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Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022)

28 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is the sophomore effort from actor-filmmaker-auteur Cooper Raiff, whose debut feature, S#!%house, is one of my favorite films of the 2020s so far.

In my review of “S#!%house,” I referred to Cooper Raiff, who is now in his mid-20s, as “the real deal”–his work feels so sincere and unpretentious; it even makes the works of other talented auteurs like Zach Braff, Lena Dunham, and Josh Radnor feel forced by comparison.

Now, with “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (does he pick these titles himself?), Raiff maintains the same sincere, unpretentious charm for a more mainstream-friendly (and perhaps a little predictable at times) yet still delightfully offbeat and smart new film.

In addition to being a good filmmaker, Cooper Raiff is also a good actor. He has an awkward charm to match his handsomeness with an eccentric, easygoing attitude.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” (and yes, “Cha Cha Slide” by DJ Casper does play once in this movie) stars Raiff as a recent college graduate named Andrew, who has no idea what he wants to do with his life, like many people fresh out of college. His girlfriend left for Barcelona (and most likely is never going to see him again), he works a boring job at a “meat-stick” fast-food joint, and he lives at home with his puberty-stricken kid brother (Evan Assante, very good), bipolar mother (Leslie Mann), and stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett), who is so dismissed by Andrew that he even refers to him as “Stepdad Greg.” (Even David, the kid brother, has to tell him to lay off because their mother loves him.)

We’re not sure what dreams Andrew had as a kid–I’m not sure Andrew remembers them either. We do get a prologue in which we see Andrew as a kid pining over an older woman at a dance party and experiencing his first heartbreak upon expressing his feelings toward her. (An awesome tidbit: said-“older woman” is played by Kelly O’Sullivan, who wrote and starred in “Saint Frances,” another underrated indie released in 2020, same as “S#!%house.”) Now, Andrew is 22, graduated, aimless…and now pines over another older woman he meets at another dance party. (Guess he has a type.)

How did this happen? Andrew chaperones David at a neighborhood Bat Mitzvah party, where Andrew gets David’s shy classmates on the dance floor (which then leads him to head the dances of other parties in the neighborhood)–this includes Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), a shy, autistic girl with large headphones. (How Andrew gets Lola to dance is both funny and sweet.) Andrew also meets Lola’s mother Domino (Dakota Johnson), who takes a liking to him the moment he talks her daughter into dancing. She even asks Andrew to babysit Lola every now and then, which then leads to Andrew and Domino getting to know each other better and grow closer together…

Whether or not this develops into a May-December romance, I’ll leave for you to discover. You may even be able to see where it goes, but that’s not a bad thing–a film isn’t about what it’s about but more about how it goes about it, to paraphrase Roger Ebert. What drives the narrative forward is the relationships Andrew shares with Domino, Lola, David, his parents, and others. (Side-note: I’m very thankful that the addition of the character of Domino’s attorney fiancé Joseph [Raul Costillo] didn’t go the way I was afraid it would go.)

And what also aids “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” as with “S#!%house,” is the way Raiff makes something fresh out of familiar cliches while embracing them at the same time. (I’m telling you, Cooper Raiff is a remarkably great talent.) For that matter, Raiff also isn’t afraid to make his own character look downright pathetic and idiotic at times–as with his character in “S#!%house,” Raiff’s Andrew has his own admirable qualities and empathetic, but he messes up, just as we all do; it helps him grow on this coming-of-age journey.

Dakota Johnson is wonderful as Domino. I’ve liked her in movies like “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and “Our Friend,” but here, she gives what is probably her best work as a sad, lonely woman who loves and cares for her daughter, loves her fiancé even when he’s away for work too often, feels a connection with this 22-year-old man but doesn’t always know how to react upon it, and also feels as alone as Andrew at times. There are many layers to her character that help make this my favorite performance of Dakota Johnson’s by far.

Everyone in this film does fine work–Raiff, Johnson, Mann, Garrett, the likable younger actors, Costillo, and also Odeya Rush (in a small but still nicely-done role as Andrew’s friend-with-benefits). But It’s Dakota Johnson and Cooper Raiff who deserve credit for giving us a charming feel-good movie that’s as important as it is charming.

