Don’t Smile Because It’s Named ‘Smile,’ Scream Because It Happened

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Smile!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (CREDIT: Paramount Pictures)

Starring: Sosie Bacon, Kyle Gallner, Jessie T. Usher, Kal Penn, Gillian Zinser, Robin Weigert, Caitlin Stasey, Nick Arapoglou, Rob Morgan, Dora Kiss, Judy Reyes

Director: Parker Finn

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Brutal Bloody Ends

Release Date: September 30, 2022

What’s It About?: Demons sure love their chain letters, don’t they? And they’re pretty fastidious about keeping up with today’s technology, so they don’t need to come in the form of an actual piece of paper anymore. A videotape certainly sufficed in the VHS era. Or a roll in the hay is an evergreen opportunity to pass the curse along, since people are always having sex. And certainly, that there chain letter needn’t even take physical form, as it can spread through a series of premonitions, or in the case of Smile, via the creepiest facial expressions imaginable. That’s the conundrum that psychiatrist Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) finds herself in, after she witnesses a patient take her own life while sporting the most disturbing grin she’s ever seen. Rose then ends up haunted by the same evil entity, and she’s got about a week to figure it all out before it consumes her completely.

What Made an Impression?: One word immediately comes to mind to describe the viewing experience of Smile: frustrating. But I suspect that that may be by design. This evil has a knack for finding overworked, traumatized individuals. Rose is regularly putting in 80-hour workweeks in a job that takes a heavy emotional toll, and on top of that, much of her life has been shaped by an abusive childhood during which her mother overdosed right in front of her. And the patient (Caitlin Stasey) whose death she witnessed was a PhD student, so I imagine she wasn’t getting a whole lot of sleep either. This all makes for a messy formula where Rose doesn’t have the wherewithal to explain what’s happening to her, and everyone in her life either doesn’t have the patience to understand, or if they do have the patience, it doesn’t really matter because it’s too far beyond anything they themselves have ever experienced anyway.

Contrast that setup to Smile‘s closest analogue, The Ring, in which Naomi Watts plays a take-charge investigative reporter who does everything she can to avoid being a curse’s next victim. Rose, meanwhile, is in no shape to be able to pull anything like that off. Although, to be fair to her and all the other victims, the implication is that there truly is no escape from this deadly fate. (There may be a possible exception reminiscent of the rules of the Final Destination, but that option doesn’t exactly come off as particularly appealing either.) Smile would certainly be a lot more fun if we had a more well-rested, defiant protagonist. But I don’t want to dismiss it completely, because it strikes me as a telling portrait of the fog of living through mental illness and post-trauma. It’s painful to witness, but worth digesting.

Smile is Recommended If You Like: The Ring, It Follows, The Grudge, Final Destination (Spoiler Alert?)

Grade: 3 out of 5 Smiles

‘Catherine Called Birdy’: Kickin’ It Teen Style 1290 AD Edition

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Look at that Birdy fly! (CREDIT: Alex Bailey/© Amazon Content Services LLC)

Starring: Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Joe Alwyn, Dean Charles-Chapman, Paul Kaye, Lesley Sharp, Sophie Okonedo, Ralph Ineson, Michael Woolfitt, Isis Hainsworth, Archie Renaux

Director: Lena Dunham

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Power of Suggestion

Release Date: September 23, 2022 (Theaters)/October 7, 2022 (Amazon Prime Video)

What’s It About?: What was life like for a sassy, opinionated teenage girl in 1290 England? That’s what Catherine Called Birdy is here to let us know! Based on a 1994 children’s novel by Karen Cushman, it follows the always rambunctious days of the irrepressible Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey), aka (you guessed it) “Birdy.” She’s an unmistakably independent young woman, but what does that even mean in a patriarchal medieval society? Despite her unique wants and desires as a human being in her own right, the standards of the time insist that she’s little more than a bargaining chip for marriage. She might drive her parents (Andrew “Hot Priest” Scott and Billie “Companion Rose” Piper) batty, but they do love her. Although, they’re also in quite the financial bind, so they could really use that dowry moolah from even the oldest, ugliest, most grotesque suitor. What’s a little Birdy to do?!

