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

mid90s (2018)

19 Apr

657016573.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Teenagers can be very obnoxious. (That shouldn’t be news to anybody—we were teens ourselves; we know how we behaved.) With a group of teens, that adds extra layers to the obnoxiousness. We’d say things to our friends that we couldn’t tell anyone else, though honestly, it was usually to try and keep up with our peers who had risqué stories that may or may not be true. (When you had to ask about certain things involving sex, you showed your lack of experience, thus lowering your ranking in the group.) A lot of us have been there, and hopefully, most of us have grown up a lot since then.

Jonah Hill remembers it. But he also remembers why the teenage group was there to begin with: not to one-up each other with debauchery and offensiveness, but to be there for one another when no one else will. He remembers the crudeness of being a teenage boy amongst other teenage boys, but he also remembers the friendship and loyalty that was always underneath the surface of the group. He grew up as a teen in the mid-1990s, but this sort of behavior is present with teenagers in every era. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that his directing debut, the aptly-named “mid90s,” was set in its time because it was made today and it’s about us, whether it’s for looking back on our teenage years (to see if we behaved similarly to the young characters or if we had a teenage life more relaxed and stable than what’s presented here) or even to see how similar today’s teens are compared to those from the mid-90s (technology obviously not being a factor in this argument).

Set in summer-1996 Los Angeles, “mid90s” is the story of a short, skinny, good-natured 13-year-old boy named Stevie (Sunny Suljic), whose home life isn’t very welcoming. His single young mother (Katherine Waterston) is nice and tries to care for him, but she’s somewhat irresponsible and a little too sharing about her romantic interests. Stevie looks up to his 18-year-old older brother Ian (and often sneaks into his bedroom to catch glimpses of pop culture to keep up with what’s “cool”), but Ian (Lucas Hedges) is a bully who pushes around and abuses his little brother every chance he gets. The kid is shy and socially awkward, but when he spots a group of loudmouthed, racially diverse skateboarding teens at the local skate shop, he can’t help but attempt to fit in with them. He buys Ian’s skateboard (for some of Stevie’s Nintendo games, of course—Stevie would never give up his Discman!) and spends more time around the hangout where he eventually gets noticed and (yay!) Is asked to fetch a jug of water for the skateboarders! Now he’s in with this ragtag team of “cool kids”—unofficial ringleader & skilled skater Ray (Na-kel Smith); Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), dim-witted aspiring filmmaker; F***S*** (Olan Prenatt), the jokester nicknamed for his excited exclamations; and Ruben (Gio Galicia), the younger, more stern one of the group who shows Stevie the ropes. (It’s clear to us that Ruben is the least popular of the group because of his attitude and that he sees himself as someone for Stevie to look up to. Pretty pathetic.) Stevie earns the nickname “Sunburn” (after taking part in one of the group’s most hilarious discussions about whether or not dark-skinned people can get sunburned) and he becomes an amusing asset to the group due to his naïveté and willingness to impress everyone.

It’s the summer that changes everything for this young man, as he smokes his first cigarette, drinks his first beer, barely survives an attempt to pull off a dangerous skateboarding stunt, tries drugs given to him by his friends, has his first sexual encounter with an older girl, and violently stands up to his bully of a brother. In less than 85 minutes, writer/director Jonah Hill is able to fit in as many rites of passage for a boy becoming a man in the ‘90s youth culture, and he doesn’t criticize as much as he observes. (Hill himself was 13 in 1996, so I wonder how much of this material is autobiographical.) But more importantly, he’s also able to fit in as much context for his likable young lead’s development as needed, even as unpleasant as presenting him as masochistic (he hits himself when he’s alone and, after a brutal fight with Ian, nearly asphyxiates himself with a Super Nintendo controller cable). The kid needs help, and whether his friends are the positive outlet for it or not, it’s at least something he can use for now. (Of course, his mother doesn’t see it that way—her son shows up at home intoxicated, she’s there to confront the boys right there in the skate shop despite her son’s protests.)

