My Favorite Movies – Cannibal! The Musical (1996)

13 Jan

By Tanner Smith

I can credit my old college buddy Jordan Mears for this one–it’s his favorite movie; the more times he talked about it or showed me clips from it, the more compelled I was to watch it. I want to thank him for influencing me to check out this delightfully “shpadoinkle” musical dark comedy from the creators of “South Park” and “The Book of Mormon.”

Made in 1993 and released by Troma in 1996, “Cannibal! The Musical” was the debut film from director Trey Parker and co-producer Matt Stone, both of whom would go on to be two of the brightest satirists in TV and film history. It tells the true story of prospector Alferd Packer, who led a doomed expedition that resulted in frostbite, death, and cannibalism among his party. Though…this movie takes some liberties, to say the least. (But this is a musical farce–so if you care about historical accuracy, this is not the movie for you.)

The film was made when Parker and Stone were film students at the University of Colorado in Boulder. It began as a three-minute trailer for film class, which then gave them funding to make a feature film out of it. While the finished film definitely has that “student-film” aspect to it, that just adds to its charm. What charm it already has comes from its love-letter approach to Hollywood musicals and Western films and just having a ton of goofy fun with it.

Parker plays Packer (though he’s credited as Juan Schwartz, named after “John Schwartz,” one of the real Alferd Packer’s alias’), and he’s an engaging performer. Whether it’s singing for laughs or singing it straight, he’s outstanding here. He plays Packer as a total goof with inexperience as a wilderness guide and a great naïveté, plus a love for his horse Liane. He leads a group of Utah miners on a journey to Colorado Territory in 1873–they are compulsive liar Humphrey (Stone), Mormon priest Shannon Bell (Ian Hardin), butcher Frank Miller (Jason McHugh), teenage horndog George Noon (Dian Bachar), and overt optimist Swan (John Hegel).

These guys are a lot of fun. They range from jolly (Swan) to cynical (Miller), and all of the actors share great chemistry together.

Blah, blah, blah–what about the songs?? They’re all memorable and fantastic. There’s the joyful opener (“Shpadoinkle”), the hopeful-wishes song (“That’s All I’m Asking For”), the lovesick ballad (actually, there are two–“When I Was On Top of You” and “This Side of Me”), the villain song (“The Trapper Song”), the optimistic song (“Let’s Build a Snowman”–my personal favorite), and the celebration of pending execution (“Hang the Bastard”). They’re all very funny too, such as when Parker sells his Roy Rogers-esque moments, we hear more through “That’s All I’m Asking For” of what everyone wants (particularly Noon, who just wants to have sex), the subtle subtext of “When I Was On Top of You” (made even funnier when you know the background behind the subplot involving the horse named Liane), when the villains (a group of trappers) stop their song to have an argument about music theory, and especially when Packer’s love interest Polly Pry (Toddy Walters) sings “This Side of Me” and a passerby stops and is confused at her performance. The reprisals are funny too, particularly when the characters are on the verge of dying and don’t have much energy to reprise “That’s All I’m Asking For.”

Oh, right, there’s a story, isn’t there? While on the journey, Packer’s horse Liane runs away, with all of the group’s food, thus beginning their problems. They get lost, find refuge at an “Indian camp” (where all the self-described “Indians” are all played by Japanese exchange students and led by Masao Maki, playing my favorite character in the movie), leave even when they’re warned it’s too dangerous to venture out in the winter, and…well, let’s just say most of them don’t make it out alive. As the late Roger Ebert used to say, a movie is not about what it is about but about how it goes about it (I don’t think he saw this movie; in his scathing review of Parker’s later film “Orgazmo,” he even hinted that he never would). With this much entertainment value, who needs a story?

Cheap and amateurish, yes; but “Cannibal! The Musical” is a rollicking good time. All the songs are memorable and quotable, as are the characters, and the movie has great comedic timing. And it would prove to be a promising start for the careers of Trey Parker & Matt Stone. (Another one of my favorite movies: “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” of course.)

My Favorite Movies – Creep (2014)

12 Jan

By Tanner Smith

THIS is how you do found-footage horror!

I love “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Sacrament” and “Rec,” but “Creep”…WHOA!

