Soft & Quiet (2022)

11 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! I don’t know how I can get through this review without revealing certain plot points that filmmaker Beth de Araujo most likely intended to keep quiet–out of respect, I’ll try to be subtle…but I can’t promise in succeeding.

They look like your typical average everyday sweet (and white) ladies–but try to get to know them a little more because they just might be hiding something…something very serious and evil despite their pleasant demeanor. They might just get together and have their own little meetings–but not for a book club.

Well, even if they did discuss their favorite literature, it’d set off many alarm bells to those outside of these meetings.

The first few minutes of the intriguing and effectively disturbing thriller “Soft & Quiet” set us up in a brilliantly deceptive fashion, as we meet a pleasant-looking elementary school teacher named Emily (Stefanie Estes). Emily is crying because of a home pregnancy test that turns out negative. Emily is accompanying one of her students as he waits for his mom after school. Emily tells the kid to stick up for himself, singling out the janitor whose mopping caused the kid to slip in the halls. Emily even lets the kid read an excerpt of a children’s book she’s writing. Emily seems great–and she’s on her way to some place with a foil-covered pie she made herself, to share with others at a meeting at a small local church.

Emily (and I’ll stop beginning sentences with “Emily”) meets with other seemingly well-adjusted women and presents her pie to share with them–and de Araujo stays on the homemade cherry pie as it is unwrapped to reveal that carved into the upper crust is…a swastika.

Yep, this is happening and it’s not a joke–it’s a meeting with a far-right women’s group called “Daughters of the Aryan Dynasty,” of which Emily is the leader. (Did I mention the school janitor Emily pointed the kid toward wasn’t white? The questionable look she gave upon passing them says something else now.) These white ladies sit in a circle and discuss what they hate about minorities, liberal agendas, BLM, and other things that irritate their shared bigotry. Just when you think you have an idea of who Emily is and who these people she’s meeting with are, the rug is pulled out from under us as we endure a terrifying 15-20 minute conversation about the things they cannot stand seeing in modern-day America–the things that are assisting people apart from themselves, they speak ill of, and in many different ways too. (Each member represents a type of white supremacy, like a legacy of the KKK and a racist boomer, among others.) They throw out racial, xenophobic, and homophobic slurs to each other like it’s no big deal. And it’s clear that Emily’s “children’s book” has a sinister agenda, revealing more about Emily than I’d like to know. (This woman is SCARY, the more layers are uncovered from her.)

And no, the church’s pastor is not welcoming of this group of monsters–in fact, when he gets Emily alone outside the room for a bit, his demands are clear: they all need to leave. Now. Like, right now.

We are 30 minutes into the film when Emily, hiding the confrontation from the others, adjourns the meeting early and invites everyone for a drink at her house. Well, great–now we can see what these terrible people are like in the real world they heavily criticized. I may foresee the very real possibility of them coming across that’s going to get them in a lot of trouble if they act the way they believe, but they do not, and so off we go. What follows is a truly disturbing portrait of neo-Nazi Karens putting themselves deeper and deeper into a horrid situation (that’s the turning point of the film) that doesn’t need to happen but they’ll let it happen because they are, to be frank, f***ing idiots who deserve every karmic thing she could possibly get coming to them.

As ecstatic as I would have been to actually see that karmic justice upon these awful human beings, I am thankful to see “Soft & Quiet” end on an ambiguous yet optimistic note that will all but assure us that nobody can get away with incidents like this. (And de Araujo, who wrote and directed, was inspired to make this film from the Central Park birdwatching incident–did that lady get away with that? NOPE.)

“Soft & Quiet” is set in real time, presenting an afternoon in the life of this horrible person that escalates into something that was definitely inevitable–the cinematographer, Greta Zozula (who also shot observant gems like “The Half of It” and “Never Goin’ Back”), stays with these people and shows us firsthand something more horrific and sadly real-world than your average horror film. (And even more impressive is its ability to look like one continuous shot, much like the Oscar-winning “Birdman” and Hitchcock’s “Rope.”)

