Archive | November, 2018

My First Published Feature Film (Not a Review!)

6 Nov

It should have occurred to me long before that I don’t have to use this blog just for movie reviews. I’m a filmmaker too–I should be as open on my blog as I am on my own Facebook page. So, here goes: I made a micro-budget independent feature film and got it published on Amazon Prime.

It’s called “The Focusing Effect.”

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The premise goes like this: A film-student (played by yours truly, Tanner Smith) wants to succeed as a filmmaker and jump-start a career with a great documentary. This documentary project is called “The Dumpers and the Dumpees,” and it’s about getting both sides of particular breakup stories amongst his classmates. With help from his girlfriend (Kelly Woodruff) and his sister/roommate (Kayla Esmond), he makes the film and decides to make it even stronger by including a new story: one involving a surly classmate (Daniel Lee Harris) and his snobby ex-girlfriend (McKenzie Stell). But when a disturbing secret is revealed and developed, things go from bad to worse as the lives of our main characters are in jeopardy…

“The Focusing Effect,” made entirely in Central Arkansas, is presented in first-person perspective and edited like a faux-documentary, with interviews, v-logs, and candid footage telling the story. In telling a narrative-fiction story using this style, this posed a stressful (which is to say, “exciting”) directing challenge, because it meant takes had to go on for extended periods of time, which meant the acting had to be on-point (and not “100% realistic,” just “realistic enough”). Casting myself in the lead role seemed like it made perfect sense, since it was my script (from a story thought up by me, Kelly Woodruff, and our friend/co-editor Nikki Emerson) and I took it to heart, so I was determined not to screw it up. (Though, that’s not for me to decide whether or not I screwed it up.) Kelly Woodruff plays my character’s girlfriend, and she was my girlfriend in real-life (and now, she’s my fiancee)–we didn’t have to worry about perfecting our chemistry, but we did have to take the time to convincingly convey the proper emotions in the scenes in which our characters argue. The other key players are Daniel Lee Harris and Kayla Esmond, both of whom have acted in several made-in-Arkansas films. These two were game, professional actors, and they helped elevate the material one way or the other. As for crew, it was mostly just my friends who were willing to help out, many of which also appear in the film as the fake-documentary’s interviewees.

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“The Focusing Effect” was a micro-budget passion-project my friends and I made just out of film-school (the University of Central Arkansas film program), and I didn’t want to just make a “found-footage horror film.” I had made plenty of documentary shorts (mostly behind-the-scenes stuff) and two doc features while planning this film, and I wanted to come up with a narrative-fiction story that’s portrayed as if it was edited by a film student from his candid camera footage. (Matt Johnson’s “The Dirties” was also an inspiration.) It was basically a way of using our limited resources to our advantage in order to make this movie.

At its surface is a thriller story about an amateur documentary filmmaker who risks his relationship with his girlfriend (and his life) to push the envelope for a film that could’ve just been a fun project all by itself. But at its core is a cautionary tale about how far documentary filmmaking can go in terms of finding the perfect topic, story, and resolution. Even when my character looks back at the comedic parts of his film, he realizes it’s not so fun anymore because he’s exploiting his interview subjects’ embarrassments and selfish wants/needs–and he’s in danger of falling into that same trap with his own girlfriend.

And that’s before we get to the grisly final act, in which the blood hits the fan…

The film was a lot of fun to make. We broke a lot of rules and made our own choices in the whole process of making it, because we felt we could get away with it. That feeling of freedom reminds me of why I love making movies.

But it is a horror film in a way, and one of the challenges I was glad to meet was finding new ways to use the first-person camera perspective to induce fear. I think we found a few effective ones, but my favorite one is Kelly’s contribution. It’s a scene midway through the film, in which our characters are discussing the potential dangers of continuing the project…unaware that there’s someone in the background watching them! (They don’t realize it until later when they look at the recorded footage.)

By the way, this is why the film is called The Focusing Effect. It’s a reference to a psychology term that indicates how people put so much focus on one thing that they neglect to recognize something more important happening around them.