I haven’t watched “Creep” in a long while. I’ve seen its sequel, “Creep 2,” more times just because I think it’s more interesting as its own kind of dramatic-thriller type. But “Creep” is straight-up psychological-horror and after seeing it again, almost like I was seeing it for the first time (except I know the twist obviously)…

I forgot how unsettling this movie is–even when you know the twist going into it, there’s still a lot of “uncomfortable” to sit through. I’m not gonna sugarcoat it, guys–this movie scared the bejesus outta me.

“Creep” is a microbudget indie thriller created by Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice, who just decided at one point to go out to a cabin in some woods and make their own movie in which a videographer may or may not be in danger of his “creepy” subject. This was a brilliant setup for the first-person perspective setup, with our main character being a videographer named Aaron (played by Brice, who also directs the film) and filming his experience in answering an ad for a strange man named Josef (Duplass) who asks him to follow him around with his camera for a couple days. When Josef who’s already shown to have very strange qualities becomes even more disconcerting, we have no idea where this film is going to go and neither does Aaron–we ourselves are with it along with him, trying to piece some things together. THAT is how you do a found-footage/faux-doc movie!

How off-putting is Josef? I swear, it’s like you took the cringe factor out of comedies like “The Office” and “Borat” and inserted it into a horror film–you laugh but it’s OK because the alternative is to SCREAM (not just because you feel uncomfortable but because you fear for your own life at the same time)!

Mark Duplass is one of my favorite talents, but his work here makes me want to run far away from him as quickly as possible–he’s THAT creepy.

“Creep” is simplicity at its finest. For a movie about just two guys making a movie in a cabin, it makes an impression.

A hell of an impression!

Both Creep and Creep 2 are available on Netflix.

My Favorite Movies – Real Genius (1985)

10 Jan

By Tanner Smith

Is the science in this outrageous comedy accurate? I like to think so. The way “Real Genius” balances wicked smarts and broad humor is enough to convince me that this movie was indeed made by real geniuses. Director Martha Coolidge (“Valley Girl,” “Rambling Rose”) and her team of writers (Neal Isreal, Pat Proft, & Peter Torokvei) obviously did a lot of research before going into this project, but even if they didn’t, I like to believe you really could do all the things the movie’s characters do if you had the wit and knowhow.

“Real Genius” is not merely one of the funnier movies about smart people (if not the funniest, period)–it’s also one of the smartest and most fun.

Although, strangely enough, it starts out rather strange. After a bland opening-credits sequence set to a lounge song followed by a biting government-experiment satire in the same vein as “Dr. Strangelove” and “WarGames,” you wonder where this film is going. Then we’re introduced to our pompous antagonist, Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton, perfect at playing a pompous ass), who recruits 15-year-old Mitch (Gabe Jarret) into his university study of laser physics. Why? Where are we going from here?

And then…Chris Knight enters the picture. Chris Knight, played marvelously and brilliantly by Val Kilmer, is also on the laser team and is Mitch’s roommate. He’s very intelligent, but to Mitch’s disappointment, he’s a goof-off who uses his smarts to have fun rather than work hard.

This is when the rug is pulled out from under us, as Chris interacts with Mitch, Dr. Hathaway, and others, and we realize two important things that factor into the enjoyment for the rest of the movie: that this is a comedy and that this character is going make it fun for all of us. Chris and Mitch have a nice brotherly relationship throughout the film, as Chris teaches Mitch to loosen up and have fun once in a while–he does that for all of his dorm-mates, such as crafting an ice skating rink in the dormitory hall and turning the assembly hall into a swimming pool to throw a party with aspiring beauticians. (This guy knows how to party!) He’ll even help Mitch get revenge on a bully by dismantling the jerk’s car and reassembling it in his own room.

I love this guy! His misadventures elevate a smart comedy to a greater level. And Val Kilmer plays him flawlessly–I wholeheartedly believe this is a smart dude who knows when to keep going and when to take things serious; this is no one-dimensional party animal. (Also a plus: this is a college I would have loved to attend…maybe I did attend it!)

What makes “Real Genius” even more fun is when it gets revealed that Dr. Hathaway has been paid by the CIA to craft a laser weapon for them and is hiring these college scientists to build it because, again, he’s an arrogant ass. Neither Chris nor Mitch nor Hathaway’s slimy toady Kent (Robert Prescott) ask any questions about this laser because all they care about is passing the course and moving on to bigger things in life. But late in the film, after they successfully finish building the laser, they realize they’ve been had and decide to get even, leading to…well, I won’t give it away here, but it’s perfectly fitting for the intelligences of all involved.

