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My Favorite Movies – Salem’s Lot (1979)

13 Oct

By Tanner Smith

Oh wait, this is a miniseries, isn’t it? Eh, who cares? I’m talking about it anyway–I’ve always considered it a 3-hour movie!

There is a version of “Salem’s Lot” that was cut down to nearly two hours for theatrical release. I found it on VHS tape, bought it for two dollars, and took a look at it…and then I threw it in the trash. It just wasn’t nearly as good as it is in its original 3-hour running time.

Also, it cut out a certain scene that scared the bejeezus out of me as a 12-year-old (and still scares me to this day), which was practically blasphemy.

You may already know the scene I’m talking about. It’s the scene in which we get our first sighting of a vampire in this miniseries–a little boy we previously saw get attacked and killed by an unknown force. Well, now he’s a vampire, floating outside his brother’s window. It’s a creepy-as-hell visual–coming out of the fog outside the window is this hovering child with glowing eyes and long fingernails that make a horrible scraping sound as he taps the glass, silently commanding to be let inside…

That is the reason I still sleep with the window curtains/blinds closed even to this day!!

Based on the Stephen King novel ‘Salem’s Lot, “Salem’s Lot” is a well-made chiller directed by Tobe Hooper, best known at the time for “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” And if you want proof that Tobe Hooper had some hand in directing Steven Spielberg’s “Poltergeist,” look no further than here–both “Salem’s Lot” and “Poltergeist” both maintain the same quirky yet haunting atmosphere of a small town gone mad.

David Soul stars as Ben Mears, an author who returns to his hometown (Salem’s Lot) to write a book about the mysterious Marsten house, where it turns out something evil resides…

I love how the film takes its time easing into the sheer terror that is sure to come–it reminds me of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978),” which also took its time with its terror aspects. When things go from unsuspicious to suspicious to bad to horrible to even worse, it’s worth something to look back at the beginning of the story and consider how we got to the hell that would result in the end.

It also helps that there’s a large cast of supporting characters, most of whom will be horribly murdered and/or turned into a vampire by the end. That includes Ben’s love interest, a teacher named Susan (Bonnie Bedelia), and teenaged Mark (Lance Kerwin), who we know will survive due to a prologue set two years after these events. (Speaking of which, it’s fun to see Ben and Mark in the same scene many times before they’re apparently supposed to actually meet each other.) We get to know all of these people as everything around them turns evil…

What other scenes in this movie scare the hell outta me? Well, there’s a character who becomes a vampire and attempts to hypnotize his human caregiver by opening his glowing eyes, baring his fangs, and chanting in a raspy voice, “Look at me…” That will terrify me. There’s also a wonderfully effective jump-scare involving a body popping out of a coffin in an unfilled grave. And there’s another moment when Mark doesn’t realize that two vampires are approaching him from beyond…eeeeeehh, turn around, kid, or you’re gonna die!

Oohhh, how could I almost forget this one? There’s a scene in which Ben visits a morgue, on the off-chance that a new body may rise up as a vampire…and surely enough, it does…he watches that covered-up body until it starts to twitch and move!!

This sh*t still creeps me out!

If you haven’t guessed already, “Salem’s Lot” is one of my favorite scary movies. I haven’t even mentioned the vampire in charge–a blue-skinned beast-man that resembles Count Orlock in Nosferatu. Actually, he’s more of an attack dog for James Mason as a sinister figure who is definitely up to something from the moment he arrives Salem’s Lot the same time Ben does. Both monsters are equally creepy in their own way.

But it’s that kid…that damned kid…every night, I look at my window and make sure I can’t see outside, just in case that little monster isn’t floating around outside and staring at me!

There was also a 2004 miniseries based on King’s book. I remember seeing it a long time ago but not since. I do it own on DVD, as part of a collection with the 1996 “Shining” miniseries and the 1990 “It” miniseries. Maybe I’ll check it out later, but…after I watch this one again. I already know this version is superior.

The Fear Street Trilogy (2021)

15 Sep

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! I’m going to try my best to be as vague as possible in summarizing some plot details for those who haven’t seen the Netflix horror trilogy as of yet–but you can’t be too careful.

Three horror movies in three weeks? Exclusively on Netflix? Sold!

The Netflix miniseries known as “the Fear Street trilogy,” directed by Leigh Janiak and based on novels written by R.L. Stine, was quite the event in the summer of 2021. Each film in the trilogy paid homage to popular horror films and tropes of a certain time while telling a bigger story about the setting, its characters, and what haunts both of them.

