REVIEW: “Smile” (2022)

2022 has been a weird year for horror movies. Per usual, there has been no shortage of them; some good and others not so much. But what’s been strange is seeing fair-to-middling horror flicks (à la “Barbarian”, “X”, “Bodies Bodies Bodies”, “Scream”, etc.) being granted ‘instant classic’ status by some truly passionate fan bases. Now don’t get me wrong, these films aren’t as bad as this year’s “Firestarter” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” reboots. Not even close. But it’s strange to see this level of enthusiasm over such unremarkable genre entries.

Thankfully 2022 has had a few good horror movies, including several originals (“Fresh”, “The Black Phone”, “Hatching”), a killer prequel (“Pearl”), and an unexpectedly satisfying sequel (“Orphan: First Kill”). Now we have another one to add to the list of bangers. “Smile” is a genuinely creepy chiller with all the ingredients genre lovers will be looking for. But it’s also surprisingly cleaver in how it deals with depression, trauma, and even suicide. The film peers beyond the cheery facial expression of its title to show that many things can be hidden behind a simple smile.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

A really good Sosie Bacon plays Dr. Rose Cotter, a therapist at a New Jersey hospital’s emergency psychiatric unit. The film opens with Rose meeting a new patient – a traumatized young woman named Laura (Caitlin Stasey) who recently witnessed the suicide of her college professor. Laura begins telling Rose about her horrific visions. “I’m seeing something,” she says, visibly rattled but unable to put who or what she sees into words. All she can describe is the sinister, blood-chilling smile carved into its face.

Much of Rose’s job is spent trying to convince disturbed people that what they’re seeing is in their minds. But Laura is convinced that her visions are real. Then their session takes a horrifying turn. Laura suddenly calms, an eerie smile spreads across her face, then she slits her own throat right in front of Rose. Cut to title card!

That brilliantly orchestrated opening helps set the tone for the entirety of “Smile”. And it maintains that same unsettling mood for its duration. It’s not often that a horror movie can keep an audience in its clutches quite like this. But first-time feature director Parker Finn (who also wrote the script) deserves a ton of credit for creating and keeping a disquieting atmosphere. He also tells a story that’s simple on the surface, but with harrowing layers, often rooted in truth, that keep us on edge. The film’s biggest weakness comes when Finn loses faith in what he’s crafted and resorts to annoying over-used jump scares.

Reasonably so, Rose is shaken by the events of the opening and after the stress starts affecting her work, she’s asked by her boss (Kal Penn) to take a paid week off to clear her head. But when Rose starts having terrifying visions similar to those described by Laura, suddenly she’s the one who must convince those closest to her that she’s not crazy. It starts with her paper-thin fiancé, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), by far the weakest of the movie’s characters. Then it’s her self-centered sister, Holly (Gillian Zinser), her former therapist, Madeline (Robin Weigert), and even her ex-boyfriend, Joel (Kyle Gallner).

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Of course rather than believing Rose is being tortured by a malevolent spirit who smiles a lot, those close to her think she’s having a mental breakdown. And that gets to part of the genius of “Smile” – the indescribable nature of the entity itself. It makes the victims sound delusional despite describing the evil to the best of their abilities. As she’s constantly doubted, Rose’s growing feelings of isolation and despair only intensifies and opens the door for her own personal traumas to resurface. Soon she’s fighting two wars – one with a devilish supernatural evil and the other within her own head.

With the subtle (and some not-so-subtle) metaphors for mental health and its rich theme of processing past trauma, Parker Finn thrusts us into a world that pulsates with real-life resonance despite its outlandish (yet undeniably fun) premise. Not all of the dot-connecting works particularly well, and the above-mentioned jump scares cheapen things a bit. But Finn creates and sustains a gnawing tension, leaning on some gruesome visual effects, DP Charlie Sarroff’s disorienting camera, and the droning and wailing of Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s mood-setting score. It all makes for a gnarly cocktail; one packed with as many surprises as frights. “Smile” is out now in theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

First Glance: “Bones and All”

I’m curious to see how many people will be turned off by this description alone – a cannibal love story. Yes, that sounds utterly ridiculous, but I guess human flesh-eaters need love too. “Bones and All” is the latest film from Luca Guadagnino, and it stars Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet. If I’m honest, the two leads don’t really excite me. Russell wasn’t great in the two “Escape Room” movies (but how much of that was horrible material?). And while I know this is considered sacrilege, I like Chalamet’s work more than I love it. But I’ll give the pair this, they’re really going for it here.

