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

Movie Review: The Newest ‘Shaft’ is Not the Baddest Mother. Shut Your Eyes.

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CREDIT: Warner Bros./YouTube

Starring: Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Titus Welliver, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Luna Lauren Vélez

Director: Tim Story

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: R for Shameless Ladies Man Behavior and a Fair Amount of Gunfire

Release Date: June 14, 2019

Private investigator John Shaft has been the epitome of cinematic cool ever since his debut nearly fifty years ago. In the 2000 reboot, Samuel L. Jackson was an obvious choice to continue Richard Roundtree’s legacy as John II, the original Shaft’s nephew. But in the latest iteration, Jessie T. Usher is about as far from badass as he can possibly be as John II’s estranged son JJ. That is meant as both objective fact and damning criticism. He’s supposed to be out of step with the men in his family. He’s working for The Man as an FBI data analyst, and while he’s got some sweet chemistry with a longtime friend (Alexandra Shipp), he’s hardly a sex machine to all the chicks. The idea is that when JJ teams up with his dad to solve a case of wide-ranging corruption, he’ll finally be able to live up to the Shaft legacy, but the concept of cool on display here is too outrageous and unchill to actually be cool.

If you’re expecting a blaxploitation throwback, you’ll need to recalibrate right quickly. This is much more of a culture clash buddy comedy, solidly in the vein of director Tim Story’s work in the Ride Along series. The central conflict is between Sam Jackson Shaft pushing a toxic form of big dog masculinity and Jessie Usher Shaft being a reasonable human being. It’s nice that JJ pushes back against his dad’s bullheaded ideas of how to be a man, but it doesn’t help that every Jackson delivery of emotional immaturity and gay panic is meant to be a laugh line. Overall, this Shaft is confused and vastly out of touch, as exemplified by a stunning moment of gun fetishization in which JJ shows off his firearms skills to the tune of a classic Phil Spector Wall of Sound needle drop and then immediately afterward reiterates his distaste of guns. Adding to the confusion is John Sr. and John II acting like they’re now father and son instead of uncle and nephew. Perhaps that’s an effort to distance the original from a potentially legacy-killing sequel, which is an understandable decision.

Shaft is Recommended If You Like: Stomping all over the classics

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Trench Coats