Available on Apple TV+.

Haunt (2019)

16 Apr

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A group of young people go out partying on Halloween night and come across a secluded haunted-house attraction where the psychological scares are evened out by real sadistic masked killers that threaten to pick them off one by one…

That is the intriguing premise of “Haunt,” the 2019 horror-thriller film from writing-directing duo Scott Beck & Bryan Woods, best known for writing the original draft of the groundbreaking horror success “A Quiet Place” (before director/co-writer John Krasinski took the reins). “Haunt” is more of a slasher horror film than the former film, but while many people will say they’re tired of the “slasher” subgenre because there isn’t much that’s added to it these days, those people tend to forget there are still new ways to make it good these days.

“Haunt” feels more like a “Saw” movie than the more tonally melancholy “A Quiet Place,” as the central characters move from one deadly contraption to the next in this claustrophobic literal house of horrors (and this isn’t necessarily a spoiler, but some of them don’t survive the traps). Most of the action takes place in this danger house, making “Haunt” worth watching again if only just to appreciate the production design at hand. The traps are elaborately staged and…well, let’s just say the killers don’t mess around. (Actually, they do play with their prey’s heads a little bit–THEN they go for the kills. They also sport neat, scary masks and heavy cloaks, like a club or a cult–who these people are is never explained, but it’s intriguing to think about what they’re all about.)

While the characters aren’t much to write home about, they are likable and played by good actors, including Andrew Caldwell as the comic-relief, Lauryn McClain as the sensible one, and Shazi Raja and Schuyler Helford as their partying friends. Will Brittain, an actor I liked in films such as “A Teacher” and “Everybody Wants Some!!,” does solid work as Nathan, a sensitive-jock type who makes friends easily and even has some funny moments during this horrific nightmare as well. But it’s Katie Stevens who shines as the would-be final-girl named Harper, who is suffering quietly from an abusive relationship with an alcoholic boyfriend (Samuel Hunt) and also has had her own traumatic experiences with a haunted house in the past. (Also, at one point, she refers to one of the mysterious masked figures by her boyfriend’s name, which makes room for thought-provoking angles.) After watching her go through some of the most torturous, injury-inducing antics in this place, you’ll want to applaud her for surviving even longer and root for her even harder to see the end credits.

Speaking of which, stay through the end credits–not because there’s an after-credits surprise (there isn’t), but because the song that plays over the crawl is musician Lissie’s acoustic cover of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula”–and it’s surprisingly (forgive the pun) haunting. I didn’t know I needed that in my life, but here we are.

Just about everything goes wrong from the moment the characters turn away their cellphones, sign consent forms, and are warned not to make physical contact with the “characters” in the haunted house–and while they do make your typical horror-movie mistakes (like splitting up when they shouldn’t), I’m not groaning so much as I’m having fun with the skilled mindset of Woods & Beck, who themselves embrace and have fun with cliches and conventions.

And the ending, which I won’t give away, is ultimately satisfying (and earns the aforementioned “Dragula” cover over the credits).

The Fallout (2022)

27 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Not long ago, I praised a brilliant film called Mass, about the aftermath of a school massacre–and now here’s “The Fallout,” about roughly the same subject. Like “Mass,” “The Fallout” doesn’t focus on the incident but on the effects it has on the survivors. We don’t even see the killer or the spree (or even the victims, for that matter)–we just hear the horrifying gunshot sounds from inside the girl’s restroom, where two teenage girls, upon hearing the first couple pops, hide in one of the stalls while shaking in fear. It’s a brilliantly chilling sequence, being with these characters (plus a boy who rushes in and hides with them) who don’t know what’s happening outside or if this will be their last moment alive.
From there, we cut immediately to the aftermath, and that’s what the film focuses on–the days and weeks of these young people going through several different emotions: guilt, anger, emptiness, confusion, among others.