These mid-90s skater boys talk the way real-life mid-90s skater boys talked. (Often when these kids talked, I was reminded of Larry Clark’s 1995 slice-of-life “Kids.”) They’re crude, vulgar, homophobic, chauvinistic, idiotic, and more. But Hill never apologizes for it.* He just shows it how it was/is (no doubt many of these “deep discussions” are still held by modern teenage boys). And it makes the quieter moments amongst a couple of the kids all the more meaningful and welcome. An example: today, it’s normal for teens to show that they care for one another, but back in the mid-90s, it wasn’t “cool” to care unless you were already “cool” to begin with. Ray is certainly the “cool” one of the group, but he also has a heart, which he shows in a scene in which he consoles Stevie by sharing that the other boys have worse home lives than him (one’s family is poor, one’s mom is a drug addict, one is delving deeper into alcohol and drugs, and Ray lost his younger brother in an accident). Ray and Stevie are alone in this scene, because it’s highly doubtful the others wish for their personal lives to be shared with this kid, but I think it’s fair to assume that if he showed this side of himself otherwise, nobody would mind.

“mid90s” is very well-written and well-directed, with Hill and his crew putting as much detail into the time period as possible without forcing anything. And it’s very well-acted, with everyone from the kids (especially Suljic, Smith, and Hedges) to Katherine Waterston (playing the only key adult in the film) delivering very strong work. And there are little moments here and there that add very little and very much at the same time (Stevie gives his brother a CD he thinks he’ll like, but the brother ignores it; Stevie tries the same skateboard trick over and over again in his driveway; the kids make friendly conversation with a homeless man; among others). What I didn’t like about “mid90s” was the ending. I’m all for ambiguous conclusions, but I don’t think there was a conclusion to be found at all. Without giving it away, something happens to these kids, and we’re given an epilogue in which we’re not sure what to think (or think about). (And I don’t think a particular character reacted accordingly to the incident either.) At the end of “mid90s,” I don’t feel like much was accomplished. But thankfully, that’s not what I’m going to remember for time to come, when I’m thinking of “mid90s.” I’m going to remember the memorable characters, the effective time capsule, and my own teenage memories.

*According to IMDb Trivia, Hill thought the dialogue amongst the boys would get both him and the film in trouble, and so he considered shooting a scene in which the kids debate over whether they should be talking like that. Producer Scott Rudin talked him out of it, asking Hill, “Would you guys have had this conversation back then?”

Advertisements

Unfriended: Dark Web (2018)

10 Dec

la-1531859246-jdcbg8dkv2-snap-image.png

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

OK, let’s get this out of the way—the only thing “Unfriended: Dark Web” has in common with “Unfriended,” the 2015 film to which it claims to be a sequel (or continuation), is that they both occur in real-time via computer screen. That’s about it. They’re both horror films (although one is more of a supernatural horror and the other is along the line of psychological terror) that happen to share the same in-computer gimmick. (And just a couple months after “Dark Web” was released, we got “Searching,” a superior thriller that did even more with the gimmick. But we’re not going into that topic today.) I should be annoyed by this bit of lazy marketing, but at the same time…I don’t want a sequel to “Unfriended,” a film that works perfectly fine as a stand-alone story. So, instead of getting that, we have something different that also carries the name “Unfriended” above its title “Dark Web.” How does it work as its own creation?

Both “Unfriended” and “Dark Web” are horror films that serve as parables for how the Internet rules our lives. With the former, it was a cautionary tale about cyber-bullying. With the latter, it’s about how we often take the Internet for granted. While neither of them are to be taken too seriously (they are mainstream escapist entertainments after all), they do provide good attempts at capturing the essence of how we live online and commenting on it as well. You could laugh at them, listen to them, or simply accept them for what they are and do both… That’s sort of where I stand. I’ve watched “Unfriended” countless times since I wrote a three-star review for it, and I’ve since regarded it as one of the more entertaining horror films in the past few years. Time will tell whether or not I’ll look at “Dark Web” the same, but…it is still a solid film and I’m recommending it.