The actors are so convincing that I may be terrified just watching another one of their performances–I may have to repeat the mantra, “They’re only actors,” to myself until I remember exactly that. That may sound like hyperbole, but that’s how credible and effective these actors are–not just Estes but also Olivia Luccardi as an overzealous punk radical and Jon Beavers as Emily’s pushover husband who is often the point of his own wife’s gay slurs. There’s also the aforementioned KKK-legacy who mentions her work in the neo-Nazi website stormfront: “The media loves to portray us as big scary monsters. Do I look that scary?”

Lady, you can look like the angel on top of a Christmas tree and I’ll still be terrified of you if you pull more stuff like this.

I Heard the Bells (2022)

8 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For a debut feature film from a well-known theatre company (in this case, Sight & Sound Theatres, a faith-based company best known for huge-scale Bible-story productions), “I Heard the Bells” could have fooled me into thinking this was their fifth or tenth film. But seeing as how their stage productions are well-regarded for their outstanding (and expensive) resources, I shouldn’t be surprised by the grand theatrics thrown onto the screen (and countered toward the audience as a result–that’s a compliment, by the way) by director/co-writer Joshua Enck and his cast & crew (most of which have worked with Enck on many a S&S show).

Go figure, passionate artists put their heart and soul into a production and all the extra expenses go into something worthwhile. I’ll be intrigued to see other films from this same company.

Set in the early 1860s (and let me take a moment to mention the production & costume design to show the era are beautifully detailed), “I Heard the Bells” tells the story of the origin of the well-known poem “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It’s a story of a man who had his faith and his passion challenged before ultimately embracing both.

We begin with a warm, welcoming first act that may as well have been directed as part of a S&S stage show, as Longfellow (very well-played with vigor by Stephen Atherholt) celebrates Christmas 1860 with his loving wife Fanny (Rachel Day Hughes) and his five adoring children. After a wonderful moment of a family’s holiday gathering do we get something you don’t often succeed at achieving live on stage: a subtle change of emotions, well-suited for film and the silver screen, as we see the real human characters behind the theatrics. This is important to realize, especially when, as the story continues, we see this family is in for heavy emotional drama that threatens to tear them apart.

We learn that Longfellow has lost a daughter in the past (and will not allow his teenage son, Charley [Jonathan Blair], to enlist in the Union Army, lest he risk losing him too)–thus, we know this family has encountered tragedy already. How a family behaves in the face of tragedy is foundation for intriguing storytelling (and effective for parables to assist in real-life scenarios as well–most of them are based on real-life scenarios)–having not known the Longfellows’ story, I was all the more invested in how this family would adjust when something even more devastating occurs, thus causing Longfellow to lose all interest in writing, Charley to ultimately enlist and go to war, and then…well, I shouldn’t say any more, but seeing as this all results in an uplifting Christmas carol, you shouldn’t expect this film to end any way other than with a positive message.

And “I Heard the Bells” earns its resolution too. Because the filmmaking, acting, and time-period feel are all so effective and wonderfully-done, nothing feels too pat (which is often the downfall of many a faith-based production). This is a film made by people who are, yes, passionate about their beliefs but, most importantly, know how to tell a good story and keep an audience invested. They also give us a clear portrait of this poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his complicated feelings towards his own work, despite the positive impact it has on people–we learn that he was one of the best-known abolitionists of the time, writing poems to help free slaves of the South, thus possibly igniting his son’s drive in fighting for a cause; but we also get the feeling that he wishes he could do more. As he’ll come to learn, the right amount of carefully chosen words can make a great (and positive) impact on people.

(We also see more of that positive impact in a comedic moment late in the film, when Charley recites a poem to his fellow soldiers and a local bumpkin who would like to read more poetry.)

The cinematography from Steve Buckwalter is outstanding as well–an opening tracking one-shot that enters from the sky into a hole in the roof of a dilapidated church (where the steeple should be) where we see a dramatic image that speaks volumes for what we’re about to see set it up for me that this is a film made by people with all the resources and all the money (and they even built that church specifically for the film, from scratch!) put into something ultimately worth our viewing pleasure.

“We need poets to change the world,” Fanny tells his beloved husband Henry. “Not politicians.” That line of dialogue is essentially the thesis for the entire film. And thankfully, there’s no political agenda to tell us what we should feel in “I Heard the Bells”–simply a poetic one that shows us what we could. “I Heard the Bells” delivers the meaning of Christmas to those who might lose sight of it, and it’s a moving film that deeply reminded me of it.

