy, like a legacy of the KKK and a racist boomer, among others.) They throw out racial, xenophobic, and homophobic slurs to each other like it’s no big deal. And it’s clear that Emily’s “children’s book” has a sinister agenda, revealing more about Emily than I’d like to know. (This woman is SCARY, the more layers are uncovered from her.)

And no, the church’s pastor is not welcoming of this group of monsters–in fact, when he gets Emily alone outside the room for a bit, his demands are clear: they all need to leave. Now. Like, right now.

We are 30 minutes into the film when Emily, hiding the confrontation from the others, adjourns the meeting early and invites everyone for a drink at her house. Well, great–now we can see what these terrible people are like in the real world they heavily criticized. I may foresee the very real possibility of them coming across that’s going to get them in a lot of trouble if they act the way they believe, but they do not, and so off we go. What follows is a truly disturbing portrait of neo-Nazi Karens putting themselves deeper and deeper into a horrid situation (that’s the turning point of the film) that doesn’t need to happen but they’ll let it happen because they are, to be frank, f***ing idiots who deserve every karmic thing she could possibly get coming to them.

As ecstatic as I would have been to actually see that karmic justice upon these awful human beings, I am thankful to see “Soft & Quiet” end on an ambiguous yet optimistic note that will all but assure us that nobody can get away with incidents like this. (And de Araujo, who wrote and directed, was inspired to make this film from the Central Park birdwatching incident–did that lady get away with that? NOPE.)

“Soft & Quiet” is set in real time, presenting an afternoon in the life of this horrible person that escalates into something that was definitely inevitable–the cinematographer, Greta Zozula (who also shot observant gems like “The Half of It” and “Never Goin’ Back”), stays with these people and shows us firsthand something more horrific and sadly real-world than your average horror film. (And even more impressive is its ability to look like one continuous shot, much like the Oscar-winning “Birdman” and Hitchcock’s “Rope.”)

The actors are so convincing that I may be terrified just watching another one of their performances–I may have to repeat the mantra, “They’re only actors,” to myself until I remember exactly that. That may sound like hyperbole, but that’s how credible and effective these actors are–not just Estes but also Olivia Luccardi as an overzealous punk radical and Jon Beavers as Emily’s pushover husband who is often the point of his own wife’s gay slurs. There’s also the aforementioned KKK-legacy who mentions her work in the neo-Nazi website stormfront: “The media loves to portray us as big scary monsters. Do I look that scary?”

Lady, you can look like the angel on top of a Christmas tree and I’ll still be terrified of you if you pull more stuff like this.

I Heard the Bells (2022)

8 Dec

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

For a debut feature film from a well-known theatre company (in this case, Sight & Sound Theatres, a faith-based company best known for huge-scale Bible-story productions), “I Heard the Bells” could have fooled me into thinking this was their fifth or tenth film. But seeing as how their stage productions are well-regarded for their outstanding (and expensive) resources, I shouldn’t be surprised by the grand theatrics thrown onto the screen (and countered toward the audience as a result–that’s a compliment, by the way) by director/co-writer Joshua Enck and his cast & crew (most of which have worked with Enck on many a S&S show).

Go figure, passionate artists put their heart and soul into a production and all the extra expenses go into something worthwhile. I’ll be intrigued to see other films from this same company.

Set in the early 1860s (and let me take a moment to mention the production & costume design to show the era are beautifully detailed), “I Heard the Bells” tells the story of the origin of the well-known poem “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It’s a story of a man who had his faith and his passion challenged before ultimately embracing both.

We begin with a warm, welcoming first act that may as well have been directed as part of a S&S stage show, as Longfellow (very well-played with vigor by Stephen Atherholt) celebrates Christmas 1860 with his loving wife Fanny (Rachel Day Hughes) and his five adoring children. After a wonderful moment of a family’s holiday gathering do we get something you don’t often succeed at achieving live on stage: a subtle change of emotions, well-suited for film and the silver screen, as we see the real human characters behind the theatrics. This is important to realize, especially when, as the story continues, we see this family is in for heavy emotional drama that threatens to tear them apart.