Another key character who lights up the screen whenever she appears is Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), a hyperactive student who becomes Mitch’s love interest. (Never mind the age difference–it’s more cute and quirky than icky.) She never sleeps, is always working on a project, and of course, like the other characters, is highly intelligent–she’s even self-aware to the point where she accepts Mitch because he’s not afraid of her as the other guys are (even when she follows him into the men’s restroom one morning to show a sweater she knitted for him–awkward!). Does she have a disorder or is she on speed? They don’t say, but…it’s the ’80s and it’s college, so I wouldn’t rule out the second possibility.

Oh, and there’s also Laszlo Holyfeld (Jonathan Gries) who is a literal closet case. (No, for real–he disappears from Chris & Mitch’s closet into a secret tunnel to his underground home.) He’s the smartest and most eccentric character of the bunch.

Overall, “Real Genius” is a smart, fun comedy that I enjoy coming back to every now and again. And I have to credit most of that to Val Kilmer as Chris Knight–he is this movie.

2021 Review

31 Dec

By Tanner Smith

It’s the most wonderful time of the year–celebrating the holidays, spending time with loved ones, and of course, perfect for a movie guy like me, checking out all the film critics’ year-end lists.

By now, I have a reason to hate making these lists–while they’re a reflection of how I feel in the moment, they don’t represent the changes of perception to the subjected movies, and how could they? (Many of these movies on the list, I’ll have only seen once as of now.) But at the same time, I still love making these lists for three reasons–because I like looking back at the past year at the end of said-year, I like looking back on them years later to see what’s changed, and it doesn’t mean I’m going to change my opinion of how I felt in the moment (I can only change my opinion of a movie after more time and viewings pass).

I’ve seen many movies in 2021. However, at the time making this list, I’ve missed a few well-received titles such as Being the Ricardos, Mass, CODA, Don’t Look Up, The Power of the Dog, and The Lost Daughter. But that doesn’t mean I’m never going to see them, and if I like one of these movies enough, I’ll find reasons to write about them.

Oh, and there are two movies on my list that have made critics’ year-end lists for 2020–to that, I say they were released to the public in 2021 and thus they’re qualified for my list. (You’ll know them when you see them.)

So let’s get started!

I’ll do things a little differently this time. For starters, I will present my top-10 list first–and in alphabetical order simply because…well, it’s my list and I’ll do with it what I want. So, here they are–my Top 10 Favorite Films of 2021 (in alphabetical order)!

  1. Bo Burnham: Inside
    Is it really a movie or a comedy special? Why is that even a debate? Let it be what it wants to be; for me, comedian-musician’s Bo Burnham’s visual album that represents being alone in quarantine is one of the most entertaining things I’ve seen all year! My favorite song on the playlist: “Facetime With My Mom Tonight.” Available on Netflix.

2. C’mon C’mon

I love writer-director Mike Mills’ work and I’m glad to have seen his latest film in time for a year-end list for once. This is a beautiful movie about connecting and with a moving performance from Joaquin Phoenix and wonderful moments of gentleness and sincerity.

3. Language Lessons

“Bo Burnham: Inside” and “Language Lessons” are two sides of the same coin–they show us what can be done when we’re forced to make art using very limited resources while in isolation. Director/co-writer/co-star Natalie Morales and her collaborator Mark Duplass might have played my favorite movie duo of the year as two lost souls who virtually find each other.

4. Licorice Pizza

Whew! Saw this one just in time, and man, am I glad I did! The great filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has delivered what I think is one of his absolute best works with this uplifting and sweet-natured 1970s period piece about the awkwardness and charms of first love. A wonderful film. (Maybe the reason this list is alphabetical is because not enough time has passed for me to properly rank it. Is it #5? #2? #1?? Check back with me in a month or so.)

5. Minari

Here’s one of the two 2020 holdovers that made it onto my 2021 list because come on, it was officially released to the public in early 2021, so that’s how I see it. (Fun fact: this was also the first movie I saw in a cinema since before the pandemic happened.) “Minari” is a beautiful film with moving performances and a touching story about family and ambition.