The three films were released on a weekly basis, and to make matters better, each installment got better as they went along. Let’s talk about them:

Fear Street Part One: 1994

Smith’s Verdict: ***

“Fear Street Part One: 1994” is influenced by 1990s slasher films, most notably “Scream” (right down to the stunt casting at the beginning, declaring the trilogy’s first victim). There’s a lot of ’90s nostalgia (including maybe too much of the ’90s-centric soundtrack), some surprising twists, grizzly horror sequences, and yes, a lot of blood. (Note: This is not R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” material being adapted here–this is hard-R (or hard-TV-MA) material we’re dealing with here on Fear Street.) What results is a decent slasher flick that will get people interested in checking out Part Two of the series.

Also like in “Scream,” we get references to classic horror films such as “Jaws,” “Night of the Living Dead,” and “The Shining.” But this first installment of “Fear Street” may remind people more of Netflix’s popular series “Stranger Things,” which like this film involves a lot of nostalgia (this is as deep-rooted in the ’90s as “Stranger Things” is deep-rooted into the ’80s) and savvy teens solving deadly mysteries. It just so happens these kids are going up against zombies and slasher killers (and zombie slasher killers).

“Part One: 1994” is set in Shadyside, a mid-American town with a dark history of gruesome murder that dates back centuries. These murders are different time after time, but there are similarities that some locals can’t help but notice–but just to say people from Shadyside are simply bad seeds is an easier pill to take than to believe people from Shadyside are cursed, right?

Wrong.

But just ask the locals of the neighboring town of Sunnyvale, where everyone is rich and safe and looks down at Shadyside like they’re no better than sewer scum.

Another massacre has occurred in Shadyside, this time by a killer in a skull mask. (Something that adds to the mystery is the revealed identity of the killer right away, thus raising interesting questions already in the first act.) But things are about to get a lot worse, as a group of Shadyside teenagers accidentally disturb the resting place of a witch who cursed the town centuries ago and is responsible for the string of different local murders to come. What was whispered about (and even joked about) before is now all too real for these kids, as they are stalked by figures that represent Shadyside’s history of murder. These risen-from-the-dead monsters include: a psychotic milkman, the aforementioned skull-mask killer, a summer-camp slasher (who looks like Jason from “Friday the 13th Part 2,” with the burlap sack over his head), and my personal favorite, a happy-singing female slasher who delights in slashing with a straight razor (and singing a happy tune).

The key characters are Shadysiders Deena (Kiana Madeira), her brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), and her friends Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger), plus Sunnyvaler Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), who used to live in Shadyside before moving. (Deena and Sam also used to be a couple before the move affected them both.) They need to figure out why the killers keep coming for them and solve the mystery of the curse before it’s too late.

What results is a wild goose chase and numerous clues to follow along, as well as some gruesome kills amongst characters (including one notably graphic scene involving a bread slicer which is definitely one-of-a-kind), that make “Fear Street Part One: 1994” an entertaining thrill ride to go along for.

Upon first viewing, the characters aren’t much to write home about (though Josh the kid brother was likable enough and Kate and Simon had some funny lines here or there), and even though I commend this horror series for giving us an LGBT couple in Deena and Sam, I didn’t care for either of their characters because they seemed thinly drawn…which is why I’m glad this is a trilogy and not just one stand-alone movie, because that leaves room for opportunity to get the audience to care about the characters by the end.

Did I? Well, let’s find out, ’cause I was going to check out Part Two anyway.

Fear Street Part Two: 1978

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Well, while some questions may have been answered in “Part One: 1994,” there’s still plenty of mysterious territory for “Fear Street Part Two: 1978” to delve into. The film begins in 1994, where Deena visits the reclusive Shadysider C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs) and demands answers, knowing she went through events similar to her and her friends. Knowing full well what she’s talking about, C. Berman tells a story and takes us back to the summer of 1978…

Welcome to Camp Nightwing, where the feud between Shadyside and Sunnyvale has the kids partaking in a brutal game of capture-the-flag. (Sheesh, for all the crap Sunnyvale dumps all over Shadysiders, why do Shadyside kids even go to this camp?) Sarcastic and trouble-making Shadysider Ziggy (Sadie Sink, Max of “Stranger Things”) is particularly chastised (and even hung up on a tree and burned on the arm–YIKES, kids can be cruel!), while her older sister Cindy (Emily Rudd) tries to keep out of trouble, thus straining the sisters’ relationship.

Oh, and get this–apparently, the only campers who smoke dope and engage in premarital sex are the ones from Shadyside. Because, of course. Sunnyvale always has to have the morality, don’t they–let’s not forget they’re the ones who spend the duration of the camp dumping all over their neighbors. (With the summer-camp setting, “Part Two: 1978” is obviously paying homage to “Friday the 13th,” but its bullies are just as ruthless and mean-spirited as those in another summer-camp slasher-horror flick, “Sleepaway Camp.”)

Oh, and only a Shadysider must be possessed by a demonic curse, thus embarking on a killing spree about the campground. That’s exactly what happens, as Cindy’s mild-mannered boyfriend suddenly becomes a violent axe murderer and chases his girlfriend and her friend Alice (Ryan Simpkins, “Brigsby Bear”). Thus, we have the origin of the Camp Nightwing Killer, who was brought back from the dead in “Part One: 1994.”

