Pearl (2022)

3 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I wasn’t even that frightened of Mia Goth as Pearl in X because she was a frail old woman (who killed people)–and honestly, if I didn’t know that was her underneath all that old-person makeup in “X,” I would never have guessed. But here in this origin story, called “Pearl,” in which we see Mia Goth as a younger version of Pearl…yikes is she scary! I don’t think I’m ever gonna look at her smile the same way again (especially after that last shot…I’m gonna have nightmares about this film’s last shot!!).

It’s a performance that is determined to give a casual moviegoer chills and even the biggest fan of “X” shivers–and Mia Goth is giving it her all; I see her winning numerous awards for this complicated, multilayered role that she must’ve had a ton of fun playing at the same time.

I’m not kidding–Pearl is the most memorable and frightening horror-film psychopath since Najarra Townsend’s Claire from last year’s The Stylist.

Set in 1918 on the same secluded Texas farm from “X,” Pearl is a lonely young woman who is sick of being kept on the farm with an overbearing mother (Tandi Wright) and disabled father (Matthew Sunderland). Instead, she escapes into the movies and takes bicycle trips to the local cinema in town where she is enamored by the idea of being a dancer for the big movie screen.

Before you can call her Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” however, it’s very clear early on that there’s already something wrong with Pearl, who kills small animals and feeds them to a nearby alligator in a swamp just for amusement.

Oh, and what she does with a local scarecrow…let’s just say Dorothy would NEVER do that.

Pearl is resentful of what little she has, especially since her husband Howard has gone off to fight in WWI. She feels that she deserves better and her stern mother will see to it that she makes the most of what she has. Well, THIS isn’t going to end well, is it.

I can now see why the older Pearl in “X” felt the adult-film star Maxine (Mia Goth again) reminded her of herself at a younger age, as the film “Pearl” feels like an alternate-universe look at what might have happened to Maxine under different circumstances. It makes me even more curious to see the new film in this series, called “Maxxxine.”

“Pearl” is a character study about a budding serial killer–even if you hadn’t seen “X” and wouldn’t know where it went, you still expect this unstable, tortured, young farm girl to inevitably snap and it still doesn’t disappoint for the same reasons certain films of this sort are remembered for years/decades to come. It has its own unique style and structure to it.

That leads to another element to praise about the film: Ti West’s work as a director. It would have been so easy to make this film in the same vein as “X,” with the same story/execution–however, not only is “Pearl” its own film (with the same locations from “X” and other neat little Easter eggs) but the style is different too. While “X” looked and felt more like a ’70s slasher film with unique newer touches, “Pearl” feels like an old-fashioned Technicolor family film of an early age. (We also get fantasy dream sequences that aren’t unlike any you’d see in a Hollywood musical. I half-expected Pearl to break out into song.) Both “Pearl” and “X” display Ti West’s versatility as a director.

“Pearl” also kind of reminded me of a 2000s thriller called “May,” in which people around the quiet shy girl are intrigued and fascinated by her…until they get to know her better and are suddenly scared for their own safety. This feeling happens at least twice in Pearl. There’s one scene in particular, in which she is asked by a supportive friend to spill her secrets and say why she’s so unnerved lately…you SURE you want to know?

What results is a truly well-written and well-performed monologue from Pearl that will even give Mia Goth some serious awards consideration. I’m terrified and yet I’m clinging onto her every word in that scene. Pearl may not be the “star” that she dreamed of being, but at least Mia Goth has achieved that status by now.

Both “X” and “Pearl” are terrific contenders for my year-end list this winter. They both disturbed me for different reasons and provided further evidence that this is a good time for good horror films.

My Favorite Movies – The Haunting (1963)

31 Oct

By Tanner Smith

It’s Halloween, so I thought I’d talk about my all-time personal-favorite scary movie, the movie that gives me chills each time I see it, the movie I make it a tradition to watch every Halloween night (“in the night…in the dark…”): The Haunting.

“The Haunting” is one of my absolute favorite movies–definitely in my top 20 as of now. And it’s the film that gives me the absolute chills no matter how many times I see it.