Also like “Mass,” “The Fallout” is the directorial/screenwriting debut for an actor-turned-filmmaker–in this case, it’s Megan Park, probably best known for “The Secret Life of an American Teenager,” with Shailene Woodley…..side-note: my mind is blown that Shailene Woodley is old enough to play a therapist in this movie–was “The Spectacular Now” really 9 years ago?? Boy I’m getting old!

Where was I? Oh, right–Megan Park. She does great work here. She knows to let a scene play; she communicates with her actors; she knows when to bring in levity; and it’s clear she has a vision here. I look forward to seeing what she does next.

The actors are great too, all convincing and effective. Jenny Ortega is terrific in the lead role of Vada, who copes with her emotions not as easily as she might think. Maddie Ziegler is just as good as Mia, who is an influencer and what some may see as a social butterfly but is really just as lost and confused as Vada and many other classmates. (The more she does films like this, the more likely people are to forget about “Music.”) Also good are Niles Fitch, the boy who copes with the loss of his brother (who was killed in the incident), and Will Ropp, Vada’s best friend who can’t seem to relate to her at this point due to his own coping mechanisms.

“The Fallout” ends on an ambiguous and unsettling note. I think Vada will be OK…but it’s going to take a lot more than one movie to mend what’s been broken.

“The Fallout” is available to stream on HBO Max.

X (2022)

27 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I was very curious and excited about the new horror film “X,” because it’s writer-director Ti West’s return to the horror genre. (I got into his chilling works in my college days–“The House of the Devil,” “The Innkeepers,” and my personal favorite, “The Sacrament.” Until Mike Flanagan came along, I was calling Ti West the king of modern horror.) I liked his previous film, a Western called “In a Valley of Violence,” but I wondered what a return to his roots would’ve been like…

It didn’t disappoint. In fact, “X” may even rank superior to his prior horror works. I kinda loved it.

Oh and it’s from A24, the studio that produces horror films that are too twisted for Blumhouse to touch (films like “Hereditary,” “The Witch,” “Midsommar,” and “The Lighthouse”)…or maybe they just give horror films the extra care that others normally wouldn’t.

“X” is very much “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with a little “Boogie Nights” thrown in (and some callbacks to “The Shining” too, particularly in the music score). Set in 1979 rural Texas, “X” follows a group of filmmakers who make adult erotica. They rent a small cottage in the middle of nowhere, right next to a house where an elderly couple live, so the filmmakers can make their new adult film, titled The Farmer’s Daughters–guerilla-style, without the old folks knowing anything, and thus no one gets hurt…well, that’s the plan anyway. (You don’t really think things are gonna turn out smoothly in this atmospheric, depraved, chilling period-piece horror film, do you?)

Before the blood hits the fan (and it is a slow-burn movie), we get to know our lead characters–they’re all identifiable, somewhat relatable in one way or another, and they have an interesting dynamic together. We get to see them making their movie, and we also get to see them wind down and chill after wrapping for the night in a scene that also includes a nicely-done acoustic cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” (vocals by Brittany Snow and acoustic guitar playing by Scott Mescudi aka rapper Kid Cudi).

All of the actors are terrific. Mia Goth plays Maxine, a cocaine-addicted actress who wants to be famous (“like Lynda Carter”). Martin Henderson has a McConaughey-like smoothness as the film’s producer/mastermind Wayne, who has a knack for talking his way out of anything. Brittany Snow is the free-spirited Bobby-Lynne, who delivers the lion’s share of the T&A for the movie. Scott Mescudi (again, Kid Cudi) is solid as a Marine who is willing to step into this film genre and have some fun at the same time. Jenna Ortega (sheesh, this is the FOURTH movie she’s been in this year, after “Scream,” “The Fallout,” and “Studio 666”–take a break, kid!) is a PA named Lorraine–her character arc, I’ll leave for you to discover, but it’s intriguing and especially chilling in hindsight.