6. The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Disney has presented some great animated treasures in 2021. But while Sony’s “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” doesn’t have the grand scale of “Raya and the Last Dragon,” the warmth of “Luca,” or the emotional impact of “Encanto,” it is my favorite animated film of the year because it’s just a ton of fun. Available on Netflix.

7. A Quiet Place Part II

Instead of letting this sequel to the 2018 horror smash hit “A Quiet Place” go straight to streaming in 2020, writer-director John Krasinski and Paramount Studios decided to wait a full year to give us this wholly entertaining thrill ride to the big screen. And God bless them for it, because this is a great sequel.

8. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Yep, it’s the number-one movie of the year, and I, an unapologetic Spider-Man fan, can see why! I was very impressed with the previous “Spider-Man” movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“Spider-Man: Homecoming” made my 2017 list; I still stand by that)–but even I had no idea that it was all leading to what is undoubtedly one of the greatest films in the MCU. Tom Holland, who was already immensely likable as Peter Parker, grew into being a great Spider-Man; the directing from Jon Watts is top-notch (even above his work on the previous movies); and…I didn’t know being a fan of the other “Spider-Man” movies (from outside the MCU) would pay off in such a major way! (Does this mean I don’t have to apologize for liking “The Amazing Spider-Man” anymore?)

9. The Water Man

“The Water Man” is proof that the family film is alive and well even today–both children and their parents can get something out of this beautiful story filled with tense adventure and well-deserved drama plus appealing characters going through it all. Check it out, show your kids, and prepare for an interesting blend of fantastical legend and human interest.

10. West Side Story

Steven Spielberg’s take on the classic “West Side Story” is not just another film–it’s an experience. Everything about this musical screams “OUTSTANDING!” The cinematography, the choreography, the acting from the outstanding cast, the set pieces, and of course, the music direction are more than enough for me to say go check it out–but there’s more to it than all that: modern context helps make the hindsight look clearer. I’m surprised Spielberg hasn’t made a musical before.

And now…my OTHER Top 10 of 2021 (also in alphabetical order)!

  1. Belfast–Kenneth Branagh’s heartwarming personal story
  2. Encanto–I still can’t get that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno-no-no” song out of my head!
  3. Ghostbusters: Afterlife–THIS was the “Ghostbusters” follow-up I was waiting for!
  4. Luca–simply delightful Disney/Pixar flick
  5. Nightmare Alley–Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times put it best: ” a great, great movie about some bad, bad people.”
  6. Nomadland–this is the other “2020 holdover” I mentioned.
  7. Raya and the Last Dragon–Disney had a great year!
  8. Ride the Eagle–I love indie dramedies, and both this and “Language Lessons” were my two favorites this year. Great work from actor Jake Johnson.
  9. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings–Great year for the MCU too!
  10. Val–A loving tribute to actor Val Kilmer helped by Val’s son Jack. Available on Amazon Prime.

And now, a bunch of honorable mentions, in no particular order: Long Weekend, Fear Street Part Three: 1666, Old, Adrienne, The Suicide Squad, The White Tiger, The Stylist, tick, tick…Boom!, Jakob’s Wife, No Sudden Move, Last Night in Soho, Stillwater, Our Friend, Candyman, Slaxx, Together Together, The Vigil, Passing, Judas and the Black Messiah, Operation Varsity Blues, Pig, My Salinger Year, and Shiva Baby.

And last but…maybe least, I dunno…I have to mention this one film in particular because whether it’s good or bad, I don’t care because it’s the silliest movie I’ve seen all year (and one of the most entertaining–as I said in my review of the movie, it’s my kind of silly). It’s the German import Help, I Shrunk My Friends.

There is no way I can further defend it better than I’ve already tried in my initial review, so you can check that out–my opinion of it hasn’t changed; it’s still one of the more bonkers and entertaining films I’ve seen this year, and that has to count for something!

And that’s it! I love this time of year and I love going into a new year not knowing what truly great movies await me. There’s only one way to find out and that’s support local art, go to the movies, and because streaming services are bigger now than ever, give some underappreciated Netflix Originals a chance.

See you later!

My Favorite Movies – Black Rock (2013)

14 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Three girlfriends go camping on an isolated island and guess what–they’re not alone. That’s the setup for the tense and well-executed thriller “Black Rock,” which mixes both mumblecore and bare-bones genre filmmaking flawlessly. Who cares how limited resources were for making this film when there’s such skill and craftsmanship, not to mention an appealing cast of protagonists to root for, involved?

