Haunt (2019)

16 Apr

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fallout (2022)

27 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

X (2022)

27 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark, Mary & Some Other People (2022)

27 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 Days (2022)

27 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“7 Days” is the latest from Duplass Brothers Productions (executive produced by Mark & Jay Duplass, two of my favorite people in the indie-film world) and it recently won the Indie Spirit award for Best First Feature. So, what did I think of it?

“7 Days” is one of my favorite films of the year and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

It seems enough time has passed to accept more films centered around the Covid-19 pandemic. Next week, we’re going to get a pandemic-based comedy from the big-timers (Judd Apatow’s “The Bubble,” coming to Netflix)–this week, we get the more grounded “7 Days,” which takes mostly in one rural house during the first week of quarantine and is centered on two characters who are stuck together, don’t get along much, and then…well, you probably know the drill–but just because it’s predictable doesn’t mean it’s not fun or well-executed or moving.

But “7 Days” is indeed fun and well-executed and moving, for two obvious reasons: the acting and the writing.

Karan Soni, a likable presence in “Safety Not Guaranteed” (another Duplass Brothers production) and the “Deadpool” movies, plays Ravi, and Geraldine Viswanathan (the young reporter from HBO’s “Bad Education”) plays Rita. Ravi and Rita are two Indian-American young adults set up on a prearranged date by their traditional parents. It doesn’t go very well–he’s too forward and awkward (probably as a result of being too forward) and they don’t really click–even before Rita’s true self is revealed to Ravi shortly after their picnic date, Ravi is convinced she is not his “wife.”

Oh, did I mention it’s March 2020?

During their awkward date is when they get alerts from all over declaring everything closed and demanding everyone take shelter. Ravi has no car and the car-rental service isn’t reliable, so Rita lets Ravi stay in her home for a little while. This is when Ravi notices some things that Rita didn’t list on her dating-site profile: she’s anti-traditional, she eats meat, and she drinks, all of which turns Ravi off entirely. (Oh, and her house is too messy for high-strung Ravi’s liking–at one point the next day, he practically begs to clean.) Rita also has a secret of her own (only a bit of which Ravi overhears early on, in a hilarious moment) and she’s a bit impulsive (and she also does something to Ravi that no one should EVER do; even tight-assed people have boundaries, for goodness sake). Oh, and Ravi is still going on prearranged online dates (one of which is right in front of Rita who insists on texting him advice).

It’s a classic will-they-won’t-they scenario, as the trapped-together Ravi and Rita talk more, get to know each other, let down their defenses, trust one another, learn to relate with each other, and maybe…well…just maybe.

Both Soni and Viswanathan portray convincing, well-defined characters, are fun to watch, and more importantly for the material, are great together. Soni also co-wrote the script with director Roshan Sethi, and it’s a neat blend of screwball comedy and realistic drama.

I liked “7 Days” a lot–it’s very funny and sweet. It’s in limited theaters now, so see if it’s playing anywhere near you.

Almost, Sorta, Maybe

27 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Favorite Movies – Before Sunset (2004)

14 Mar

By Tanner Smith

“Before Sunset” was a sequel that hardly anyone asked for, but Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy were going to make it anyway! (God bless those three.)

Taking place nine years after Before Sunrise, Jesse (Hawke) is on a book tour, promoting his novel which is an account of the one night he spent with Celine (Delpy). His last stop is a bookstore in Paris, and guess who’s there!

Yep–Jesse and Celine finally meet again after nine years. And Jesse only has about an hour before his plane leaves, so that gives them another reason to walk and talk. They catch up, talk some more about life and how things are different now that they’re older, and still feel that same connection they felt nine years before. Is this a second chance?

That’s really all there is to it. The conversation Jesse and Celine started in the mid-1990s picks back up again in the mid-2000s–except this conversation takes place in real time. A lot has changed, some things haven’t changed, and of course it’s always great to listen to these two people talk. (We also see a lot of Paris, France as these two walk-and-talk through it–the cinematography from Lee Daniel is remarkable here.)

I love when films bring back the same characters to actually continue their story instead of remind us constantly that we should be watching the original movie they’re best known for. What’s the same with Jesse and Celine? What’s different about them? What’s to talk about here? Well…there’s a lot. And it all feels real and natural; and it’s beautifully written and acted by Hawke & Delpy.

The ending of “Before Sunset” is PERFECT. Honestly, it’s one of my absolute favorite endings, without a doubt. And it makes the movie for me.

Now, I have a confession to make–I caught “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” a little late, in 2012. BUT it turned out to be the right timing to prepare myself for Before Midnight, which opened in June 2013. Each film takes place nine years after the other and I was very curious and excited to see Jesse and Celine again after “Before Sunset.” The result…well, it’s my favorite film of the 2010s, if that answers your question.

The “Before trilogy,” as it’s called, is a wonderful, delightful, moving, insightful experience of time and humanity. It will always have a very special place in my heart.

My Favorite Movies – Before Sunrise (1995)

14 Mar

By Tanner Smith

Here’s one from my personal top 5: Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” which is hands-down my favorite romance film.