We learn that Longfellow has lost a daughter in the past (and will not allow his teenage son, Charley [Jonathan Blair], to enlist in the Union Army, lest he risk losing him too)–thus, we know this family has encountered tragedy already. How a family behaves in the face of tragedy is foundation for intriguing storytelling (and effective for parables to assist in real-life scenarios as well–most of them are based on real-life scenarios)–having not known the Longfellows’ story, I was all the more invested in how this family would adjust when something even more devastating occurs, thus causing Longfellow to lose all interest in writing, Charley to ultimately enlist and go to war, and then…well, I shouldn’t say any more, but seeing as this all results in an uplifting Christmas carol, you shouldn’t expect this film to end any way other than with a positive message.

And “I Heard the Bells” earns its resolution too. Because the filmmaking, acting, and time-period feel are all so effective and wonderfully-done, nothing feels too pat (which is often the downfall of many a faith-based production). This is a film made by people who are, yes, passionate about their beliefs but, most importantly, know how to tell a good story and keep an audience invested. They also give us a clear portrait of this poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his complicated feelings towards his own work, despite the positive impact it has on people–we learn that he was one of the best-known abolitionists of the time, writing poems to help free slaves of the South, thus possibly igniting his son’s drive in fighting for a cause; but we also get the feeling that he wishes he could do more. As he’ll come to learn, the right amount of carefully chosen words can make a great (and positive) impact on people.

(We also see more of that positive impact in a comedic moment late in the film, when Charley recites a poem to his fellow soldiers and a local bumpkin who would like to read more poetry.)

The cinematography from Steve Buckwalter is outstanding as well–an opening tracking one-shot that enters from the sky into a hole in the roof of a dilapidated church (where the steeple should be) where we see a dramatic image that speaks volumes for what we’re about to see set it up for me that this is a film made by people with all the resources and all the money (and they even built that church specifically for the film, from scratch!) put into something ultimately worth our viewing pleasure.

“We need poets to change the world,” Fanny tells his beloved husband Henry. “Not politicians.” That line of dialogue is essentially the thesis for the entire film. And thankfully, there’s no political agenda to tell us what we should feel in “I Heard the Bells”–simply a poetic one that shows us what we could. “I Heard the Bells” delivers the meaning of Christmas to those who might lose sight of it, and it’s a moving film that deeply reminded me of it.

Catherine Called Birdy (2022)

8 Dec

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

Here we have a coming-of-age story set in the Middle Ages. And why not? I don’t see enough such stories from that particular time period.

“Catherine Called Birdy,” based on the young-adult novel by Karen Cushman, is written and directed by Lena Dunham. 12 years ago, Lena Dunham presented a very strong, funny, endearing filmmaking effort in “Tiny Furniture”–12 years later, she had not one but TWO directorial follow-up feature films: “Sharp Stick” and “Catherine Called Birdy.”

It’s funny how “Sharp Stick” (a small, personal story about a young woman exploring sexuality) seemed right at home in the “Girls” star’s wheelhouse and yet felt so confused and unpleasant…and yet “Catherine Called Birdy,” which is set in the early 1200s and features a female protagonist younger than her usual demographic, is as intelligent as it is charming.

Bella Ramsey shines as 14-year-old Lady Catherine aka Birdy who has just become a woman, which is great news to her father (Andrew Scott) because now he can marry her off and repay his debts. (An example of the comic writing at hand: the father blames his debt on his wife [Billie Piper] for her expensive tastes.) Birdy of course has no interest in getting married and leaving childhood behind–but as she learns throughout the story, it’s not so easy making her way through a world that hardly seems interested in what women want to do.