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“The Focusing Effect” is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Focusing-Effect-L-Tanner-Smith/dp/B07JQ58N6H/ref=sr_1_2?s=instant-video&ie=UTF8&qid=1541528930&sr=1-2&keywords=Focusing+Effect

If you hate the film, if you decide to check it out, you never have to take me seriously as a movie reviewer ever again. At the very least, I hope it makes you understand my passion for both film and filmmaking.

Thanks for reading!

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

5 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Reclusive author Lee Israel is a miserable case. She used to have one of her novels on the New York Times bestseller list, and now she’s in her early 50s, lives alone with her 12-year-old cat, has her previous books selling for 75% off at a nearby bookstore, and can’t get her agent’s attention. When she finally barges into her agent’s office to ask for a $10,000 advance for a new book she’s writing so she can pay her bills and provide healthcare for her cat, the agent bluntly tells her that she couldn’t be able to give her a $10 advance because hardly anyone will buy her book. Lee smarts off to her, and her response is she’s not successful enough to be a bitch.

This is a scene set early into the proceedings of the indie drama “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” a film that tells Lee Israel’s story based on her own autobiographical novel of the same name, and I knew right away that director Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and screenwriters Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty knew what they were doing here. And the rest of the film didn’t disappoint.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a drama with little bits of dark comedy and cynical wit sparkled throughout, which is something I always appreciate in a film that strives for a realistic feel (and something most “serious” filmmakers also need to keep in mind). Sharp writing and solid direction keep it flowing, but the most important ingredient that makes “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” truly memorable is the leading performance by Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel.

McCarthy is best known for starring in mainstream comedies like “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy,” “Identity Thief,” “Tammy,” and “Ghostbusters (2016).” She occasionally plays it straight, such a solid supporting performance in “St. Vincent,” but she’s best known for her crass mouth and constant improvisation (which grates on me from time to time). Here, for “Can You Ever Forgive Me”, she takes center-stage, playing this loner, depressed, angry author who could easily be the life of the party (like McCarthy usually plays in other movies) but chooses not to be. And McCarthy does brilliant work here, in a performance that should land her an Oscar nomination.

The story for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” involves Lee Israel as she discovers a get-rich-quick scheme that gets her good money for a while: to forge letters “written” by talents such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward and sell them to collectors for a hefty price. She’s able to convince just about everyone she sells them to…for a while. Before it’s too late or too soon, the authorities catch wind of Lee’s scam. So, she enlists the help of her friend, the charming, flamboyant Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, very good here) to take over the task of selling her future fakes. (Another thing I love about this film: McCarthy and Grant are fabulous together.) But soon after that, the jig is up…

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is based on a true story from the early-1990s, and the real Lee Israel (who died in 2014) wrote about the whole experience in a novel, which inspired the screenplay. You can tell how much detail was put into the production. There are enough biting insights to keep anyone who has only the slightest bit of interest in writing invested, you get a good sense of the world of collectibles and memorabilia, and cinematographer Brandon Trost also has a great eye for the era as well. And director Heller, who’s now helming the upcoming Tom Hanks Mr. Rogers biopic, has a bright future ahead of her. But first and foremost is Melissa McCarthy’s stellar leading performance as Lee Israel—she’s funny but also bitter and nonetheless earns our empathy. It’s one of the finest performances of the year in one of the best films of the year; a film that effectively blends comedy and drama without getting distracting.

Halloween (2018)

5 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

40 years ago, we got John Carpenter’s 1978 classic “Halloween,” a truly scary low-budget thriller about a killer that continued to lurk in the dark and stalk (and kill) unsuspecting teenagers. It was scary because it represented the looming presence of fate and death and ended on a chillingly ambiguous note: that evil is still out there and while we can evade it for some time, it can still come for you at any time…

Since then, there have been countless sequels (including one that tried a different story—“Halloween III”), neither of which I can recommend. (It was also remade in 2007 by Rob Zombie; I can’t recommend that one either.) And now, in 2018, we get a sequel that pretends all of the other sequels don’t exist. It’s a “Halloween” sequel, directed by talented filmmaker David Gordon Green, that’s directly following the original film 40 years later.

