Tag Archives: B-

SMILE

Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner and Robert Salerno   Director: Parker Finn   Screenplay: Parker Finn   Cast: Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Robin Weigert, Caitlin Stasey, Kal Penn, Rob Morgan, Judy Reyes, Gillian Zinser, Dora Kiss, Nick Arapoglou, Sara Kapner, Kevin Keppy and Jack Sochet   Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Grade: B-

Given the number of them produced over the years, horror movie are inevitably derivative, and that’s certainly true of Parker Finn’s debut feature.  But “Smile” takes some familiar elements, cleverly tweaks them and then uses them stylishly to fashion a tale that’s genuinely creepy and unsettling; it doesn’t reinvent the wheel but spins it cleverly.  If only Finn had been a bit less intent on employing all the tricks in his toolbox in expanding his 2020 short film “Laura Hasn’t Slept” and editor Elliot Greenberg more energetic in his trimming, the movie could have avoided feeling somewhat repetitive and overlong.   

Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is a dedicated therapist at a public medical complex, treating patients like near-catatonic, jabbering Carl Renken (Jacket Sochet).  But she’s unable to help Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), a graduate student who comes in distraught after watching one of her professors, Gabriel Munoz, bludgeon himself to death.  The trauma of that experience, Laura says, has resulted in a grotesque entity stalking her that only she can see, taking the form of people staring at her with a sinister smile.  Suddenly Laura sees the figure in the consulting room, breaks a vase and then uses a shard to slit her throat as Rose watches, grinning sardonically as she does so.

What follows is not unpredictable, given the many films—from Japanese classics like “Cure” and “Ringu” to more modern successors like “It Follows”—Finn has obviously seen and clearly admires.  Rose becomes the entity’s next victim.  She’s an ideal candidate, already having suffered trauma as a child resulting from guilt over the death of her mother (Dora Kiss) and estrangement from her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) and her husband (Nick Arapoglou).  She begins having nightmares and seeing the grinning entity herself, which sends her back to her former therapist Madeline Northcott (Robin Weigert) for advice.  Her cat Mustache disappears.  Her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) grows increasingly concerned at her behavior, as does her superior Dr. Desai (Kal Penn), who orders to take a leave of absence.

Increasingly terrified at the visions, Rose enlists her old boyfriend, cop Joel (Kyle Gallner), for help, and learns from Professor Munoz’s widow (Judy Reyes) of the horrifying visions her husband had been experiencing before his suicide.  With Joel’s help she uncovers a long string of interconnected suicides, broken only by the survival of a confessed murderer (Rob Morgan) who offers some information on what she’s dealing with.  Ultimately she will have to face her own trauma and come face-to-face with the demon that’s tormenting her in the form of people, some of them closest to her, who flash that unnerving smile.

Finn proves skillful in the genre tropes.  With cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, he proves adept in fashioning slow tracking shots across rooms that land on an important detail, and with Greenberg and composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer he offers some masterly jump scares.  Sarroff, working in conjunction with production designer Lester Cohen, maintains a dark atmosphere of foreboding throughout, as does Tapia de Veer when not letting loose at the gotcha moments.

The film is also fortunate in its casting.  At the center Bacon captures Rose’s growing terror effectively, though her fingernail-biting, which become nail-chewing before it’s over, becomes a bit aggravating.  Among the others Weigert and Zinser are most impressive, though Gallner also offers solid support and Stasey, Morgan, Reyes and Sochet score in what are basically extended cameos.

“Smile” sags in the midsection, and one gets the feeling that Finn had trouble figuring out how to wrap things up, piling twist on twist and climax on climax before finally opting for a sequel-teasing close.  But even then we’re left with one important question—at least one important to feline-fanciers—left unanswered: who, or what, was responsible for what happened to Mustache, and how was it done?           

BROS

Producers: Judd Apatow, Nicholas Stoller and Josh Church   Director: Nicholas Stoller   Screenplay: Billy Eichner and Nicholas Stoller   Cast: Billy Eichner, Luke Macfarlane, Guy Branum, Miss Lawrence, Ts Madison, Dot-Marie Jones, Jim Rash, Eve Lindley, Monica Raymund, Guillermo Díaz, Derrick Delgado, Jai Rodriguez, Amanda Bearse, Ryan Faucett, Debra Messing, Harvey Fierstein and Bowen Yang   Distributor: Universal

Grade: B-

Much is being made of the proposition that “Bros” is kind of revolutionary—a gay romantic comedy released by a major Hollywood studio with an R rating, and so a test of how the “mainstream” audience will respond to a film that unapologetically wears its sexuality on its sleeve.  Well, it is a romantic comedy involving two guys, and it follows the usual rom-com tropes—the cute meeting, the colorful supporting characters (most of them LGBTQ+ as well), the on-and-off mutual commitment, the musical montages, an apparent breakup and an ultimate reconciliation.  It’s all par for the course.  But as for groundbreaking, that’s questionable.