Secrets are revealed, the body count rises, and despite being a summer camp with many different places to run and hide, there’s very few options left for our main characters to run and hide as they try to figure out how to survive the night. “Part Two: 1978” is an effective chiller made even better with the context of its previous chapter–not only am I entertained (and suitably creeped out) by the material, but I’m involved in a decades-long mystery I want to learn more about.

And it got me interested in seeing “Part Three: 1666,” which would undoubtedly give us the origin of the notorious witch and the curse laid upon the town. Will it disappoint?

Fear Street Part Three: 1666

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Nope. It didn’t disappoint. They saved the best for last.

And what’s even better is even though I didn’t “love” Parts One or Two, I was thankful for watching them to get to this point. Even the 1994 characters of Deena and Sam, neither of whom I cared much about in “Part One: 1994,” grew to become more compelling characters that I cared very much about here in Part Three. How? Well, I won’t say here.

And again, I’m trying to be careful here in mentioning plot details, especially now that we’re at the end of the trilogy. There’s still a possibility that some readers of this review haven’t seen the trilogy yet.

Anyway, now we’re in the year 1666, and we’re going to get the answers we’ve been waiting for. How did everything in this setting lead to all the mayhem and terror we’ve come to encounter in 1978 and 1994? Is there more of a connection than we initially thought? We’re put right into how it all happened here. (And to make things a little more interesting, pretty much all of the characters in this mid-17th century era are portrayed by actors from Parts One and Two.)

We’re taken to 1666, at the establishment before Sunnyvale and Shadyside were divided in two. Right off the bat, I buy the setting. The costumes and sets are authentic enough and the cinematography helps bring me into the era. Sometimes, the accents are muddled and there are some historical accuracies to needlessly nitpick, but let’s be fair here–this isn’t “The VVitch.”

Sarah Fier (Madeira again), who will become the notorious witch who cursed Shadyside, gets involved in a secret romantic affair with Hannah (Welch again)…which doesn’t bode well at all when the village’s water is poisoned, the food supply is spoiled, and the local pastor commits an unspeakably evil act. Thus, everyone in the village is convinced there is evil brought upon them and are looking for someone to blame–and sadly, two women being intimate together is enough to make them the target of a witch-hunt. (The social commentary here is surprisingly very effective.)

There is a real witch around here, one that reads from a book of spells, and…really, I should stop here in discussing the 1666 story. Let me just say that this film is a solid case for the heard-before messages of “don’t believe everything you hear” and “history is made by the winners.” I was surprised to find myself really getting into the sad plight of these protagonists and what sacrifices were made that split the establishment into Shadyside and Sunnyvale and cursed the town of Shadyside for centuries to come. When it reached its climax, I was surprisingly emotionally invested. Where I enjoyed having fun with Parts One and Two as cheesy entertaining slasher flicks, Part Three pulled the chair out from under me.

We do return to 1994 (complete with the title card of “1994: PART 2”), so that Deena and surviving co. can use what she learned about the true origins of the Shadyside curse to bring an end to it all. While the 1666 portion, which takes up half of the film’s running time, is the most riveting and intriguing and even emotional of Part Three, I’m still glad I stuck around for the remainder of the 1994 story. Not only does the Deena-Sam relationship redeem itself to the point where I cared deeply for them, but we’re also treated to one crazy (and blood-splattered) climax that brings the previous monsters back for one last hurrah. And it’s a lot of fun to watch.

And so, I’ve completed the “Fear Street” trilogy and had a very good time. What a finish!

How good was “Fear Street Part Three: 1666?” It made me appreciate the previous films a little more than I did before. That’s why as much as I recommend Part Three, the whole trilogy deserves to be seen as whole.

Good Boys (2019)

11 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Don’t you boys look cute! Everybody’s in the basement…I don’t even want to know what’s going on down there!” states a possibly-intoxicated mother who cheerfully welcomes our three prepubescent main characters to her equally-preadolescent son’s “kissing party.”

That’s one of many delightfully satirical touches added to “Good Boys,” a Superbad-inspired comedy that is made for adults to look back on their idiotic youthful days. (If the film’s clever poster and DVD/Blu-Ray cover design indicates anything, it’s that this film is definitely not for their kids.) All the ingredients for a teenage comedy are here (big party, sexual talk, drugs, violence, lots and lots of hijinks)…but the protagonists of “Good Boys” are not teens–they’re “tweens” (“preadolescents”).

And yes, I did say the film was inspired by “Superbad,” so it’s no surprise to see “Superbad” creators Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s names in the credits. (They co-produced it.)