As I’ve mentioned, “Dark Web” is a sequel in name and style only. The story and characters are different, there’s a different killer attacking our logged-in Millennial protagonists, and the film digs deep into the concept of cyber-stalking (as much as it can, given limited information prior to production—I don’t know how accurate this film in depicting the Dark Web). The 90-minute hell ride begins as college-aged Matias (Colin Woodell) logs onto a laptop he stole from a cyber café (he claims it had been in the lost-and-found for weeks). He looks through it to get used to it and tries out a new app he’s created that will allow him to communicate better with his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), before engaging in online game night with his friends, which include conspiracy-theory podcaster AJ (Connor Del Rio), lesbian couple Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse) & Nari (Betty Gabriel), English techie Damon (Andrew Lees), and Asian DJ Lexx (Savina Windyani). Soon enough, problems arise when the original owner of the laptop, known as “Charon IV,” communicates with Matias, demanding his laptop back. When Matias digs deeper into the hidden files in the laptop, it becomes clear that this is no game. Things get even more serious when Charon IV reveals there’s far more here than meets the eye, and before long, Matias must use his wits to find ways to save himself and his friends before people start getting killed one by one…

I have to admire both “Unfriended” movies for being able to turn out stories that couldn’t have been easy to develop with the limitations of telling them in real-time and keeping them restricted to the perspective of one laptop screen. There are some glitches and technical errors here and there (even when they try to capture the realism of when our machines often break down, there are some little things that are easy to nitpick), but they still do well at capturing the realism well enough so that I’m not taken out of the movie altogether. I suppose my biggest gripe with the technical aspect of “Dark Web” was that the video is too crystal clear for anyone who has ever engaged in Skype video calls to take seriously—I guess it was to show a contrast for the static-fueled glitches that occur whenever the Dark Web users enter the video screens, but it’s not particularly subtle. But even that is taking too much from a nitpick.

In ditching the supernatural aspect that kept the story for “Unfriended” going, “Dark Web” goes for a more “realistic” approach and made it more of a dark thriller that has something to say about how dangerous it is to spend much of our lives online. For those who are affected by this approach, it is either going to lose viewers by losing their credibility or depressing them. I simply saw it as a horror film—nothing more, nothing less. The acting was decent, the story kept me guessing, I liked the twists and turns (especially ones that were aided by the main character trying to keep the main plot secret from his friends as he knows the laptop owner is watching his every click), and while it didn’t leave me with as much of an impact as something like “Searching,” I still appreciate its ability to do much with very few.

I’m not going to get into the multiple endings that “Unfriended: Dark Web” has been known for since it was originally revealed the studio just didn’t know how to end it… But I will say I like the original alternate ending a little better than the DVD’s alternate endings and especially more than the theatrical ending.

Halloween (2018)

5 Nov

landscape-1528469196-aa68-d023-01113-r.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

40 years ago, we got John Carpenter’s 1978 classic “Halloween,” a truly scary low-budget thriller about a killer that continued to lurk in the dark and stalk (and kill) unsuspecting teenagers. It was scary because it represented the looming presence of fate and death and ended on a chillingly ambiguous note: that evil is still out there and while we can evade it for some time, it can still come for you at any time…

Since then, there have been countless sequels (including one that tried a different story—“Halloween III”), neither of which I can recommend. (It was also remade in 2007 by Rob Zombie; I can’t recommend that one either.) And now, in 2018, we get a sequel that pretends all of the other sequels don’t exist. It’s a “Halloween” sequel, directed by talented filmmaker David Gordon Green, that’s directly following the original film 40 years later.

Already, we’re off to a good start…though simply giving it the same title as the original is confusing. (I get that they can’t call it “Halloween II,” because there were already two movies by that name…but now, there are three movies titled “Halloween”!)

The killer, Michael Myers, is no longer the brother of survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). He’s simply Michael Myers, an enigmatic figure that stalks and kills—the “boogeyman,” if you will. Four decades after killing a few people in Haddonfield, Illinois (actually, he’s killed more people if you include “Halloween II”…but they’re not including it, so I won’t either), Michael Myers has been institutionalized and studied long since then. Meanwhile, survivor Laurie has led a life of ruin and misery since then—she’s a nutty survivalist, living in a fortress-like secluded house, carrying a ton of armory hidden underneath, and obsessing over the possibility that Myers will escape and come for her and finish what he started.

That’s a very slim possibility, especially after 40 years of Myers being locked up and Laurie continuing to wait for him. But if he didn’t somehow escape, we wouldn’t have a movie, would we? Anyway, he escapes a bus filled with other mentally ill prisoners and makes his way back “home”…

And of course this happens on the night before Halloween, so that Myers can come to Haddonfield and stalk new victims on Halloween night!