What Made an Impression?: There’s something mystical about watching a story set in a time before mass telecommunication. Since there’s no video evidence of the era, any picture of centuries ago is a mere approximation. But this wasn’t exactly a problem for the people when they were alive in 1290. In fact, I would go so far as to say that nobody ever thought about that sort of thing, unless they were unusually philosophically inclined. Certainly, Birdy and her family and friends don’t concern themselves with such thoughts; instead, they mostly just go about their routines and live their lives as they are wont to do. So the fact that we get to have a peek into those lives arrives like a mysterious gift from the universe, even if it is all fully fictional.

On a more quotidian level, I also appreciate that Catherine Called Birdy is family-friendly without feeling like it’s holding back. There are several moments where it feels frighteningly possible that things could turn bloody and/or abusive. And while we’re spared the worst details, we’re not spared the vicarious experience of what it’s like to be a teenage girl at a time when that meant you were basically property. Ramsey boils it all together with a spirited, feral performance that should hook in plenty of viewers.

Catherine Called Birdy is Recommended If You Like: Rolling around on hills, Occasional swordplay, The scene with Dennis the Peasant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Dowries

‘The Silent Twins’ Confounds and Fascinates

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How silent ARE they?! (CREDIT: Courtesy of Lukasz Bak/Focus Features)

Starring: Letitia Wright, Tamara Lawrance, Leah Mondesir-Simmonds, Eva-Arianna Baxter, Nadine Marshall, Treva Etienne, Michael Smiley, Jack Bandeira, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn

Director: Agnieszka Smoczyńska

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Rating: R for Teens Misbehaving

Release Date: September 16, 2022 (Theaters)

What’s It About?: Identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons don’t exactly like communicating with anyone besides each other. They keep extensive diaries and invent a sort of sing-song patter with an oddly clipped accent, but again, that’s just for themselves. It’s almost invasive that we get to see a movie version of them doing this, even if it’s not documentary footage. Twins are notorious for having their own unique twin language, which is apparently so common that there’s a name (and Wikipedia page) for it. It’s called “cryptophasia,” and the Gibbonses have the most extreme version I’ve ever witnessed. They talk and walk and dance in unison. It’s practically telepathic. But it also cuts them off from the rest of their family and the rest of society, as they stumble into teenage rebelliousness and eventually end up in a mental hospital.

What Made an Impression?: Much like its real-life subjects, The Silent Twins seems to be creating its own vernacular, one that I found kind of impenetrable. Ambitious movies are wont to attempt such a thing, and it’s always a gamble whether or not the audience can pick up on it. I found myself in a blur, but I certainly appreciated the effort. The ladies playing the twins certainly give it their all, with Letitia Wright as June and Tamara Lawrance as Jennifer. And as the younger versions, Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter are just as revelatory.

But for as unique as much of this story and much of the filmmaking are, the mischief that June and Jennifer get up to is rather garden variety. Now, if the events that we see are what really happened (or close to it), I’m not asking for any fabulation. But the way it all plays out struck me as a little ho-hum. Maybe there’s just a natural oomph of resistance when you try to fit a typical narrative engine onto such an atypical subject. There’s plenty to dig in and analyze here, though; it’s just not always electric.

The Silent Twins is Recommended If You Like: Secret twin languages, The Dark Side of Coming-of-Age

Grade: 3 out of 5 Secret Languages

Mia Goth Reveals the ‘Pearl’ Within

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Pearls Prays for Popularity (CREDIT: Christopher Moss/A24)

Starring: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro, Alistair Sewell

Director: Ti West

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: R for Bloodlust Breaking Free and Some Peaks at Naughty “Stag Films”

Release Date: September 16, 2022 (Theaters)

What’s It About?: Did you see this spring’s X and wonder what the deal was with that old lady? I know I sure did. Well, it turns out that Ti West actually made two movies at once, so now we get to discover what Pearl’s formative years were really like! It’s 1918, Mia Goth has shed the old lady makeup, and she and her family are living a semi-secluded life to avoid the horrors of World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. But Pearl longs for so much more than that! She wasn’t born to care for her paralyzed father (Matthew Sunderland) and simply wait for her husband’s return while her domineering mother (Tandi Wright) browbeats her into submission. She can’t help but dream of stardom, which she hopes to achieve while hanging out with a local hunky projectionist (David Corenswet) and auditioning for a dance troupe with her sister-in-law (Emma Jenkins-Purro). And if any of this doesn’t work out for her? Hoo boy, you’d better stay out of her way.

