Friday, September 30

Smile Review


Dir: Parker Finn

Starring: Susie Bacon, Jessie Usher, Kyle Gallner, Robin Weigert, and Kal Penn

1h 55m

An unwanted stare and a sinister smile are used throughout cinematic history to evoke unnerving and discomforting fear. Norman Bates' final moments in "Psycho," Pennywise smiling with balloons in "It," and Freddy Krueger's deadly smirk in "Nightmare on Elm Street" are a few examples. In horror movies, the scariest monster often has the biggest grin.

There is much to smile about with writer/director Parker Finn's horror film "Smile," a simplistic, albeit creepy and fun, head trip of genre filmmaking. Utilizing characters with evil gazes and unnaturally forced, ear-to-ear grins, Finn crafts a horror film that startles, shocks, and scares its way through a story that utilizes trauma and mental health as a narrative vessel. While the film may not always succeed with its intentions of exploring trauma through a horror lens, it's evident that the filmmaking team understands how to establish an atmosphere and execute a scare. 

Rose Cotter (Susie Bacon) is a psychologist working at a treatment facility while carrying past childhood trauma concerning the suicide of her mother. Rose is called to assist a new patient, a young woman named Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who is having negative feelings while also being stalked by, what she believes, is a sinister force. During their consultation, Laura begins to scream for help. After calling for assistance, Rose witnesses Laura, who has a massive smile, kill herself. Rose soon discovers that whatever tormented her patient has now latched itself to her, blurring the lines between reality and a nightmare.

"Smile" takes a creepy setup and builds familiar scare tactics all around it. Sound effect stings push the jump scare level into high gear. The building of tension within a quiet house, with manipulation of dark corners and masked backgrounds, adds an unexpected element of surprise to the horror setups. It's an ingenious design, but nothing horror audiences haven't seen in other films. Still, these familiar elements all play supporting characters to some awe-inspiring imagery, a few that will be lasting nightmare fuel for some unsuspecting viewers.

Susie Bacon does a great job carrying the lead performance through significant emotional and physical changes. As her character experiences greater torments, the world around her begins to fall into deeper despair. Bacon composes a feeling that, at first, responds with a calm physical demeanor, finding answers based on the reality of her job as a psychologist. But, as the threat grows stronger, invading moments that blur reality and a dream, the character begins to unravel emotionally. The performance complements the story, especially as the film starts to regurgitate ideas and scares one too many times. 

"Smile" takes a creepy setup, retools some familiar elements from other films, and crafts a scary movie told with a focus on unresolved trauma and mental health concerns. The story suffers when the film functions solely as a scare device. However, as a scary movie arriving at the start of the spooky season, "Smile" is a fun horror experience.

Monte's Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

Friday, September 9

Barbarian Review


Dir: Zach Cregger

Starring: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long

1h 42m


The element of surprise is a rare treat to find in a film these days. For writer/director Zach Cregger and the horror thriller "Barbarian," the secretive plot intentions of the film are part of the enjoyment of the experience. Assisted by a well-crafted trailer, the film provides just enough information to keep the suspense brewing until it shifts strongly beyond expectations. "Barbarian" is a crowd pleaser, a horror film full of fun surprises.


Zach Cregger, part of the comedy troupe "The Whitest Kids U' Know," cleverly adapts a timely story that initially feels like a relationship thriller but turns into an undeniable venture into the depths of horror storytelling. In the opening moments, Tess (Georgina Campbell), heading to Detroit for a job interview, arrives on a rainy night at her Airbnb. Unexpectedly, someone else is staying at the house, a suspicious man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård), who is just as confused about the mix-up. After being warned about the rough neighborhood, Tess is talked into sharing the space by Keith. 


Cregger does a great job of building an atmosphere from the start. In the beginning moments, Tess' arrival at the Airbnb creates a sense of isolation with a vehicle arriving in a dark and desolate community in the middle of a storm. The raindrops thump with a bass-heavy drone, and screams echo subtly in the background. It's no doubt from the start that something scary is building.  


"Barbarian" does an excellent job of engaging in real-world fears, creating an uncomfortable scenario for Tess. Having actor Bill Skarsgård, well-known as Pennywise from the 2017 update of "It," helps establish the unsettling vibe with enthusiastic creepiness. A glass of wine is the perfect scenario to add layers to the suspense of everything between the two characters. Cregger composes exceptional pacing in these early set-ups, leading to an encounter in the middle of the night between Tess and a sleeping Keith that adds to the questions. 


Once daylight breaks and Tess starts her drive to the interview in the city, she finally sees the complete disrepair of the neighborhood. The home she slept in was the lone livable residence in the entire community. After a successful interview, Tess returns to the house and is lured into the basement. She finds a rope that, when pulled on, opens a hidden door. Behind it is a maze of abandoned rooms and hallways leading deeper below the house. 