Directed by and co-starring Katie Aselton and written by her husband Mark Duplass, “Black Rock” features three women (Aselton, Kate Bosworth, and Lake Bell) who decide to rekindle their childhood friendship by escaping to their favorite place from growing up: an island off the coast of Maine. Two of the friends (Aselton’s Abby and Bell’s Lou) aren’t on good terms due to a betrayal from long ago, but the third and ringleader of the trio (Bosworth’s Sarah) manages to keep the peace (for a little while, at least).

Right off the bat, all three actresses are extremely believable in their roles. I buy them as friends, their dialogue rings true, they share unique chemistry, and they’re a cut above your standard thriller movie characters. (Aselton, in particular maybe because she also directed the film, stands out with real charm as a comic actress early in the proceedings–but her emotional moments late in the film are effective too.)

Not long after they’ve set up camp, they find they’re not alone, as three hunters (Will Bouvier, Jay Paulson, and Anslem Richardson) happen upon them. They recognize one of them from way back when, so they figure they’ll spend some time together, catch up, get a little drunk, and have a good time…

It doesn’t turn out that way.

Without giving away specifics as to how this came to be, all three women are now threatened with death by these gunmen (who, by the way, were in the military and have served numerous tours overseas), who plan to hunt them through the woods and kill them. A bit of “Deliverance” mixed with a bit of “The River Wild” mixed with a chilling and tight script from Duplass help make the back half of “Black Rock” effectively thrilling. What also helps is that by then, I’ve come to know the key characters and root for them to take some control of the horrific and grisly situation. Thankfully Sarah, Lou, and Abby aren’t completely helpless nor are they invincible superheroines–they feel like real people thrust into a world they didn’t make.

But when the chips are down, they do prove to be worthy badasses. An interesting theme “Black Rock” keeps is one of the power of friendship, as cheesy as that sounds. Each group, of the heroes and the villains, is loyal to each other and that’s what motivates their actions.

Oh, and while keeping this spoiler-free, there is a scene in which Lou and Abby strip naked in the woods at night–but this scene isn’t gratuitous; there’s a reason for why they’re doing this.

You know how they say don’t go camping in a horror movie? Well, how can you know you’re in a horror movie unless something terrifying happens while you’re camping? That’s essentially the mindset of the movie.

C’mon C’mon (2021)

9 Dec

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m not gonna lie–I had to sit with what I just saw for about 10 minutes before writing about “C’mon C’mon.”

I’m a big fan of writer-director Mike Mills’ work–he makes deeply personal films about inter-family relationships and characters I deeply care about. With his 2011 drama “Beginners,” it was Ewan McGregor learning from his father (Christopher Plummer) how to relate to someone again. With 2016’s 20th Century Women, it was Annette Bening struggling to relate to her teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann) in changing times. And now with “C’mon C’mon,” we have the always-interesting Joaquin Phoenix in one of his softer roles as a radio journalist having to connect with his 9-year-old nephew.

I didn’t see “20th Century Women” in time for my best-of-2016 list (and only after did I check out “Beginners,” so obviously that one wasn’t on the 2011 list either)–this time, I can finally have a Mike Mills film on my year-end list.

As I mentioned, Phoenix plays a radio journalist named Johnny, who goes around different cities asking many different children questions about particularly heavy topics like how they see the future. One of the great touches of the film is when he teaches his little nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) how to use his equipment to record natural sound as they walk around the city–whether Johnny knows it or not, it’s helping open up Jesse’s mind to the world around him.

Side-note: there’s already critics asking why this film had to be presented in black-and-white, especially since it seems set in modern times and there were two recent films set in the past (Belfast and Passing) that were also in B&W–I will not argue against this decision, especially because all this talk about the future helps give the film a sense of timelessness. (Plus, Johnny and Jesse are often walking around the city streets of Los Angeles, New York, and/or New Orleans–Jesse lives in LA, Johnny takes him with him to NY, and the two later visit NO–and the cities always look great in black-and-white.)