In the process of Myers’ lurking and killing, we get some neatly executed horror moments, such as how he retrieves his infamous mask and when he walks through a suburban neighborhood filled with trick-or-treaters. And we also get some nice, funny moments too, such as when one of Myers’ potential victims reassures the boy she’s babysitting that everything’s fine when the kid knows better. (That kid, played by Jibrail Nantambu, is an absolute riot—I wish he had more screen time!) But we also get a lot of uninteresting moments too, particularly with Laurie’s teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) and her friends (Virginia Gardner, Dylan Arnold, Miles Robbins, and Drew Scheid) who we all know are generic teens lined up to be stalked, killed, or both.

Oh, and there’s also the creepy Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), the psychiatrist who looked after Myers long after Dr. Loomis (the doctor from the original, played by the late Donald Pleasance). Where he falls into this story is as uninteresting as it is blatantly odd (and random).

However, as we learn, the film isn’t really about them. It’s about Laurie’s chance at closure, getting a chance to fight back at the one that’s the cause of her turmoil and misery for four decades. (Though, I think she got off easy, as her friends were murdered forty years ago, while she survived—but I think you could call that “survivor’s guilt.”) We saw something like this in “Halloween H20,” in which Laurie fought Michael 20 years after the original incident, but it was merely a glimpse. This “Halloween” sequel delves deeper into the concept of “victim empowerment,” and it leads to a neatly executed final act in which Laurie has to protect her granddaughter, as well as her daughter (well-played by Judy Greer), and ultimately face her foe as an avenging angel. The roles are reversed this time—originally, Myers was the hunter, but now, Laurie is. What results is a climactic final act that is both fun and suspenseful.

For all the moments in “Halloween (2018)” that don’t work, there are still plenty of other moments that really do. Credit for that goes to director David Gordon Green and his collaborators, one of whom was John Carpenter himself—they know how to shoot the horrific moments and keep the tension flowing, and I appreciate the new direction they were willing to take this story, while paying callbacks to the original that don’t feel forced. (One callback in particular made me smile—it involved one character looking down below at another in a similar way at the end of the original. That’s all I’ll say about it.) Jamie Lee Curtis plays the most interesting character, which makes almost everyone else hardly relevant outside of playing “dead meat,” but it just makes every moment she appears on-screen more special because it’s building up to something big with her. And I like that producer Jason Blum (of Blumhouse Productions, which mostly specializes in horror films) was able to add a modern spin on the popular Halloween franchise, so that modern terrors and old-school suspense combine for an effective horror film. “Halloween (2018)” is the “Halloween” sequel I was waiting for. Do I wish there was a little less predictability with many of the side characters? Yes. But considering all the other “Halloween” sequels that this particular one ignores, I’ll take what I can get.

Baghead (2008)

5 Nov

baghead1.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Baghead,” written and directed by brothers Jay & Mark Duplass, is an independent film that is both made on the cheap and delightfully aware of how cheap it is. It even opens with our main characters attending a film festival, where a micro-budget short film screened and its director gloats about his limited resources in making the film, right down to having his actors improvise their dialogue rather than provide them with a completed script… That is almost exactly how the Duplass Brothers managed to make “Baghead.”

This style of micro-budget filmmaking is commonly known as “mumblecore,” but if you listen to the Duplass Brothers’ audio commentary for the film, you’ll learn they don’t particularly care for that term.

Our main characters in “Baghead,” desperate actors looking to star in something, are inspired by this filmmaking method that they decide to rent a secluded cabin (in the woods, of course) and come up with a screenplay for a low-budget indie film in which they will all star. When they’re not working on ideas for the script, Matt (Ross Partridge), Chad (Steve Zissis), Catherine (Elise Miller), and Michelle (Greta Gerwig) do all the typical things young people do when they have a weekend to themselves in a cabin in the middle of nowhere—they get drunk, get high, pal around, go swimming, and then eventually collaborate on ideas. One night, Michelle has a nightmare about a killer with a bag over his head (a “baghead” killer, if you will), and this inspires Matt to write a horror script about this very concept.

What happens next requires a leap of faith the Duplass Brothers had to take for their audience to continue watching “Baghead” all the way to the end. It seems there really is a baghead lurking outside in the woods. In the film’s creepiest scene, he appears in Michelle’s room and watches as she flirts with who she thinks is Matt playing a game…and he just stands there, watches, and leaves. No one is sure whether it’s one of the four playing games or if there really is a stalker outside watching them…and with a bag over his head. What are the odds that there would actually turn out to be a baghead appearing around the same time these people start to write a script that features a baghead? Well, I won’t give away how this came to be, but it will either make or break the film for most people. It didn’t break it for me; if anything, it added more creativity than anything else.