When you’re a pre-teen, there’s a lot to figure out about life and about yourself. And it’s not pleasant–especially when everyone else claims to know more about “the facts of life” than you. We’ve seen this material made for dramatic purposes (Eighth Grade), but “Good Boys” is a brash, offensive, and very funny comedy about three young boys who get into all sorts of trouble along their journey to be cool and kiss the girl. Thankfully, they’re not following the course of most teen movies and looking to get laid–these are little kids, after all, so they’re only naive enough to misunderstand many of the jokes they say and the, um, let’s say “objects” they come across. (Like I said, this will offend some people–art is not safe and neither is comedy, and there are worse things these kids could be doing.) In the end (spoilers, I guess), they learn very little about what they thought they should know and instead understand that they have each other, which gets friends through the toughest times at that tender age of 10-12.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we get the emotionally resonant portion of this coming-of-age story, whatever–the film is really f***ing funny, and the funniest moments come not just from what these little sh*ts get themselves into but also from relating to them because of similar incidents in your youth.

Er…hopefully not the extreme scenes such as the one in which the kids cross a busy freeway–do not try that in real life, ever.

Our lead characters are three sixth-graders–Max (Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams). They’re all good kids who want to be “bad”–much like the “South Park” characters, they swear up a storm and talk about things they know nothing about because they think that makes them “adult.” (All three young actors play off each other wonderfully–you buy them as real friends.) When Max earns the respect of a “cool kid” named Salen (Izaac Wang), by taking a swig (or, in the kids’ minds, a “sip”) of beer at the local skate park, he also gains an invitation to Salen’s party. Sounds great, but wait…it’s a kissing party! And Max has a crush on a pretty girl who is also attending the party! This is his chance! But he doesn’t know how to kiss! What will he do!?

For a poor timid good kid like Max, this is as dramatic as his life gets. (His friends have different issues–Lucas’ parents are divorcing and the wannabe-tough kid Thor is insecure about his musical talents.)

Max, with the help of Thor and Lucas, wants to learn how to “prepare” for the party, and naturally, everything goes wrong. They search the Internet to learn how to kiss, which results in watching porn, which confuses them more. But it’s OK–one of the boys’ parents has a “CPR doll” they can practice with… (Oh yeah, this movie goes there–it walks that fine line and maintains a certain edge in the process. Just wait until you see the “necklace” that Max wants to give to his crush.)

Max is aware of his neighbor’s sexual activity–or rather, he heard she’s a “nymphomaniac.” (What’s that, one of the boys asks? “It means she can have sex on both land and sea.”) Using his father’s forbidden drone (his dad’s out of town), Max, Thor, and Lucas spy on the neighbor, a teenage girl named Hannah (Molly Gordon), but things don’t go as planned. Not only does Hannah break up with her boyfriend Benji (Josh Karras), which means no kissing is witnessed, but also the drone is caught by Hannah and her friend Lily (Midori Francis).

If Max’s dad (a very funny Will Forte) gets home and finds his drone missing or damaged in any way, Max is grounded and unable to go to the party. So, the boys go through desperate measures to one-up the “old girls” and solve this dilemma. And thus, hijinks ensue, involving a violent brawl at a frat house, a nervous encounter with a tired cop who just wants to go home, and yes, a race across a 12-lane freeway (complete with a pretty hilarious payoff).

Oh, and Lucas dislocates his shoulder during a bike chase. (That scene was shown in the trailer and didn’t sell me on seeing the movie upon initial release–I don’t like seeing kids getting hurt. But hey, one of my new favorite movies shows a kid falling off a roof and bleeding from his head, so I thought I’d take a chance with this comedy.)

Lots of hijinks, lots of raunchy dialogue from kids who don’t know sh*t…and yet, somewhere in the midst of this 89-minute crazy R-rated comedy, there’s room for heart (much like “Superbad” and Booksmart). What helps is the overall good nature of the three kids, all played by appealing young actors. (Plus, it’s fun to hear the R-rated dialogue come out of Jacob Tremblay, best known for roles that are more innocent, to put it lightly.) “Good Boys” was directed and co-written by Gene Stupnitsky, who recalls the fears and insecurities of being that young and naive and exaggerates them for ultimate comedic effect. The film is at its funniest when the kids misunderstand certain behaviors (and devices) and at its warmest when they have to say to each other, “F*** this,” and realize more important things such as being themselves.

The latter also has many priceless lines of dialogue, such as near the end, when Max stands up to a bully by saying…well, I won’t give it away here. “Good Boys” is a hilarious gem.

Why am I not the critic I used to be?

26 Jun

By Tanner Smith

I don’t write many negative reviews anymore. But when I was starting out with this blog, I had a pretty good balance of positive and negative. Sometimes, I would purposefully seek out supposed “bad” movies just so I could add on to their piles of bad reviews.

I was too influenced by other film critics such as Siskel & Ebert and Richard Roeper. But they got/get paid to see movies and give their two cents about them. I just did it so I could stay active.

