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posted: 10/11/2012 6:00 AM

'Smiley' overdoes it with horror conventions

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  • Ashley (Caitlin Gerard) comes face-to-faceless with a killing entity only known as "Smiley."

    Ashley (Caitlin Gerard) comes face-to-faceless with a killing entity only known as "Smiley."

  • Video: Smiley trailer

  • Video: Prosecution/President trailer


Reel Life mini-review: 'Smiley'
By the time Michael J. Gallagher's "Smiley" gets around to providing its own twist to the contrived mad slasher formula (virginal good girl menaced by seemingly supernatural masked killer wielding a butcher knife), it's a classic case of way too little and way too late.

Emotionally troubled college freshman Ashley (Caitlin Gerard) and her adventuresome roommate (Melanie Papalia) discover that repeating a phrase three times during a Skype chat on an anonymous website conjures up a boogeyman called Smiley who dispatches the unsuspecting Skyper with a blade.

Is the jack-o-lantern-inspired Smiley real or a figment? Gallagher instantly throws away any doubt by having the opening scene establish Smiley as a horror entity long before Ashley knows about him. So much for wondering if Ashley might be really nuts.

Then, Gallagher undermines his movie by giving us too many fake shocks -- mostly goofy characters jumping into the frame for some cheap scares.

One or two fake shocks can keep us on constant edge for what happens next. But five or six fake shocks begin to bore us because we start expecting them. By nine or 10 fake shocks, we're tired of them.

"Smiley" has 15 -- yes, 15! -- fake shocks plus three fake-shock dream sequences. (Note: Brian DePalma's classic "Carrie" wisely used only one.) Now, it's yawn city.

The dialogue in "Smiley" could be crippled by removing a single word: "crazy," as in "You're crazy" "I'm not crazy!" "That's crazy!" "I know it sounds crazy!" (Thankfully, the word "awesome!" only rears its ugly adjective once.)

Ashley spends a lot of time talking about evil with her soul-depleted philosophy professor (Roger Bart) in a reasoning and ethics class. Getting trapped in a room with this guy is far more horrifying than meeting Smiley on a walk through a dark park. What's that?!

Oops. Just another fake shock.

"Smiley" opens at the Crestwood 18, Skokie's Village Crossing 18 and Cicero 14 theaters. Rated R for drug use, sexual situations and violence. 90 minutes. ★

Reel Life mini-review: 'The Prosecution of an American President'
Here is the documentary that Michael Moore's half-baked, journalistically challenged "Fahrenheit 9/11" dreamed of being: a blistering indictment of how the Bush administration manipulated facts and subverted truth to justify launching the Iraq War, leading to the deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers and 100,000 to 120,000 Iraqis.

Dave Hagen and David J. Burke's doc "The Prosecution of an American President" is based on the best-seller by Vincent Bugliosi, the high-profile prosecutor who put away Charles Manson for murders he orchestrated, but didn't physically commit.

I saw an early cut of this movie about two years ago. Now it's been updated, tightened and given an effusive, over-the-top finale with soaring, patriotic music buttressing images of the U.S. Constitution, Abraham Lincoln, Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty. (What, no Mary Lou Retton?)

This doc plays it smart by first establishing Bugliosi as a shrewd, apolitical prosecutor who says he would go after any president who did what George W. Bush did -- Democrat, Republican or other.

A lot of material in "The Prosecution" has already been covered by the news media and in "9/11," but here Bugliosi launches his own indictment using hard evidence and cold hindsight to build a step-by-step case to try Bush for the murders of everyone killed in the war he sold to the American people with two lies: 1) that Saddam Hussein represented an imminent threat to the United States, and 2) Hussein helped plot the attack on 9/11.

Finally, here's the movie (and book) that no U.S. news network would cover or even sell radio spots for. The audio book had to be made by the BBC in London; no American company would touch it.

"The Prosecution of an American President" plays exclusively at the AMC South Barrington 30. Not rated. 100 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Not 'Taken' for a ride
D GIRE: Recently read your movie critique "Taken." This is not the first time we have disregarded your comments and found the movie to be excellent just like "Taken." Obviously, others must feel the same way as the movie was #1 for this past weekend. -- Dorothy White

Dear Dorothy: It has been my experience that opening weekend box office receipts tend to be a reflection of marketing expertise rather than filmmaking expertise.

Take the classic example of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," one of the best movies of the 1990s. It made a piddly $2.8 million. Not for its opening weekend. For its entire original run.

So much for box office and its relationship with actual movie quality.

Let's look at the top five box office hits for last weekend: "Taken 2" with $50 million, "Hotel Transylvania" with $26.3 million, "Pitch Perfect" with $14.7 million, "Looper" with $12.2 million and "Frankenweenie" with $11.5 million.

As it turns out, the two best movies -- Rian Johnson's smart time-traveling opus "Looper" and Tim Burton's visually exciting black-and-white animated comedy "Frankenweenie" -- rank at the bottom of the list.

The two least clever and innovative movies -- the silly action film "Taken 2" and mediocre animated comedy "Hotel Transylvania" -- are at the top of the list.

This is to be expected. After all, "Taken 2" is a sequel to a recent hit action film and has lots of marketing buzz. "Hotel" offers traditional recognizable monster characters and stars the super-popular Adam Sandler talking in another one of his funny voices.

Burton may have a cult following, but a black comedy about the killing and resurrection of a pet dog? Not as marketable as Sandler, trust me.

Same with "Looper," a time-traveling tale in which a young man tries to kill his older self sent back from the future. How can a movie this challenging compete at the box office with something as simple as "unstoppable Liam Neeson kicks villainous Algerian butt to protect his wife and daughter"?

As I said, Dorothy, opening weekend receipts are driven by good marketing, not good quality. Watch what happens this weekend when "Taken 2" takes a sharp dive at the box office. That will tell the tale.

McDonagh's 'Psychos'
Martin McDonagh, the British playwright whose directorial debut was the critically praised "In Bruges," came to Chicago to promote his second movie "Seven Psychopaths." We chatted.

Q. Both your movies depend on hitting just the right tone for the humor and action to work. What's the secret to hitting the perfect tone?

A. "I think the trick is to find the truth in a scene, whether it's broad comedy or it's heart-wrenching sadness. I'm constantly looking for the truth, not something that's funny for the sake of being funny. You need the funny to come out of a situation that's truthful. If you do that, the balance should be there."

Q. I've read you prefer making movies to plays. True?

A. "I'll do another play after this, but there is something about the nature of film being there for good, for all time, or at least as long as the celluloid lasts. In a play, no matter how good it is, it's ephemeral. Once they're over, they're gone. Film stays there. I like the idea of that. Of course, doing a play is much quicker. I could write a play in a few weeks, have it up in a matter of months. The process doesn't take near as long as movies."

Q. Why is violence a useful tool in plays and films?

A. "Violence in language and in action is dramatic, and it has been with us since the Greeks. Even though I use it, I am still questioning it. Colin Ferrell's character (in 'Seven Psychopaths') is a writer, and he questions whether every story has to be about men with guns. Can we make movies about peace and love?

"I think by the time we end the movie, we've tried to take violence to a more esoteric place. Of course, I'm having my cake and eating it with this film. Can you make a movie about men with guns that also explores pacifism and peace? We can certainly discuss these things in a movie. What the audience takes away from it is something else."

Q. Which of the psychopaths in "Seven Psychopaths" is the one you relate to the most?

A. "That would probably be a cross between Christopher Walken's and Sam Rockwell's characters. That would be me."

• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Friday in Time out!

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