Smile Review

Parker Finn’s Smile is essentially The Ring if that distorted VHS tape were replaced with a distorted facial expression. As these jump scare heavy horror pics go, this one usually hits the right notes (including with its sound design).

Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is a psychologist working at a busy mental ward. She makes the acquaintance of Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who witnessed her professor commit suicide. Ever since then, she’s been traumatized by an unseen being. Laura is a basket case until… she’s not and a creepy grin emerges. Those who’ve witnessed the trailer know that bloodshed follows.

What also follows (it follows… so to speak) is an evil spirit possibly latching onto the doctor and no one believing her. This includes her fiancee (Jessie T. Usher), an ex boyfriend who’s a cop (Kyle Gallner), and her sister (Gillian Zinser). Their skepticism is understandable as a family tragedy when Rose was 10 years old might explain her bizarre behavior.

Besides the mentions of It Follows and The Ring, Finn’s debut (he wrote it too) borrows plenty from earlier genre pieces. While originality isn’t its strong suit, there are a few legitimately hair raising instances. There’s one session with Rose’s therapist that’s far scarier than the bill.

Despite a few unnecessary shots that seem inspired by Inception, Finn seems like a filmmaker to keep an eye on. Bacon (daughter of Kevin and Kyra Sedgwick) is given a few good moments of genuinely convincing terror. This is genre work executed well as these characters smile though their arteries are bursting.

*** (out of four)

Dune Review

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune arrives nearly three decades after David Lynch’s oft criticized version of Frank Herbert’s mid 60s sci-fi novel. It is source material that I’m frankly not familiar with so take that for what it’s worth. With the director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 at the controls, this is a technically masterful and consistently stunning looking experience. I also must admit that I didn’t get swept up in it no matter how amazing the desert landscapes appear (and do they ever).

Set 10,000 years in the future, the dense plot (as in often hard to follow) introduces us to the royal family of Caladan. Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) is the leader of House Atreides, a land with a plentiful supply of water and bagpipes. His concubine is Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) who possesses the powers of Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood of mystical beings thought to bear children with God-like abilities. Their offspring is Paul (Timothee Chalamet). One problem: the Lady was supposed to have a girl who eventually delivers this story’s version of The One, but she skipped a step.

The Atreides are ordered by Empirical decree to take over Arrakis, a planet with hardly any water (I’m uncertain about bagpipes). However, it is the only land with spice and that substances serves many purposes. First, it gets you high and gives one visions that might play into the plot later. Most importantly, it fuels interstellar travel and is therefore an extraordinarily valuable commodity. It’s what Gollum would be droning on endlessly about if this were another epic adventure. House Harkonnen and their rotund ruler (Stellan Skarsgard), the current Arrakis deed holders, are not going to give up those property rights without a fight.

We sense where all this is heading due to Paul’s visions of Chani (Zendaya). She’s a native of Arrakis and their citizens called the Fremen have learned to use their planet’s sandy and almost unlivable terrain to their advantage. They will need to accept Paul as their captain and that development… will or won’t happen in part two. Yes, part one is a subtitle here. Like some Marvel products that preceded this, you may find yourself realizing that not a lot really happens in this origin tale by the time two and a half hours has lapsed.

I recognize this may sound like sacrilege to the book’s devotees. There is plenty to praise in this immensely gifted director’s adaptation. The cast is uniformly top notch from Chalamet on down (FYI – Zendaya is a part II kinda thing because her participation is limited). Ferguson is perhaps the standout in a sprawling ensemble that includes Josh Brolin (as a trusted Atreides warrior), Javier Bardem (as a Fremen warrior), and Charlotte Rampling as a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit.

Dune worshipers forgive me. While I spent time marveling at the look and anticipating the unearthing of giant sandworms, I would put this behind Arrival and the Blade Runner follow-up without hesitation. Saying it feels like half a movie is easy criticism. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. It is tempting to recommend Dune based on spectacular work of composer Hans Zimmer and cinematographer Greig Fraser and the sound and visual effects artists. Yet I often found myself a bit shocked by my lack of awe in the story itself.

**1/2 (out of four)

Dog Review

When the two leads of Dog – one of the human variety and another of the canine persuasion – find their rhythm with each other, so does the film. That takes too long (about half of the running time) as we road trip though cartoonish potential threesomes and Mr. Magoo inspired humor. The screenplay from co-director Reid Carolin can’t seem to get out of its own way for the initial stretch. Fortunately Channing Tatum is the other co-director and his chemistry with the title character hits a stride in the back sections.