NY-based Johnny calls his LA-based sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), with whom he doesn’t usually talk except on occasions such as the one-year anniversary of their mother’s death, and Viv needs a favor from him. She needs to go to Oakland to be with her manic-depressive soon-to-be ex-husband Paul (Scoot McNairy), because he had another breakdown recently, and she needs Johnny to look after her 9-year-old son Jesse. So, Johnny moves into Viv’s house to be with Jesse, who is a very strange but also very bright little boy. Naturally, the two don’t know how to get along, but as some time passes, he decides he likes the little tyke and doesn’t mind being a parent.

But naturally, this is only the beginning. With Viv’s permission, Johnny takes Jesse back to New York with him so he can get back to work and spend more time with him. Of course, with Jesse being a little kid who lives in a world all his own, Johnny realizes that this parenting gig isn’t as easy as he thought. When he tells Viv about how difficult things are with him, she responds, “Welcome to my f***ing life”–but she also assures him that nobody knows what they’re doing and there are going to be times when you want to be away from your kid and times when you love your kid, but you just have to keep going.

There are beautiful moments of gentleness and sincerity in the moments where Johnny and Jesse truly bond together, and there are heart-stopping dramatic moments such as when Johnny loses Jesse on a busy city street(!)–one of the things I love about Mike Mills films is the way he balances lighthearted humor and heavy emotional drama. The relationship between uncle and nephew is at the heart of the movie and it’s wonderful seeing seasoned veteran Joaquin Phoenix and pre-pubescent newcomer Woody Norman interact together as these two characters.

C’mon C’mon is one of my favorite films of 2021 and I’ll make sure it gets a spot on my year-end list.

My Favorite Movies – Gremlins (1984)

3 Dec

By Tanner Smith

“Die Hard” is technically a Christmas movie, but I’ll watch it anytime. “Gremlins,” however…even though it was initially released in the summertime, it just feels right to watch only in Christmastime. (That’s probably just me though.)

I DO think of Christmas when I think of “Gremlins.” The pleasant small-town setting looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. Christmas tunes are either hummed by characters or played in the playground. It even begins with the adorable little creature Gizmo being given as a Christmas present.

But I guess I can see why some people don’t like to associate “Gremlins” with the holiday season. The little red-eyed monsters attack Santa Claus, they tie up the dog outside in Christmas lights (poor pooch), and then there’s that random hella tragic speech about how the female lead found out there was no Santa Claus!

But that’s kind of why I love to watch this movie each Christmas too. I already have “Home Alone,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story,” “Arthur Christmas,” and whatever “Christmas Carol” adaptation I feel like watching–why not a twisted horror-comedy about little monsters raise hell in a quiet little town on Christmas? I need a little variety! (And hey, why not a little dark comedy like “Bad Santa” or “The Land of Steady Habits” to go along with it? Those take place on Christmas too.)

“Gremlins” is a Spielberg production directed by Joe Dante (who made another favorite of mine: “Matinee”). It begins with a Spielbergian touch as young adult Billy (Zack Galligan) cares for his new pet, a strange big-eyed little creature called a Mogwai, named “Gizmo.” Right off the bat, Gizmo is freaking adorable–he reminds me of my late beloved Shi Tzu puppy.

But there are rules that come with owning a Mogwai: keep it away from bright lights (and sunlight will kill it), don’t get it wet (just let it clean itself like a cat), and NEVER feed it after midnight. (Whatever you want to say about how it’s “always ‘after midnight'” is pretty much moot–“Gremlins 2: The New Batch” already had fun with analyzing the concept.) When all three rules are broken, that’s when Gremlins gets more fun, as Dante goes with a sci-fi thriller approach, paying homage to 1950s monster films.

Oh, not just with the small town being invaded by otherworldly beings–Dante literally throws in Robby the Robot and the infamous Time Machine at random spots of the movie! (Dante always likes to fit in references to such in each of his films.)

“Gremlins” has a body count–don’t show this to kids unless you’re sure they can take it. When the Mogwai multiplies into more of them, they become vicious fanged beasties with scaly claws instead of furry paws. And they do kill people, and many of the Gremlins themselves get killed in pretty grisly ways too, especially when Billy’s mother (Francis Lee McCain) defends herself against some of them in her own kitchen. There’s also an intense scene in which Billy is nearly sliced by a Gremlin with a chainsaw. This film is rated PG, but this was back when PG didn’t just mean “Practically G” and also it paved the way for the PG-13 rating (along with Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” which came out the same year as “Gremlins”). If you want to show this to your younger family members, keep that in mind.