Based on the Shirley Jackson novel (“The Haunting of Hill House”) that also inspired the popular Netflix series, “The Haunting” is a 1963 psychologically gripping gothic story set in a haunted house in which you don’t know how much of the haunting is real and how much is in the unstable mind of Eleanor (Julie Harris), a mentally tortured woman who is utterly insecure and just wants to belong somewhere. She’s part of a small group of people, including Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), clairvoyant Theodora (Claire Bloom), and cynic Luke (Russ Tamblyn), who are investigating the goings-on of a supposedly haunted mansion known as Hill House. Surely enough, things do go bump in the night, with many loud noises keeping everyone awake, things appearing where they shouldn’t be, and some kind of presence that continues calling to Eleanor and lures her further into the house’s trap…

A lot of people found “The Haunting of Hill House” to be scary. Even if they don’t find “The Haunting” particularly scary, it’s still a brilliant character study and a great psychological dive into madness.

You don’t see the ghosts. You don’t see the monster. You don’t know what’s bending the door inward, trying to get in. You don’t know what’s causing the misery. You don’t know what truly haunts Hill House. You just know that it’s something. And honestly, what I come up with in my head is more frightening than anything I could’ve seen…or anything the terrible 1999 remake (also called “The Haunting”) could’ve imagined with its CGI monstrosities.

The scenes that scare me the most in “The Haunting” are the scenes involving Eleanor alone in parts of the house, as things get worse and worse for her. You just know that what she’s going through is going to end up claiming her life if she isn’t careful. And as it’s been established many times in the film, she isn’t careful–she’s meek, fragile, and sensitive, and she does a lot of things without thinking. She just wants to belong somewhere, and the thing that haunts Hill House continues to bring her further into something that could claim her life. Striking cinematography and eerie music helps make these scenes utterly unnerving, but it’s Julie Harris’ performance that makes it all work.

And then there’s the ending–good Lord, the ending is the real winner here! The haunting is real, it stays within everyone involved, and it will never ever go away… That’s not directly said in the movie, but I get the idea fairly easily when it reaches its creepy close, with a final piece of voiceover narration…coming from a source that shouldn’t have had to deliver it! (Seriously, it’s one of the scariest moments I ever experienced in my years of watching movies!!)

Films like “The Others,” “The Blair Witch Project,” and ‘Paranormal Activity” owe a lot to the psychological turmoil of “The Haunting.” (And of course, the series “The Haunting of Hill House” owes a lot too.) It was a game-changing horrific experience in the 1960s, and it’s still among the best horror films now. And it’s my personal favorite…and I’m going to watch it again on Halloween night.

Halloween Ends (2022)

14 Oct

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before you read my thoughts about “Halloween Ends,” you should know up front that I was one of the few that liked “Halloween Kills.”

For those of you still reading, I’ll just state my initial thoughts up front: I kinda loved “Halloween Ends”… That being said, I can see it being just as divisive as “Halloween Kills.” Director David Gordon Green and co-writer Danny McBride have taken a big risk with the final installment of this new “legacy-quel” trilogy in the Halloween franchise, and it may turn diehard fans off.

Well, it didn’t turn me off. I respect the risk, I admire the results, and I’ll say it again, I kinda loved this movie.

You know how people dissed “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” because it was so different? Well, that’s what may happen with “Halloween Ends.” And I don’t think Green & McBride cared that much–hell, the opening-credits font is the same as “Halloween III!” They know they’re doing something different, and they say you can either stay with it or get off the ride.