“Baghead” has a wonderful amount of self-awareness, with art imitating life imitating art, as it comments on the world of filmmaking (particularly micro-budget filmmaking, in which “Baghead” belongs). The Duplass Brothers clearly love to create art and will do whatever it takes to do it with whatever they have. And they get clever mileage out of how they comment on how they even make their own film within said-film.

Of all four main actors, who were previously second-tier actors, only one managed to make it in the big time: Greta Gerwig. At the time, Gerwig was known for several films of this sort (she became known as “the Mumblecore Queen”) before she managed to break out, get more roles in bigger-budgeted indie films (at least, in comparison to “mumblecore” films) and mainstream movies, and even get recognition from Oscar for her directorial debut “Lady Bird.” But she started out with a bubbly, quirky personality that differentiated her from several of her peers. (Many critics had a problem with that—one of the critics of “Baghead” called her “fingernails-on-the-blackboard awful.”) I think she’s a delight in “Baghead”—not to slam her three co-stars, but Gerwig is the true star of the film. She’s funny and charming throughout the whole film.

Much of the film is improvised heavily, with many awkward pauses as the characters try to figure out what to say to one another and find ways to make it feel as real as possible. While it is grating at times, I admire the effort to insert realism into the mix. (That’s generally what “mumblecore” is all about—making the most out of minimal material.) The clumsy handheld camerawork adds to it as well. Though, I will say a lot of what the characters say is not particularly interesting, and I’m constantly waiting for something more juicy to come along and break the monotony. I do care about whether or not Chad and Michelle will end up together, but I’m not sure I needed the passive-aggressiveness of a potential love-triangle to make things more complicated.

I have yet to mention the tension that comes with the very real possibility that there is a baghead walking around outside, leading to a “Blair Witch” style of a sequence that leads to our characters roaming through the woods in fear. By that point, I was comfortable with the way the film was going. The Duplass Brothers were able to milk tension out of the simplest situations, and it truly works.

“Baghead” is essentially a low-budget horror-comedy, and the Duplass Brothers clearly had fun making it. Many people will have trouble with the final twist in the final act, but I didn’t really have much of a problem with it. I was simply appreciative that they didn’t go for any of the easier ways out of a bind.

The Gotham Knights Event – Part One – All That’s Left (Short Film)

14 Sep

41650176_2119584691393507_4518168130668724224_n.png

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s been years since I reviewed a short film…here goes.

We’ve seen many incarnations of Batman the Dark Knight of DC Comics, from silly & campy to dark & complex. Then we get a chance to see fans (who are also micro-budget filmmakers) do their own take on it, creating a nonprofit fan-made web series called “Gotham Knights.”

Available on YouTube*, “Gotham Knights,” created by CK Helms and Timothy Drennan, is a slickly made, enjoyable series of short films centered around characters based on the DC Comics characters—Bruce Wayne (Batman), Dick Grayson (Robin), the Joker, the Red Hood, and more. Picking up where the series’ 4 previous shorts left off, we have Part One of a new story, titled “The Gotham Knights Event.” Batman has been missing for a couple of years, Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson are trying to live normal lives while struggling with grief, and the Joker has returned to Gotham. Those are the basic essentials for the story so far. Part One, titled “All That’s Left,” is merely a setup for something bigger to come. There isn’t much I can say about it, except to say whether or not it had me interested enough to want to see the rest of the oncoming series. And did it?

Thankfully, the answer is “Yes.” I enjoyed “All That’s Left,” though the element I enjoyed in particular was the actor playing the Joker: the film’s director himself, Timothy Drennan. When he’s first introduced here, there’s a quick moment in which he murders a henchman midway through playing friendly towards him—in that moment alone, Drennan captured the spirit of the Joker and carried it through the rest of the film. (I replayed that part repeatedly, I thought it was so funny.) Wherever the story goes from this point, I’m willing to follow.

Much of the film involves Dick (Ryan Mullins) and Barbara (Sarah Ring) as they discuss where they are in their own lives and how they can work together for the future. It’s not particularly interesting, but it’s only Part One; maybe it’ll get better. (Though, further considering the ending “All That’s Left” goes with, I can almost guarantee it will be more interesting, whether I know what happens or not.)

