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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.

Moxie (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Somewhat (or definitely) influenced by “Mean Girls” (written by director Amy Poehler’s best friend Tina Fey–wonder if Fey gave Poehler any pointers), “Moxie” is a funny, sweet, inspirational high-school dramedy about a quiet girl who fights back against the campus hierarchy. In this case, it’s a battle against the campus patriarchy–taking the place of Regina George is handsome, popular, smarmy jock Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger).

Who is going after the school’s golden boy? That would be Vivian (Hadley Robinson), a wallflower junior who is proud to ignore and be ignored by many of her peers (except for her best friend Claudia, played by Lauren Tsai). This semi-shallow view changes when she notices that a transfer student, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena), is also being ignored–by the school principal (Marcia Gay Harden), no less–when she tries to report that Mitchell is harassing her. This opens Vivian’s eyes to the sexism and misogyny going on in the school (such as a list ranking female students) and she decides she’s going to do something about it. So, inspired by Lucy’s no-BS policy and her mother’s teen rebel days, she creates an anonymous girl-power zine called “Moxie.” She leaves copies in the girls’ restroom for students to find, and just like that, a movement has begun.

These are problems still present in many American public schools–the football team gets most of the funding, other teams can’t afford new uniforms, the dress code is ridiculous and filled with double standards, and many people, even those with authority, just won’t listen when certain issues are mentioned. These are among the things that “Moxie” (both the zine and the movie) addresses.

Poehler also co-stars in the movie as Vivian’s mother, who is the exact opposite of the mother she played in “Mean Girls” and thank God for that. She’s learned a thing or two since her high-school days and when things inevitably get too intense for Vivian in secretly keeping Moxie going, she’s there to help her out with some important knowledge. (Poehler in “Mean Girls” was a wannabe “cool mom”–Poehler in “Moxie” actually IS a cool mom.)

All of the young actors are great here. Hadley Robinson is an appealing lead to follow and she has great chemistry with Lauren Tsai as her best friend–it’s heartbreaking when the two inevitably get into an argument about the way things are going because of the zine (which is why it’s heartwarming when they inevitably make up again). Alycia Pascual-Pena turns in a terrific performance as the rebellious Lucy, who leads the Moxie movement forward and won’t take any crap from anybody. (I love her first scene, in which she questions today’s relevance of “The Great Gatsby” in English class–even when Mitchell tries to silence her, she won’t have it.) There’s also a winning performance from Nico Hiraga as a kind skateboard geek named Seth, whom Vivian takes a liking to–the end of their first date is one of the film’s highlights.

Also among the film’s highlights is the clever dialogue brought on by writers Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer (who adapted the screenplay from the YA novel by Jennifer Mathieu) and an empowering ending that would have been cheesy had it not been set up properly by the capable hands of director Poehler.

I think that Netflix Original teen movies are getting much better (the best in recent memory being “The Half Of It”)–following the exceptional “To All the Boys: Always and Forever” a few weeks prior, “Moxie” is further evidence of that. It’s funny, charming, and features some truly awesome teens at its center.

Solos (Amazon Prime Series) (2021)

21 May

By Tanner Smith

The anthology series “Solos,” released via Amazon Prime, features episodes that have one thing in common: the theme of human isolation. Seeing as how most of us spent a great part of 2020 in self-isolation, we could relate. But the question is, how many stories in this seven-episode series can we see ourselves in? How many can we see others in? And more importantly, should we care?

Well, obviously, yes, we should care. Did I care? Well, let’s take a look at each individual episode…

Leah (Episode 1)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Morgan Freeman narrates each episode by setting us up for what we’re about to see. For Episode 1 (“Leah”), he narrates: “If you traveled to the future, could you escape your past?”