Laurie Strode is back and played by the ever-awesome Jamie Lee Curtis (who, along with John Carpenter himself, has championed Green for his hard work and risk-taking in this trilogy)–and thankfully, she has more to do in this film than the previous one. But this new Halloween film isn’t merely about how the killer Michael Myers affected her life–it’s about how he (or “it,” seeing as Michael is pretty much evil in the shape of a man) affected the town of Haddonfield, Illinois. This was touched upon in “Halloween Kills” in how mob mentality can do some damage. But in “Halloween Ends,” it’s four years after the night he returned and killed more people, and because Michael Myers has never been caught, most people in Haddonfield haven’t moved on and don’t know how to deal with it. (Laurie, however, has found some closure and a bit of normalcy–hell, she’s even decorating her house for Halloween night!) Some people blame Laurie for provoking Michael while most people look for a new monster to hate and fear. That’s where Corey Cunningham comes in…

Corey (Rohan Campbell) is a young man who is bullied and ostracized by the locals after he accidentally killed a kid he was babysitting. He has a chance at something hopeful with Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), who takes an interest in him. But the town won’t let the past go and keep punishing this guy for what was an accident–a bizarre and VERY unpleasant accident, but still an accident.

His bullies even include a group of high-school marching-band kids who see no repercussions from bullying adults. I mean, it’s not like shoving an issue-filled guy off a bridge is gonna do some damage…IS IT???

I won’t give away what happens after that (and it happens about 30 minutes in), but let’s just say it causes a strange effect in Corey for the rest of the movie.

This is where the film may divide audiences–“Halloween Ends” includes a new serial-killer origin story while Michael Myers sort of hangs out in the background, occasionally getting in on the carnage himself, while we see the growth and horrific progression of a new killer to fear in Haddonfield.

There are no long speeches like in “Halloween Kills,” but there are telling lines of what causes evil to erupt, how do people handle it, are people to blame for what happens, etc. Some of it works, the rest are kinda hokey–it’s not subtle, but it’s not overly drawn out either. (Oh, and no one says “EVIL DIES TONIGHT”–although, “LOVE LIES TODAY” is seen spray-painted.)

And I got into what happens with Corey–it gave me a lot to think about, it kept me intrigued, the guy playing him is a good actor, and most importantly, I admired it because it was happening in a “Halloween” film that was actually doing something different. It felt very fresh.

Although…I do wish they did something more interesting with Allyson. They started to, with her now being a nurse and hanging out with Corey and dealing with people constantly bringing up the murders she survived four years prior (but her parents didn’t). But then, after that, I feel like they took the easy way out in dealing with her character’s progression–that’s a shame, because I actually started to care about her. (Yeah, sorry, but Allyson was the character in this new “Halloween” trilogy that I was least interested in.)

“Halloween Ends” is ultimately a character-based horror film that shows people dealing with some heavy sh*t. This is a very David Gordon Green film in that sense (it even has moments that reminded me of Green’s drama “Snow Angels”)–I feel like this is the “Halloween” film he wanted to make. There’s a lot of dreariness and loneliness here, but there is some hope at the surface–it’s just ever a question of who deserves to hold on to that hope.

Oh, and we DO get the Laurie vs. Michael battle we’ve been waiting for and it is ultimately satisfying–Green is trusting that you’ll stay with the film to get to that point, which is another risk I applaud.

I’ll say it again–I kinda loved “Halloween Ends.” And I like what was done with this trilogy.

Alan Jones Part One (2022)

14 Oct

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are a lot of crime thrillers out there. They’re practically a dime a dozen. So many of them are interchangeable. We get the mood; it’s bleak. We get the scenario; someone is missing (usually a kid). We get the characters; they have personal conflicts. We get everything.

It’s gonna take a special vision to get me to care about a new crime thriller–and maybe it’s because I came into “Alan Jones Part One” with a more open mind, but I did care about the vision brought upon this one from writer/director Baron Redman. It reminds me of why people make these films–to delve deep into the knowledge or lack thereof of why things like this happen in the world. And with stunningly detailed cinematography, a thrilling mystery, and a couple of interesting characters to root for, Redman’s feature film is intriguing and a standout.

Kurt Hanover stars in a superb leading performance as Henry Allen, an embittered private detective with a tragic past and a rough edge. We already know this guy’s got issues. When we first meet him, it’s in a dream sequence where his hands are stained with blood (and an avalanche threatens to engulf him in the same dream); next time we meet him (in reality), he’s in a bar meeting with police captain Charles Hollis (Greg Lane), who wonders why they didn’t meet at his apartment–his answer: “I ran out of scotch.” Following that, we catch on quickly that a horrific occurrence drove him to leave the force, be a private detective, and drink.

