"God, I hate YouTube..."
--Jeffrey Tambor as Tom Manning, Hellboy II: The Golden Army
THE FOLLOWING REVIEW MAY NOT BE SUITABLE FOR ALL AUDIENCES. IT CONTAINS SCENES OF FOUL LANGUAGE, AUDIENCE HOSTILITY, AND SPOILERS.
WE DO THIS LAST ONE AS A SERVICE FOR YOU ALL. TRUST US. IT'S PRETTY BAD.
Now then-where to begin on this one?
Well, I should probably start by just ripping off the Band-Aid here.
Smiley is quite possibly the worst movie I have seen in a long time, and certainly the worst reviewed in The Third Row to date.
Wow...it felt strangely liberating to get that out there off the bat.
Now, before I continue, I just want to now say an apology to the cast and crew of A Christmas Story 2, whom I had previously bestowed the honor of the worst movie of 2012. It's still an incredibly bland and lifeless affair, but to call it the worst now feels disingenuous after watching this mess. So you guys are forgiven for now and free to fall back into the nothingness that your masters have prepared for you.
As for you, Smiley...oh boy...
I went into this film expecting bad. I mean, that was kind of the idea. After gritting my teeth and making that entire Battlefield Earth spiel, I needed a bad film that I could guiltlessly bludgeon to vent all that backlogged venom. Based on the low reviews, I was expecting "bad."
What I got was a LOT worse than I expected.
I mean, I'm not kidding when I say this is honestly the worst movie I've reviewed so far. Prior to this I think I'd have given that honor to I Don't Want to Be Born, and even that would be a pretty close race on a number of levels, but even in that I at least managed to find something nice to say without it being appended by a "But..." or coming across as a backhanded compliment. In this film, the first immediate good thing I can say it had going for it was the fact it's 94 minute run time didn't really feel like 94 minutes...but, again, that's still rather backhanded given the feeling is born of the fact so much of the movie is forgettable in its setup and direction.
But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. For anyone who's currently wondering "What the Hell is Smiley?" I should probably explain. But first give me a moment to envy you before I take that happiness from you.
...OK, envy is done. Time to make your world a little bleaker.
Smiley is the horror brainchild of Michael J. Gallagher and Glasgow Phillips, with Gallagher directing. The premise, and here's where it gets kind of sad, is exploring the idea of an internet horror film. Now, this could be an interesting idea done right. In fact, a LOT of things about this film have potential to be actually pretty interesting in different hands...keywords are in different hands. The movie's title refers to a mysterious killer who, like Bloody Mary (a connection they acknowledge within the film) will appear to a person if, via a noncopyrighted Chatroulette clone, they relay to someone "I did it for the lulz" three times, after which, Smiley is said to appear and kill them.
No, you did not misread that. The summoning phrase is "I did it for the lulz." Get used to that now, because this film uses and abuses internet slang with the frequency and carelessness a blood diamond operation usually employs on its work force. Alongside "for the lulz" the film rolls out such time honored internet chestnuts as trolling, lolcats, and a hilariously awful misuse of pedobear that you can see featured below in a compilation of some of the worst line reads from this film. I had to make this simply because there is no way text can properly sum up just how painful it is to hear some of these line reads. I mean, I can just type the phrases, but that lacks the sting that comes from realizing the filmmakers believe people would actually say these things to one another in real life with straight faces. In fact, while it was ticking through old internet trends, I would just like to say I was genuinely floored this film didn't feature music by Rick Astley anywhere.
In fact, to help you get used to the "for the lulz" element, and because I've been looking to get more practice in with video editing, I've put together this handy little reel of every spoken utterance of "lulz" within this movie. If I'd included written, we'd have breached 30 easily, which should tell you something. Enjoy:
This clumsy view of the internet is particularly surprising to me given director Gallagher, alongside several short films of mixed reception, has had his most successful hits through two TV series on YouTube. One would think a man whose biggest success is owed to the internet culture would show a bit more of a deft hand at translating the culture of the web to film.
This goes also for his cast, many of whom are also YouTube celebrities, most notably Shane Dawson as internet hacker Binder. The fact that these lines were in the script was bad enough in its own right, but the way many of these lines are read by the cast are atrocious. About the best analogy I can describe for how these people try to come across as web-savvy is that it plays in the ear like an older conservative white man trying to gangsta rap.
Of course, this isn't the only problem the cast have. The fact is, most of them are honestly rather bland. Caitlin Gerard (who, ironically, got her start in The Social Network, one of the rare good movies about the internet) makes a decent go with her role as the psychologically unstable Ashley who spends much of the movie questioning her sanity...but really, beyond establishing her troubled past and a few jokes about her social awkwardness, she never really feels like she has much of a personality. Which, I suppose, is at least more than can be said for Melanie Pappalia as her roommate, Proxy, whose embracing of the internet slang is arguably the most obnoxious among the cast. Much of the rest of the team are forgettable with the only two I can actually say much otherwise for being Roger Bart as an ethics professor who lays the seeds for an interesting but ultimately underutilized plot strand and Keith David in a, if you watched the trailers, deceptively brief role as a detective whose roughly 5 minutes of screentime leads you to wonder who he owed a favor to to get stuck in this movie.