What Made an Impression?: I haven’t seen very many movies set in the 1910s, so I didn’t know quite what to expect in regards to Pearl making the most of its setting. But I was still thrown for quite a loop. When the title character starts dancing around her barn and serenading her animals, I was getting wholesome classic sitcom vibes in the vein of Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. The fanciful font used in the credits is also reminiscent of fantastical programs like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Maybe those shows were taking some of their cues from Old Hollywood? Regardless of the exact nature of the influences, this is an unmistakable throwback to an era when all of the main character’s most melodramatic emotions are all over every single inch of the celluloid.

Let’s make absolutely no mistake about it, this is a 100% tour de force for Ms. Mia Goth. With her big saucer eyes and ethereal voice, she’s always been a distinctive screen presence, and that’s never been truer than it is here. Her sheer force of will ensures that the connection between the two movies (thus far) in this series is as deep as possible. Pearl and her other X character of Max are historical doppelgängers, bound by a shared desire to become a star at all costs. When that drive manifests itself in the form of an impromptu song-and-dance number with a scarecrow, there’s no question that I’m all in. You all should feel the same.

Pearl is Recommended If You Like: Classic Hollywood, Classic sitcoms, Classic slashers

Grade: 4 out of 5 Axes

Time to Confess What I Thought About ‘Confless, Fletch’!

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So many confessions, so little time (CREDIT: Miramax/Paramount)

Starring: Jon Hamm, Roy Wood Jr., Lorenza Izzo, Ayden Mayeri, Marcia Gay Harden, Kyle MacLachlan, John Slattery, Annie Mumolo, John Behlmann

Director: Greg Mottola

Running Time: 98 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Gunfire and a Little Bit of Wacky Horniness

Release Date: September 16, 2022 (Theaters and On Demand)

What’s It About?: Irwin “Fletch” Fletcher is back! But did he ever really go away? Well, yeah, kind of. Chevy Chase played him in a couple of outings in the 80s, but they haven’t really left much of a lasting cultural impression on the younger generations. If you’re wondering how Jon Hamm could ever take over a part made famous by Mr. Pratfall-in-Chief, be assured that it doesn’t matter. The version of this slippery investigative reporter we meet in Confess, Fletch hardly resembles the white guy who sported an Afro wig and a Lakers jersey. He bumbles around a bit, but so would just about anyone who gets accused of murder in a case of mistaken identity. Anyway, Fletch sets out to clear his name and interacts with a bunch of wacky characters along the way. But, you may be wondering, are they wacky enough?

What Made an Impression?: There are a few early scenes in Confess, Fletch in which Hamm seems to be trying to summon his inner Chevy Chase, and I’m like, “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” Sure, he can be funny despite his preternatural handsomeness, but it’s not of the crash-into-everything, smart aleck variety. What he can nail is the psychopath lurking underneath the pristine surface. But ultimately he’s not asked to deliver either of these personas. Instead, he’s more of the straight man reacting to all the chaos around him (in various flavors of cockamamie from the likes of Annie Mumolo, Marcia Gary Harden, and Kyle MacLachlan). Hamm can certainly provide that competently, but it’s hardly spectacular. Which pretty much describes this movie as a whole.

But one actor does shine especially bright, and that would be Ayden Mayeri, who’s having quite the breakout year, along with her turns in Spin Me Round and Apple TV+’s The Afterparty. She’s one of the two detectives (alongside Roy Wood Jr.) on Fletch’s tail, and at first it seems like she’s playing your typical flummoxed, overmatched authority figure. But she knows what she’s doing, despite her bouts of clumsiness. Sure, she may spill a milkshake all over her shirt, but her investigative instincts are sharp. She gets a big “thank you” from Fletch at the end, and I’m happy to second that sentiment.

Confess, Fletch is Recommended If You Like: Fidelity to source material that’s not super famous

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Lakers Caps

‘Moonage Daydream’ Transports Us to the David Bowie Dimension

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Rockin! (CREDIT: NEON)

Starring: David Bowie

Director: Brett Morgen

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Brief Snippets of Profane Rock ‘n’ Roll

Release Date: September 16, 2022 (Theaters)

What’s It About?: David Bowie lives! Not in the most literal sense, of course. But certainly in plenty of metaphorical senses, as his entire discography remains readily available to listen and re-listen to, while his on-screen appearances are also similarly accessible. But in the six years since his death, his presence has never been more profoundly felt than in the new Brett Morgen-directed documentary Moonage Daydream. It’s a montage primarily consisting of rare and never-before-seen concert footage and interviews. Edited in a stream-of-conscious, mostly chronological fashion, it gives off an uncannily transcendent vibe of simultaneous familiarity and revelation.