In a refreshing change of pace from most character-based crime thrillers, we also learn just as quickly that Hollis feels guilt for it seeing as it was his case. This type of character-dilemma in this type of dramatic-thriller has been done before, but it’s this kind of pacing that keeps it interesting.

We get even more of a rooting interest in FBI Special Agent Valerie Hall (Wendy Morris). She’s a Kansas City agent being called to handle a missing-child case in the same Oregon town Allen lives in. (Allen is also working the same case on his own.) This is complicated for her as she doesn’t normally do missing-person cases, she and Allen used to be a couple, and their own child disappeared many years prior. But come to Oregon, she does, and she begins by questioning the missing kid’s parents (Stefanie Stevens and Shawn Eric Jones)–they of course question why the FBI is involved here, so we don’t have to. (I joke, but this scene is pretty strong–the writing is great and the acting is on-point, especially from Jones & Stevens’ confusion and uncertainty to Morris’ calm, collected manner of questioning.)

Could the child have run away? Not according to Hall’s instincts…

Soon enough, Allen and Hall are on the case and in each other’s business, as more evidence piles up as to what could’ve happened and more traumatic details are surfaced and resurfaced. This is where “Alan Jones Part One” excels at the most: the characters and the actors playing them. Hanover, in particular, has so much to tackle in his performance as a tortured man trying to let some things go and others linger–he’s up to the challenge.

But the filmmaking at hand can’t escape praise because this is some truly sharp direction provided by Baron Redman, who also wrote the film (he actually began it as a web series before he decided it worked better as a film). He helps keep the tension heavy and the choices unpredictable. Why? Because he’s seen one too many crime thrillers too and thus knows how to make an interesting one. (He also provided the film’s cinematography, which as I said before is absolutely outstanding.)

Other characters, including suspects, give their actors time to shine. (These include Jack McCord as a neighbor whose testimony to Allen may or may not be reliable and Naomi Chaffee as a troubled woman who has an interesting encounter with Hall followed by an emotional breakdown during interrogation.) But who is the titular character of Alan Jones (played by Dan Daly)? Well…that’s not really for me to disclose in a spoiler-free review.

“Alan Jones Part One” is an exceptional crime thriller. The characters are compelling and engaging, the mystery is involving, the filmmaking is terrific, and it’s over in less than an hour-and-a-half. And again, I did care. How much did I care? This is only “Part One” and I’d be interested in seeing a “Part Two” come to light.

“Alan Jones Part One” is available on-demand and you can find out how you can help bring “Alan Jones Part Two” to life by checking out this crowdfunder.

My Favorite Movies – Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

7 Oct

By Tanner Smith

Napoleon Dynamite is very much an indie filmmaker’s dream. Talk about the little indie film that could! Here was a little movie made in a Mormon community by people who just wanted to make a nice, down-to-earth, funny movie…who I doubt would have even suspected that it would become the pop-culture phenomenon that it was!!

No joke–this movie was EVERYWHERE for a while! Everybody was quoting it, they were telling all their friends about it, and there was a TON of merchandise sold that was based on it–“Vote For Pedro” t-shirts, Napoleon’s PE t-shirt, flipbooks of Napoleon’s finale dance, quote books, and even the shooting script was available in bookstores!

How did this happen?? When I was 12 years old at the time of the movie’s release, I only heard about it because everyone in school was talking about it, and so I jumped on the bandwagon. But what did THEY get out of it? What about “Napoleon Dynamite” spoke to them in such a way?

My guess is because it’s like nothing they ever saw before. It’s a story about a high-schooler, which we’ve seen many times before, but this one was so different (and so funny) in the way this particular high-schooler and his friends and family were portrayed. We can laugh at them, quote them, even sort of identify with them in ways we don’t want to admit.