“Solos” gets off to a good start with an intriguing, well-written episode called “Leah.” (Side-note: Each episode is named after its central character.) Anne Hathaway stars in a deeply-layered performance as Leah, a brilliant physicist who is obsessed with time travel and works/lives in her mother’s basement (which looks more like a Dave & Busters, if you ask me–I was expecting her to play the slots for tickets on one of the devices with blinking lights). Well, she gets her answer, resulting in some tricky conversations with two versions of herself. The dialogue, written by series creator David Weil, maintains a delicate balance between sparky/funny and heavy/philosophical–and that also goes for the episode’s tone as well, with skillful direction from Zach Braff. But the real reason “Leah” works is because of Anne Hathaway’s performance. In one half-hour-long short film, Hathaway has to play up all the emotions we know she’s capable of from films such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Les Miserables”–not only is she game for it; she gives us even more. Some people will have trouble with the ending, and I can understand if they do–without giving it away, I saw it as inevitable rather than disappointing. So far, so good. Now, to the next one…

Tom (Episode 2)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Freeman’s narration: “Imagine meeting yourself. Who do you see?”

Episode 2, “Tom,” doesn’t waste any time–it jumps right into it…I wish that were praise but it’s more of a criticism here. The problem is I wish they had wasted a little time to ease us into a fascinating development that we’re just supposed to accept even though we don’t know a damn thing about where we’re supposed to be. Here, we see Anthony Mackie as Tom getting angry at…Anthony Mackie as Tom. This “reunion” (as Tom 2.0 calls it, to Tom’s anger) is brought about as a way of Tom to replace himself as he doesn’t have much time left to live. (Apparently, in this future, you can pay 30 grand for another version of yourself.) Tom is angry from the start, thinking Tom 2.0 looks nothing like himself (but really, he’s just being picky), and this leads into a conversation between the two Toms about what Tom paid for and what Tom 2.0 is responsible for. Confused? Well, it makes more sense the way they put it. The idea is fascinating, much of the dialogue is riveting, and Anthony Mackie does as well with a dual performance as Anne Hathaway did in the previous episode–but the story element of having someone else replace you after death doesn’t feel fully developed. The episode is 24 minutes long; I wish writer-director David Weil had taken at least 2-3 more minutes for a little more world-building.

Peg (Episode 3)

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Freeman’s narration: “How far will you travel to find yourself again?”

“Peg,” Episode 3, does jump right into things, but unlike with Episode 2, I can understand fairly quickly (within 3 minutes) where Peg is and how Peg got here. Pretty satisfying so far, thanks to carefully chosen dialogue–that’s going to be the thing I listen for, since each episode takes place in one location with one person (or one person who is multiplied in some fashion) and the viewers need something to latch onto in the beginning. Here, we have Helen Mirren as 71-year-old Peg, who is part of an experiment (seemingly with other senior citizens) that has her hurtling through the farthest reaches of space. She’s been afraid to take chances and now here she is in a spacecraft (and sporting a tight red spacesuit) and communicating with an AI as she considers how she got here and what she might expect in her remaining years wandering the universe. (There. Within the first few minutes, I’m hooked.) Helen Mirren is nothing short of spectacular in this role–if there’s any distinguished British actress who can make a space odyssey seem dignified and beautiful, it’s Helen Mirren. Even before she marvels at the moon upon gazing at its majesty through the craft’s window, I was with her. We get to know this person named Peg and we feel for her when her destination is…well, you probably already know it, but you’ll stay with her to get to it. “Peg,” directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, is melancholy, beautifully written, and marvelously acted–and it’s the best the series has to offer so far. God bless you, Helen Mirren–you will always be The Queen.

Sasha (Episode 4)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Freeman’s narration: “Is the threat outside greater than the one within?”

“Sasha,” Episode 4, is set 20 years after some kind of virus outbreak has kept everyone inside–including Sasha, played by Uzo Aduba. It’s her birthday today–why not venture outside, as Sasha’s AI (yes, another AI in this series) suggests? Sasha, very comfortable on her couch, with a novel in one hand and a wine glass in the other, puts it bluntly: “F*ck. That. S*it.” Whoops, there’s a cough after another gulp of wine, but not to worry, as the AI assures her, she does not have the virus. “Would you like another nose swab?” asks the AI. “NO!” she quickly protests. Barely a minute into “Sasha,” we know where we are. Sasha is content after all this time, with her AI, which calls itself her “companion bot”…or maybe she’s just too used to her daily routines…or maybe she’s in complete and total denial and doesn’t want to venture into the world outside her comfortable home…you know what, I’m just gonna stop explaining the story here. The best thing each of these episodes has to offer is the journey of self-discovery–when one is kept inside one place for an extended period of time, they’re given time to self-reflect. But with Sasha, where does it end? When does contentment become self-hazardous? Is Sasha in danger of wasting her life while she keeps herself inside, not living her life? And what about the people in her life? Truly moving work from Uzo Aduba kept me intrigued and wondering, and so far, this is the most effectively unnerving episode in the series.