“Gotham Knights” is basically “Batman” with a small budget. There’s definitely passion put into each episode, and that passion continues with “The Gotham Knights Event.” It’s what makes the series interesting and fun to watch, and I’ll be interested to see what comes next, in Part Two…

*The Gotham Knights YouTube channel can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFiLCqpUd-3GlCb4cl4KhtQ

Love, Simon (2018)

8 Aug

920x920.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Love, Simon” is an important step for a mainstream comedy-drama to take: about the struggles of a closeted gay high-school teenager. We’ve seen quite a few indie films about the subject, and there were also some mainstream high-school dramedies with LGBT supporting characters (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Power Rangers”). But “Love, Simon,” based on Becky Albertalli’s YA novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” is the first wide-theatrical-release teenage comedy that focuses on what a homosexual teen goes through when he considers coming out to his loved ones.

Sexual orientation aside, this character finds love in unexpected places, which is generally what happens in conventional teen films. But like other conventional teen films, “Love, Simon” has a lighthearted tone. It plays the material safe with a cheerful, uplifting feel. At first, I didn’t know how to feel about it, now that I know how difficult it must be for real-life closeted teens to keep their true selves hidden out of fear of being isolated or worse. “Love, Simon” doesn’t ignore how hard it is for a gay kid to come out, but it doesn’t entirely play for realism either. But the more I thought about other films that cover teenage struggles (“Juno” with teenage pregnancy, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” with mental disorders, “The Fault in Our Stars” with cancer, etc.), I realized those films played it more or less safe with those real issues too. And “Love, Simon” is charming and likable for the same reasons the other films are charming and likable.

(Besides, there’s a film coming out this fall, called “Boy Erased,” that’s probably going to deal with darker, more realistic themes about a gay teen coming out. If we’re going to have that, why complain about this?)

Nick Robinson (“The Kings of Summer,” “Jurassic World”) stars in a winning performance as Simon Spier, your average suburban high-school senior with loving parents (Josh Duhamel & Jennifer Garner), a nice little sister (Talitha Bateman), and three good friends (Leah, played by Katherine Langford; Nick, played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.; and Abby, played by Alexandra Shipp). He has an enormous secret he’s not ready to tell anybody yet: he’s gay. He’s known it for quite a while now (ever since his “Harry Potter” bedroom poster gave him his awakening), but he confides in a secret email buddy, simply labeled “Blue,” about when would be the right time to tell anybody and risk messing up a life he loves. Blue is an anonymous classmate who is also gay and not ready to come out, and so, Simon and Blue communicate often, not letting on their real identities to each other (Simon calls himself “Jacques”).

But things go wrong when an obnoxious classmate, Martin (Logan Miller), discovers one of Simon’s emails to Blue and uses it to blackmail him in an attempt to get closer to Abby, whom he has a crush on. This results in numerous misunderstandings and confusing moments that cause Simon’s friends to wonder what’s really going on, while Simon is still trying his best to keep his secret until the time is right for him. But Martin isn’t making things any easier.

This character of Martin is utterly hateful, but he’s also all too real. We’ve seen this particular pathetic social outcast in high school (maybe we even were that character in high school, and we just didn’t know it). He’s pushy, kind of a bully, looking for friends in the wrong places, and obnoxious as a result. With that said, the problem with the character isn’t necessarily with him (though some of his actions are a bit forced, in order to keep the story flowing)—it’s that the things he does late in the film, which are inexcusable and make you hate him even more, have no repercussions. There are two side characters who perform a homophobic prank which results in a great verbal takedown by a teacher played by the very-funny Natasha Rothwell—couldn’t Martin have gotten the same treatment by this teacher? I would have loved to see this little turd get some kind of comeuppance.

The strengths of “Love, Simon” come from Simon’s interactions with his family and his friends. Once you know that he has this big secret, it makes those scenes intriguing to watch, because you know he’s testing these people, making sure they’re going to stay true to him if he stays true to them. With that in mind, the already-immensely-likable Simon earns more of the audience’s sympathy. We want him to find happiness, we want him to be comfortable with himself as well as with other people, and we also want him to find out who Blue is. That’s another strength with “Love, Simon”: finding out who Blue is. Is it the cool guy from the Halloween party? Is it the cute guy who works at Waffle House? Is it the sweet, sensitive guy from drama class? It’s a nice mix of mystery and comedy that keeps the film going in a tender direction.