But the thing is, I’m an artist too. I’m a filmmaker. And I’ve grown a lot since I started this blog. I’ve also learned…that if you look for something to dislike about a movie, you’re going to find it. It’s easy. And it’s lazy. What takes effort is crafting the art and looking for the good things in other art.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s just not fun for me to write negative reviews anymore.

What movie did I say I hated most? Freddy Got Fingered. Well, you know what? Tom Green deliberately set out to make a troll movie and he succeeded big-time. I will never see this movie again…but I will strangely admire Green for his efforts.

What other movies was I too harsh on?

Reality Bites. I don’t hate that movie nearly as much as I did before. In fact, I still own it on DVD for the good things in it plus the interesting audio commentary from director Ben Stiller and writer Helen Childress.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. Everything that bugged me about this intriguing chapter in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise don’t bother me anymore. In fact, watching it again recently, I think I like it.

The Happening. So much of this movie doesn’t work, but I can see what M. Night Shyamalan set out to accomplish. Why fault him for that?

Armageddon. C’mon…it’s goofy as hell and I think that was Michael Bay’s intent.

Angels in the Outfield. I grew up with this movie. My criticisms still hold true, but it didn’t do anything to harm me at all.

Evil Dead. I needed to see this movie for what it was and not what I wanted it to be. It’s a decent remake.

Short Circuit. I still like “Short Circuit 2” more, but still, why give one-and-a-half stars to Johnny Five?

Toy Soldiers. This movie could have been written a lot better. But look at all the pyrotechnics that was put into it!

Three Amigos! Really, past-Tanner? It’s not THAT bad.

Neither is Child’s Play 2. Or Uncle Buck. Or The Grinch.

Half-a-star to Kazaam, huh? Is that why it’s one of my guilty pleasures?

At least I admitted in mostly-negative reviews for movies like Exorcist II, The Last House on the Left, Mommie Dearest, Top Gun, White Water Summer, The Good Son, and Red Dawn that they each had their own merits to them.

Even “North,” the film that inspired Roger Ebert’s “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie,” I don’t particularly care for it but at the same time I think director Rob Reiner and writer Alan Zwiebbel suffered enough because of it. And they just wanted to make a fun comedy–they didn’t intentionally set out to make a bad movie.

Oh, and 2 stars to Good Burger?? C’mon, you love that movie and you know it! Oh, and 2 stars to the 1990 miniseries Stephen King’s It? Is that why you watch it every once in a while–just to make sure you don’t like it? (Boy, I’m glad I didn’t review “Hocus Pocus” at all.)

I think what I’m ultimately trying to say is that I shouldn’t have tried kidding myself back then about being a “serious” film critic. I’m both a movie lover and a filmmaker, and I’ll never forget that for the rest of my life.

Luca (2021)

18 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

While the latest Disney/Pixar film “Luca” (now available on Disney+) is getting decent reviews from critics, a lot of ’em are still declaring it one of Pixar’s weakest films, to which I say, “Oh so picky.”

What do you want me to say, that it’s not as heartwarming as “Soul” and “Coco,” as clever as “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” as groundbreaking as the “Toy Story” movies, “Up,” and “Inside Out?” OK, it’s not, there you go. Now I can talk about how awesome it is as “Luca.”

“Luca” is the latest Pixar film to make something cute and lovable out of what we would normally find frightening and repulsive. As was the case with the monsters in “Monsters, Inc.,” the dead people in “Coco,” and the rats in “Ratatouille” (…actually, the rats are still a tad repulsive), I don’t see little kids being frightened by the sea creatures in “Luca,” even after a “Jaws”-inspired opening in which fishermen are met by a quick-witted creature and quickly get away from the “horrifying monster.”

Luca is the name of our main character (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), a “sea monster” who is as offbeat-adorable as many Pixar protagonists. Much like Ariel the Little Mermaid, Luca has a fascination with the surface world while his parents (Maya Rudoplh and Jim Gaffigan) forbid him to explore beyond the underwater world because (of course) humans are the real ones to fear.

Things change when Luca makes a new friend in another sea creature, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), and discovers that all sea creatures can pass as human when they’re out of the water. As real boys, Luca and Alberto become the best of friends and get into all kinds of misadventures in their own little world above surface, which involves a lot of “Jackass”-like stunts with makeshift Vespas. Their want for a REAL Vespa drives them to a fishing village, where they learn that if they win prize money in an annual sports competition, they can buy their own Vespa and travel the world! (Makes sense to me.)

Thus begins their literal fish-out-of-water story as Luca and Alberto befriend a local girl named Giulia (Emma Berman), train for the competition (which involves bicycle-racing and fast-eating), and attempt to fit in with the townspeople–as long as they don’t get wet, their secret is safe. (Oh, and did I mention the competition also involves swimming?) Meanwhile, they have to put up with a local bully named Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), who unlike most Pixar bullies such as Randall (“Monsters, Inc.”) and Chef Skinner (“Ratatouille”) is consistently funny (he’s like Gaston of “Beauty and the Beast,” only without the muscles). And Luca’s parents, who also approach the surface, try to find their son. (The parents’ methods of finding Luca by splashing water onto all the local boys are some of the funnier parts of the movie.)