Already, we’re off to a good start…though simply giving it the same title as the original is confusing. (I get that they can’t call it “Halloween II,” because there were already two movies by that name…but now, there are three movies titled “Halloween”!)

The killer, Michael Myers, is no longer the brother of survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). He’s simply Michael Myers, an enigmatic figure that stalks and kills—the “boogeyman,” if you will. Four decades after killing a few people in Haddonfield, Illinois (actually, he’s killed more people if you include “Halloween II”…but they’re not including it, so I won’t either), Michael Myers has been institutionalized and studied long since then. Meanwhile, survivor Laurie has led a life of ruin and misery since then—she’s a nutty survivalist, living in a fortress-like secluded house, carrying a ton of armory hidden underneath, and obsessing over the possibility that Myers will escape and come for her and finish what he started.

That’s a very slim possibility, especially after 40 years of Myers being locked up and Laurie continuing to wait for him. But if he didn’t somehow escape, we wouldn’t have a movie, would we? Anyway, he escapes a bus filled with other mentally ill prisoners and makes his way back “home”…

And of course this happens on the night before Halloween, so that Myers can come to Haddonfield and stalk new victims on Halloween night!

In the process of Myers’ lurking and killing, we get some neatly executed horror moments, such as how he retrieves his infamous mask and when he walks through a suburban neighborhood filled with trick-or-treaters. And we also get some nice, funny moments too, such as when one of Myers’ potential victims reassures the boy she’s babysitting that everything’s fine when the kid knows better. (That kid, played by Jibrail Nantambu, is an absolute riot—I wish he had more screen time!) But we also get a lot of uninteresting moments too, particularly with Laurie’s teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) and her friends (Virginia Gardner, Dylan Arnold, Miles Robbins, and Drew Scheid) who we all know are generic teens lined up to be stalked, killed, or both.

Oh, and there’s also the creepy Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), the psychiatrist who looked after Myers long after Dr. Loomis (the doctor from the original, played by the late Donald Pleasance). Where he falls into this story is as uninteresting as it is blatantly odd (and random).

However, as we learn, the film isn’t really about them. It’s about Laurie’s chance at closure, getting a chance to fight back at the one that’s the cause of her turmoil and misery for four decades. (Though, I think she got off easy, as her friends were murdered forty years ago, while she survived—but I think you could call that “survivor’s guilt.”) We saw something like this in “Halloween H20,” in which Laurie fought Michael 20 years after the original incident, but it was merely a glimpse. This “Halloween” sequel delves deeper into the concept of “victim empowerment,” and it leads to a neatly executed final act in which Laurie has to protect her granddaughter, as well as her daughter (well-played by Judy Greer), and ultimately face her foe as an avenging angel. The roles are reversed this time—originally, Myers was the hunter, but now, Laurie is. What results is a climactic final act that is both fun and suspenseful.

For all the moments in “Halloween (2018)” that don’t work, there are still plenty of other moments that really do. Credit for that goes to director David Gordon Green and his collaborators, one of whom was John Carpenter himself—they know how to shoot the horrific moments and keep the tension flowing, and I appreciate the new direction they were willing to take this story, while paying callbacks to the original that don’t feel forced. (One callback in particular made me smile—it involved one character looking down below at another in a similar way at the end of the original. That’s all I’ll say about it.) Jamie Lee Curtis plays the most interesting character, which makes almost everyone else hardly relevant outside of playing “dead meat,” but it just makes every moment she appears on-screen more special because it’s building up to something big with her. And I like that producer Jason Blum (of Blumhouse Productions, which mostly specializes in horror films) was able to add a modern spin on the popular Halloween franchise, so that modern terrors and old-school suspense combine for an effective horror film. “Halloween (2018)” is the “Halloween” sequel I was waiting for. Do I wish there was a little less predictability with many of the side characters? Yes. But considering all the other “Halloween” sequels that this particular one ignores, I’ll take what I can get.