“Bones and All” follows two lovers with a shared fondness for eating people as they make a road-trip across America during the 1980s. The new trailer shows the film to be a queasy mix of romance and horror all with Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” bopping in the background. Most attractive is the interesting supporting cast that includes Mark Rylance, Michael Stuhlbarg, André Holland, Chloë Sevigny, David Gordon Green, and Jessica Harper among others. This looks like a movie with a lot of potential to go either way.

“Bones and All” hits theaters November 23rd. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “Dead For A Dollar” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Walter Hill making a new Western excited me. A cast that includes Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Rachel Brosnahan, and Benjamin Bratt was icing on the cake. That’s a lot of talent for “Dead For A Dollar”, a modestly budgeted embrace of a once thriving movie genre. As with the 80-year-old Hill’s past hits and misfires alike, “Dead For A Dollar” is effortlessly watchable. It’s straightforwardness and casual pace might be a hurdle for some. But there’s something about its easy-going style and intoxicating milieu.

One of the film’s most noticeable distinctions is how it often looks, sounds, and plays like an old Western serial. The sharp digital look, the framing of specific shots, the scene-to-scene transitions, even some of the dialogue seem like callbacks to classic television. It’s a cool style choice that actually fits well with Hill’s leisurely storytelling. For example, a big chunk of the movie has characters simply hanging out, waiting for the story’s inevitable climax, almost like filler episodes in a TV series.

But unlike filler episodes which are known for their lack of story progression and character development, Hill gives us plenty to soak up in these stretches of supposed downtime. It’s where his potpourri of players and the world where they exist begins to take form. It’s where grievances can be started or settled over a good card game. It’s also where everyone (and I mean everyone) packs a six-shooter, and they love talking about them just as much as using them.

Image Courtesy of Quiver Distribution

As for the story (conceived by Hill and Matt Harris), you’ll need more than ten fingers to count all the tropes you’ll come across. But this is no copy-and-paste effort. Hill is too savvy of a filmmaker for that. And while the story is soaked in nostalgia, Hill isn’t beholden to it. Instead “Dead For A Dollar” is a movie you absorb as you watch a filmmaker honor yet subtly subvert a genre he clearly loves. Equally fun is recognizing Hill’s many influences, whether it’s the simple nuts-and-bolts ethos of Budd Boetticher (to whom the movie is dedicated) or the violent jolts of Sam Peckinpah. Yet Hill still adds plenty of his own flavor, especially in the extended action-fueled finale that has his fingerprints all over it.

Set in 1897, renowned bounty hunter Max Borlund (Waltz) is called on by a prominent businessman named Martin Kidd (Hamish Linklater). According to Kidd, a buffalo soldier named Elijah Jones (Brandon Scott) abducted his wife Rachel (Brosnahan) and crossed the border into Mexico. He says Jones has demanded $10,000 which he refuses to pay. So he wants Max to go to Mexico and bring his wife back. The job may not fully pass the smell test, but it seems pretty cut-and-dry so Max accepts.

Since Elijah is also wanted for desertion, the army sends the chatty sharpshooter Alonzo Poe (Warren Burke) to accompany Max. The two cross the border, eventually catching up to Elijah and Rachel, and then escort them to a one-horse Mexican town where Max sends word to Martin that he’s found his wife and apprehended her abductor. As they wait for Martin to arrive, another side of Rachel and Elijah’s story emerges. Soon Max, a bounty hunter of principle with an affection for honesty, begins to question everything he’s been told.

Also in town is Joe Cribbens (Dafoe), a shady type from Texas who was just released from an Albuquerque prison. He’s come south to lay low a bit and play cards. But it just so happens that Max Borlund was the man who put him in prison, and Joe is the kind who holds a grudge. Add to the mix Tiberio Vargas (Bratt), a ruthless outlaw who (along with his gang of faceless final-act fodder) runs the territory and takes a special interest in the gringos new to town.

Image Courtesy of Quiver Distribution

It all makes for a combustible formula that (in true Western fashion) moves from a simmer to a boil. While we wait for the inevitable showdown (a beautifully staged extended flourish of gunfire and retribution) Hill and his cast have a good time unpacking this eclectic batch of characters. Waltz’s well-measured restraint is a solid foil for Dafoe’s gravelly scene-munching. Both are pitch-perfect. Brosnahan is a fearless straight-shooter and a strangely fascinating antithesis to the usual Western femme. And the steely Bratt, gets some fun mileage out of a fairly cookie-cutter heavy.

With “Dead For A Dollar”, Hill treats us to a buffet of gorgeous imagery, sweeping us away with his stunning widescreen vistas and sucking us in with his artfully blocked interiors. Nearly every scene radiates an alluring sepia-tinted glow reminiscent of an vintage photograph but with startling clarity. There’s never a shortage of pretty things to see.