What Made an Impression?: If you’re a fan of David Bowie, Moonage Daydream will make you fall in love with him all over again. If you’re not a fan, hopefully you can at least appreciate the deep dive into his psyche that this film offers. And if you’ve somehow never heard of Bowie, hoo boy, I don’t know if there’s any way for you to fully prepare for this experience.

This is the type of movie where you could rearrange the order of every single scene, and it would still feel pretty much the same. Or maybe it would feel a little different, but still equally satisfying. In my attempt to recreate it in my mind since watching it a few weeks ago, I’m not sure what followed what exactly. I didn’t take as many notes as I usually do, as it felt much more appropriate to let the whole thing just wash over me. (The only Bowie quote I did write down was “What’s my relationship with the universe?”, which feels apt.)

Mixed in with all the Bowie-centric footage are snippets of thematically similar pop culture artifacts, including quick clips of some choice sci-fi B-movies, like Plan 9 from Outer Space and This Island Earth. Is this some sort of cosmic message assuring us that Ziggy Stardust has found his otherworldly place alongside these classics? I’m certainly happy to interpret it that way.

Moonage Daydream is Recommended If You Like: Koyaanisqatsi

Grade: 4 out of 5 Personae

‘Clerks III’: The Middle-Aged, Post-Heart Attack Version

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That’s so Clerks … III (CREDIT: Lionsgate)

Starring: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Trevor Fehrman, Austin Zajur, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Rosario Dawson, Amy Sedaris

Director: Kevin Smith

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: R for Casual Potty Mouths

Release Date: September 13, 2022 (In Theaters September 13-18)

What’s It About?: Are Dante Hicks and Randal Graves stuck in purgatory? Or maybe they’re happy to still be working at the Quick Stop nearly 30 years after we first checked in with them. Randal (Jeff Anderson) is certainly his same happy-go-lucky self, but maybe he should take things a little more seriously, since Clerks III does start with him having a heart attack. But instead of focusing on eating healthy and exercising, he decides to direct a movie about life as a convenience store clerk. Uh-oh, is Kevin Smith making a stealth remake of his own signature film? Kinda-sorta, as there are plenty of in-jokes and callbacks, but he’s actually more concerned about just giving his characters some proper story arcs. So while Dante (Brian O’Halloran) gets roped into the whole production, he’s also pining after a now-deceased Becky (Rosario Dawson), while Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are still hanging out, and there’s also a whole lot of talk about crypto and NFTs.

What Made an Impression?: I’ve never seen the first Clerks, though it’s not for lack of interest. (It’s on my long to-watch list, I promise!) But I have seen Clerks II, every episode of the short-lived animated series, and now Clerks III. From my vantage point, it’s almost as if Numero Uno exists in a completely different universe. It emerged in black & white during the indie boom of the early 90s, and then II was released in the summer of 2006 as a crisp studio comedy. Now the third one is opting for a roadshow tour alongside a limited-time wide theatrical release. If you’re wondering why Clerks III even exists, it’s because Kevin Smith just wanted to make another one for all the people who have supported him over the years.

Considering the circuitous preproduction path and untraditional release strategy, it might be a little surprising how straightforward the plot is. Randal has a big idea, everyone else bands together to make it happen, then he and Dante have a falling out, and finally the whole crew ultimately realizes what’s truly important. This is by-the-books comedy feature writing, nothing revolutionary about it. And that’s okay! Sometimes we just want to check in on our friends and see how they’re doing. And if you can throw in a running gag about size anxiety, go for it. It might be a little juvenile, sure, but it’s also open-minded and comforting. In conclusion, I chuckled here and there, I soaked up the bonhomie, and I was happy to live another day.