“Before Sunrise” is a film about two people in their early 20s–an American man named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy). They meet by chance on a train, start up a conversation, and form a nice connection–one that sadly has to end because Jesse has to get off in Vienna to catch a plane back home. But, in one of the best pickup scenes in movie history, Jesse convinces Celine to get off the train with him so they can spend the night talking some more:

“Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them, right? Well, I’m one of those guys. That’s me, so think of this as time travel, from then, to now, to find out what you’re missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband to find out that you’re not missing out on anything. I’m just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and you made the right choice, and you’re really happy.”

And it works! She gets off the train with him, and they spend the whole night just walking and talking, about numerous topics like philosophy, religion, love…all while they’re falling a little bit in love, which makes it all the more tragic that this might be the first and last time they spend together.
And, well…there are two sequels, so it’s safe to say they do see each other again (although it’s way down the road).

A lot of “Before Sunrise” is driven by dialogue, and what dialogue it is! I mentioned in my post about The End of the Tour that if you have the right actors playing the right characters saying the right dialogue, it can be some of the most powerful films I could ever pay attention to. That’s exactly the case here (and with the other two movies, “Before Sunset” and Before Midnight). Director Richard Linklater and his co-writer Kim Krizan wrote the initial script, but Hawke and Delpy actually rewrote a lot of it themselves, though they weren’t credited. (They did share credit with Linklater, however, in co-writing the sequels together.) That should tell you how much Hawke and Delpy care about their own characters and what they’re saying.

But what is “Before Sunrise” truly about? What do we learn about Jesse and Celine (and about ourselves as an audience) as we listen to them talk throughout the night? Well, through what we learn about the two (such as Jesse getting over a harsh breakup shortly before this fateful night), we could take away the theme of Jesse’s self-discovery through someone else. And perhaps Celine feels the same being around him. And maybe the two feel a strong connection in each other–maybe not a sense of “love” necessarily but more a sense of “fulfillment,” which leaves open room for a relationship (which makes the other two films all the more intriguing).

My favorite scene: this is one of my top five favorite movies, so it’s hard to pick just one to talk about. I love the pickup scene, I love the scene in which they imagine what they’ll each their friends about each other, I LOVE the ambiguous ending in which they go their separate ways and keep thinking about each other! But I guess if I have to pick one…there’s a scene in which Jesse and Celine are in a listening booth at a record store, and they listen to a song while trying to avoid eye contact. The body language from both Hawke and Delpy in that scene is nothing short of brilliant.

I love this movie. It’s a beautiful piece of art and I never get tired of listening to these two people talk about whatever they want. And I also love “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.”

I don’t have a lot of new material to add to “Before Midnight,” so you can reread my decade-end retrospective here (I called it my favorite film of the 2010s and I still stand by it). But “Before Sunset”…I’ll get to that one real soon.

Mass (2021)

12 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Mass” was an indie film I missed in theaters last fall, and I finally got to watch it recently. What did I think of it?

This would have made my top-10-of-2021 list for sure. “Mass” is a treasure of a film–one that’s probably going to stay with me for a great amount of time.

“Mass” is the screenwriting-directing debut of actor Fran Kranz (best known for roles in movies like “The Cabin in the Woods,” “The Village,” and Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing”), and it’s mostly set inside one room in the basement of an Episcopalian church in which two couples meet and discuss something important and devastating. (I mention this because I was surprised this wasn’t originally a play; it has the makings of a great one–but no, Kranz decided to create a dialogue-driven story in which both the dialogue and screen acting take over the scenario. Props to him for making this move.)

One couple is played by Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton; the other, by Reed Birney and Ann Dowd. These four veteran character actors are amazing together. Also very good is Breeda Wool (an actress I loved in the Stephen King adaptation series “Mr. Mercedes”), who plays a nervous, friendly, and very apologetic church worker who wants to make sure everything is ready for this meeting in a prologue that eases us in with a little bit of lightheartedness before things get…well, I won’t spoil it (though, I’m sure you can figure out soon enough what the four people are discussing).

Basically, what this meeting is about is to let a lot of emotional damage and weight be eased by saying the things that weren’t said before. Some of the rhetoric involved in the situation is brought up, but the film doesn’t pretend to know everything because it’s obvious the characters don’t know everything (which also adds to their turmoil). All they can do is talk and hope that they reach some kind of an understanding about how and why what happened happened. (I like how it eases into the heavier topics as well. No one just comes right out and verbally blames someone for the incident.)

With Kranz’s screenplay combined with brilliant performances from four brilliant actors, “Mass” is a film I can’t recommend enough. And I won’t lie…this would have been really close to #1 on my year-end list, had I seen it in 2021.

My Favorite Movies – Humpday (2009)

11 Mar

By Tanner Smith

I wrote about Laggies yesterday; I might as well write about the late, great Lynn Shelton’s most infamous film today.

“Humpday” was indie filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s third film and it immediately got more people’s attentions in 2009. The reason for that? The concept alone was very funny–two long-time best buddies who are getting too old for the drunken one-ups-manship decide they’re going to partake in an amateur porno film in which they have sex together…but the problem is they’re not gay and the idea kinda makes them nervous. This came out the same year as mainstream comedies about male bonding like “The Hangover” and “I Love You, Man”–“Humpday” takes that male bonding and asks…what are the limits? (Or, in other words, what does “I love you, man” even mean, when you think about it?)