Jenny (Episode 5)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Freeman’s narration: “Do you wish you could take back the worst day of your life?”

Oh boy…this one, I’m still processing. I mean…yikes. This is actress Constance Wu’s finest hour (or “finest 22 minutes”), playing a drunken young woman named Jenny, dressed as a winged angel and seemingly stuck in some kind of waiting room and going on a lone tangent. She is telling us about the worst day of her life…and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. The way the ramble goes from funny to dark…you just know she’s had better days in her life. This episode starts off hilarious and ends up being tragic…and I apologize for the constant use of ellipses, but it’s to further the point that this one kind of broke me inside (just a little, anyway). And the ending…I refer you to my first exclamation: “Oh boy…”

Nera (Episode 6)

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Freeman’s narration: “Who decides who belongs in the world?”

You know, after that last episode, I was starting to wonder if “Solos” might be getting a little high on itself in its philosophical questions. But with two episodes left, I’m curious to see if it can keep momentum going. (I haven’t disliked any of the episodes so far–even Episode 2 had something to it that caused me to recommend it.) I pressed play for Episode 6, “Nera,” and started streaming, not expecting much…

This is the best episode in the series. Much as I loved Constance Wu’s descent into madness and even Helen Mirren’s recollection of her life, even those treasures of “Solos” doesn’t match what Nicole Beharie’s poor Nera has to go through. Nera is completely alone in a cabin where a harsh winter storm is keeping everyone inside. She is pregnant…and giving birth TONIGHT! She calls her doctor and can’t get through (she can’t even get through to 911), so she has no choice but to have the baby all by herself–rather quickly too, but…that’s just the beginning of this unusual ordeal. With scary direction by Tiffany Johnson and a riveting script by Stacy Osei-Kuffour, “Nera” works wonderfully as a short film but has great potential to be expanded into a feature film. There’s something sinister about this episode’s story, especially when Nera’s baby is revealed to be more than expected and when mentions of a new fertility treatment (previously used by Nera) are dropped. What results is freakish and terrifying and something I’d love to see more of in the future. (I’m sure neither Johnson nor Osei-Kuffour nor even David Weil will be reading this review, but I implore to them–please make this into a feature film. I will pay to see it.)

And finally, we come to…

Stuart (Episode 7)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Freeman’s narration: “Who are you if you can’t remember who you are?”

We finally see what Morgan Freeman has to do with “Solos” besides vague philosophical questions to lure us into each episode. In Episode 7, “Stuart,” Freeman plays Stuart, an old man suffering dementia. And he’s not alone in this episode–no, it’s not an AI he gets to interact with but a young man named Otto (Dan Stevens). Otto is reminded that “solos” aren’t allowed visitors (oh, NOW I get it…I think), but he becomes an exception when he travels a long way to visit Stuart. (Stuart is apparently living his last days in this futuristic treatment center that I can deduce is responsible for the plights of characters in the previous episodes–that is not the only connection the others, I assure you.) Otto has come to give Stuart “memory implants” that seem to made everything come back to Stuart. Stuart remembers everything with ease…but he doesn’t remember Otto. Who is Otto? And where is this going? I’ll leave that for you to discover.

A very solid finish to an exceptionally strange and intriguing series.

“Solos” is available on Amazon Prime.