They’re all memorable and the actors all do capable work, but my favorite character was the film’s director: RJ, a young up-and-comer who is heavily influenced by the French New Wave style and determined to make this the first “good adult film”–however, everyone is reminding him that people will only watch the film for the sex and nudity; it doesn’t matter how good the filmmaking is. (Also, RJ is played by Owen Campbell, who starred in “Super Dark Times,” one of my favorite horror films from the last 5 years–it’s good to see him again.)

We get to know our villains a little bit too, with carefully chosen lines of dialogue and enough subtlety to give us what we need to know without informing us that we need to see a prequel involving this old couple. (And fun fact: there IS a prequel to this movie, supposedly already made by West in secret. Wonder how that’ll turn out.) It’s made even more fascinating when you find out who is the actress that played the creepy old woman in this movie…

I don’t think I’m giving “X” the credit it deserves by simply acknowledging the characterizations and the horror callbacks. There are also themes of blooming sexuality, moral values, judgment, and religion–every now and again, we’ll catch glimpses on an old TV set of a televangelist warning those who give in to the temptations of the human flesh. I’m going to see this film again just so I can try and interpret what this little detail means or what that small aspect meant. I love movies that allow me to do that.

Oh and it’s bloody. Very, very bloody.

But it’s also very funny too. (The humor, again, comes from the lead characters’ interactions with each other.)

“X” is a horrific, tense, atmospheric chiller about how real people get into a real horror of a mess they didn’t expect…and possibly can’t get out of.

Welcome back, Ti West. This is your best film yet.

Mark, Mary & Some Other People (2022)

27 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let me get this out of the way first. “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” recently dropped on Hulu and I remember constantly looking for updates on this film in 2021, wondering when it would get released after its Tribeca Film Festival premiere. Well I guess it’s out now…and I don’t recall it being available on any streaming services around the time I made my 2021 list, so screw it, I’m considering it a 2022 film (hence the “2022” credit in the title for this post).

It’s the same reasoning I used to put “Minari” on my 2021 list. Maybe “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” has a chance for my 2022 list…maybe.

Why was I interested in this film? Because of who made it: actress-filmmaker Hannah Marks. I just think she’s very interesting and I admire her passion and drive to make films about…whatever. I saw an interview with her in which she name-dropped movies like “50/50” and “Frances Ha,” and she said she wanted to make movies about what happens with other characters in similar situations to the ones in those movies. And she’s good at it–“After Everything” (which she co-directed/co-wrote) is an interesting dramedy about life after cancer; “Banana Split” (which she wrote and starred in) tackles female friendship through difficult circumstances; and I’d very much like to see what she did with directing the John Green adaptation “Turtles All the Way Down” (but I haven’t heard a thing about that one since 2019; weird).

Now we have “Mark, Mary & Some Other People,” in which a pair of newlyweds (named Mark & Mary) try out an ethical open marriage. Right away, that’s interesting–I don’t see that very often. How do these two complicated lovebirds (played by Ben Rosenfield and Hayley Law) play this out? Well…it’s complicated. These two are kinda reluctant about it, they’re only doing it because they wonder what’s the point of strict monogamy (millennials these days; we question everything, am I right?), and when it gets down to the subject of ethical non-monogamy, they HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY’RE DOING.

This film kinda reminded me of “Humpday,” about people questioning the concept of sexual identity just because of what’s “usual” in their world. These characters in “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” are in a similar boat. This is what I love about indie film–it can go places the mainstream is generally afraid to tackle unless it’s “cool.”

I liked the two lead actors. Ben Rosenfield’s playful goofiness is something I like to see in a lead character, and Hayley Law (who I liked in “Spontaneous” and “Echo Boomers”) fares just as well with a solid charisma, a guard up, and an attitude to go with the rhetorical questions her character continually asks (again, us millennials…we can be the most annoying sometimes). The supporting cast is made up of mostly the leads’ friends, who are very snarky and annoying at times, but then again, the two leads are very snarky and annoying at times–why criticize it?

The chemistry is on point and there are some genuinely funny moments (such as Mary’s outrageous band names and a welcomed cameo by Gillian Jacobs as a doctor) to go with heavy (and sometimes uncomfortable) scenes in which the things these two crazies joke about blow up in their faces. So where does this whole scenario end up? Well, again…it’s complicated. BUT it’s also inevitable.