Baghead (2008)

5 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Baghead,” written and directed by brothers Jay & Mark Duplass, is an independent film that is both made on the cheap and delightfully aware of how cheap it is. It even opens with our main characters attending a film festival, where a micro-budget short film screened and its director gloats about his limited resources in making the film, right down to having his actors improvise their dialogue rather than provide them with a completed script… That is almost exactly how the Duplass Brothers managed to make “Baghead.”

This style of micro-budget filmmaking is commonly known as “mumblecore,” but if you listen to the Duplass Brothers’ audio commentary for the film, you’ll learn they don’t particularly care for that term.

Our main characters in “Baghead,” desperate actors looking to star in something, are inspired by this filmmaking method that they decide to rent a secluded cabin (in the woods, of course) and come up with a screenplay for a low-budget indie film in which they will all star. When they’re not working on ideas for the script, Matt (Ross Partridge), Chad (Steve Zissis), Catherine (Elise Miller), and Michelle (Greta Gerwig) do all the typical things young people do when they have a weekend to themselves in a cabin in the middle of nowhere—they get drunk, get high, pal around, go swimming, and then eventually collaborate on ideas. One night, Michelle has a nightmare about a killer with a bag over his head (a “baghead” killer, if you will), and this inspires Matt to write a horror script about this very concept.

What happens next requires a leap of faith the Duplass Brothers had to take for their audience to continue watching “Baghead” all the way to the end. It seems there really is a baghead lurking outside in the woods. In the film’s creepiest scene, he appears in Michelle’s room and watches as she flirts with who she thinks is Matt playing a game…and he just stands there, watches, and leaves. No one is sure whether it’s one of the four playing games or if there really is a stalker outside watching them…and with a bag over his head. What are the odds that there would actually turn out to be a baghead appearing around the same time these people start to write a script that features a baghead? Well, I won’t give away how this came to be, but it will either make or break the film for most people. It didn’t break it for me; if anything, it added more creativity than anything else.

“Baghead” has a wonderful amount of self-awareness, with art imitating life imitating art, as it comments on the world of filmmaking (particularly micro-budget filmmaking, in which “Baghead” belongs). The Duplass Brothers clearly love to create art and will do whatever it takes to do it with whatever they have. And they get clever mileage out of how they comment on how they even make their own film within said-film.

Of all four main actors, who were previously second-tier actors, only one managed to make it in the big time: Greta Gerwig. At the time, Gerwig was known for several films of this sort (she became known as “the Mumblecore Queen”) before she managed to break out, get more roles in bigger-budgeted indie films (at least, in comparison to “mumblecore” films) and mainstream movies, and even get recognition from Oscar for her directorial debut “Lady Bird.” But she started out with a bubbly, quirky personality that differentiated her from several of her peers. (Many critics had a problem with that—one of the critics of “Baghead” called her “fingernails-on-the-blackboard awful.”) I think she’s a delight in “Baghead”—not to slam her three co-stars, but Gerwig is the true star of the film. She’s funny and charming throughout the whole film.

Much of the film is improvised heavily, with many awkward pauses as the characters try to figure out what to say to one another and find ways to make it feel as real as possible. While it is grating at times, I admire the effort to insert realism into the mix. (That’s generally what “mumblecore” is all about—making the most out of minimal material.) The clumsy handheld camerawork adds to it as well. Though, I will say a lot of what the characters say is not particularly interesting, and I’m constantly waiting for something more juicy to come along and break the monotony. I do care about whether or not Chad and Michelle will end up together, but I’m not sure I needed the passive-aggressiveness of a potential love-triangle to make things more complicated.