“Dead For A Dollar” may not satisfy those hungry for a fresh spin on the classic Western. But there’s beauty in the way it tips its Stetson to its influences. And it’s not like Hill doesn’t have a few ideas of his own. Take the well-meaning revisionism that doesn’t play out as well as it could, yet adds a spirited contemporary twist. And then you have Hill himself. Just the richness of his style and his sheer filmmaking know-how makes this worth watching. Add in all its other strengths and you have a movie sure to be dismissed by some but cherished by others. Count me in latter camp. “Dead For a Dollar” opens today in select theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” (2022)

After four years, director Peter Farrelly returns to the big screen for the first time since winning the Best Picture Oscar for 2018’s “Green Book”. While it might not have been Best Picture material (whatever that even means), “Green Book” was an earnest, big-hearted crowdpleaser that infuriated many who took the film (and awards shows in general) too seriously. It had its flaws, but it also had its charm.

Farrelly’s follow-up, “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” features some of the same ticks that both helped and hurt “Green Book”. It’s sincere, mainstream, feel-good entertainment. But it also keeps so much on the surface, rarely (if ever) digging into the themes it introduces. The movie has a good message, several of them in fact. But the screenplay (co-written by Farrelly, Brian Currie, and Pete Jones) bluntly conveys them rather than explore them which is sure to push away those looking for something deeper.

Based on an inconceivable true account, “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” tells the story of John “Chickie” Donohue (played by a mustachioed Zac Efron, packing his signature goofiness and charm). Set in 1967, Chickie Donohue is a thick-headed merchant marine who still lives with his parents in Inwood, a tight-knit neighborhood in northern Manhattan.

Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

While many local boys are off fighting in Vietnam, Chickie and his gaggle of drinking buddies spend most of their time hanging out at a bar owned and ran by the Colonel (a fantastic Bill Murray). Collectively, the group sits around declaring their unwavering support of the war even though they can’t really articulate what America is fighting for (certainly it’s something to do with those dang “Commies”). But with eight kids from their neighborhood already killed in action and a ninth just declared MIA, their blind allegiance is a tough sell.

On the other side is Chickie’s sister Christine (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis) who’s heavily involved in war protests which he believes dishonors the troops. So Chickie and his pals from the pub hatch a wild-haired idea – one rooted in mind-boggling naivete. Wouldn’t it be great if someone from back home went to Vietnam and surprised the neighborhood boys still fighting with an ice-cold beer? What better way (in their minds) to support the troops? And who better to carry out such a cockamamie plan than Chickie?

While Chickie’s appreciation for the troops is sincere, he’s just as much about showing he’s not a flake. None of his friends or his family expect he’ll REALLY go over to Vietnam. After all, he has a reputation for not going through with his ideas. Convicted over his inaction and determined to prove that everyone’s wrong about him, Chickie stuffs a bottomless duffel bag with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and hops a cargo ship bound for Vietnam. Two months and 10,000 nautical miles later he arrives in Vietnam and begins his improbable beer run across a war-torn country.

After firmly establishing Chickie’s ignorance of the world around him, Farrelly spends the rest of the film opening the eyes of our well-meaning yet gullible dope. Much of what he learns comes from the assortment of people he encounters. There’s Arthur Coates (Russell Crowe), a cynical but realistic war correspondent for Look Magazine. There’s “Oklahoma” (Kevin K. Tran), a local traffic cop he befriends in Saigon. And there’s the hysterical Lieutenant Habershaw (Matt Cook) who’s convinced Chickie is an undercover CIA agent.

Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

But Chickie’s biggest reality checks comes through his unexpected face-to-faces with war itself. Such as when he dupes his way to the front-line to see his buddy Duggan (Jake Picking). Or when he gets caught up in the Tet Offensive. These scenes stretch the bounds of plausibility, yet they offer several sobering moments for Chickie and us. It all comes down to how much you buy into both Chickie and his outlandish odyssey. Efron’s multilayered performance is convincing even when the storytelling isn’t. And while it’s hard to buy some of the liberties Farrelly and company take, Efron ensures we never doubt Chickie or his motivations.

There’s one hilariously delivered line of dialogue that perfectly sums up Chickie’s crazy venture, “It may be idiotic”, says one character, “but it’s a noble gesture.” The movie agrees. Farrelly makes no attempt to hide the absurdity of Chickie’s idea or the crazy way he pulls it off. But it does recognize Chickie’s heart and his transformation from a naive and credulous lunkhead to an informed and contrite lunkhead. Ultimately that worked for me.