Napoleon (played memorably by Jon Heder) is not very likable. He’s a sadsack high-school student who would make a nerd look cool. (I think that’s how the late Roger Ebert described him.) He can’t even get in with the nerd crowd because he can be pretty obnoxious when he’s not unbelievably awkward. He’s not one of those “movie outcasts” that everyone picks on because he’s different–he’s an outcast because he deserves to be! There’s something very sad and yet so very funny about that idea alone. And that’s why I love this movie. As much as I love a good coming-of-age teen comedy/drama, there’s something very refreshing about this sort of anti-coming-of-age teen comedy/drama, in that it takes most conventions we’re familiar with and tones them way down to the point where we get laughs from the mere lack of cliche.

There’s also a bunch of colorful supporting characters, such as Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) who constantly dreams of living in the past (I love how he keeps checking his biceps when he has his arms crossed), Napoleon’s brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) who at least has a better chance at finding love than Napoleon does, Napoleon’s buddy Pedro (Efren Ramirez) who is just as emotionless as Napoleon, and the ultra-shy Deb (Tina Majorino) who at least isn’t afraid to talk with her mouth full. Oh and there’s also the very quotable, macho Rex (Diedrich Bader), who has a couple scenes as a would-be martial-arts instructor…I don’t know WHY he’s in this movie, but I’m glad he is.

There’s hardly a story in “Napoleon Dynamite”–it just rides on the characters themselves, which helps make scenes memorable. Who doesn’t remember what a liger is because of this movie? Who doesn’t remember Napoleon complimenting Deb’s poofy sleeves on her dress at a school dance? Who doesn’t remember Deb’s method of taking glamour shots? Who doesn’t remember how Napoleon wins Pedro the election for class president? And so on. It’s mainly an episodic slice-of-life where we spend an hour-and-a-half spending time with odd, quirky characters. And that’s why I think a whole lot of people latched onto it back then.

My favorite scene: the dance scene! We’ve spent pretty much the entire movie watching this sadsack loser with no energy, and now here we are seeing him present a TON of energy! It’s a wonderful payoff.

“Napoleon Dynamite” doesn’t force us to hate these characters, because it doesn’t necessarily mock or even hate them. It shows its heart near the end and we can appreciate any hint of redemption these people might have in their lives. The film isn’t about that, mind you, but it does show a bit of hope seeping underneath the surface.

New West (Short Film)

30 Aug

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s difficult to review a good comedy. When its key purpose is to make you laugh, there are only so many different ways a reviewer can say, “That’s so funny!” And because humor is subjective (meaning, there will also be so many different ways another reviewer can say, “That’s not funny!”), it’s even more difficult to get across in a written (and relatively straight-faced) review what made this reviewer laugh out loud.

However, I was one of 200+ audience members who laughed repeatedly and consistently at (and with) a 45-minute energetic, hilarious, and unapologetically raunchy/crude comedy, titled “New West,” upon its theatrical premiere in Little Rock, AR on August 25, 2022. If you don’t believe my recommendation, consider one of the others’.

There. That’s it. Review over? Well, no, because I should probably describe the story to give you an idea of what kind of film I’m reviewing here.

Here’s the setup: cowboy Gene (Zach Keast) and horse Trigger (co-writer Coty Greenwood in a latex horse mask) were a duo of bandits and performers. (Their biggest act was as a singing duo, with a jolly old-Western song that I still hum to myself five days after seeing the film.) But then they split up, with Trigger holding onto (and enjoying) the wealth he carried over and Gene enduring life in a downward spiral. But when circumstances cause Gene (now played by Matt Jordan) and Trigger to team up against some vicious gunslinging varmints (many of whom wear black suits and sport Dia de Los Muertos masks), it may just be what they needed to come to terms with the past and the present. And they’re gonna have a crazy adventure along the way…

“New West,” directed and shot by Jordan Mears, is a laugh-a-minute romp in the same comic rhythm as the best spoof movies (such as “Airplane!” or “Naked Gun”) albeit with the gutsiness of the works of Trey Parker & Matt Stone (“South Park”) and the viscera and profane bite of a Quentin Tarantino flick. But it also has a heart to it–if anyone stays with the ridiculous amount of scatological humor throughout the entirety of the film, there is a moving story of friendship and reconciliation.