Tatum’s character was dropped into the Cool Sounding Movie Name Generator and out spat Jackson Briggs. He’s an ex Army Ranger doing menial jobs stateside and pining for a return of duty. When his former brother in arms dies in a car accident, he gets an assignment but not one sought. Briggs is tasked with transporting the deceased’s military dog Lulu from Washington State to the funeral in Arizona. Both Jackson and Lulu are suffering from PTSD. This is scheduled to be the latter’s final assignment as the aggressive hound will be euthanized following the burial.

While nothing in Dog says anything particularly fresh about its subject matter, the rapport between the stars elevates the material. It’s certainly their show as the supporting actors are bit players. Jane Adams and Kevin Nash show up as farmers of the up in smoke variety in one of the would be farcical excursions. Three Belgian Malinois portray the role of  Lulu. Tatum was inspired by a real road trip that he took with his ailing pooch in creating the story. The dramatic stuff works better than the attempts at comedy in the early goings. More of that may have helped and Dog is roughly (or ruffly) equal parts hit and miss.

**1/2 (out of four)

Barbarian Review

Zach Cregger’s Barbarian is really three movies in its 100 minutes and you won’t see two of them coming. You won’t find this Blu-Ray laying around at  an Airbnb for your viewing enjoyment (I realize there’s probably not many Blu-Rays laying around anyway). Your viewing enjoyment may depend on your tolerance for gross out scares and if that’s up your alley, this offers some genuine surprises.

Tess (Georgina Campbell) pulls up to a bad Detroit neighborhood to stay at the aforementioned company’s property. She has a job interview the next morning and is shocked to find someone else trying to catch some shuteye. Keith (Bill Skarsgard) is just as confused until they discover the property has been double booked.

For a little while, we’re led to think this could be a meet cute heading down rom com territory. Not so much. It’s hard to forget that Mr. Skarsgard donned creepy makeup recently as Pennywise in the It parts. The couple is instead heading down to the basement where there’s plenty of dank discoveries to uncover.

This is about where spoilers come into play and I do suggest watching Barbarian cold. We do have Justin Long in the mix as a sitcom actor going through a Me Too moment and other cast members whose house appearances shall remain a secret.

I give credit to Cregger, a sitcom actor himself and comedian, for a screenplay that veers into unexpected places. It also tackles some dark subjects while keeping the primary objective in focus. That’s to provide a frightening stay at this setting that wouldn’t merit many stars. On that note, just how were the previous reviews of previous guests? This creation does merit a referral for horror fans.

Confess, Fletch Review

It’s often the company our title character keeps in Confess, Fletch that determines the success rate. Jon Hamm effortlessly wears the role of a former journalist who is forced to solve a murder. The urgency is due to I.M. Fletcher finding a female corpse in the house he’s staying at in the first scene. He calls the police station instead of 911 after the discovery. Why? The emergency part is over, according to him. His ambivalence results in humorous moments throughout. It also leads to him becoming the prime suspect.

Greg Mottola has directed comedies that killed like Superbad and Adventureland. He’s also behind the dud Keeping Up with Joneses, which costarred Hamm. This reboot of a franchise that yielded one of Chevy Chase’s finest pics in 1985 and a disappointing 1989 sequel is somewhere in between. When it’s funny, it’s quite funny. There’s also the matter of the mystery itself and it’s not very compelling.

Before Chevy made the often disguised wisecracker into his own vehicle, the character was based on a series of Greg Mcdonald novels. Confess, Fletch is based on his second book. It involves kidnappings and art thievery that our former “investigative reporter of some repute” (as he refers to himself) gets caught up in due to his romance with wealthy Italian contessa Angela (Lorenza Izzo).

Fletch may be the prime suspect to law enforcement, played memorably by partners Inspector Monroe (Roy Wood Jr.) and Detective Griz (Ayden Mayeri). He nonchalantly scopes out others. This includes Angela’s potentially gold digging stepmom The Countess (Marcia Gay Harden) and perhaps Angela herself. The Countess is an example of a character played quite broadly and while Harden seems to be having a ball, there’s other personalities that the movie could’ve benefited from with more screen time. I’m thinking specifically of Annie Mumolo’s gossipy next door neighbor and Lucy Punch as a jilted ex-wife of another suspect. I would’ve taken more bits with them over The Countess or Kyle MacLachlan’s EDM loving art dealer.

Just like Hamm’s take on the reputed reporter, it’s easy to go along for the ride. It was also easy to wish for more of what worked best. Ultimately I was about as involved in the plot mechanisms as Fletch himself and that’s sporadic.

**1/2 (out of four)

Where the Crawdads Sing Review

Crossing a John Grisham style potboiler with the 1994 Jodie Foster woman in the wild pic Nell begets Where the Crawdads Sing. This is the adaptation of the hugely popular 2018 bestseller from Delia Owens (so well known that Taylor Swift offered to contribute an end credits tune called “Carolina”).