I think everyone who hasn’t seen the film knows that by the end of the film, Simon’s secret is out. I won’t reveal everything that happens here, but I will say that the way the aftermath is handled is very effective. We get to see how everyone feels about it, and we see the differences from the opening act to the third act, and it’s handled very maturely. (Well, for the most part, it’s handled maturely—the film doesn’t go too far in the darker, more realistic territory when it comes to something like this.)

And then comes the question of whether or not heterosexual audience members, particularly teenage ones, will gain something from “Love, Simon.” I’d say so. Simon is an average teen with things in his life to feel good about and other things to be very uncertain about, and those latter things are kept inside for so long. So many teens can relate to that. And one of the best things about the final act of “Love, Simon” is that it addresses that. Simon has an important line near the end, “No matter what, announcing who you are to the world is pretty terrifying.” And that about sums it up.

Creep 2

4 May

24-creep2.w710.h473.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A few years ago, indie filmmakers Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass went out to the woods to make a movie with their limited resources. What resulted was “Creep,” an effectively creepy (forgive the pun) found-footage movie starring Duplass as an unsettlingly peculiar individual whom Brice isn’t sure whether or not to trust. I would issue a SPOILER WARNING here, but if you’re the slightest bit interested in seeing “Creep 2,” then you probably already know how “Creep” ended. It’s no secret going into “Creep 2” that Duplass’ titular “creep” character is no mere weirdo; he’s a serial killer.

Part of the fun of the original “Creep” was trying to figure out just what was up with this strange man (Duplass) whose company our protagonist (Brice) is stuck with throughout the movie. He’s clearly not well, he has a lot of issues, he says/does things that are unnerving, and it gets worse and worse until it ultimately ends violently, thus finally revealing that it was all a setup for one of the “creep’s” filmography that involves murders. “Creep” is one of the killer’s movies about his individual killings, and now we have “Creep 2.”

(Whew. That one paragraph saved me the trouble of reviewing “Creep.” For the record, I give it the same rating as “Creep 2”: three stars out of four.)

Now that we know Mark Duplass’ character is a psychopathic murderer with creative ambition, where do we get suspense in this sequel? Well…what if our protagonist was an unsuspecting amateur video artist who’s curious to see what this guy is all about? You see, Sara (Desiree Akhavan), creator of an online documentary web series called “Encounters,” films her “encounters” with strangers who place ads for her to answer/investigate. She answers an ad from Aaron (Duplass) to visit/film him for monetary reasons, and she’s curious especially after Aaron reveals he is a serial killer. He assures her that he won’t kill her, and she has little reason to trust him (thankfully, she arms herself with a hidden knife). All he wants is for her to film his expressions of reaching the age of 40 and feeling like he’s run out of inspiration for future works. And this is where we get another strange delight: the serial killer has a midlife crisis.

As with the previous film, “Creep 2” is presented in first-person camera perspective, in documentary format, still keeping the audience on-edge and not knowing what to expect. It’s refreshing to note that for all the times we say we’re tired of the “found-footage”/”faux-documentary” gimmick, there are still times when we can say it can still be done effectively.

The suspense in “Creep 2” comes from the question of whether or not Aaron is serious when he says he’s considering quitting the “art” of killing, seeing it more as a “job” than a “religion” (among many funny lines of dialogue sprinkled throughout the film for Duplass to bring levity to an otherwise tense thriller). He confides in Sara, who keeps filming him in his times of excitement and depression and inconsistent strangeness. That leads to the bigger question, which is whether or not Sara is safe. And if so, then for how long?

I liked “Creep 2” better than the first “Creep,” despite giving them both the same rating (ratings are hardly meaningful anyway—just read what I have to say instead of focusing on the stars). It’s just as refreshing but also funnier, more tense, and, for lack of a better word, creepier. Duplass is clearly having a ton of fun with the role, which is more compelling with each layer that gets peeled throughout these movies, and Akhavan is a refreshing protagonist who is scared of her company but tries to remain calm as she tries to learn more about him carefully. And I confess I didn’t know where this story was going and it delighted me that it continued to surprise me. I’m not sure where Duplass and director Patrick Brice can go from here with a possible “Creep 3,” but I’d sure like to find out.