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

‘Don’t’ Look Up’ Might Make You Scream, Except That Its Characters Are Doing Enough of That Already

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Don’t Look Up (CREDIT: Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Mark Rylance, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Scott Mescudi, Himesh Patel, Melanie Lynskey, Michael Chiklis

Director: Adam McKay

Running Time: 138 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: December 10, 2021 (Theaters)/December 24, 2021 (Netflix)

Timothée Chalamet should have been in all of Don’t Look Up.

Or at least like 75% of it. I’m thinking the ideal situation would be that he’s a main character, but he’s barely in the trailer, if at all. So when he shows up, you think he’ll hang around for just a few scenes, but instead he gradually just takes over the whole affair. A miniature version of that is what actually happens in the Don’t Look Up that we did get, as he shows up about 2/3 of the way through and plays a fairly large part from that point forward.

What I’m trying to say is, instead of recreating the broad reality of people yelling at clear and present disaster, Don’t Look Up probably would’ve been better off primarily focusing on the peculiarities of random skater boys rolling through the apocalypse.

Grade: Look Up About Half the Time

‘The Photograph’ Captures Generations of Love Blossoming and Spreading Free

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Issa Rae, Lakeith Stanfield, Chanté Adams, Y’lan Noel, Rob Morgan, Lil Rel Howery, Teyonah Parris, Courtney B. Vance, Chelsea Peretti, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, Marsha Stephanie Blake

Director: Stella Meghie

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Sizzling Moments

Release Date: February 14, 2020

The ads for The Photograph have been giving off strong “Nicholas Sparks, but with black people” vibes. However, I had a hankering suspicion that it wouldn’t actually be as saccharine as that glossy presentation suggested. First and foremost, the two leads, Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, are not exactly for taking on such gloopy material. Surely their presence would ensure that things would end up a little more left-field than this genre typically goes. Indeed that has turned out to be the case, but to be fair to the marketing team, this is not an easy movie to advertise. It has a slow-burn meditative spirit (driven along by Robert Glasper’s jazzy piano score) that does not immediately grab you in the way that trailers are meant to in a couple of minutes. But if you simmer in it for a couple hours, your heart might just grow a few sizes.

Michael (Stanfield) is a reporter working on a story that happens to involve recently deceased photographer Christina Eames (Chanté Adams). He then finds himself smitten by Christina’s daughter Mae (Rae), who is working her way through the truth bombs that her mom has left her in a pair of letters, one addressed to Mae and one to Mae’s father. Meanwhile, writer-director Stella Meghie frequently takes us back to Christina’s young adulthood in small-town Louisiana where she is unable to reconcile a possible future with the man that she loves (Y’lan Noel) and her dreams of making it big in New York City. She tends to always choose her professional goals over her loved ones, and in a case of family history rhyming, Mae and Michael find themselves worried that they are going to do the same. That struggle to find the nerve to say what you know is in your heart is deeply felt in The Photograph.

I have noticed a lot of excitement around this movie about the potential to see black love that is not also about trauma on the big screen. And if that is what you are looking for, I suspect that you will be satisfied. The blackness in The Photograph is not meant to represent all blackness, as Michael and Mae’s story is by no means a microcosm of all people of color. They are two people who happen to be black and happen to be falling in love. The details are their own, while also being part of a continuum of their lineage. It is an openhearted, generous story that I think a lot of people are going to be happy to witness.

The Photograph is Recommended If You Like: Beyond the Lights, Love & Basketball, A bottle of wine and a record player on a rainy night

Grade: 4 out of 5 Darkrooms

‘Just Mercy’ One Month After It Came Out Review

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

There is a moment late in Just Mercy when death row inmate Walter McMillan’s (Jamie Foxx) conviction is suddenly overturned because the prosecuting representatives of Alabama suddenly decide to agree with the defense. It sounds pretty unbelievable, considering how the state has hitherto stubbornly refused to acknowledge the total lack of evidence against him, but apparently that’s how it actually went down. And that’s Just Mercy in a nutshell: agonizingly frustrating miscarriage of justice that keeps persisting, and then from out of nowhere sudden satisfaction in the form of a full exoneration. In simple terms, that makes this true life story successful, but in deeper terms, I would’ve liked it to explore what motivated that reversal a little more. That element is a big deal and quite unique compared to other stories of the wrongfully convicted. But while Just Mercy could have been a little more risk-taking, it’s still a net good to see the work of the Equal Justice Initiative on screen.

I give Just Mercy 3 Testimonies out of 5 Phony Deals.

Movie Review: ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ Proves That There Are Still New Ways to Make a Movie

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CREDIT: A24

Starring: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan, Mike Epps, Finn Wittrock

Director: Joe Talbot

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: R for A Mild Mix of Profanity, Brief Nudity, and Drug Use

Release Date: June 7, 2019 (Limited)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco has one of the most (if not THE MOST) valuable qualities in cinema, and art in general, insofar as it truly feels unlike anything else that has come before it. It’s about lifelong pals Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), who have a sort-of-magical journey living in the title city while squatting in the house that Jimmie claims his grandfather built years ago. The story is based on Fails’ own life, and I greatly appreciate the visionary perspective he provides along with director Joe Talbot.

This isn’t a movie I loved right away, but it’s one that I want to keep in mind to see how it sticks with me months, years, or even decades from now. It is one that I can imagine expanding in my mind as I digest more of its unique flavors. I saw it about a month ago, and I haven’t thought about it too much unprompted since then. For now, as I’m purposefully reflecting upon it, I must make sure to note my love of an early scene in which Jimmie and Montgomery skateboard through the city to the tune of a Philip Glass-esque composition, and I must also mention that former Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra plays a dorky tour guide. So that’s where we are in 2019.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is Recommended If You Like: San Francisco Geography and Architecture, Discovering a New Voice, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Squatters