"Barbarian" should not be spoiled beyond this point. What Cregger and his collaborators do with the remainder of the film is shocking, funny, and completely unexpected. It's a horror film that has excellent balance with how it utilizes its tropes while also allowing the characters time to be intelligent and foolish with their decisions. It is the perfect kind of character for a horror film. The unexpected arrival of another character, an arrogant actor (Justin Long), adds an interesting narrative element that provides relevant commentary about the abusive trauma men induce on women. It all comes crashing together in a third act that goes completely off the rails of expectations. While the social commentary themes get a little lost in the mix of the extremes that happen in the finale, they still offer a nice balance with the characters in a fun and unique way. 


Go to "Barbarian" knowing as little about the movie as possible; it's one of the year's best surprises.  


Monte's Rating

3.50 out of 5.00


Wednesday, August 17

COMPULSUS Interview with Tara Thorne


Featuring: Writer/Director Tara Thorne

COMPULSUS recently screened at Fantasia International Film Festival 2022 and was an amazing showcase of feminism, vigilantism and sticking it to the patriarchy. (Go check out my review)

I knew if I got the opportunity to chat with writer/director Tara Thorne, I had to take it. 

I was not disappointed.

Theresa Dillon (TD) - THELMA AND LOUISE is your favorite movie and obviously an inspiration for COMPULSUS. Additionally, the MeToo movement. What else inspired you to make this film?

Tara Thorne (TT) – It was a lifelong rage that took a long, long time to accumulate and be expressed. I often think, if I were 25, I wouldn’t have been able to write this movie. Or even if I was 35. But I turned 40, which is such a cliché story. I turned 40 and I had just left the newspaper that I worked at for 19 years. I was like “Okay, what are we doing? What’s happening? What’s life now?”

The Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative, a film co-op in Halifax that I ended up working for the following year, was running a workshop called Writing Small and it was specifically geared to produce screenplays with the intent to apply to this town to watch program, which is something that Telefilm Canada runs. It’s micro budget at $150,000. 

The point of the workshop was to teach you how to write a story that fits specific parameters. You had to apply with a couple ideas, and I had this one that was “What if women were as violent as men?” I also thought that a woman vigilante would public compartmentalize - like it wouldn't take over her life. She would live a normal life in the day and then go home at night. And that’s sort of the idea we developed and ended up getting to make it.

TD - The poems from Sue Goyette are brilliant and incredibly impactful. Was it difficult as a writer to write around these monologues? How did you keep at it and what was it like working with Sue?

TT - She wrote them after. I wrote the script and I literally had written “a poem by Sue will go here.” I ticked her off that I was writing again, at a Christmas party, and she was sort of like, “Okay. I’m sure you’ll give me a script” and I was like, “Here it is.” She loved it so she wrote the poems specifically for us. 

She’s very thoughtful, very empathetic and a really great writer, as you can tell. We had coffee one day, and she was like, “I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions about Wally and I don’t want you to think about it. I want you to just answer and it would be like, “Where are her parents? What did they do? What’s her astrological sign? Where did she come out? Does she have a pet?” and just like rapid fire things that I never thought of that actually really opened up the process when we hired Lesley Smith as Wally.

But yeah, Sue sent the poems to me. I think when Lesley got the script, the third one, the one that closes the movie wasn’t even there yet. So we had two, and then the third one came in, and it was like such a stunner. 

I think, across those three poems, I changed one word, because they were all just so perfect.

TD - Why did you choose to erase all males in this feature? I personally loved this about your film.

TT - Well, it’s a bit of a savings. One actor can play six guys. It was deliberate and there's a note on the script stating no men will be seen and all male names will be bleeped.

Because I wanted to kind of subvert the idea of the victim and that when there’s so many nameless 2D women as victims in movies, and I was like, that’s what we’re going to do because it’s not about the men, it’s not about who they are or whether they deserve it. A lot of people were like, “How do we even know they were the right ones?” and I'm like it doesn't even matter. That’s the point. 

The point is that Wally is doing it. The point is not the violence, the point is the action. So I thought we won’t ever see him, just hear from him - which made it a bit difficult to shoot sometimes. It was like, “Ah, we can see his face.” And Jimmy is very handsome so it’s too bad we robbed people of seeing his face.

He did a lot by playing seven different guys whose opening line is basically “Hey,” and he managed to do all of them with these with different kinds of disgusting vibes.

TD - Yeah, but they’re true gross vibes from real life. I mean, I don’t know what woman hasn’t received one of those lines in their life like it. 

TT – Exactly. My favorite attack is the staple gun because I think she’s just so badass. To me it’s the one where she was out minding her own business and a guy just has to interfere. It’s like you could have avoided all this. You could have just not.

TD - Have you gotten any comparisons to PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN and what do you tell viewers who want to make that comparison?

TT – We have been compared as the queer version of PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, which is a huge compliment to me. I love that movie. 