The script by Billy Eichner and director Nicholas Stoller was obviously tailor-made for Eichner, who stars as Bobby Leiber, an intense podcaster/gay-rights activist who’s also the chief curator at the just-about-to-open Museum of LGBTQ+ History in New York.  Along with a fractious board representing the spectrum of groups in that acronymic constellation, he’s frantically trying to raise the $5 million needed to support the last wing of the establishment, while trying to convince his colleagues that it should be devoted to the first gay president—Abraham Lincoln—over the strenuous opposition of Robert (hilarious Jim Rash), who insists that Honest Abe was bi. (Other board members, all of whom have their moments to shine along the way, are played by Miss Lawrence, Ts Madison, Dot-Marie Jones and Eve Lindley.) 

Of course Bobby has a complicated personal life.  He’s always been committed to non-commitment; he’s got lots of friends in the gay community with whom he shares tons of catty banter, but has never been interested, he says, in a long-term partner, being satisfied with short-term hook-ups.  That changes when he serendipitously meets, in a crowded club crammed with gyrating bodies, Aaron Shepard (Luke Macfarlane), a muscular lawyer whose specialty is crafting wills and is apparently still living a quasi-closeted life at work.

That first encounter doesn’t go especially well, but they reconnect (“Whassup?”) and find themselves increasingly attracted to each other, despite their obvious differences.  A joint visit to Provincetown, where they’re hosted by gay-rights icon Lewis (Harvey Fierstein, given too little to do) while Bobby rides a Gay Pride float and tries to get a big dollar donation from wild software entrepreneur Lawrence Grape (Bowen Yang, wantonly over-the-top)—which Aaron uses his advisor’s skills to secure—seems to cement their relationship.

But of course things do not go smoothly.  Both wonder whether they’re really right for one another, with Aaron torn when he learns that his erstwhile high-school crush Josh (Ryan Faucett) has come out.  A crisis occurs when Aaron’s straight family visits for Christmas.  Aaron asks Bobby to tone down his more stridently argumentative side but at dinner he’s unable to resist insisting to Mrs. Shepard (Amanda Bearse) that it’s not too early to introduce the subject of sexual inclination to her second-grade class (and tells a story about how his parents took him to a very explicit play when he was twelve) that causes some discomfort at the restaurant.

That sequence points up a couple of weaknesses in “Bros.” One is that the big crisis is essentially the same one familiar from “La cage aux Folles” back in 1978 (as well as its inferior Americanized version, 1996’s “The Birdcage” and its later Broadway musicalization), so it hardly qualifies as revolutionary, or even innovative.  The second is that the Shepards are among the few straight folks presented as characters in the film; the others are Bobby’s ultra-“woke” best friend Tina (Monica Raymund), her husband Edgar (Guillermo Díaz) and their son (Derrick Delgado).  The world Eichner and Stoller portray here is an extremely insular one; it captures the East Coast LGBTQ+ ethos in its specifics and diversity, but isn’t very good about situating it in a wide social context.

But that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t funny.  Eichner is a sharp writer, and provides Bobby (and friends like Henry, played with Guy Branum) with a seemingly endless stream of caustic lines; in fact “Bros” often seems as much like a stand-up routine as a rom-com, with Eichner a sort of gay Woody Allen, commenting on the movie as much as appearing in it.  But he also gravitates into more serious mode occasionally, allowing Bobby to muse ruefully on gay history in what amount to little sermons, or better harangues.  What he says is true, but these explosions of pique slow the momentum that’s recovered with difficulty.

The other major deficit is Eichner’s basic personality, which is very intense, even unrelenting.  It simply gets exhausting after a while.  You want to shout at him to slow down and loosen up.  But of course, if he did he wouldn’t be who he is, and what fans have come to expect.  Meanwhile, the easygoing Macfarlane provides a fine counterpoint; the opportunity to spoof himself with a clever “Hallheart” shout-out to his Hallmark celebrity is an added bonus.  Singling out members of the supporting cast would too long—they add have something to contribute—but most viewers will especially appreciate a wink-wink appearance by Debra Messing, a gay icon, in an incisively-written bit.  Cameos by others—Ben Stiller, Amy Schumer, Kenan Thompson—are pretty weak, though Kristin Chenoweth gets a cute visual gag.       

Typically for a piece from the Judd Apatow factory, “Bros” comes complete with a spiffy look, with a colorful production design from Lisa Myers and glossy cinematography by Brandon Trost; Tom Broecker’s witty costumes deserve special mention.  Daniel Gabbe’s editing is fine apart from a few longueurs, and Marc Shaiman’s score is agreeable.

“Bros” is, ultimately, a rom-com, and has all the weaknesses of the genre, culminating in a feel-good finale in which both partners fulfill their boyhood dreams as well as win one another.  But if hardly the epochal event the publicity might imply, it’s an example of the formula better than most, and not only because of its gay twist.  Some people might still feel uncomfortable at the prospect of seeing a story about a romance between two men, but despite the movie’s shortcomings, skipping it would rob yourself of a funny, enjoyable couple of hours.