Surfacing (Short Film) (2009)

18 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Hannah, the main character of the short film “Surfacing,” is an athletic college swimmer with temporal lobe epilepsy. In the film’s opening scene, she’s preparing to compete in a latest swim meet when she knows a seizure is coming. She knows she still has some time before it happens, and she’s nervous yet familiar with these feelings at the same time. She swims the laps to get it over with…and then has the seizure almost immediately after she’s out of the water. The next scene shows a new side of Hannah–happier, livelier, more energetic, ready to go out partying for a night on the town with her friends. One of her friends, who I’m assuming hasn’t known Hannah very long, questions this behavior, to which one friend answers: “She’s always like this after a seizure.” In comes another friend, who actually wrote a paper based on Hannah’s condition, to explain (to the friend and to those viewing the film) that it’s a condition known as “Geschwind syndrome.”

I’m kind of ashamed to admit that I had to look up “Geschwind syndrome” for confirmation. I shouldn’t have done that, for two reasons. 1) That kind of confession can mean I didn’t put any faith in the filmmakers behind “Surfacing” having done their homework before making a film about the subject in question. And 2) Even if it wasn’t real (which now I know it is), the film should still make me believe (which it did).

“Surfacing,” which runs at about 30 minutes and was written and directed by Bruce Hutchinson (whose 2014 short drama Sidearoadia I greatly admired), shows Hannah at a dilemma with this condition. She can keep swimming, possibly risking brain damage if she has another seizure too late during another meet, or she can get her illness treated. Her seizure aftereffects are what make her feel truly alive, so she has to decide whether or not she wants to be rid of them for that very reason. But on the other hand, her coach (Pammi Fabert), her sister (FE Mosby), and her best friend (Jennifer Richman) all grow more concerned about her as the seizures seem to be more frequent lately.

Hannah is played with a truly marvelous performance by Kristy Barrington (who, since this short, has gone on to a memorable side role in Mud). It’s a deeply layered portrayal of a suffering yet free-spirited young individual who lives in the now and must consider the future, if not for herself then for her loved ones. The quiet moment in which she feels the entire weight of her world crashing down on her, which comes at around the 25-minute mark, is so moving and convincing and beautifully done. (I’ll even go as far as to say it rivals the best moments of “Sidearoadia,” which Hutchinson made five years after “Surfacing.”)

The skillful direction from writer-director Hutchinson and casually observant cinematography from Chris Churchill help keep “Surfacing” on a grounded level. But Kristy Barrington is this film. She exhibits great screen presence here and makes an already-interesting character even more fascinating.

“Surfacing” can be seen here. I recommend you give it a watch.

Spree (2020) – Rent-A-Pal (2020)

1 Mar
Joe Keery, “Spree”

Smith’s Verdicts:

Spree: ***

Rent-A-Pal: ***1/2

This past week, I caught up with three 2020 horror films. One was Freaky. The other two: “Spree” and “Rent-A-Pal.”

One film involves one of our favorite “Strange Things” actors as a cyber-serial-killer, and the other involves Wil Wheaton as one of the scariest villains of the past year. (Didn’t think that second one could happen, but here we are.)

“Spree” is an uneven but intriguing cyber-thriller told from the perspectives of different livestreams, one of which is hosted by a pathetic loner named Kurt (played by Joe Keery). Kurt is obsessed to the point of making it big as a large social-media presence with thousands of followers–he’s tried everything by this point to bring in the views and nothing seems to work for him (even when he tries interfering with the streams of his frenemy Bobby (Josh Ovalle), who’s a mega influencer). But now he has the answer to get everyone’s attention…

As a driver for a rideshare app called Spree, Kurt documents himself picking up passengers…and instead of dropping them off to their destinations, he murders them! At first, no one watching (the numbers aren’t even in the double digits) thinks it’s real; they think it’s an act, causing Kurt to get more extreme with his victims. And of course, all Kurt cares about is gaining more and more followers/viewers, so he does everything he can to up his game (and the body count).

The social commentary is obvious and the film sags in the middle act particularly, but director/co-writer Eugene Kotlyarenko uses dark humor and a darkly brilliant leading performance from Joe Keery to keep things interesting. “Spree” has enough clever tricks up its sleeve to keep cyber-savvy viewers invested.