Birdy knows what she doesn’t want, but she’s not entirely sure what she does want–thankfully, she’s not so precocious that she pretends to know the difference; she is still very young (and also accustomed to an aristocratic environment) and has a lot to learn about herself and the world around her…like most tween girls in the best modern-day coming-of-age films.

There’s a lot of comedy in this story, such as the witty voiceover narrations of Birdy as she continually writes in a diary and the outrageous antics Birdy finds herself succumbing to in an attempt to hold onto her individuality. And there are also some very on-the-nose pop songs on the soundtrack (including “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “Girl on Fire”) that simultaneously cracked me up and made me wonder if I was watching a lost episode of “Drunk History” (or the movie “A Knight’s Tale”).

But the spirit of the setting rings true with authenticity and the characters are written and portrayed with such heart that it’s wonderful to keep up with them–unlike “The Little Hours” which comprised of one joke (Middle-Agey nuns spewing modern-day profanities) or “The Favourite” which tried almost too hard to be edgy and provocative, “Catherine Called Birdy” is crowd-pleasing while containing a genuine affection for its setting and characters.

“Catherine Called Birdy” not only reaches the heights of “Tiny Furniture,” but it may even surpass it as Lena Dunham’s best work to date. It’s truly wonderful.

“Catherine Called Birdy” is available on Amazon Prime.

Bros (2022)

3 Dec

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

“Bros” is the latest from Apatow Productions. It’s a good thing I’m a Judd Apatow fan or I wouldn’t see this film based on the trailer. Why are comedy trailers so bad?

Comedian Billy Eichner stars a gay New York podcaster named Bobby Lieber. (His podcast is called the 11th Brick, as he’s a cis gay white man and he figures a cis gay white man was the 11th person to throw a brick at Stonewall.) He’s 40, a bachelor, constantly hooks up with Grindr users, super intense, defensive, and self-aware to a fault–and he’s never afraid to speak his angry opinion no matter who tells him he should shut up and be respectful of other people. He has a bad habit of dominating the room without reading the room.

Let’s just call Bobby what he is: an a**hole.

But just as Amy was a little much to handle in “Trainwreck” (an Apatow romcom that gets better each time I see it), thankfully Bobby is surrounded by colorful supporting players who are there to either argue with him or bring him down from his arrogant high. (More on them in a bit.) And he also has a winning, funny, and charming romantic interest to help his character grow: a handsome “bro/jock” lawyer named Aaron. At first he’s ready to shove him aside as “boring” but he quickly learns there’s more to him than steroids and baseball caps. So, they start going out, they spend the night together, they lower their defenses a bit, and they sort of start a relationship. (I say “sort of” because neither of them wants to define what this is just yet, especially since Bobby has problems with himself and Aaron has commitment issues.)

Will they? Won’t they?

Well, yeah, of course they will, I already said it’s a romcom, and it follows certain formulas in that regard–but it’s more about how/why than about what.

Back to the supporting cast. As is typical of a film produced by mainstream comedy maestro Judd Apatow, there’s a lot of memorable co-stars on display here. Taking a good chunk of screen time is a terrific ensemble of actors (Ts Madison, Jim Rash, Eve Lindley, Miss Lawrence and Dot-Marie Jones) playing the board members of an up-and-coming museum celebrating LGBTQ+ history. But there are other actors in smaller roles that have time to shine too–if only I could remember the actor/character of Aaron’s brother, because he was freaking hilarious in one scene near the end! (Seriously, I want to see a movie about THAT guy next!)

Aaron is played terrifically by Luke Macfarlane who is as funny as he is likable. I didn’t know who he was before this film, but after Googling him, he’s apparently known for Hallmark movies… There is a running joke in this film about “Hallheart” holiday movies that are playing more to the LGBTQ+ crowd; the joke was already funny, but knowing that he’s a Hallmark actor makes it even funnier!