Clerks III is Recommended If You Like: Late 90s/Early 2000s Alt-Rock, Shameless celebrity friend cameos, Eternal youth evolving into something a little more adult

Grade: 3 out of 5 Moobys

Movie Review Catch-Up: ‘Fall,’ ‘Spin Me Round,’ ‘Orphan: First Kill’

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What’s going to Fall? (CREDIT: Lionsgate)

Fall:

Starring: Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner, Mason Gooding, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Director: Thomas Mann

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: August 12, 2022 (Theaters)

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‘The Invitation’ Review: Suspiciously Enticing

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Who’s RSVP-ing, Natahalie Emmanuel would like to know (CREDIT: Screen Gems)

Starring: Nathalie Emmanuel, Thomas Doherty, Hugh Skinner, Stephanie Corneliussen, Alana Boden, Courtney Taylor, Sean Pertwee

Director: Jessica M. Thompson

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Few Pokes in the Chest and Neck and Some Tasteful Sexuality

Release Date: August 26, 2022 (Theaters)

What’s It About?: You know, a lot of people nowadays submit their DNA to various companies. The Invitation posits that that might not be the best idea, though. Do we really want distant family members we never knew we had to suddenly be able to contact us? Probably not. Although, maybe it might be nice if they’re fancy Brits who can whisk us away on an all-expense paid trip to a giant mansion in the English countryside. That’s what happens to adult orphan Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) when her newly discovered cousin Oliver (Hugh Skinner) invites her to a wedding. That sounds a little fishy to me, and honestly, it sounds a little fishy to Evie as well, but girl, she could sure use a vacation. Anyway, after she arrives, she has a meet-cute with man of the house Walter (Thomas Doherty), but he’s just a little too suspiciously charming, isn’t he?

What Made an Impression?: The Invitation doesn’t fully reveal its hand until about three-quarters of the way through. But based on the trailer, it’s clear what’s going on, so this appears to be a case of the premise being treated like a twist. Put another way: this movie sure takes its dang time. The teases in the early going are also far and few between. One aggressive character sucks on Evie’s finger after it gets cut, and that’s about the only clue we get. It’s really all we need, though, because what else could that mean?! But this isn’t a mystery movie, it’s an escape-from-the-prison-of-your-toxic-secret-family movie. Unless I’ve completely misunderstood director Jessica M. Thompson and her co-screenwriter Blair Butler’s intentions. And in that case, I just wish they had made something more compelling.

The Invitation is Recommended If You Like: Ignoring obvious red flags

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Cousins

‘Breaking’ is Desperation Distilled

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John Boyega is … Breaking (CREDIT: Bleecker Street)

Starring: John Boyega, Nicole Beharie, Michael K. Williams, Selenis Leyva, Connie Britton, Jeffrey Donovan, Olivia Washington, London Covington

Director: Abi Damaris Corbin

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Constantly Being on the Edge of Disaster

Release Date: August 26, 2022 (Theaters)

What’s It About?: Brian Brown-Easley is a most desperate man. A clerical error is preventing him from getting his benefit payments from the Veteran Affairs office, and with his precarious financial situation being what it is, that could very easily mean ending up on the street. So he decides to hold up a bank to procure his money. But his plan isn’t robbery. Rather, it’s about getting the VA’s attention so that they’ll finally hold up their end of the bargain. So he announces that’s he got a bomb and takes a couple of bank employees hostage. As the tense day unfolds, Brian checks in with his ex-wife and young daughter, contacts a local news station on his own, and flummoxes the authorities with his intractable demands.

What Made an Impression?: Breaking is based on a true story, and I imagine that the real Brian Brown-Easley would be happy with the way it turned out. After all, the underlying purpose of his holdup was getting the message out about the VA’s broken system. His monetary demand was quite paltry, in fact. He’s owed $892.34, and that’s all he’s asking for. Not a penny less, and not a penny more. If you were to offer him, say, ten dollars extra, hoo boy, get ready to watch his blood boil all over Georgia. And even though he’s at the bank, he insists that the cash has to come from the VA. He’s willing to die over that demand. A few breaths might be enough to make most people conclude that that’s a drastic overreaction, but I can see where Brian’s coming from.

In a movie where the performances are essential, four stand out as absolutely doing everything we need them to do. Thankfully, we can count John Boyega as Brian among those essentials; he’s fully locked in to seeing everything through to the end. Then there’s Nicole Beharie as the bank manager and Selenis Leyva as the teller, the former pulling out all the stops to make a lifesaving connection and the latter sunken deep into survival mode. And then we’ve got a posthumous gift from Michael K. Williams as the lead negotiator; if there’s anyone who could ever possibly lead us out of such an impossible situation, it’s gotta be the guy who so famously taught the value of a personal code. Let’s hope society takes the lesson of Breaking and catches up.

Breaking is Recommended If You Like: Dog Day Afternoon, Subtle activism, Behind the scenes of live news broadcasts

Grade: 4 out of 5 Benefits

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