Yes. I looked. It is there. It’s amazing what you can find in a ridiculous and fun film when you’re not scoffing at its other, less “sophisticated” material. And if you’re going to criticize a film for doing what it set out to do in the first place, chances are you probably couldn’t do it any better.

Let me put it this way–it’s one thing to laugh at Trigger, a character who always wears a horse mask throughout the entire film, but it’s another thing to not only accept it but to feel for the character too. And that itself is funny to me.

Look, all I can tell you about the rest of the comedy in “New West” is that it’s shot well, it’s executed flawlessly, the timing is on point, I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I did what Jordan Mears wanted me to do when watching this comedy: I laughed and laughed and laughed.

So, there you go–that’s my way of saying, “That’s so funny!” And it wasn’t as difficult as I thought, either.

My Favorite Movies – Surfacing (Short Film) (2009)

18 Aug

By Tanner Smith

Surfacing is a 30-minute short film I love to play repeatedly on my laptop because it helps inspire and motivate me whenever I’m in a writing or thinking mood. I don’t know if it’s a film that writer-director Bruce Hutchinson, lead actress Kristy Hutchinson, cinematographer Chris Churchill, and/or anyone from the supporting cast want to forget about since it was made so long ago–but to them, I say this with all sincerity:

You made a damn good film and I love it wholeheartedly.

“Surfacing” is a film about a college swimmer, Hannah Gill (played wonderfully by Kristy Hutchinson), who has temporal lobe epilepsy and also Geschwind Syndrome (a phenomenon that involves characteristic behavioral changes following a seizure). But her seizures are getting worse and could end her life unless she gets an operation that could help. Does she want to be rid of the thing that gives her the most joy in life? (A better question would be, can she still feel that joy without it?)

It’s a character-based slice-of-life drama that uses this conflict to get us in the heads of Hannah, her sister (F.E. Mosby), her swim coach (Pammi Fabert), and her friends as they figure out how to handle the situation. Those moments wouldn’t matter as much without the quieter, softer moments which show the characters just hanging out together–watching the sunset, studying in the library, etc. There’s also a lovely tender moment in which Hannah’s sister is there for her during another seizure, and it’s played beautifully.

I love the cinematography from Chris Churchill–its raw, documentary-like style adds to both the realism and the charm of the film. I also love the use of the film’s soundtrack–it feels like it’s constantly playing in Hannah’s head. (To further illustrate the point, she listens to a song on her iPod and then that same song plays during her swim meet.)

There are many layers to Kristy Hutchinson’s performance as Hannah–as someone going through such a complicated illness with seizures that cause her a feeling of grace, Hannah feels intense energy and joy post-seizure, guilt when the moment passes, confusion when she’s unsure whether or not to cure herself because of those moments, disappointment, sadness, and then acceptance. When she gives a poetic speech about embracing the beauty in the world, I’m not thinking, “What a manic pixie dream girl”–I’m instead understanding why someone going through this would say these things. It’s wonderful work.

I also love that Hannah can be a little too much to handle sometimes–for instance, in any other film featuring a disease-stricken character, that person would be complaining about feeling fatigued when someone is pressuring her to go out and party, whereas in this film, SHE’S the one pressuring her friends to go out and party even though THEY’RE tired.

It’s funny–I used to think Hannah’s friends and sister were boring and now I see where they’re coming from when it comes to being friends with Hannah. And I still like Hannah for the same reasons they do.

Check out “Surfacing” here.

A Cry in the Wild (1990)

27 Jul

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“A Cry in the Wild” is a Corman-produced low-budget film adaptation of the popular novel “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen… Is it one of my favorites?

Well, it might be. There are some things that could have been improved, a few little details I could have done without, and I’m not entirely sure its emotional impact weighed down on me as much as it should have. But when I think of what it did right, especially in keeping with the spirit of the book “Hatchet” (which I read in middle school), “A Cry in the Wild” is an overall involving, moving, and thrilling adventure.