I kinda love this movie. “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” may be Hannah Marks’ best effort as a filmmaker yet. If you have a Hulu account, you can check it out there–see if it’s a stream-worthy romcom with a couple annoying albeit charming, realistic, complicated newlyweds…or if it’s a deplorable mess featuring insufferable people. Either way, I think it’s worth thinking about.

Almost, Sorta, Maybe

27 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

To start off this review of the indie romcom “Almost, Sorta, Maybe,” I’ll mention the moment in which this film had me and didn’t let me go until the end. It’s a moment that rings true to so many of us who are each trapped in an office job that is as unfulfilling as it is excruciatingly boring, and our protagonist, Liz, tells off her snooty, manipulative boss in such a fashion that results in…well, I won’t give away the surprise that would have made it meaningless had it not been handled with clever execution and care.

10 minutes in, and this moment was a sign. I laughed hard then, laughed many times in the remaining 95 minutes of running time, and kept a smile on my face when I wasn’t laughing.

But more importantly, I also felt for the main character. Liz, played wonderfully by Lindsay Weaver, is stuck in a job she doesn’t like, has gone through a horrible breakup with a creep, puts up with numerous cellphone calls from her nagging mother, and has a terrible self-image problem (“fat and ugly,” she describes herself to her sister Amy [Lauren Pope], a fitness instructor). She’d love to quit her job and pursue her dream to be a photographer. (She even weighs pros and cons of making important decisions–one of the comic highlights of this very funny movie is the way it plays with fantasy sequences.) Oh, and even though she’s not even 30 yet, she’s often referred to as “ma’am” due to her plain appearance.

Sheesh, I barely know this person and by the time the second act begins, I want to tell her it’s all going to be OK!

“Almost, Sorta, Maybe” is the film about Liz’s coming-of-age in quarter-life crisis and how she manages to be comfortable with herself. Thanks to a keenly layered script from filmmaking duo Patrick Poe & Lolo Loren (whose previous film I reviewed, Zoink, was also funny but completely different from this one) and a rich and vibrant performance from Lindsay Weaver, “Almost, Sorta, Maybe” is a romcom (romantic comedy) with refreshingly sharp edges and doesn’t go the usual routes you would expect in your typical comfort-food movie. For example, Liz gets an assistant: David (Zachary Weaver), the one male worker working in the office (much to the delight of the overly flirtatious and predominantly-female staff). You may think you know where the film is going with this character–but not quite. That’s the beauty of this script–both Poe and Loren made a romcom that they wanted to see. The results make the familiar feel fresh.

Patrick Poe, the film’s co-director/co-writer/co-producer/co-cinematographer (let’s just say he and Lolo Loren are both auteurs), gives a comically brilliant performance as Todd, the hunky dumbo with surfer-like blond hair whom Liz practically stalks and, with support from her sister Amy and Amy’s girlfriend Rebecca (Bethany Fay), asks on a date. We spend more time with this dopey character than you would think, and he doesn’t come off as a one-dimensional tool–that’s not to say there aren’t moments in which you’ll groan loudly due to his foolishness, but the groans are more from a relatable feeling than anything else.

Other standouts in the supporting cast include Dianne Paukstelis as Liz’s aforementioned boss Melissa, Casey Jane as the wildly flirty receptionist who smacks David’s behind on his first day of work, Jerad Langley as Liz’s divorced father, and Vilma de Leon as Liz’s overbearing mother whose identity is a unique twist. (I actually would have liked to see a whole movie about this mother character–I would say this part of the film is underdeveloped, but what we do get is quite intriguing.) The film also finds time to explore Liz’s relationships with Amy and Rebecca, and her complicated relationship with an old boyfriend (Richard J. Burt) who may or may not want to seriously start over again.

Wherever “Almost, Sorta, Maybe” goes with Liz, whatever important life decision she makes, whichever guy has eyes for her, I just wish the best for her. She deserves to be happy.