Yeah, some of this is standard stuff, but as is the case with the best Pixar movies, there’s something special underneath (forgive the pun) the surface. That is the bond between Luca & Alberto and the developing relationship between Luca & Giulia which threatens that bond. What started off as a classic “Little Mermaid” story became Pixar’s equivalents of “Stand By Me” and “The Kings of Summer.” As a result, it grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go.

“Luca” is a great summertime movie, not just because it includes people having fun and adventure in the season, but because summer is the season in which solid bonds are formed and tested. And that is what is at the heart of the story of “Luca”: the relationship between Luca & Alberto and what other desires could break them apart. And of course, having Jacob Tremblay (who’s been acting in movies since preschool) and Jack Dylan Grazer (so entertaining in “Shazam” and the “It” movies) supply the voices helps too.

“Luca” was the directorial debut of Enrico Casarosa, who usually does art work for other Pixar movies, and I was also pleasantly surprised to find that frequent Pixar writer Mike Jones’ co-writer for this one was Jesse Andrews, best known for writing both the novel and film adaptation of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” They add to the charm and humor of this coming-of-age fantasy that is of course, as is typical of Pixar, also beautifully animated.

Yeah, I know I mentioned the animation last in this review of a Pixar film, but c’mon, it’s Pixar–would you expect anything less than stellar visuals? Even “The Good Dinosaur” had pretty imagery.

The Stylist (2021)

8 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Actress Najarra Townsend was the best part of the 2013 body-horror film Contracted, in which she played a troubled florist transforming into a zombie; she’s even better in Jill Gevargizian’s tense, bloody & atmospheric thriller “The Stylist” as a troubled and very lonely hairstylist who has a horrid habit of…well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Townsend turns in a wonderful performance as Claire, the stylist. Claire is great at her work, transforming her clients effectively as they go on about their day and she listens sympathetically. She practically lives for her clients as, outside of work, she has no one (except her adorable dog) and completely unhappy with her life.

Oh, and she also invites clients for appointments after hours so that she can then drug them and then murder them…and then scalp them to wear their hair as wigs. (YIKES! Never go into a place of business for a visit after hours, especially in a horror film.)

Both Gevergizian and Townsend gives us a sympathetic eye into Claire’s world from the way she tries to put herself in her customers’ shoes to how she gets angry with herself when she feels awkward about a social encounter. We never lose sight of the fact that Claire is a psychopathic serial killer, and it’s intriguing that we’re shown her development into total self-destruction. We’re disturbed by her, and yet at the same time, we’re able to feel for her as well. Much of the film focuses on her many instances of feeling lonely, and it’s to the credit of both this writer-director (as well as Gevergizian’s co-writers Eric Havens and Eric Stolze) and this actress that I’m glued to the screen even in these quieter moments. “The Stylist” is a remarkable character study.

Brea Grant (a talented filmmaker herself, having come off of the sharply-satirical chiller “12-Hour Shift”) co-stars in “The Stylist” as Olivia, a future bride who is one of Claire’s regular clients whom Claire wants to get more of. Claire’s going to style Olivia’s hair one way or another, but she wants more than that–she gets herself invited to her bachelorette party and tries to socialize to not much avail. What happens after…well, let’s just say we go a little beyond “Single White Female” territory at this point.

The scenes in which Claire and Olivia sort of bond are delicately handled and both actresses play it really well. And they add on to the tragedy that is to come thanks to Claire’s inner turmoils and (ahem) stylistic tendencies. (It even speaks to the very real truth that it’s even harder to make new friends as adults.)

I also want to give praise to other actors, such as Jennifer Seward, Davis DeRock, Millie Milan, and Sarah McGuire, who have small but pivotal roles.

The ending isn’t predictable so much as inevitable, but I appreciated how there were no easy answers in its regard. (It’s also very chilling and the actors play it rather well.)

“The Stylist” is less a horror film about who lives and who dies–instead, it’s more a horror-drama about how far gone the killer will go down the rabbit hole of murder. Add some stellar camerawork by Robert Patrick Stern to Najarra Townsend’s great work and Jill Gevergizian’s top-notch direction, and “The Stylist” is a horror film that definitely has a style all its own.

The White Tiger (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One of the more telling moments in Ramin Bahrani’s expertly-crafted “The White Tiger” comes roughly early into the proceedings. We’re in Bangalore, India in the mid-2000s (with the story being told from 2010). Our narrator and protagonist Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), the poor son of a rickshaw driver, manages to get a job as a chauffeur for wealthy Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his American-born wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). Ashok’s rich, successful (and corrupt) father known as The Stork (Mahesh Manjreker) treats Balram like a slave and even hits him twice, to Pinky’s dismay. She protests, “You can’t do that in America!” The Stork’s replay: “This isn’t America.”