Catherine Called Birdy (2022)

8 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Here we have a coming-of-age story set in the Middle Ages. And why not? I don’t see enough such stories from that particular time period.

“Catherine Called Birdy,” based on the young-adult novel by Karen Cushman, is written and directed by Lena Dunham. 12 years ago, Lena Dunham presented a very strong, funny, endearing filmmaking effort in “Tiny Furniture”–12 years later, she had not one but TWO directorial follow-up feature films: “Sharp Stick” and “Catherine Called Birdy.”

It’s funny how “Sharp Stick” (a small, personal story about a young woman exploring sexuality) seemed right at home in the “Girls” star’s wheelhouse and yet felt so confused and unpleasant…and yet “Catherine Called Birdy,” which is set in the early 1200s and features a female protagonist younger than her usual demographic, is as intelligent as it is charming.

Bella Ramsey shines as 14-year-old Lady Catherine aka Birdy who has just become a woman, which is great news to her father (Andrew Scott) because now he can marry her off and repay his debts. (An example of the comic writing at hand: the father blames his debt on his wife [Billie Piper] for her expensive tastes.) Birdy of course has no interest in getting married and leaving childhood behind–but as she learns throughout the story, it’s not so easy making her way through a world that hardly seems interested in what women want to do.

Birdy knows what she doesn’t want, but she’s not entirely sure what she does want–thankfully, she’s not so precocious that she pretends to know the difference; she is still very young (and also accustomed to an aristocratic environment) and has a lot to learn about herself and the world around her…like most tween girls in the best modern-day coming-of-age films.

There’s a lot of comedy in this story, such as the witty voiceover narrations of Birdy as she continually writes in a diary and the outrageous antics Birdy finds herself succumbing to in an attempt to hold onto her individuality. And there are also some very on-the-nose pop songs on the soundtrack (including “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “Girl on Fire”) that simultaneously cracked me up and made me wonder if I was watching a lost episode of “Drunk History” (or the movie “A Knight’s Tale”).

But the spirit of the setting rings true with authenticity and the characters are written and portrayed with such heart that it’s wonderful to keep up with them–unlike “The Little Hours” which comprised of one joke (Middle-Agey nuns spewing modern-day profanities) or “The Favourite” which tried almost too hard to be edgy and provocative, “Catherine Called Birdy” is crowd-pleasing while containing a genuine affection for its setting and characters.

“Catherine Called Birdy” not only reaches the heights of “Tiny Furniture,” but it may even surpass it as Lena Dunham’s best work to date. It’s truly wonderful.

“Catherine Called Birdy” is available on Amazon Prime.

Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022)

5 Dec

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

A special kind of ending can affect the overall impact of a film. It can make you look at the film in a whole new way, making subsequent viewings all the more special. This is especially true of a “whodunnit” mystery-thriller story. When the “who” in “whodunnit” is revealed, it can do one of three things: seem totally obvious and very much like a copout, make you feel nothing at all because it’s still unsatisfying, or immediately make you want to think about what you just saw (and then see it again and/or maybe discuss it with friends).

To say the whodunnit-styled horror-comedy “Bodies Bodies Bodies” succeeds in the third aspect would be understating it. The way it was going leading up to the resolution, I thought it would end one way and I maybe would have been fine with it–but I also would have wanted something more or less fitting. But, and I wouldn’t dare give away the big secret, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” managed to fool me and both enthrall and entertain me in doing so.

Picture “Scream” mixed with an Agatha Christie mystery, and you pretty much have “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a sharply satirical horror-comedy about a group of young people (in this case, Gen-Zers) who band together for a good time in a big house–only to turn against each other when they get killed one by one. In a time when so many young people live in the moment, cling to their smartphones for comfort and guidance, and completely miss what’s happening around them, this example of social commentary couldn’t be more effective if Zoey Deutch’s narcissistic character from “Not Okay” (released around the same time as this film) suddenly entered the picture.

That’s the agenda that director Halina Reijn and screenwriter Sarah DeLappe went into with this film–not only does it truly work, but it could also speak to Gen-Zers. (This is not to say Reijn, a filmmaker in her 40s, is attacking or looking down on the characters in this story–I give her massive credit for sympathizing with them and treating them like real characters instead of archetypes.)