I think she’s going to do just great, and she’ll look back on this long, complicated, funny, sweet journey and pat herself on the back for making it through. And I’m sure Patrick Poe, Lolo Loren, their assistant Amber Joy, and of course Lindsay Weaver would agree.

Zoink

28 Jan

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Zoink” is a film that took me back to the nostalgic days of making movies as a child and having fun with storytelling. It has the makings of a child’s hybrid of fantasy, horror, science fiction, and comedy. It contains some common tropes that kids still love to this day–there’s something odd and suspicious about your younger sibling, only your friends can understand what’s happening, and of course the classic rule: adults are the enemy.

Even though writer-directors Lolo Loren & Patrick Poe were in their 20s when they made this film, they weren’t afraid to be children at heart (and with a budget of only $250) and I could tell they had fun while making it. I can see why this movie wouldn’t work for some viewers because it’s not their kind of silly. Well…it’s my kind of silly.

Oh, and why is it called “Zoink,” of all titles? You’d be surprised to find out–but I won’t display spoilers in this review.

Our two young protagonists are Tommy (Thomas Fitzgerald) and Sam (Roan Ricker), ordinary kids with ordinary-kid problems. Sam has an older sister for a bully; Tommy is weirded out by his introverted little brother; and both have to put up with a Nickelodeon sitcom’s idea of a bad teacher (Mr. Hideaux, played by a hilariously over-the-top Coleman Crenshaw). Tommy confides in Sam that he believes his kid brother Tyler (Tyler Fitzgerald) is a demon–or, to an extent, Tyler doesn’t even exist. While skeptical, Sam helps Tommy investigate the matter. Why is Tyler silent? What is the “science project” he’s building in his bedroom? Tommy is completely convinced that something isn’t right here.

This leads to a fun montage in which Tommy and Sam test Tyler in many different ways (by looking to the Internet for tips on how to identify a demon) which then leads to a night in which Tommy, Sam, and Sam’s sister Annie (Amber Joy), who’s been roped into babysitting the two youngsters, find themselves in for a crazy weekend…

And that’s all I’ll say about the plot, except that the more the movie digs deeper into its strangeness (from, say, the 35-minute mark of this 70-minute movie), the more enjoyable it is. What this movie lacks in technical quality, it makes up for with plenty of ambition and good laughs. (There are plenty of little quibbles that remind me of film school, but there’s no fun picking on those–besides, Loren & Poe are smart filmmakers; they get better.)

There is an actor named Richard J. Burt whose role in “Zoink,” I’m not even going to begin to describe to you. He’s one of the film’s definite highlights as he delivers some of the funnier lines of dialogue. (And speaking of funny lines of dialogue, Roan Ricker is terrific as Sam, who’s the wisecracking cutup of the central characters.)

If I tell you too much about the plot of “Zoink,” it may either turn you off or get you invested. But I must abide by the respect of the filmmakers and not give away the film’s zanier surprises. Instead, I’ll just reiterate my point from before: it’s my kind of silly, and it might just be yours too.

“Zoink” is available to rent on Amazon. You can find more fun stuff from Lolo Loren & Patrick Poe’s IX Productions by checking out their YouTube channel and/or subscribing to their Patreon page.

Passing (2021)

19 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Netflix’s “Passing” looks at an age-old issue in the Black community: light-skinned Black people “passing” as white.

“Passing” is the screenwriting/directing debut of actress Rebecca Hall, who adapted the screenplay from a 1929 novel of the same name and for whom this was a deeply personal project, as her grandfather was Black but passed for white. The result is a gem with skillful filmmaking, gorgeous cinematography, and two extraordinary leading performances at the center of it.