Wil Wheaton in “Rent-A-Pal”–can this “friend” be trusted?

Now…as for “Rent-A-Pal,” I didn’t know anything before streaming it on Hulu recently, aside from Wil Wheaton is in it and some critics have praised it as one of the best thrillers of 2020.

I didn’t realize I was getting into this deeply disturbing, brilliantly crafted, and truly twisted character study of a lonely 40-year-old named David (played very well by Brian Landis Folkins) who…well, I’ll keep it spoiler free, but I’ll just talk about the story’s setup.

The film is set in 1990. David, a bachelor who cares for his Alzheimers-stricken mother, uses a video dating service to try and find a romantic partner, but to no avail. He then buys another videotape called “Rent-A-Pal,” in which its host, a seemingly nice, charismatic guy named Andy (Wil Wheaton), sits in the middle of the frame, talks directly to the viewer, and leaves in pauses to simulate a conversation. It doesn’t do much for David at first, but the lonelier he gets, he more into the tape he becomes. He’s soon able to partake in conversations with Andy, which leads to Andy being his confidant and his best friend.

And…that’s all I’m going to describe for you. The idea of this sad, lonely, depressed man taking comfort in a friendship through someone in a TV screen is interesting enough…but where it goes from there is riveting. I don’t even know who’s creepier here–David, for having this seemingly one-sided relationship with a videotape he watches repeatedly, or Andy, whose friendly demeanor and prerecorded phrases seem to have alternative meanings. I’m going to have to go with Andy as the scarier choice, mostly because we don’t know anything about the person who made the video in the first place, and that itself gets unnerving, the more I think about everything I saw in the film before. (Something else I like about “Rent-A-Pal”–there are no easy answers at work here.)

Both “Spree” and “Rent-A-Pal” feature unbalanced main characters seeking purpose and companionship, whether personal or virtual…but of course, they’re both horror movies, so you can expect some nasty business. Both films work as parables of such a concept, and I recommend them both (particularly “Rent-A-Pal”) for giving us unique, original ways of putting us in the heads of each of those disturbing individuals.

Happiest Season (2020)

28 Feb

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s a sappy, sugary holiday romcom exclusively on Hulu called “Happiest Season”…and I guess I have a soft spot for certain B-movies of this sweet, innocent sort because this one definitely worked for me.

Or maybe I just love the actors. Whatever the case, “Happiest Season” is a seasonal treat.

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis play Abby and Harper, a lesbian couple happily in love–so much so that Abby decides it’s time to pop the question after getting Harper’s father’s blessing first…but there’s a problem with that: Harper is still in the closet. It’s not until they’re en route to a holiday get-together with Harper’s conservative family that Harper drops the bomb to Abby that she never came out to her parents.

Annnnnnnd the mother (Mary Steenburgen) is this super uptight, extremely passive-aggressive type, and also the father (Victor Garber) is running for mayor, and ALSO Harper told everyone that Abby is her roommate (and an “orphan,” which practically translates to everyone as “alien from another planet”–I’m not joking; they keep referring to Abby as an orphan constantly).

So…hijinks ensue!

“Happiest Season” is as formulaic as you can get–I have to wonder if director/co-writer Clea DuVall (who I know has made it big as a character actor but I’m always going to remember her as Stokely in “The Faculty”) is a big fan of Hallmark Christmas movies. There’s a lot of misunderstanding. There’s a lot of coverups. There’s even a stereotypical helpful-gay-best-friend-with-no-life-of-his-own character (played by Daniel Levy). (I guess in order for this film to give us these two realistic LGBT characters for this formula, plus a dignified supporting role played by Aubrey Plaza, they had to give us one stereotype.) And then of course, there’s the big emotional resolution in which everyone’s secrets are revealed for better or worse.

I think you can guess the ending. You can guess so much of this movie. But I don’t care–because it works. It’s just a likable, pleasant comedy for my Christmas stocking and I recommend it because the actors are giving it their all (especially Steenburgen, who’s a riot as the mother), a lot of it made me laugh, and I did feel something for both Abby and Harper when things inevitably get tougher for them.