That it isn’t. But one of the things many of us will learn from news stories (and/or stories like this one), it’s that the poor, when pushed too far, will go to great lengths to break out of the caste system and possibly overcome the rich to find their own pathways to success–no matter what country they live in.

“The White Tiger” is adapted from a Booker Prize winning novel by Aravind Adiga, a close friend of masterful filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, who directs the film adaptation in a style similar to Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” in how we see Balram’s story told in flashbacks (and through voiceover narration) about how he got to a certain point in his life and what he plans to do next. Needless to say, it’s not easy–in fact, even though there are somy amusing and cynical touches brought to the storytelling, “The White Tiger” is a rather dark and disturbing tale about the sacrifices this ambitious Indian slumdog makes during his pursuit of happiness.

We’re already in Balram’s mindset with this early line of VO narration: “The Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, all at the same time.” In introducing himself in this manner, we have a pretty good idea of what he aspires to be and what he’s willing to go through (and hide within himself) to achieve it. We also get a flash of his childhood–as a young boy in Laxmangarh, he is seen as bright and able to achieve great things. (He’s also referred to as a “white tiger,” which is a way of meaning he’s someone special.) But when his father is unable to pay off The Stork, who is the corrupt landlord of the family’s village, Balram is no longer able to attend school. (His father also ties from consumption, with no doctor to treat him.)

As a young man, Balram is able to find his way into the chauffeur job, working for Ashok, who treats him like a friend rather than a slave, and Pinky, who is sympathetic towards him. His friendship with the two leads to a night of reckless partying and driving, especially when Pinky takes over for Balram at the wheel…which leads to a tragic accident. This tragedy is a heavy reminder of Balram’s current place in this brutal world, and it’s a catalyst for the next step in Balram’s journey of self-satisfaction. He is going to take control of his own life from this point forward, and it’s not going to be pretty.

“The White Tiger” is a bitingly sharp satire of how class structure can be a cutthroat game in India, and it’s also an exceptionally vivid character study about this man, played perfectly by Adarsh Gourav and written brilliantly by Bahrani (who earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay). Whether you root for Balram or want nothing to do with him (and the film does a great job keeping that delicate balance), you still understand why he does certain things.

“Slumdog Millionaire,” this is not. In fact, there’s even an unsubtle dig at that flick: “Don’t believe for a second that there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out of the chicken coop.” It’s all the more tragic when you realize how many people are still struggling in the “chicken coop” that is their country.

“The White Tiger” is a rough and masterfully crafted look at how far some people will go to stray away from a life of victimhood no matter who gets in their way–and it’s as powerful a film as this great filmmaker, Ramin Bahrani, can deliver. I won’t forget this film anytime soon.

“The White Tiger” is available on Netflix.

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There is a gripping Netflix Original film called “Operation Varsity Blues,” and it’s one of my favorite films of 2021 so far.

Directed by Chris Smith (who also gave us entertaining documentaries such as “American Movie” and “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond”), “Operation Varsity Blues” is a docudrama that creatively digs into the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal. It uses transcripts from real wiretap conversations and incorporates them into reenactments from actors playing the parts of the people involved. Matthew Modine takes center-stage as Rick Singer, who masterminded the whole scheme of dozens of parents paying him off to bribe elite schools into letting their under-qualified kids in. (This included high-profile parents such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.)

I always liked Modine in other works such as “Full Metal Jacket,” but here he turns in what is probably his best performance. How good is he? We do see the real Rick Singer interviewed about an hour into the film, and it’s practically uncanny how close he is to the real thing.

Other actors portray the wealthy parents who didn’t ask many questions when Singer informed them that it would cost tens of millions of dollars to send their kids to Stanford or USC or what have you.

“Operation Varsity Blues” begins with your average high-school senior’s dream come true, as we see recordings of numerous kids each celebrating getting accepted into the school of their choice. That makes it all the more heartbreaking when a half-hour later, after we’ve been sucked into Singer’s con game, we get footage of other students, upset and sobbing that they didn’t get into their choice schools. (One of them even says they feel worthless.) It’s so easy to feel empathy for these young people because it’s more than likely four out of five of us have been there before.

And then to find out that ultra-rich parents paid someone to get their children into whatever premium university they wanted? That has to hurt.

“Operation Varsity Blues” did a very good job sucking me in as it detailed the scandal from the seemingly harmless beginning to its numerous clients to the moment it all came crashing down, with one arrest after another.

With more and more evidence piling up to prove why college isn’t especially necessary for most people in today’s society, I think this intriguing film came at just the right time. “Operation Varsity Blues” is now available on Netflix and I highly recommend it.