Set in New York City in the 1920s, “Passing” is focused on two light-skinned Black women who were good friends in the 1910s but went their separate ways after. Irene aka Rene (Tessa Thompson) now lives in Harlem and has settled down with a doctor for a husband (Andre Holland) and two children, and is a member of the Negro Welfare League. She’s doing some shopping downtown (and doing her best to hide certain features so the posh white people don’t know she’s Black) when she encounters her old friend Clare (Ruth Negga)…who has reinvented herself as a glamorous blonde, married to a wealthy man who doesn’t know she’s Black. As Clare brings Rene up to her hotel suite for a drink, Clare’s husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard), arrives and already shows his colors as slimy and bigoted and never sorry for it (of course never realizing the ethnicities of present company). Clare welcomes herself into the lives of Rene and her family, hoping to rekindle her friendship with Rene. But of course, things aren’t as simple as they may seem…

“Passing” was shot in black-and-white, giving Hall and cinematographer Eduard Grau ample opportunity to emphasize skin color–it’s much more effective than if it were done in color.

This film has a great cast. Both Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson are Oscar-worthy in their roles; they’re able to get across the numerous layers their conflicted characters are covered with. (It’s also the first time I’ve truly seen Thompson, who was good in the “Creed” movies and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, disappear into a role.) Alexander Skarsgard is of course great as the oily creep, Andre Holland is solid as Rene’s husband who has mixed feelings about where his kids are growing up, and Bill Camp, one of today’s best and understated character actors, turns up as a celebrated white author who is the guest of honor at an NL dance party.

The overall point of “Passing” is made pretty clear, as everyone is passing as something else one way or another, no matter what the race, sexuality, social stance, etc. And I was intrigued by how Rebecca Hall, who proves to be a very capable director, gets it across.

“Passing” is now available on Netflix.

The Water Man (2021)

17 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Water Man” is a charming and moving family film directed by acclaimed actor David Oyelowo, who proves to be a successful director based on this first effort. It feels like he took elements from the classic ’80s Spielbergian kid-adventures like “The Goonies” and “E.T.” and put a modern spin on them. In today’s movies, we can have a couple of kids going on an extraordinary adventure…while also dealing with real terrors such as leukemia, abuse, and even a wildfire.

Oh, and there’s some monster out there or…something.

“The Water Man” is about a young boy named Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) who learns of the legend of the Water Man, which dwells in the woods near his hometown and has harnessed the power of immortality. Believing the Water Man is real and can help save his ailing mother (Rosario Dawson), he, along with an older girl named Jo (Amiah Miller) who claims to have seen the legend itself, goes on a quest to find him.

Both the young actors are outstanding and their characters are richly drawn. (Though, Jo’s backstory is a little too easy to figure out upon first viewing, but it’s still compelling.) I was invested in their journey, especially because I didn’t know what was going to happen or even if this Water Man character was real. And in the end, I cared deeply about what became of these kids–and that goes for the adults too, from the leukemia-stricken mother to the struggling father (played by Oyelowo himself) to the helpful sympathetic police officer (Maria Bello) to the man who is absolutely certain that the Water Man is 100% real (he’s played by the great Alfred Molina).

“The Water Man” is proof that the family film is alive and well even today–both children and their parents can get something out of this beautiful story filled with tense adventure and well-deserved drama plus appealing characters going through it all. Check it out, show your kids, and prepare for an interesting blend of fantastical legend and human interest.

Help, I Shrunk My Friends (2021)

17 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Ohh boy, how am I going to defend this one?

“Help, I Shrunk My Friends” plays like a cheesy sitcom episode that runs for an hour-and-a-half and doesn’t leave you with anything except a few cheap laughs. But I have to admit…I not only laughed, but I smiled too.

No kidding. I actually enjoyed this film as a piece of mindless fun, which at some point or another is just what I need. Maybe you’ll enjoy it too–you won’t know unless you see it.

“Help, I Shrunk My Friends” is a German import dubbed into English. (And I’m not going to sugarcoat it–the English dubbing is AWFUL.) It’s also a sequel to two other badly-dubbed family films, “Help, I Shrunk My Teacher” and “Help, I Shrunk My Parents” (don’t you love it when the titles tell you what to expect?), both equally cheesy and dopey and not really worth recommending–so why is this third movie worth recommending?