Maybe today it’d be no big deal to make a film like this and it’d probably be lost in the shuffle of films tackling something like sexual identity–but this is 2009 we’re talking about here, so it was good for this film to gain popularity when it did. (Plus “Humpday” is really freaking good.)

And it was good for writer-director Lynn Shelton, who made this film for less than 20 grand on a mostly improvised script, to gain recognition for it as well. Looking at the behind-the-scenes documentary on the film’s DVD, it’s very clear everyone on set loved Lynn Shelton, who clearly had a vision to project. If not for this film’s success, I’m sure she would’ve still made films, but “Humpday” was the seed that grew an even more distinguished film/TV career.

“Humpday” also stars two indie filmmaker-actors who got their start in the same mumblecore film world as Shelton: Mark Duplass (whose Duplass Brothers productions are other favorites of mine–“The Puffy Chair,” Baghead, Cyrus, Safety Not Guaranteed, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”) and Joshua Leonard (indie filmmaker and also an in-demand character actor long since his role in “The Blair Witch Project”). They play Ben (Duplass), a happily married man with a loving wife named Anna (Alycia Delmore), and Andrew (Leonard), Ben’s shaggy free-spirit college buddy whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years before he shows up at Ben & Anna’s house out of the blue. Anna likes this guy; he seems harmless. And Ben suddenly feels the freedom he had as his college friend that’s sort of limited now that he’s in a committed relationship with Anna. Ben joins Andrew at a party (and unfortunately leaves Anna, who was cooking her famous porkchops for him, hanging at home for the night), where a bunch of young, wild, and free swingers (including Lynn Shelton herself) hang out, get high, and pretty much do whatever they want. (Mind you, these people aren’t very young themselves.)

And this is where Ben and Andrew get into a dare contest where they dare each other to make a gay pornographic film in which two straight guys (themselves) partake in anal sex. They’re going to submit their “art project” to the HUMP! film festival, a showcase for homemade erotica. It’s beyond daring, the idea of two (straight) guys having sex together, so they decide they’re gonna go for it…or are they?

Well, maybe they will. The next day, after sobering up, they think maybe this is a good idea–or, at least, they’re not willing to back down from this challenge. So they get a hotel room and…oh wait, first Ben has to tell his wife what he and his old friend will be doing. How she handles the situation once it’s revealed is one of the film’s highlights–Anna isn’t your one-dimensional conventional movie-wife type; she’s more reasonable (and complex) than that.

What helps this admittedly sitcom-like scenario feel so real is the improvised, unfurnished feel of it all. I’m usually not for entirely-improvised dramedies. (But why shouldn’t I be? They’re only annoying if the editors don’t cut out the overly-excessive improvisations.) But Duplass & Leonard’s chemistry is very natural, the interactions they share with other characters feel real, and it makes the final act, in which Ben & Andrew get to the room to make the “art project,” feel natural and real as a result. (The editing works as well–a scene thankfully doesn’t goes on too awkwardly long and it doesn’t feel unfocused.)

“Humpday” is also very perceptive. Shelton addresses, with “Humpday,” the contradictions of the modern everyman–for example, while they may not be homophobic in theory, that doesn’t mean they don’t feel uncomfortable about the idea of having sex with the same gender. When Ben ponders that, he thinks about what it means to have an identity and to have a motivation. It makes the resolution all the more interesting, and…well, I won’t go into it here, but a film critic looked back at the film not long ago and felt it “chickened out” at the end–I find that to be an over-simplification of what Shelton was going for here.

“Humpday” is a funny movie, but it’s also smart and insightful. “Laggies” may be my “favorite” of Lynn Shelton’s movies, but I have no problem with calling “Humpday” her best movie. And the Indie Spirits (yes, they come to the rescue yet again for the movies too important for Oscar to care about) seemed to agree–they gave Shelton and “Humpday” the coveted John Cassavetes Award (the award given to the best creative effort made for less than $500,000). Kudos!

Oh, wait a minute, there’s a French-language remake of this film? That sounds unusual (usually, we’re the ones remaking French films). This one is called “Do Not Disturb.” I haven’t seen it, but Lynn Shelton apparently did, based on this interview with Indiewire in 2019–“One of the most interesting kind of gender studies lab experiments I’ve ever experienced was watching, side by side, my version and the French version of ‘Humpday,’” Shelton said. “It is f**king fascinating.” This version was apparently very scripted whereas Shelton’s was mostly improvised; it was made with more money than Shelton could get her hands on at the time; it had French stars such as Charlotte Gainsbourg in it; and it was directed by a man, whereas part of the appeal of Shelton’s version was she was a woman putting twists on the male-buddy-comedy conventions…that’s not to say a male director can’t do that, obviously, but read the rest of the Indiewire interview and you can guess what the problem was with the French remake.

Maybe I’ll check out this “Do Not Disturb” film at some point. But first, I’ll watch “Humpday” a couple more times in the near future–maybe I’ll even turn it on after publishing this post.