I guess you could say “Gremlins” is a lovely bit of coal to fit into your Christmas stocking–and I enjoy it as such.

My Favorite Movies – Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

23 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Here’s one from my personal top 100. No, top 50. No, you know what? Maybe even top 10! It’s pretty much my definition of “a perfect movie,” and since it takes place around Thanksgiving, it’s declared the ultimate “Thanksgiving movie.” What better time of year to talk about it?

I’m of course talking about “Pieces of April.” What a delightfully droll indie gem with a winning performance from Katie Holmes as a quirky, rebellious young woman struggling to make everything perfect for her dying mother because this might be her last Thanksgiving– No, it’s obviously Planes, Trains & Automobiles. OF COURSE it’s “Planes, Trains & Automobiles!” Why would it be anything other than “PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES??”

Sorry, not sorry. I love this movie. (Btw, “Pieces of April” is really freaking good too.)

Where do I begin with this one? Why do I love it so? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s my idea of a “dramedy”–part comedy, part drama, and overall wonderful. With movies like this, City Lights, and 50/50, among others, I’ve learned that if there’s anything more important than a comedy that makes you laugh…it’s one that makes you feel.

Where does the comedy come in? Well, Steve Martin and John Candy are a great comic duo with differing personalities–Martin’s Neal Page is an uptight, tidy marketing exec; Candy’s Del Griffith is a messy, joyous (and blabbering) traveling salesman (of shower curtain rings). They meet by chance as they try to fly from New York City to Chicago. Del doesn’t have a good first impression after inadvertently stealing Neal’s cab en route to the airport, and it gets even worse when they’re seated together on the plane and Del WILL NOT SHUT UP. When a snowstorm forces them to land in Wichita, Del helps Neal find a motel room to sleep in…and one bed for them to share together.

We’re not even a half-hour in before Neal totally loses his cool with this slob. Del’s a good-natured guy, but he’s just too much for Neal when it comes to being friendly. And Neal blows up and lets him have it; at one point, he states that he could tolerate an insurance seminar before sitting next to Del on the plane and listening to him tell his boring anecdotes again. This kind of thing usually happens near the final act of your typical buddy comedy–but this is not your typical buddy comedy, as writer-director John Hughes will assure you. (This isn’t the only time Hughes toys with conventional story elements in this movie.)

Steve Martin’s long rant is funny…but the scene doesn’t entirely play for laughs. During this rant, we often cut back to John Candy’s face as the character takes it all in with genuine pain–and when Martin is finally done, Candy delivers a heartfelt monologue of his own, resulting in a wonderfully touching moment that makes me forget I’m watching a comedy.

Oh, and the morning after…is always a riot to watch. (“THOSE AREN’T PILLOWS!”)

This is only the first act! The rest of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” includes a lot of great moments that follow, such as Neal trying to lose Del while fate keeps bringing them back together, they take a train, they rent a car, Neal has his infamous profane breakdown in front of an auto clerk, Neal and Del realize THEY’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY on an expressway, they finally become friends and learn a lot about each other on their journey to get Neal home in time for Thanksgiving dinner with his family… There’s just so much going on in this movie, and at barely an hour-and-a-half of running time, every minute counts.

A lot of it is very funny and the rest of it is very endearing. I already mentioned Del’s reaction to Neal’s angry words towards him (which is one of my favorite moments in any film honestly). But there are some more tearjerking moments that come right near the end.

And this movie earns those tears. We’ve spent this entire movie getting to know these two characters, and by the end of it all, we love them both.

Oh, and here’s a delicious piece of irony–if Del and Neal had just stayed at the Wichita airport, they would’ve been able to catch a flight out and make it to Chicago right on time. But where’s the fun in that?

I truly love this movie and I’ll be watching it with my family this Thanksgiving Day. It is one of my absolute favorite movies of all time.

Passing (2021)

19 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Netflix’s “Passing” looks at an age-old issue in the Black community: light-skinned Black people “passing” as white.

“Passing” is the screenwriting/directing debut of actress Rebecca Hall, who adapted the screenplay from a 1929 novel of the same name and for whom this was a deeply personal project, as her grandfather was Black but passed for white. The result is a gem with skillful filmmaking, gorgeous cinematography, and two extraordinary leading performances at the center of it.