The film begins as former drug addict Sophie (Amandla Stenberg), fresh out of rehab, brings her new girlfriend Bee (Maria Bakalova) to meet her longtime best friends: jackass David (Pete Davidson), self-obsessed model Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), arrogant (and Sophie’s ex) Jordan (Myha’la Herrold), and hella fragile and ultimately indecisive podcaster Alice (Rachel Sennott, hilarious). Oh, and there’s also middle-aged hippie beefcake Greg (Lee Pace), who Alice brought along as her new boyfriend–watching him be the mature one among this crowd gets a huge laugh each time. They’re all here at David’s rich-ass parents’ mansion to party-hardy and ride out a hurricane. (An example of how they could care less about what’s happening around them: they turn off the news of the hurricane because it’s “depressing.”) David’s parents are gone, so they’re here to drink, smoke weed, and pretty much be terrible to each other each chance they get because they’re all rich and privileged–poor Bee, who seems the most empathetic and sincere, tries to fit in, but I just want to pull her aside and tell her it’s not worth it to get the respect of these idiots. After a murder-mystery game of “Bodies Bodies Bodies” (some call it “Werewolf” or “Mafia”), actual bodies start piling up for real as it seems someone is actually killing them off…

Who is the killer? What is their motivation? Does it matter? Not to me–I kinda want to see the would-be victims fend for their lives at this point, as the plot goes from “Mean Girls” to “Lord of the Flies.” The power goes out, they have no cell service, everyone turns against each other, secrets are revealed, harsh words are said, and of course, the bodies continue to mount. It’s as funny as it is suspenseful, especially when the characters are so clueless to their own lack of self-awareness that it’s not only pathetic but also fatal.

The actors are excellent, the commentary is brilliantly witty and observant, the production design within this big house is clever, both the direction and screenplay are extremely sharp and intelligent, and again, that ending makes it all well worth it. It made a good film a great film and a three-and-a-half star film into a four-star film. (And I’ve seen it four times as of now.)

Bros (2022)

3 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Bros” is the latest from Apatow Productions. It’s a good thing I’m a Judd Apatow fan or I wouldn’t see this film based on the trailer. Why are comedy trailers so bad?

Comedian Billy Eichner stars a gay New York podcaster named Bobby Lieber. (His podcast is called the 11th Brick, as he’s a cis gay white man and he figures a cis gay white man was the 11th person to throw a brick at Stonewall.) He’s 40, a bachelor, constantly hooks up with Grindr users, super intense, defensive, and self-aware to a fault–and he’s never afraid to speak his angry opinion no matter who tells him he should shut up and be respectful of other people. He has a bad habit of dominating the room without reading the room.

Let’s just call Bobby what he is: an a**hole.

But just as Amy was a little much to handle in “Trainwreck” (an Apatow romcom that gets better each time I see it), thankfully Bobby is surrounded by colorful supporting players who are there to either argue with him or bring him down from his arrogant high. (More on them in a bit.) And he also has a winning, funny, and charming romantic interest to help his character grow: a handsome “bro/jock” lawyer named Aaron. At first he’s ready to shove him aside as “boring” but he quickly learns there’s more to him than steroids and baseball caps. So, they start going out, they spend the night together, they lower their defenses a bit, and they sort of start a relationship. (I say “sort of” because neither of them wants to define what this is just yet, especially since Bobby has problems with himself and Aaron has commitment issues.)

Will they? Won’t they?

Well, yeah, of course they will, I already said it’s a romcom, and it follows certain formulas in that regard–but it’s more about how/why than about what.

Back to the supporting cast. As is typical of a film produced by mainstream comedy maestro Judd Apatow, there’s a lot of memorable co-stars on display here. Taking a good chunk of screen time is a terrific ensemble of actors (Ts Madison, Jim Rash, Eve Lindley, Miss Lawrence and Dot-Marie Jones) playing the board members of an up-and-coming museum celebrating LGBTQ+ history. But there are other actors in smaller roles that have time to shine too–if only I could remember the actor/character of Aaron’s brother, because he was freaking hilarious in one scene near the end! (Seriously, I want to see a movie about THAT guy next!)