That short run time MIGHT be why he's smiling, actually...
Also, before I go on, there is one other thing I would like to call casting out on with this movie - for a film that's supposed to take place at a college, its college-age cast look...pretty old. Now, if there was at least some acknowledgement that these people were on the older side in college (cause this DOES happen), that would be something.
Outside of the rather clumsy depiction of the internet culture, the script has other problems as well. This is the point where I'm going to say if you want to avoid spoilers, you're gonna want to bail now, because to properly get into the flaws in this script, we're gonna have to blow the ending wide open. I'll give you 5 seconds startiiiiing...now
...OK, now that they're gone, I said it before, and I'll say it again. One of the saddest things about this movie's story is, as bad as it is, it didn't actually have to be. At the movie's core, there are some genuinely interesting ideas, but the execution of them is ultimately flawed and hurts them. The core concept of Smiley himself, for one. Now, the idea of the internet as a tool in horror is on its own not a bad idea at all. In fact, the web has done fairly well at creating several such horrors for itself via the concept of creepypasta, the most memorable being the mysterious Slender Man (who has been featured in the web movie/series Marble Hornets.)
Speaking of, compared to this, ol' Slender is a pretty strong case for the philosophy of 'Less is more'
Which is why the actual premise behind Smiley himself is such a disappointment - in an age and medium where horror has become quite good at playing on the slow burn and the mysterious, to see this film's idea of horror be, essentially, just an updated version of a story kids have been using to scare each other for decades now just feels uninspired at best, lazy at worst. While I'm calling this writers on uninspired elements, I would just like to go on record as saying I only partially hold the actors accountable for their ultimately bland and uninteresting characters. The fact is, the script is just not populated by particularly interesting people. Now, I'll grant that a good cast could have made an effort to try and save this, or at least reduce the damage. But the fact is, even the cast only received just so much to work with in a cast whose personalities are largely nonexistent beyond lead Ashley, whose personality isn't so much a personality as a string of traumas that explain why she's the protagonist of the story. To add insult to injury, those developments are themselves so nebulously handled that it severely handicaps our ability to really feel for her plight. To further add to the disappointment, in the middle of this odd blend of slasher tale and potential gaslight, the film starts to play around with an interesting concept of how the internet and mass communication may have a hand in the next step in human evolution. It's the kind of idea that, with a more attentive and ambitious writer, could make for a genuinely fascinating and potentially novel story all on its own without the slasher element this film imbues in it. As it is in this, however, the idea is sadly underutilized, and ultimately forgotten any time Bart's professor isn't on screen, with the exception of a few half-hearted allusions to it by Dawson. The result feels like he's the only person in the film really pushing for the idea and everyone else just humors him for those scenes until the very end where it's supposed to add to the film's twist ending.
Which brings us to that. Here be the big spoilers. The most egregious of things this film's script has going against it is the movie's finale. After spending most of the film playing with the idea that Smiley may not exist, however less than successfully it does so, the film completely flies off the rails in the last 10 minutes or so with a one-two twist ending. The first, and arguably more, to use a bit of web vernacular myself, pants-on-head retarded of these being when we discover that much of this movie is all a ruse. What Ashley has been seeing for most of the movie has been a giant and needlessly complicated stunt by the various Anonymii she has met over the course of the movie, all with the intent of pushing a mentally unstable girl over the edge in their project to create the world's first viral serial killer.
...yeah. There's a LOT of holes in this twist already. So many that it makes the second twist - wherein it's suggested that Bart's Professor Clayton's talks actually had a point and this entire experiment has, rather than making a viral killer, instead actually brought the entity Smiley to life - actually the more probable development.
The first twist, meanwhile, fails on a number of levels - for one, the amount of effort that goes into the project is ridiculous. I mean, this is all being done to freak out and kill a mentally unbalanced girl. This is a project that calls for no fewer than five people, considerable hacking skill, and a fair amount of technical wizardry. This is the kind of focus you would use for taking out a crime boss, or a corporate head, someone who actually merits this level of effort and attention. That this much is brought out to take out a single girl with a history of mental illness is akin to firebombing a yard to take care of an anthill. It's just ludicrous overkill. Additionally, the film takes some serious leaps in what it suggests this team is capable of, especially with regards to the fact that it somehow suggests they were able to rig a chat program that is designed to operate randomly. Now, some of you out there are going to say "Well, they could have hacked the program" which is a fair point...except the film never even infers this. As a result, it instead becomes a gaping plot hole all on its own into which the film's ending falls to a pit of punji spikes below. This isn't to say the rest of the plan is particularly airtight either, and only so many parts of it can be handwaved away as "They hacked the computers" when the film doesn't even seem fully on board with that notion. It's one of those twists I'm sure looked good on paper, but as it's played in the film, it doesn't take much thinking over to see how badly it requires savage violation of suspension of disbelief to really work.