This film was made around the time low-budget pioneer Roger Corman, best known as a trailblazer for independent film, wanted to branch out and start making films that were more aimed at children. (What followed were many straight-to-video family films that I rented as a kid–needless to say, they don’t hold a candle to “A Cry in the Wild,” no matter how crazy and “guilty-pleasure-y” some of them might be.) So, he brought on Corman graduate Mark Griffiths to direct it and the original novel’s author Gary Paulsen himself to write the screenplay. (One major change from book to film: it’s a bear that antagonizes the lead character instead of a moose, simply because, according to Paulsen, moose are too dumb to train for a movie. Way to think smart in adapting your own source material.)

Our lead character is a teenage boy named Brian (Jared Rushton). A child of divorce, Brian is on his way to his father in Canada via a single-engine plane (flown by a pilot played by the ever-reliable Ned Beatty). But when the pilot has a heart attack and dies, Brian crash-lands the plane into a lake in the forest. Now stranded in the Canadian Wilderness (and bear country) with nothing but a small hatchet (which his mother had brought him as a gift before he left), Brian must learn to survive using his wits and everything around him that could possibly help in some way. He builds shelter, finds food, makes fire, and deals with threats such as a porcupine, a bear, and even a tornado. (There’s also a white wolf that seems ambiguous as to whether it’s a friend or foe–for some reason, this film has sequels known as “the White Wolves collection,” neither of which has anything to do with Gary Paulsen’s sequel novels to “Hatchet.” Not for me.)

All the while, Brian deals with flashbacks involving his parents’ divorce. The “Secret” that haunts Brian works well enough in the book, but in the film, it doesn’t feel entirely necessary–mostly because the payoff isn’t strong enough to warrant the drama, in my opinion.

The dramatic emotional weight is more felt when Brian struggles to survive in a world he didn’t make. A lot of the film is told in silence as Brian learns how to hunt, how to fish, how to build, and ultimately how to survive, using his one hatchet. (When he nearly loses the hatchet late in the film is a moment where I genuinely gasped.) It doesn’t always work, such as the few moments when Brian speaks his thoughts (mainly for the audience)–and as good as he was in other movies like “Big” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” Jared Rushton isn’t always able to carry our attention for very long. However, because he is a kid, it’s not impossible to feel something for him when he’s figuring things out for himself within those quiet moments (and there are more of them than of the latter). Thus, it’s easy to feel happiness when he’s finally able to avoid extremely irritating mosquitoes after building his first campfire. Rushton can even provide funny moments when the time is right, such as when he refers to a thieving raccoon as a “monkey man.” (“Better keep away from my berries, pal.”)

It is easy to feel more intimidated by a bear than a moose on-screen, but there is one moment where Brian and the bear wrestle in the lake–I think Brian gets away too easily. It kind of takes away some tension when the bear attacks Brian’s shelter later in the film.

Eh, nitpicks. What do I love about the film, apart from the quiet moments of survival? I mean, this isn’t “Cast Away,” obviously–but I’m always a sucker for movies about people figuring difficult things out all alone.

…Actually, come to think of it, that might be it. Maybe I just enjoy “A Cry in the Wild” for making the most of its low budget, an author adapting his own novel in a way that best suits it, embracing the ingenuity of such a project, and giving us a survival drama story that is never boring, a bit uneven, but overall affecting. Could a better movie have been made from the source material? Maybe–but I’ll take what I can get. And I truly enjoy “A Cry in the Wild.”

My Favorite Movies – The Dirties (2013)

29 Jun

By Tanner Smith

I’m a big admirer of the found-footage gimmick. From “The Blair Witch Project” to “Rec,” from “The Sacrament” to the “Creep” movies, from “Paranormal Activity” to “The Visit,” there’s so much to admire about films and filmmakers that do so much with so little.

Those are horror films. The Dirties may contain the slow-burn horror element, but there’s far more on its mind than that…despite being available on Shudder, the horror-film streaming service (and if you read the reviews on the Shudder page for “The Dirties,” you notice people were expecting something far less than what the movie actually is–and that’s a shame).