Aaron is played terrifically by Luke Macfarlane who is as funny as he is likable. I didn’t know who he was before this film, but after Googling him, he’s apparently known for Hallmark movies… There is a running joke in this film about “Hallheart” holiday movies that are playing more to the LGBTQ+ crowd; the joke was already funny, but knowing that he’s a Hallmark actor makes it even funnier!

And “Bros,” directed by Nicolas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), really is funny. Often times, it’s hilarious. My favorite jokes include a tutorial on “listening,” a “Night at the Museum” reference that pays off wonderfully, and a cameo by Debra Messing that’s just…I won’t give it away here, but I’m cracking up just thinking about it again!

And there’s plenty more like that in the film. (There’s also a funny yet also heartwarming homage to Garth Brooks [Aaron’s favorite musician] late in the film.) But there’s also room for drama as well, such as when Eichner (who also co-wrote the script with Stoller) delivers a heartfelt monologue about how people have told him to hold back on his homosexuality all his life. This not only gives insight as to who Bobby is but also how he became who he is–and in a brilliant masterstroke of writing, there’s another monologue he delivers after being told (by Aaron) to “tone it down.” This one is meant more for laughs, but the context makes for a more heartbreaking moment.

Yet, even when Bobby is at his worst, he can still show us who he is at his best. And that plus the laughs and love throughout the screenplay and characters is why “Bros” is worth recommending.

Also, Bobby’s right–love is NOT love (to mock the ever-popular “love is love” slogan); it’s more complicated than that.

God Forbid: The Sex Scandal that Brought Down a Dynasty (2022)

3 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“God Forbid: The Sex Scandal that Brought Down a Dynasty.” Some of you probably already know what scandal the subtitle refers to–for those who don’t, it’s the scandal that destroyed Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr.’s reputation as the most powerful evangelical in America.

This guy was so respected, so loved, so revered as this model Christian with the perfect family and a knack for big business. Well, it turned out he and his wife Becki were the ultimate hypocrites as they partook in an affair with a young man named Giancarlo Granda who occasionally would get with Becki while Jerry…watched…actively… This went on for a long time until Giancarlo decided to come forward with it, thus resulting in the downfall of the Falwell dynasty.

But there’s a lot more to the story in this very entertaining documentary “God Forbid,” in which Giancarlo sits down and tells all. Using clever editing, slickly executed reenactment storytelling, and many other nicely handled visual techniques, this is the most intriguing documentary I’ve seen all year. (Even though I should’ve been tired watching it late last night, my attention was focused throughout and I never fell asleep.)

I haven’t seen this filmmaker Billy Corben’s previous docs, like “Cocaine Cowboys” or “537 Votes”–but after seeing this great flick, I’m definitely curious to see what else he has to offer.

Giancarlo says at the start of the film: “If I would have known that accepting this woman’s invitation to go back to her hotel room would have led to a scandal involving the president of the largest Christian university in the world and the president of the United States, I would have walked away and just enjoyed my private life.” He means it too. He was a 20-year-old Miami pool boy, he was seduced by a “cougar,” he saw an opportunity and took it, and he didn’t even know who these people were until he told his older sister about them shortly after. He still went along with them because Becki treated him like a secret boyfriend (and texted him pretty much every day) and Jerry kept providing him with amazing business opportunities (most likely to keep him quiet about the affair).

How could he have known that this bizarre threesome would go on for years or that he couldn’t get out of it because they would guilt him into staying in? These people, who called themselves “moral Christians,” manipulated this poor kid–even when things turned sadder, they continued with it.

Well, enough would be enough sooner or later–and the things Giancarlo Granda knew about the Falwells would bring them down. And this film portrays that beautifully.

“God Forbid” doesn’t stop there either. It’ll take its time to go back to the reign of Jerry Falwell Sr., the extreme conservative who founded LU and the Moral Majority. Then it’ll take more time to show the toxicity brought on by the Falwells’ endorsement of a certain former POTUS. (This went on a bit too long, in my opinion–it just reinforces what most of us already knew.) Then, after all of this, it ends with the question of whether evangelical extremists are the cause of many problems in this country–unlike many big-picture messages I see in many docs, this one doesn’t even seem like a stretch.

Mostly though, “God Forbid” is flat-out entertaining–and it’s as riveting as it is disturbing.

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.