And “Bros,” directed by Nicolas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), really is funny. Often times, it’s hilarious. My favorite jokes include a tutorial on “listening,” a “Night at the Museum” reference that pays off wonderfully, and a cameo by Debra Messing that’s just…I won’t give it away here, but I’m cracking up just thinking about it again!

And there’s plenty more like that in the film. (There’s also a funny yet also heartwarming homage to Garth Brooks [Aaron’s favorite musician] late in the film.) But there’s also room for drama as well, such as when Eichner (who also co-wrote the script with Stoller) delivers a heartfelt monologue about how people have told him to hold back on his homosexuality all his life. This not only gives insight as to who Bobby is but also how he became who he is–and in a brilliant masterstroke of writing, there’s another monologue he delivers after being told (by Aaron) to “tone it down.” This one is meant more for laughs, but the context makes for a more heartbreaking moment.

Yet, even when Bobby is at his worst, he can still show us who he is at his best. And that plus the laughs and love throughout the screenplay and characters is why “Bros” is worth recommending.

Also, Bobby’s right–love is NOT love (to mock the ever-popular “love is love” slogan); it’s more complicated than that.

God Forbid: The Sex Scandal that Brought Down a Dynasty (2022)

3 Dec

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

“God Forbid: The Sex Scandal that Brought Down a Dynasty.” Some of you probably already know what scandal the subtitle refers to–for those who don’t, it’s the scandal that destroyed Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr.’s reputation as the most powerful evangelical in America.

This guy was so respected, so loved, so revered as this model Christian with the perfect family and a knack for big business. Well, it turned out he and his wife Becki were the ultimate hypocrites as they partook in an affair with a young man named Giancarlo Granda who occasionally would get with Becki while Jerry…watched…actively… This went on for a long time until Giancarlo decided to come forward with it, thus resulting in the downfall of the Falwell dynasty.

But there’s a lot more to the story in this very entertaining documentary “God Forbid,” in which Giancarlo sits down and tells all. Using clever editing, slickly executed reenactment storytelling, and many other nicely handled visual techniques, this is the most intriguing documentary I’ve seen all year. (Even though I should’ve been tired watching it late last night, my attention was focused throughout and I never fell asleep.)

I haven’t seen this filmmaker Billy Corben’s previous docs, like “Cocaine Cowboys” or “537 Votes”–but after seeing this great flick, I’m definitely curious to see what else he has to offer.

Giancarlo says at the start of the film: “If I would have known that accepting this woman’s invitation to go back to her hotel room would have led to a scandal involving the president of the largest Christian university in the world and the president of the United States, I would have walked away and just enjoyed my private life.” He means it too. He was a 20-year-old Miami pool boy, he was seduced by a “cougar,” he saw an opportunity and took it, and he didn’t even know who these people were until he told his older sister about them shortly after. He still went along with them because Becki treated him like a secret boyfriend (and texted him pretty much every day) and Jerry kept providing him with amazing business opportunities (most likely to keep him quiet about the affair).

How could he have known that this bizarre threesome would go on for years or that he couldn’t get out of it because they would guilt him into staying in? These people, who called themselves “moral Christians,” manipulated this poor kid–even when things turned sadder, they continued with it.

Well, enough would be enough sooner or later–and the things Giancarlo Granda knew about the Falwells would bring them down. And this film portrays that beautifully.

“God Forbid” doesn’t stop there either. It’ll take its time to go back to the reign of Jerry Falwell Sr., the extreme conservative who founded LU and the Moral Majority. Then it’ll take more time to show the toxicity brought on by the Falwells’ endorsement of a certain former POTUS. (This went on a bit too long, in my opinion–it just reinforces what most of us already knew.) Then, after all of this, it ends with the question of whether evangelical extremists are the cause of many problems in this country–unlike many big-picture messages I see in many docs, this one doesn’t even seem like a stretch.

Mostly though, “God Forbid” is flat-out entertaining–and it’s as riveting as it is disturbing.