That’s North Carolina beginning in 1953 where Kya lives in the marshland with her alcoholic father, abused mother, and siblings. One by one they all flee until the seven-year-old is all by her lonesome. She sells mussels to the married local store purveyors (Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer Jr.) to make ends meet. Kya attempts an education, but the harassment of schoolmates makes that a one-day excursion.

As she grows into a young woman (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones), her interest in arts and nature hints at a promising career. The screenplay concentrates on Kya’s two romances. The first is with Tate (Taylor John Smith), who helps her learn to read and write before he’s slated to go away to college. The second is with star quarterback Chase (Harris Dickinson) whose union with The Marsh Girl (as the townsfolk call her) is his little secret.

For those uninitiated with the source material (this includes me), I’ll be careful not to wade into heavy spoiler territory. It’s not revealing too much to say that Kya’s publishing future is interrupted by a murder trial where she’s defended by David Strathairn’s dignified counselor.

Crawdads is all about Kya’s many experiences with abandonment. Part of the problem is that both of her beaus are blank slates. I never felt the chemistry between the Kya/Tate or Kya/Chase connections as much as they’re just presented to the audience. And that assisted in abandoning my own investment in the proceedings… both romantically and legally.

The screenplay never finds the right balance between the trial and the trials of our heroine away from the courtroom. From Edgar-Jones on down, the performances are serviceable but nothing beyond that. Crawdads has beautiful scenery to be sure. I wanted a more compelling story to occur there.

** (out of four)

Thor: Love and Thunder Review

The 29th time is not the charm for the MCU with Thor: Love and Thunder, a franchise entry meant to be bursting with joy. It somehow feels middling the majority of the time and it’s a significant downgrade from Taika Waititi’s predecessor Thor: Ragnarok from 2017.

Our Asgardian God of a title character (Chris Hemsworth) has been through a lot in the last half of a cinematic decade. He’s lost his family (including Loki more than once) in earlier Thor and Avengers tales. That even caused him to turn to the bottle and humorously pack on the pounds during Avengers: Endgame. 

He found a new lease on life with the Guardians of the Galaxy during those previous Avengers epics. That’s where we find him at the outset, but it doesn’t last long. The Guardians are off on a new adventure while old acquaintances pop up for Thor. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who hasn’t been seen since 2013’s The Dark World, reappears in a cancer stricken state. She discovers that her ex’s hammer Mjolnir gives her super strengths. Her old beau needs all the help he can get with a new nemesis. Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) is on a mission to off all the Gods (hence the name) after his own leader causes his young daughter to perish. That killing spree will eventually include Thor and the newish King of Asgard Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).

In what has become a common theme in Marvel’s stories, the main villain sorta has a point with his murderous schemes. We see that most of the Gods, including Russell Crowe’s Zeus, have turned into lazy do-nothings. However, when Gorr snatches a bunch of Asgardian kids, the fight is on.

Ragnarok was able to find a measured balance between dramatic elements and Waititi’s comedic sensibilities. Thunder feels downright goofy most of the time with its screaming goats and Guns n Roses greatest hits soundtrack playing over the battles. Just a little patience from the director might’ve made it more tolerable. More often than not, it falls into self parody territory. Maybe it’s on purpose. That doesn’t make it worthwhile.

What’s clear is that Waititi was given plenty of freedom to paint his canvass with this fourth official pic in the Thor series. I wish that translated to a more fruitful experience. Thor and Jane’s romance in the first two movies was never exactly a highlight so their reunion left me ambivalent. To be honest, Portman almost seems a bit bored during her transformation to the Mighty Thor. Bale doesn’t seem disinterested but his bad guy is of the one note and forgettable variety.

Thor: Love and Thunder does have a few jokes that land (I chuckled at character mispronouncing Jane’s full name). Yet I couldn’t escape this thought when the credits rolled the first and second and final time… I’d rank this 29th MCU saga 29th.

** (out of four)

The Swimmers Review

The emotional power of Sally El Hosaini’s The Swimmers is present, but it comes in waves interrupted by sprinkles of forced sentimentality and padded length. This true story of two sisters escaping war torn Syria is gripping enough that a Rocky style training montage and pop music interludes feels a little extra. For much of its length, this is a potent and often frightening tale of the refugee experience through their eyes and their fellow travelers from numerous nations.

Yusra (Nathalie Issa) and Sara (Manal Issa) Mardini are being trained by their father/coach (Ali Suliman) to excel in the title sport. The goal is clear – make the Olympics and do their country proud. Real world events interfere when, by 2015, President Assad is waging war on his own citizens. For any hope of success or just surviving, the sibs join their cousin (Ahmed Malek) on a trek to Germany while leaving their parents and little sister behind. The long road to pined for full family reunification find its path through several countries and the Aegean Sea.