At times Farrelly’s pacing feels too rushed, and the tone-hopping can be distracting. Also, his attempt at connecting the fractured country then to our current climate of divisiveness doesn’t quite land. Still, I love the intent and the optimism behind its overarching message. Efron continues to grow on me as an actor, there are a few good laughs, and several of the more sobering moments have the desired emotional impact. It’s probably too much to juggle in one movie, but Farrelly keeps it all together and makes an utterly preposterous true story resonate in ways I wasn’t expecting. “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” opens tomorrow (Sept. 30th) in select theaters and streams on Apple TV+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Hatching” (2022)

One of the more surprising horror movies to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was a small Finnish feature called “Hatching”. Hanna Bergholm’s directorial debut plays like a coming-of-age fairy tale – one that explores a number of potent underlying themes but with a nasty edge. It’s a movie that blends several aspects from the horror genre, but does so in a strikingly inventive way that gives it an unnerving identity all its own.

The story revolves around 12-year-old Tinja (wonderfully played by newcomer Siiri Solalinna), a young gymnast who hatches a vicious bird-like creature from an egg she secretly nests in her bedroom. It may sound a little kooky, but once you get ahold of the metaphors at the center of screenwriter Ilja Rautsi’s story, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the movie’s smarts and ambition.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Tinja is part of a seemingly happy suburban family of four. Her father (Jani Volanen) is a weirdly detached man with a big smile but little in terms of agency. There’s also her petulant kid brother, Matias (Oiva Ollila) who’s a bit of a pest. But the hands-down ruler of the house is her mother (Sophia Heikkilä), a former figure skater who now runs a popular lifestyle blog called “Lovely Everyday Life” (keep that title in mind). She’s all about painting an image of an ideal family for her followers to covet.

It doesn’t take long to see through the family’s sun-soaked facade. Tinja’s mother treats her father like a fixture for her blog rather than a husband (she’s nonchalantly having an affair with a handyman named Tero played by Reino Nordin). And her father seems content to play his part. The attention-hungry Matias gets loved on while his mother is filming, but is an afterthought whenever the camera is off. That leaves Tinja who faces the brunt of her passive-aggressive mother’s overbearing win-at-all-costs mentality. Tinja’s mom is determined that her daughter be a superstar gymnast regardless of the misery it causes. It all makes for a home-life that’s a far cry from how it’s portrayed.

One afternoon the family is surprised when a crow unexpected flies into their house. After making a royal mess, Tinja is able to catch the bird in a blanket. But rather than letting it go, her mother snaps it’s neck and tells Tinja to dispose of it. Later that night, Tinja (still shocked by her mother’s callousness), hears the crow screeching. She follows its screams into a nearby forest where she discovers an egg. Rather than leaving it, Tinja brings it back home, tucking it cozily under her teddy bear pillow.

The egg begins to grow at an enormous rate and soon its as big as Tinja. When it inevitably hatches, out comes something hideous and terrifying – a bird-like creature with a mysterious psychological connection to Tinja. Effects-wise, the creature begins as an incredibly detailed animatronic puppet created by Gustav Hoegen. But over time, as it begins taking a near human form, the creature is played by actresses in makeup by two-time Oscar nominee Conor O’Sullivan.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

As the story progresses the tone gets noticeably darker. And as the creature changes it grows more menacing. The psychological chills give way to body horror as the creature takes on new forms. Meanwhile the film’s razor-sharp metaphor really comes into focus as the movie reaches its climax. The creature’s presence is a source of some good frights, but it’s Tinja’s mother who is the story’s true villain. Her actions are as vile as anything we see from the hatchling, and Bergholm uses both monsters to drill home some potent points about domineering mothers, adolescent anxieties, and child abuse in its many forms.

“Hatching” requires a bit of patience and you’ll need to be willing to just go with some things that the movie doesn’t detail. But the payoff is worth it, and the message at the story’s center is strikingly relevant today. I also love the genre nods we get, both narratively and creatively. It all testifies to the skills of Bergholm who turns in a remarkable first feature, marked with boldness and originality. I can’t wait to see what she does next. “Hatching” is streaming now on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

First Glance: “Aftersun”

Since premiering in May at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the autobiographical drama “Aftersun” has earned itself an enthusiastic following. The early buzz from first viewers is exciting, and critics have sang the film’s praises calling it “sensuous”, “visually arresting”, “extraordinary”, and “devastating”. A24 has shared the film’s first trailer, and while it’s hard to gain a cohesive grasp of the film, it gives us a good sense of what has the critics so enamored.

“Aftersun” is the feature film debut of writer and director Charlotte Wells. Her movie sees a woman named Sophie reminiscing about her childhood, specifically a vacation to Turkey with her father, Calum. The memories begin warm, sweet, and joyous. But 20 years later Sophie is struggling to reconcile the father of her memories with the man he is today. The film stars Paul Mescal & Frankie Corio and looks to be a real heartbreaker. I can’t wait to see it for myself.

“Aftersun” is set to release October 21st. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.