It came out when we were shooting and the movie theaters had just opened back up in Halifax so I asked all the cast to go see it. Lesley took her mom the day she got out of quarantine. And I really, really liked that movie. It’s super divisive and like THELMA AND LOUISE, it has a very tragic ending and I’m happy to be compared to it.

I think we’re a bit different in that Carey Mulligan in that movie is already resigned to the end. You know, she’s like, she’s dead already when we meet her. And she’s also been doing it for a lot longer. 

Whereas we’re just meeting Wally at the top of her journey. And I think it ends better – I don’t want to spoil it, but we just sort of stop it at the moment where it’s like, “What is going happen to her now?” 

TD - I thought it was very impactful. I love PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, but I just felt yours was a lot more powerful in the thoughtful ways you wrote and directed it.

TT - And in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, she's super unlikable in a lot of ways. She’s setting all these other women up horribly, and you’re sort of in the two wrongs don’t make a right category. It kind of goes there. You know, it’s funny with that movie, I finished my first draft and I had had been sending it around in January of 2020. So when we went to Sundance and they dropped the trailer, people were sending it to me, like, do you know about this movie? And I was like, “I know, it’s our movie with Hollywood people.” 

I didn’t want to do the chickadee course that washed up a year or two later but you know, COMPULSUS is different than that and I’m happy to be compared.

TD - So kind of going in line with what you’re saying about Carey Mulligan’s character, how important is female companionship to help topple the patriarchy? 

TT - Well, I mean, I think we all know that women need to sit together and white women in particular aren’t that great at being intersectional. You know, the whole white women for Trump business? I think it is super important but we’re not quite there yet. I tried to convert men over my whole life or bring men over to our side of thinking, but it’s too much work and they don’t want to. And we’re seeing, especially in your country (United States), we’re seeing men going, “Oh, we lost a tiny bit of power and now we’re calling it all back.” Men are a waste of energy. So yes, I think you do need to sort of convert the women, the ones who are kind of falling in line with their husbands or maybe feel like they have to. It’s supremely important. 

TD - So do you consider yourself a Wally or Lou because Wally and Lou are a great couple, but they’re very different in their stances.

TT – They’re both kind of me. Wally is the me that I wish I could be, and Lou is me that is very law abiding where I’ll be like, “I don’t think we should do this.” I would be a terrible vigilante. I can’t run, I’m very clumsy and I was on the radio in Halifax for 15 years, so I have a very recognizable old voice. 

I would not go undetected; it would just not be possible. So yeah, they’re both sort of the sides of me that I wish I could be but really, I’m more like Lou. In editing we kept saying that Lou isn’t that cool. But someone has to be the voice of reason. She wanted the relationship to work out. She’s like "I like this girl but she’s a vigilante" and that doesn’t quite work with many people’s lifestyles.

TD - So how can women become vigilantes in their own lives and what does society need to do now to support women specifically in film?

TT - I mean, I’m not sitting here as a pro vigilante person. It’s dangerous. I think, obviously, in terms of what you can do is vote for the right people that represent you, your interests and the best case scenario for everybody. 

But I also know that people are very disenfranchised with voting and at all levels so it sort of feels like you can't do anything. 

But I think in terms of women in film, we need to lift each other up. It used to be that there was only one woman - she has all the spots, and she doesn’t want to give it up. But that’s not true anymore. We have a very supportive community in Halifax where people lift each other up. We very intentionally went out to find key department heads who were women, and a lot of them, it was their first time on a feature.

The idea is you give someone the experience. And especially in film, if you can’t do the thing, you pass a name along and that’s how many women get work - by word of mouth. 

So yeah, don’t automatically to fall to your bro. Just think outside the box a little bit and put women up for things when the opportunity arises.

TD - I have one final question. I read that you’re working on a dramedy currently titled LAKEVIEW. Is this continuing the story with Wally or are we getting a whole new story to tell society to get its shit together?

TT - Oh, it’s so the opposite. COMPULSUS is very much an outlier for me. 

LAKEVIEW is actually an ensemble comedy that came out of filming COMPULSUS. All the actors knew each other because it’s Halifax and they were being very funny off screen and didn’t get to be that in the movie. 

Even when I was standing there working on COMPULSUS, I’d think “Man, it’d be nice to bring some of this energy on screen.”

So the idea of LAKEVIEW is just to get a bunch of really talented people together and kind of let them go free and let the camera be looser and let them improv and have fun.

We’ll see what happens but COMPULSUS is probably going to be it for me in terms of patriarchy busting. It will now be more of casual female representation.

TD – That’s great to hear because I was like, “Oh, is LAKEVIEW a follow up? I hope it’s not.” because I think the way you ended COMPULSUS was perfect. 

TT – PIG IN THE CITY or BACK IN HABIT, those were our two junkie sequel names but no, there’s no COMPULSUS cinematic universe. Thank you for asking.