Malcolm & Marie (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If you felt uncomfortable watching the lengthy argument scenes in films such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff,” “Before Midnight,” and “Marriage Story”…this film is definitely not for you. However, if you’re looking for a film about a couple testing each other’s love, with solid characterization, brilliant acting, and skillful direction, you can’t go wrong streaming “Malcolm & Marie,” available on Netflix.

John David Washington and Zendaya play a filmmaker named Malcolm and his supportive girlfriend named Marie. They’ve just returned home from the premiere of Malcolm’s latest film. Marie lets Malcolm know pretty quickly that something is bothering her. What is she upset about? Well, she says it’s because he didn’t thank her in his speech to the audience–even though he thanked his parents and his elementary school teachers and an usher at a theater he worked at as a kid (that last one might not have been real) but neglected to mention her. It’s also indicated that Malcolm’s film was inspired by her in a sense (and she also supported him every step of the way making this film).
This escalates into a fight where both egos go at it with each other…but it’s only the beginning. It’s going to get worse and worse and worse…

Like I said, it gets pretty uncomfortable. But it’s also fascinating to watch both these extremely talented actors show off their extreme talents, guided by the deeply layered screenplay by director Sam Levinson (who also directed Zendaya in the series “Euphoria”). I wasn’t even halfway through the 106-minute running time when I was getting genuinely concerned how this long night was going to end!

Will this couple stay together? Will they separate? Do they deserve each other? What does that even mean??

I also have to give kudos to Levinson and his crew for making this film under the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

Oh, and this film also delivers a LOT of shots at film critics (including a lengthy tirade by Malcolm about a POSITIVE review!) as a way of a character distracting himself from the real issue at hand. And I’m just assuming by the film’s mere 58% on Rotten Tomatoes that some critics aren’t responding to that very well…you do know that if you’re going to get offended at JOKES towards critics, you’re proving the movie right, don’t you?

Bottom line: “Malcolm & Marie” is a darkly sardonic, sharply written, brilliantly acted look into the longest night of this couple’s life.

A Quiet Place Part II (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let me tell you right at the beginning–the best way to see “A Quiet Place Part II” is in a theater, which is why I’m glad it wasn’t released on-demand during the pandemic. I’m glad I waited to see it in a theater because it’s terrific.

I really like A Quiet Place, and I’m glad it set a new standard for new mainstream horror films. I was looking forward to “Part II” because I was curious to see what was going on outside the central characters’ farmhouse (where the first film mostly took place). The concept is similar to what “Dawn of the Dead” did after “Night of the Living Dead”–taking us outside the familiar settings to see how other places are affected by a terrible outbreak.

But first, we get a wonderfully executed and very chilling prologue in which we see the beginning of the invasion. You see how our familiar characters (played by writer-director John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe) lived in a normal world before all of a sudden, everything has changed…

It’s not zombies that turned the world to hell in this universe–instead, it’s apparently a bunch of beastly alien creatures that really, REALLY do not like sound and hunt/kill every sound they hear. (You can’t help but wonder how these things, if they came from another planet, managed space travel!)

After the prologue, which was a great way to ease moviegoers back into this terrifying universe, we flash forward to about a year-and-a-half since the initial attacks (and pick up where the first film left off). And, also similar to “Dawn of the Dead,” our main characters–mother Evelyn (Blunt), daughter Regan (Simmonds), and Marcus (Jupe)–learn that it’s not just the monsters that are to be feared in the outside world, which they (with a newborn baby in tow) decide to venture into. From that point on, “A Quiet Place Part II” is a delicately crafted, chilling, and even emotionally driven monster movie.

As with the first movie, a lot of “A Quiet Place Part II” rides on visual storytelling–expressive acting, excessive atmosphere, and carefully chosen dialogue. (Having many of the characters communicate through sign language, since Regan is deaf, adds to it as well.) When a sudden loud noise could trigger one of the monsters to attack (how many of these things could be in one area??), such as when someone steps into a bear trap and screams in pain as anyone would, it’s fascinating to see how these people continue living/surviving in this post-apocalyptic world of silence.

I mentioned the carefully chosen dialogue, and an example of this comes from a new character played by Cillian Murphy. We’re introduced to him briefly in the prologue as a seemingly mild-mannered person; he’s a totally different person when we see him again later. His few lines of dialogue carry many amounts of emotional weight. While I’m praising the acting, I was especially drawn by the performance of Millicent Simmonds as Regan, the deaf daughter–she’s excellent here. (Simmons is also deaf in real life.)

In “A Quiet Place Part II,” there are good scares, great moments of suspense, wonderful acting, nicely-done character development, and expert cinematography, shot with 35mm film. (And without giving it away, I also loved the ending.) With such great aspects in a horror film, it’s easy to look over the little things such as my constant questioning of how the predatory creatures manage to function–and I just enjoy a good thrill ride.