Set in New York City in the 1920s, “Passing” is focused on two light-skinned Black women who were good friends in the 1910s but went their separate ways after. Irene aka Rene (Tessa Thompson) now lives in Harlem and has settled down with a doctor for a husband (Andre Holland) and two children, and is a member of the Negro Welfare League. She’s doing some shopping downtown (and doing her best to hide certain features so the posh white people don’t know she’s Black) when she encounters her old friend Clare (Ruth Negga)…who has reinvented herself as a glamorous blonde, married to a wealthy man who doesn’t know she’s Black. As Clare brings Rene up to her hotel suite for a drink, Clare’s husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard), arrives and already shows his colors as slimy and bigoted and never sorry for it (of course never realizing the ethnicities of present company). Clare welcomes herself into the lives of Rene and her family, hoping to rekindle her friendship with Rene. But of course, things aren’t as simple as they may seem…

“Passing” was shot in black-and-white, giving Hall and cinematographer Eduard Grau ample opportunity to emphasize skin color–it’s much more effective than if it were done in color.

This film has a great cast. Both Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson are Oscar-worthy in their roles; they’re able to get across the numerous layers their conflicted characters are covered with. (It’s also the first time I’ve truly seen Thompson, who was good in the “Creed” movies and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, disappear into a role.) Alexander Skarsgard is of course great as the oily creep, Andre Holland is solid as Rene’s husband who has mixed feelings about where his kids are growing up, and Bill Camp, one of today’s best and understated character actors, turns up as a celebrated white author who is the guest of honor at an NL dance party.

The overall point of “Passing” is made pretty clear, as everyone is passing as something else one way or another, no matter what the race, sexuality, social stance, etc. And I was intrigued by how Rebecca Hall, who proves to be a very capable director, gets it across.

“Passing” is now available on Netflix.

Language Lessons (2021)

17 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I don’t often do this on my blog, because it’s more about other people’s films than my own, but I’m going to plug my short film “Cassandra.” It’s a 43-minute comedy-drama that takes place entirely through video-chat. I co-wrote and directed it and it can be seen on YouTube here.

What does this have to do with the film I’m reviewing, titled “Language Lessons?” Well, this film also tells its story through a webcam-perspective format and I was kind of jealous of it for that.

No joke–many times throughout “Language Lessons,” I kept thinking to myself, “Oh THAT’s how I was supposed to make our video-chat movie!” But at least now I can tell those who told me they couldn’t get through the first 8 minutes of “Cassandra” that there IS a way to do it. And this is that way.

I mean it; “Language Lessons” is one of my absolute favorite films of the year. I love this movie.

“Language Lessons” is, like I said, told entirely through webcam and focused on two characters played by Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass. (Morales also directed the film and co-wrote it with Duplass.) And it’s about a Spanish teacher (Morales) and her student (Duplass) who form a friendship over a long period of online Spanish lessons.

Mark Duplass is one of my favorite people working in the film industry, and this, I believe, is his very best work. Just when I think I’m going to get the Duplass I already know and love from his other works, such as Safety Not Guaranteed and Creep, he shows some heavy dramatic chops I didn’t even know he had. There’s a scene in which he’s coping with tragedy and he has an emotional breakdown in trying to figure out how to tell people about it–that was the moment I talked to the screen: “Dang, Mark, you should get an Indie Spirit Award nomination for this!”

Natalie Morales is a skillful director (and soon after watching this film, I checked out her other film, “Plan B,” available on Hulu–very good work there too) and a winning screen presence as a friendly soul who first teaches her student and then is there for support. She deserves Indie Spirit recognition as well, especially when we see more levels to her character late in the film.

Being a film centered on two people through virtuality, “Language Lessons” is a 90-minute conversation piece. Not only are the two people such appealing personalities that work off each other wonderfully, but the conversations they have are interesting to listen to (and watch, seeing as how those who don’t already know Spanish will need to read subtitles much of the time). That’s the reason I watch indie dramedies: to watch characters I care about go through life the best ways they know how.

“Language Lessons” is now available to rent/buy on-demand and will be available on DVD/Blu-Ray next month–and I highly recommend it.

Now…maybe I should start writing another webcam movie, huh?