There are going to be 40something Hallmark holiday movies every year–not to be too judgmental of the subgenre (because I liked this one so much), but I recommend you use this as the standard.

“Happiest Season” is available exclusively on Hulu.

Run (2020)

28 Feb

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

From the guys who previously made the brilliant cyberthriller Searching (director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian), “Run” is about a wheelchair-bound teenage girl named Chloe (Kiera Allen) who has been homeschooled and sheltered by her overprotective mother (Sarah Paulson). After discovering a suspicious new pill as part of her medication, Chloe starts to suspect that there’s something her mother isn’t telling her…

“Run” is a slow burn with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing as the paralyzed but super-smart Chloe is forced to use her wits to go behind her mother’s back in order to get clarification as to what’s going on. It helps that both key roles here are portrayed wonderfully. Sarah Paulson, one of the best character actors working today, deserves credit for playing a motherly figure we’re not quite sure about. And Kiera Allen (who actually uses a wheelchair in real life) is excellent as Chloe–it’s a role that’s physically demanding to say the least, and she’s both up to the challenge and wonderful to watch at the same time.

When the answers are revealed late in the film, it’s disappointing because I saw the twist coming miles away. It’s important for a psychological thriller to always be ahead of their audience, and I was hoping that the guys behind “Searching,” which had me guessing all throughout, would give me something I didn’t expect. However, I still recommend “Run” for its two leading performances, its effective simplicity in telling the story, and Chaganty’s ability to keep me invested even after the inevitable reveal.

“Run” is available exclusively on Hulu, and I give it 3 stars out of 4. (Maybe my rating will change after a second viewing. There’s too much good in this film for me to complain about the twist being predictable.)

Love, Victor: Season 1 (Hulu Series) (2020)

11 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Love, Victor” is a series available exclusively on Hulu. (I usually don’t review series, but whatever–here I go…)

This is a sequel/spin-off to the hit teen film “Love, Simon.” When I first saw “Love, Simon,” I liked it fine. But after seeing it again (and a few more times since then), I celebrate it for the game-changing and beautiful gem that it is–it’s a wonderful film.

For those who don’t know, “Love, Simon” was about a closeted gay high-school kid (named Simon) who searched for his soulmate while finding the courage to tell his family and friends his secret. I did mention in my original review that Simon had it easier than most gay teens who have a tougher time with coming out of the closet than he did, especially since he had understanding, sympathetic family & friends and even the support of the entire school. Though, when you think about it, John Hughes movies weren’t any grittier.

(2018, the year “Love, Simon” was released, did give us two grittier films about the subject: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and “Boy Erased,” the latter of which ended up on my year-end list.)

Anyway, now we have the 10-episode series “Love, Victor,” about a Latino teen (named Victor) who goes to the same high school as Simon did. Simon and his boyfriend Bram are now in college in NYC, but the high school in Atlanta is still looking back on the events of “Love, Simon,” finding inspiration in Simon’s act of courage. Well, Victor (played by Michael Cimino) isn’t so inspired–in fact, he even emails to Simon, “Screw you for having the world’s most perfect, accepting parents, the world’s most supportive friends. Because for some of us, it’s not that easy.”

He’s right.

Victor is either unsure about his sexuality or just doesn’t want to admit it to himself, but he feels that if he comes out about it, it will hit his religious parents hard. And the parents (and his sister Pilar) are going through enough right now, especially after the move from Texas. He tries to put his focus on other people, including his new high-school friends such as his annoying geeky buddy Felix (Anthony Turpel), the popular rich girl Mia (Rachel Hilson) who connects with Victor, and the handsome (and gay) Benji (George Sear), whom Victor has a crush on, thus complicating things with Mia, who doesn’t know that Victor is struggling with his sexual orientation.

Victor can only trust Simon as they correspond through email back and forth. (And yes, Simon, played by Nick Robinson who was also a producer for this series, does narrate numerous parts of all 10 episodes as well as make a brief but important appearance in one of the later episodes.) Simon knows that Victor’s deal isn’t the same as his own, but he still finds ways to help inspire him to keep moving forward.