As strange as it may sound, I admire this film for growing up with the adolescent main characters. The previous two films starred prepubescent kids dealing with something odd and supernatural; this time, it’s the same group of kids, only they’re teenagers (about 15 years old), they’re swearing up a storm (and one even flips another the bird at one point), and they’re oddly enough involved in a story that serves as a parable for hormones. (Bear with me; I’ll get to that.) In a strange way, these films represent a coming-of-age “Up Series” aspect as we see these kids grow up with each film.

Now, where does the “shrinking” aspect come in? Well, all of these films take place in a prep school that is haunted by the ghost of the late warlock Otto Leonhard (Otto Waalkes), whose spells include shrinking people to about seven inches tall with help from a magical marble and a bowl. Through Leonhard’s will, the sphere spins round and round inside the bowl, then fire and smoke burst up, and shazam! You’re suddenly shrunk. (Weird, but somewhat inventive.) In this film, Leonhard’s ghost grants the power of Shrinking to our young hero named Felix (Oskar Keymer) to protect all of his magical artifacts kept on display.

But Leonhard didn’t count on the possibility of a teenage boy having trouble sorting out priorities, as Felix uses his new powers to impress the pretty new girl in school, named Melanie (Lorna zu Solms), to shrink a magical necklace for her to wear as a bracelet. (This necklace/bracelet glows when certain people are near, revealing someone’s attraction.) When Felix’s friends accuse Melanie of stealing items and get on his case since they know he’s too smitten to see their side, Felix gets mad and shrinks all four of them–Mario (Georg Sulzer), Robert (Eloi Christ), jokester Chris (Maximillian Ehrenreich), and most notably, Ella (Lina Huesker), who has a not-so-secret crush on Felix (who, of course, sees her as just a friend).

Well, it turns out they were right–Melanie has been helping an old grudge-fueled witch, Hulda Stingbeard (Andrea Sawatzki), and two teenage bullies (Cosima Henman and Tobias Schafer) steal Leonhard’s book of spells so Stingbeard can extinguish his spirit and…I dunno, rule the world or something like that. Melanie is also a kleptomaniac and has stolen the magic marble, which means it’s going to take a while for Felix to get his friends back to normal size. Thus results in a crazy adventure in which Felix must keep his now-tiny friends safe before they all must face the villains and inevitably foil their plans.

The villains are the strangest and funniest aspect of the movie. Stingbeard was seen in the previous film as an old nemesis of Leonhard’s who was shrunken and resized as a rapidly-aging (because apparently shrinking causes you to age 10 times faster) practically-skeleton-like monster who has spastic rapid movements when she’s not depending on mobility via wheelchair–she also barks orders to her young assistants to the point where I’m wondering why they even bother taking her crap for so long. The two assistants, who eventually capture the shrunken kids and treat them to deadly games of killer tops in a nicely-done sequence (btw, the digital effects here are actually quite impressive), get some good laughs as well, particularly when they bicker like your typical high-school couple.

They definitely score more laughs than the antics involving Felix’s dope of a father who becomes a chaperone for a school overnight and adds pretty much nothing when he’s asked to look after the other students while Felix and his friends save the day.

There is a charm to the way Felix, a likable young protagonist, has to handle the responsibility of protecting his ghostly mentor’s property, keeping his friends safe, even shrinking himself to rescue them from the two regular-sized bullies, and questioning whether or not to trust Melanie to help him–not to mention, the love-triangle cliche I usually can’t stand in movies is interesting here when we have Ella trying to talk some sense into Felix who is smitten by Melanie. And being a “shrinking” story, you would hope to see some fun action with differing sizes–while there aren’t many, there is a fun chase scene involving the shrunken kids riding a big skateboard to pursue the villains.

“Help, I Shrunk My Friends” doesn’t have the humor or even the smarts of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” nor is it even something I would tell my friends to seek out immediately. Look, I’m here to tell you–this movie is silly. Don’t come at me with your comments that it’s too silly. But it’s my kind of silly and that’s why I have trouble telling you that I had a fun time watching “Help, I Shrunk My Friends.”