All that's just from poking holes in the logistics of the plan. The motive...well...it's rather amusing that Gallagher and Glasgow are of the mind that people from 4chan would go this far to create something viral, both for the ignorance this shows towards 4chan and the internet in general. The fact is, things aren't MADE viral. They go that way by a mix of right place, right time, right mentality. It's all pure zeitgeist, and you can't force something to go viral. This is why when you mention Tommy Wiseau, everyone remembers The Room rather than The House That Dripped Blood on Alex. The pop culture landscape is practically riddled with things that sought to make themselves into cult or viral hits that failed because there was a conscious effort to do so (remember back when Repo: The Genetic Opera was trying its damnedest to be the next Rocky Horror? Only to have that title instead go to the wonderfully disturbed Mr. Wiseau and his bizarre drama-turned-comedy.) If it was truly THAT easy to make something cult or viral, everyone would be able to do it. I could hammer this point further, but you get the idea - the point is, it's a force beyond our current capabilities to control. It just is. Further, 4chan is no exception to this rule, and what this movie's characters try to do is the kind of thing that is usually looked down on as a forced meme and summarily disregarded at best, outright shunned at worst.
While I'm busting this film's chops regarding its view of 4chan, I should probably clarify a rather interesting
point about how the movie handles that. Now, most of the areas where this film invokes websites, it's careful not to invoke real names, likely to get out of having to pay for the usage. Examples include the above-mentioned Chatroulette clone is the fictitious Hide&GoChat, and a scene of a site that's clearly YouTube has the YT logo omitted. In the midst of this careful avoidance of brand names, the film then makes direct callouts to the website 4chan...and not particularly favorable ones at that. Now, personally, I will admit. I've lurked the boards somewhat (and I could go into that further, but given the unofficial Rule #1, that's all I'll say for my own experiences,) and the site is definitely not for everyone. My own opinions of the site aside, I only bring up my involvement there in the interests of my perspective with regards to this part of the film. Between his decision to call the site out by name, and the way the so-named Anonymous of 4chan are depicted (Gallagher, in one of his few wise moments, makes it a point to differentiate them from the more publically known 'hacktivist' group in order to reduce the flak the film would get otherwise) one can't help but feel Gallagher was deliberately attacking the site with this movie. It's with that element of the film in mind that I can't say it was entirely surprising to learn that, when it leaked on the web and the site got to seeing the movie, they weren't happy. This wasn't just because a movie dared to risk making them mainstream or anything quite as petty as that, but rather the fact that it directly paints the users of the site as openly sociopathic and proudly representing 4chan (something which, again, most people familiar with the site avoid doing.) It didn't necessarily leave me surprised to learn he apparently got threats from the site over the movie . Maybe that is a bit much for a reaction...but really, you can't be that surprised when you make a film that makes smearing a group by name a central part of it.
All the rewrites and this STILL turns into a rambling treatise. In a way, that should say something right there for how badly I thought of this film. This was rewritten after several more profane and considerably more rambling versions in an attempt to try and reel in the focus. In fact, I almost feel bad I've given the film this much of my time, but if it has potentially steered some of you guys away from it, then I suppose that will be worth it. I normally don't say that, but I also haven't found a film that I found this irredeemable since the films of Uwe Boll. It's blandly directed and acted, relying largely on jump scares (which, in horror, are like fish in a barrel to get) and takes what had the potential to be an actually fairly novel idea and handles it in the most disappointingly lazy way imaginable. There's a part of me that wants to take it easy on them in the sense that this is the team's first feature-length movie...but then at the same time, I look at the number of other horror films made by people with low connections and budget. In fact, several of the greatest horror films made to date were by amateur filmmakers on low budgets (for some examples - The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead) who, despite their limitations, still made strong movies that still hold up now and all have their own strong style and voice. Smiley, while it's not a massive budget, apparently still had enough pull to get Keith David (who, let's face it, is a relatively known actor...which then makes it odd that he's the one they relegated to as little screentime as he has) and even outside of its budget, lacks any real strong sense of voice or personality. Beyond its comically inaccurate views of the internet culture, it has nothing really worth speaking of to its name. As such, the most I can really say for the film's amateur roots is that I hope that Gallagher can take this as a learning experience and improve from here. As the movie is now, however, it's an embarassing exercise by a group of young filmmakers making a film on a subject that, with their background, they should know far better.
and now, since I can show you these without any more recrimations of spoilers, the above mentioned choice line reads from this movie.
...I'm not gonna lie, having to force myself to rewatch parts of this is a good part of WHY this review took so long to get posted.
Whew...there...I managed to curb my profanity a lot more this time around, which took a lot...but man...I haven't come across a film that was this much of a wreck in a LONG time.
So yeah...Hell of a way to kick off the new month here. I promise the next film stands to be a lot better than this. Hey, even if it's bad, the odds are I can still at least find SOMETHING good to say for it.