Victor is a likable lead and is played very well by Cimino, but I was surprised (more than I should have been, considering it’s a 10-episode series) to find room for development amongst the other characters. Felix has his own fling with a popular girl who would rather have their relationship kept secret. Benji has a boyfriend but still harbors some feelings for Victor, which results in an awkward encounter when he invites him on a road trip later. We find out more about the parents and why they uprooted the whole family to start a new life. Victor’s sister Pilar (Isabella Fierra) slowly but surely finds ways to help other people besides herself.

And then there’s Mia, who I think is the most interesting character in the series. Played wonderfully by Rachel Hilson, Mia has to go through A LOT. First of all, her father brings home a new woman and is thinking seriously about a future with her–Mia still isn’t over her mother abandoning them. Secondly, she is in love with Victor and they do start a romance, but she doesn’t understand why Victor’s interests in her seem to turn on and off at random. That’s the most moving part of the whole series to me–when you love someone who knows they can’t love you back in the same way, isn’t that sad? And Victor, who does care for Mia, wants to tell her the truth but doesn’t want to hurt her any further than she’s already been hurt…but that just hurts her more, sadly.

All 10 episodes are solid and wonderfully written, with one character development as interesting as the next. If I had to pick my least favorite one, it’d probably be episode 8, in which many of our side characters are brought together for a little “Breakfast Club” homage (right down to one of them thrusting his arm into the air)–that felt a little forced to me.

“Love, Victor” will most likely have a second season (or at least, that’s the hope for the creators–the series ends on a cliffhanger). I’ll definitely be interested in seeing what happens with Victor, his family, Mia, Benji, Felix, and others in the future. It’s a solid series.

Words on Bathroom Walls (2020)

2 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Charlie Plummer is one of my favorite young actors working today. He has a certain innocence and world-weariness to himself that comes through in each role he plays, and it’s always interesting to see him work because of that. In 2018, he delivered an excellent performance as my favorite character of the year: Charley in Lean On Pete. In 2019, he was the lead in the Hulu dramatic limited series “Looking for Alaska” (based on the John Green novel). And just a couple of months ago, in October 2020, he gave another truly impressive performance in Spontaneous. Now, here in “Words on Bathroom Walls,” he plays probably his most challenging role to date. He’s up to the challenge.

In the film, based on the award-winning novel by Julia Walton, Plummer plays Adam Petrazelli, a nice teenage boy with a potential future in culinary arts…who is also diagnosed with schizophrenia. He hallucinates terrifying situations in which rooms are filled with blackness and/or a flaming inferno, has imaginary friends including a heavyset bodyguard ready to pounce on anyone who comes near him, and is often derided by a tormenting disembodied bass-tone voice that always seems to be with him. Adam’s inner demons become all too real to him, which leads to consequences in trying to escape them–one of which results in his school friend getting severely burned in chemistry class and Adam getting expelled for his own good.

“Words on Bathroom Walls” is a mainstream-friendly teen movie similar to John Hughes’ movies, Love, Simon, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in that while it plays it safe with a serious issue, it still does a service to it while also being a charming, likable, entertaining film with appealing characters and a worthy message.

That being said, I’m not sure that Adam’s invisible friends (which include a hippie girl, the aforementioned bodyguard, and a horny-best-friend type) who come and go in Adam’s life are necessarily an accurate representation of what it means to live with schizophrenia (they mostly serve as comic relief)–but they’re not overly exaggerated that they lose the respect the movie deserves, in my opinion. (I could be very wrong here–but they didn’t bother me that much.)

Anyway, Adam goes through a medical trial to treat his illness and isn’t allowed to cook anymore (not with big knives at least). His caring mother (Molly Parker) and her new boyfriend (Walton Goggins), whom Adam isn’t so sure about, get him enrolled in a Catholic school, headed by Sister Catherine (Beth Grant), who wants no mention of his condition whatsoever. Adam is here to get good grades, take his medications, and graduate–that’s what Sister Catherine wants to hear and that’s also what Adam wants to believe. But he’s very uncertain about his own future, further evidenced by witnessing a mentally ill homeless man–he wonders if that’s what’s going to happen to him. (Adam even wonders at one point why everyone cares so much about cancer and yet don’t want to acknowledge schizophrenia. There are moments of thought-provoking truth here.)