This is a movie about an approaching high-school massacre, which is such a morbid topic that you’d think no filmmaker would make something that was other than artistic or (God forbid) exploitative. But the main character is so likable that the fact that he transforms into a killer is very difficult to comprehend.

That’s exactly the point–and what’s even better is that this movie ends where the typical news report would begin.

What drives Matt to kill? There are both obvious answers and not-so-obvious ones that I can’t help but consider the more times I watch the film. All we know is what we see in what is essentially his movie–but even his behavior is in question as he’s often called out for play-acting for the camera so he doesn’t have to deal with reality.

I wrote an essay about what I thought it all meant, but I’ll admit I may have gotten some things wrong. You can read it here.

Very haunting stuff–and not in a morbid film. “The Dirties” is a strange and memorable film that offers a lot more than your typical Shudder subscribers usually want.

And to me, it’s the high-standard that found-footage films need to try and meet.

Tsunami (Short Film)

28 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Tsunami” is a short drama about a couple arguing as sad truths are revealed and the gloves are off. The topic of a supposed-loving couple’s intense argument makes for intense drama in films such as Before Midnight and “Malcolm & Marie,” in which we got to know about the couple prior to (or even through) the confrontation–but in the case of “Tsunami,” which at a brisk 15 minutes doesn’t have a lot of time for very thorough characterization, we don’t really know much about this couple at the center.

HOWEVER (yes, me spelling “however” in all caps was intentional), when we’ve heard the cases stated by both parties involved, gained some revelations in a character’s privacy, and ultimately empathized with what is truly on display here (and I’ll do my best not to give away any plot spoilers here*)…you realize you know what you need to know about these people in a short character-based/conversation-driven drama.

You also realize that you may have been here before, whether you want to admit it or not. (Even if you haven’t, the purpose of many films of this nature is to allow you to empathize with other people, so there you go.)

The couple in question in “Tsunami,” directed by Joel Shafer, is Raymond (Earl McWilliams) and Janine (Franchesca Davis, who also wrote the film). The opening shot shows us a typical wedding photo of the lovely couple on their special day before tracking over to a bitter Janine walking around their apartment, waiting for Raymond to come home from work. As he enters, he’s chatting on the phone (well, not “chatting”; more like he’s arguing already with someone else) and doesn’t even notice Janine’s bitter facial expression…even when he gets off the phone, casually kisses his wife on the cheek like nothing’s out of the ordinary, and goes on about how messy his day was.

Oh Raymond…you should pay more attention.

This brilliant introduction (shot beautifully, as is the rest of the film, by Devonte Brown, whose long one-camera-takes add to the film’s atmosphere) speaks volumes about where this couple is in life–so much so that you might want to brace yourself for where the uncomfortable situation is about to go as Janine wants to have a little talk…which may or may not affect their future together. The resulting centerpiece of “Tsunami” is a brilliantly written and acted verbal battle that had me concerned as well as invested.

(NOTE: The “Tsunami” in the title is a metaphor–the film’s IMDb description reads: ‘[Both Raymond and Janine] have always managed to weather the storm, however this particular storm may by the demise of their relationship. Can it survive?’)

A certain topic (one that is the cause of many separations and divorces) is brought up that escalates the argument and it helps not only raise the tension but also to get us in the mindset of these two. There’s also a surprising development at the end that truly got to me. (And just to get us in the feels, we even are treated to a flashback of a better time between the once-romantic couple.)

And that helps my point–you don’t need to know everything about a couple to think about what they’re going through. In “Tsunami’s” 15 minutes, I was able to catch on to a lot of things and satisfied to find myself pondering about the rest. With the aid of expert direction from Shafer, terrific cinematography from Brown, and of course great acting from McWilliams & Davis (the latter of whom also wrote brilliant dialogue for the script), “Tsunami” is a raw, effective display of marital conflict and domestic verbal confrontation that got under my skin.

*Yes, I know it’s unfair not to give away spoilers for a short film I cannot share at this moment–when it is released online, I’ll come back and share it with you. Then you’ll see what I mean (I hope).