That dangerous Sea crossing is the climactic centerpiece and it comes around the middle mark of 134 minutes. El Hosaini and her team are technically proficient. The sound and cinematography deserve special mention. It’s an expertly constructed sequence and there’s other haunting bits of the Mardini’s path to freedom.

The running time is too long. By the time the Yusra and Sara find a German instructor (Matthias Schweighofer) to assist in making the 2016 Rio games a reality (through the Refugee Olympic Team or ROT), The Swimmers becomes watered down. It simply can’t keep up with what preceded it.

You may note the actresses playing the Mardini’s have the same last name and that’s because the Issa’s are also sisters. This shows in their effortless chemistry. Yusra is focused on the gold medal goal while Sara is more of a wild card. However, she doesn’t hesitate to move into older sibling protective mode when called upon. Before they reach Rio, that’s when The Swimmers hits mostly right notes. To borrow a phrase from Duran Duran (even though it’s Sia who gets the soundtrack love), that’s when El Hosaini and her team really shine and show you all they can.

*** (out four)

Three Thousand Years of Longing Review

It’s not that I wished I hadn’t watched Three Thousand Years of Longing, George Miller’s deconstruction of a Djinn’s fulfillment offerings. There are fascinating moments and the maker of the Mad Max franchise will always be good for a visual spectacle. By its conclusion, I wished I’d been more compelled by its narratologist lead Alithea (Tilda Swinton). Early on she expresses that she finds her feelings via stories. That translates to her personal life where she claims to be content being a loner. In her professional life, Alithea basically regales conference attendees and students with her takes about grand tales and the mythology behind them.

While on assignment in Istanbul, she purchases an antique artifact that summons the Djinn (Idris Elba) in her hotel lavatory. The London scholar is soon presented with a predictable request – three wishes for the pointy eared visitor’s freedom. She doesn’t bite because her occupation tells her that the genie story is always cautionary in nature.

Alithea does get what she wants for awhile as the pair converse in their bathrobes. Djinn provides her with his history of being bottled and not bottled. As the title suggests, it’s 30 centuries of anecdotes and they involve harems of plus size concubines and being part of a Solomon and Sheba love triangle. The most effective involves a captive love interest (Burca Golgedar) whose genius inventions are ahead of their time and not proper for her gender to tout.

I will acknowledge that Longing is unpredictable in a frequently fun way as Djinn recounts his unique brand of cautionary tales (Alithea’s not exactly wrong with her gut reaction). The interplay between Swinton and Elba allows for some humorous and highly entertaining passages. When their association rises to a higher level, it’s where I felt Miller and cowriter Augusta Gore’s screenplay doesn’t emotionally land. The lover from the lamp’s past is more spellbinding than his present with Alithea. That makes the third act, in particular, disappointing and made me long for more from this story.

**1/2 (out of four)

Beast Review

The easiest way to review Beast is as follows: if you want to watch Idris Elba attempt to cold-cock a lion, you’re in luck! Of course I want to see that and it happens in this survival thriller. The remaining hour and a half surrounding it is a disappointingly low energy affair with a screenplay that borders on laughable at times. The CG isn’t laughable, but I never forgot Elba and his daughters were battling a giant cat of pixelated proportions.

Elba is Dr. Samuels, who travels from America to South Africa for a needed excursion with daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries). The family is mourning the recent loss of the matriarch who the doctor was separated from. They aren’t the only mammals grieving. Poachers have taken out a pride of lions, but one survived. That wounded creature (emotionally and physically I suppose) is hungry for revenge.

When the Samuels clan joins an old friend and wildlife biologist (Sharlto Copley) on a nature reserve trip, that vengeful roarer disrupts it. In Cujo style, the title character torments the family in and around their immobile vehicle. The movie itself struggles to get its motor running.

Baltasar Kormakur directs and he’s well-versed in nature tales like Everest and Adrift. His work is sometimes overly flashy or bordering on boring with a jump scare every few minutes to break the monotony. There’s hardly an in-between.

Beast could have coasted on its B flick concept. Ryan Engle’s clunky screenplay gets in the way from its lame family therapy sessions to lines designed for trailers only (“We’re in his territory now!”). The script attempts to push an anti-poaching theme… as evidenced by the youngest daughter at one point exclaiming “God, I hate these poachers!” That kind of subtlety is what you get here. If you want to watch Idris Elba punch a lion, expect to fight through the mediocrity of it all.

** (out of four)