The light at the end of this long tunnel comes in the form of Maya (Taylor Russell), class valedictorian with secrets of her own. He takes a liking to her and gets her to tutor him in math, and from there sparks a touching romance that also includes a date at an outdoor-screening of “Never Been Kissed” (THAT old classic).

Another helpful supporting character on Adam’s road to safety is the kindly Father Patrick (Andy Garcia). Adam confesses he doesn’t believe in God–Father Patrick assures him that he’ll listen anyway.

I should also mention the actors playing the imaginary friends: AnnaSophia Robb plays the flighty hippie chick; Lobo Sebastian is the bodyguard; and Devon Bostick is Joaquin, the kind of smarmy best friend you’d find in teen movies. They do what they need to do, and they’re good company, despite playing caricatures (which I think is the point anyway).

What is the message of “Words on Bathroom Walls?” Basically, it’s that everyone deserves to be recognized, which we see in many teen movies. But it’s also something more than that here–Adam wants more than just to be loved; he wants to be independent and do what he loves. And it works very well here. The moment Adam shows Maya what his true passion is (which is to cook and to go to culinary school), I knew I was in, especially when his hands started to shake. I was surprised by how wrapped up I was in his struggle.

Plummer carries this movie like a champ; it’s another top-notch performance to add to his resume. I remember seeing his first film King Jack at the final Little Rock Film Festival back in May 2015–he appeared for a Q&A with director Felix Thompson. I remember thinking this kid was going to go places. How right I was.

Echo Boomers (2020)

1 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Echo Boomers,” the feature debut from director Seth Savoy (whose work in short films I’ve admired in the past). is about a group of millennial activists who break into wealthy residences, steal valuables, trash the place, and get paid for what they consider a hard day’s work.

Did I say “trash the place?” I meant they f***ing DESTROY each house they break into.

Their general political message is to make middle-aged rich people suffer while their generation is struggling to make ends meet–and as a result of delivering/selling their stolen items to Mel (Michael Shannon), who runs a legit business while also providing the youths with the addresses to rob, they live carelessly. Of course, the irony of making money while partaking in heavy criminal activity (their own “Millennial Mob,” if you will) is that they’re self-entitled a**holes who spend everything on heavily expensive items such as clothing and cocaine, because what the hell, they’re gonna get more of it anyway.

Robin Hoods, they are not…necessarily.

A common criticism I’ve seen against this film is that it “takes itself too seriously,” and indeed, I was about ready to agree, especially when Michael Shannon’s Mel takes this operation just as seriously as the young people when (in my opinion) a toned-down authority-figure type would have been more effective. But the reason I appreciate this film more than other crime movies involving young adults, like “The Bling Ring” and “American Animals,” is because while those movies included youths who committed crimes due to apathetic boredom, these characters feel more of a purpose. Whether you agree with their statement or not (and like I said, it can be difficult to root for them), it’s more interesting to follow them. Because of that, I do admire how seriously the material is taken.

The film’s frantic kinetic energetic style keeps the audience on-edge as we see just how much joy these kids get out of what they do and especially when things start to go wrong, which they inevitably do. It’s the familiar message about how gaining more makes you want even more of it and so forth (that’s just how it goes).

The young actors, who include Patrick Schwarzenegger as the lead, Alex Pettyfer, Hayley Law (great in Spontaneous), Gilles Geary, Oliver Cooper (welcome back, Costa), and Jacob Alexander, all turn in good performances. And as much as I criticized the character portrayed by Michael Shannon…c’mon; it’s Michael Shannon. The guy could play a mobster in “Kangaroo Jack” and he’d still be incredible to watch.

There’s just such a heart and energy to “Echo Boomers” that I have to congratulate Seth and his co-writers Jason Miller and Kevin Bernhardt for. And I look forward to seeing what they do next.