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Films I Neglected to Review: Smith & Bones
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of ''The Autopsy of Jane Doe'' and ''Growing Up Smith.''

With a title like 'The Autopsy of Jane Doe,' most moviegoers probably wonít be going into it expecting a light and frothy rom-com but even confirmed genre buffs may find themselves surprised by the power of this grim, grisly and stylishly-made shocker. After a grisly crime scene yields up the nude body of a beautiful young woman (Olwen Catherine Kelly) whose presence doesnít seem to fit in with the surrounding carnage, her seemingly unblemished corpse is taken to the local morgue in the hopes that coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son/assistant Austin (Emile Hirsch) can figure out a cause of death. As the two begin digging in (and yes, concession stand sales for this film will probably not set any records), they start finding signs of massive trauma and torture as well as a few other things that should not be there at all. Things quickly take a turn for the strange and as weird occurrences begin to pile up, the Tildens struggle to get to the bottom of what happened to their subject before they wind up on the slab themselves.

On the surface, the premise of ''The Autopsy of Jane Doe'' may make it seem like a cheesy example of the horror genre at its most basic but, much like the titular process, the further it goes along, the creepier it gets. The screenplay by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing may not exactly break new ground but it takes all the standard tropes--slamming doors, things lurking in the shadows and radios that mysteriously burst to life at inopportune moments with unsettling broadcasts--and deploys them in smart and entertaining ways. For his part, director Andre Ovredal stages the horror beats with undeniable flair--he knows both how to milk a moment for the maximum amount of tension and how to make it eventually pay off in spades--so that even when you can see what is coming a mile away, he can still get you to jump in your seat. The performances from Cox and Hirsch are both quite strong--they are clearly having fun with the material but never condescend to it--and Olwen Catherine Kelly makes for a singular presence as the Jane Doe in question. Maybe the finale doesnít quite work as well as one might have hoped--while there is nothing especially wrong with it, it just seems to lack some of the ingenuity of the rest of the film--but for the most part, ''The Autopsy of Jane Doe'' is an uncommonly effective item that will satisfy not just genre buffs buts anyone who enjoys watching a smart and well-told story.

''Growing Up Smith'' is a film that is so overtly eager to please that I almost feel like a monster for suggesting that it isnít very good. Set in 1979, it tells the story of Smith (Roni Akurati), a 10-year-old Indian boy growing up in a small Oklahoma town with his family and facing not only the usual pleasures and perils of childhood--ranging from the taunts of the school bully to a crush on literal girl-next-door Amy (Brighton Sharbino)--but the problems of living with parents (Anjul Nigam and Poorna Jagannathan) who have not quote grasped the fine points of American culture (they invite neighbors to a barbecue but only serve vegetarian fare) and who are still so tied to their traditions that they already have arranged the marriages for both Smith and his older sister, who is forced to keep her romance with a local boy a secret as a result. Eventually, Smith finds himself becoming friends with Amyís beer-swilling, good-ol-boy dad (Jason Lee), who takes him under his wing to help him fit in better, a process that Smithís parents are fine with at first but which eventually leads to a clash between his true heritage and his adopted one.

The movie is undeniably well-meaning, the two young stars are charming and the material about accepting other cultures is quite timely now. With all that going for it, it is a shame that the film as a whole is kind of bland and uninspiring. In ways both big and small, it feels more like a TV show--and a contrived one at that--and rarely if ever has the tinge of real life that might have made it into something special. For example, we know how strict and tradition-bound Smithís parents are (he even gets punished for going against the familyís vegetarian ways by sampling some illicit KFC) but he then insists that his favorite movie back then was ''Saturday Night Fever'' and even busts out a white suit and clumsy disco moves in an attempt to impress Amy--a cute joke, I suppose, but one that feels like a bit. Unfortunately, there are too many moments like that on display here where the story feels like it is working from a checklist than authentic human experience and as a result, the big emotional moments never quite register in the ways that they should. This is probably the kind of film that is better appreciated seen at home on a television (it already feel like a series pilot at times) where its modest virtues can shine better and its flaws are not quite as noticeable.

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originally posted: 02/04/17 08:02:38
last updated: 02/05/17 06:04:43
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