I have yet to mention the tension that comes with the very real possibility that there is a baghead walking around outside, leading to a “Blair Witch” style of a sequence that leads to our characters roaming through the woods in fear. By that point, I was comfortable with the way the film was going. The Duplass Brothers were able to milk tension out of the simplest situations, and it truly works.

“Baghead” is essentially a low-budget horror-comedy, and the Duplass Brothers clearly had fun making it. Many people will have trouble with the final twist in the final act, but I didn’t really have much of a problem with it. I was simply appreciative that they didn’t go for any of the easier ways out of a bind.

An American Werewolf in London (Revised Review)

5 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember seeing John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London” on VHS when I was 16. I remember being so mad at the way it ended that I told myself I didn’t like the movie…and then, shortly after that, I bought the DVD and a T-shirt with “BEWARE THE MOON” (a line from the movie) sewn onto it. Yet, I was still convinced I didn’t like the movie…which is why I watched it countless times since then?

It took longer than I’m proud to admit for me to realize I did like the movie…I just didn’t like the ending.

“An American Werewolf in London” is a horror film with a sharp satirical sense of humor that makes for some uncomfortably funny moments. It begins with two American college students—David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne)—being dropped off in English country with a truckload of sheep…considering everything that happens to these two, I won’t even call this “subtle” foreshadowing.

David and Jack reach a local pub (called The Slaughtered Lamb) in a small village, a place that already seems disconcerting without the angry glares from the patrons and the barmaid. Before they leave, they’re warned to keep walking on the roads, stay off the moors, and “beware the moon.” Well, it’s a full moon out that night, and they ignore the warning and walk away from the road…and that’s when they are attacked by a ferocious creature in the dark.

Jack is killed, while David is hospitalized in London after being mauled by the creature. But the problem is no one, not even the police, believes his story that it was a large wolf that attacked them, since it was the corpse of a man that was uncovered at the scene of the crime, not a monster. While David is recovering from his injuries, he suffers a series of strange, harrowing nightmares, all of which involve him attacking animals and eating them (among other horrific details). But things get even stranger when Jack, now a decomposing corpse walking in limbo as one of the undead, visits David and warns him that he is becoming a werewolf. It was a werewolf that killed Jack and merely mauled David, and now, the curse has been passed on to David. If David doesn’t kill himself before the next full moon, he will become a monster and kill people.

It turns out Jack was right (of course), and on the next night of the full moon, David transforms into a werewolf and goes on a rampage. What everyone remembers from “An American Werewolf in London” is the transformation sequence, which shows the painful process of becoming the wolf-like creature. Makeup-artist/creature-creator Rick Baker supervised the effects, working with the makeup and prosthetics, and the result is not only effective but also one of the most amazing, memorable, lasting moments of its kind I’ve ever seen in any movie of its sort. (Baker won the Oscar for Best Makeup for this film, becoming the first winner for the category that was new at the time.) Carefully chosen cinematography and effective acting from Naughton make you feel the pain and suffering David is going through as his body goes through slow, numerous changes before ultimately becoming the American Werewolf in London.

“An American Werewolf in London” works well as a horror film, not only because of its effectively done scary set pieces (such as the boys’ first werewolf attack or a later attack in a Subway station) but also because we care for the character of David and feel sorry for him while he’s in this uncontrollable situation. But it also works as a black comedy, thanks to director Landis (who’s known for outrageous comedies like “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers”) who inserts many nice elements that are fun to laugh at. The most memorable and relevant of such elements comes with the character of Jack, who after his death visits David three times. Even though he looks worse and worse with each visit, as his body is slowly wasting away, Jack maintains the persona of a perky college student that makes for great comic relief.

Something else that keeps the rooting interest of the film going is a nice little romance between David and his nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter), who takes him in after David leaves the hospital. It’s sweet without being sugary, and you feel the attraction between the two. Much of the reason we want David to find some way to get through the curse is because we know Alex feels deeply for him. And then there’s David’s doctor, Dr. Hirsch (well-played by John Woodvine), who discovers there may be more to David’s story than he initially thought and does his own investigating. This subplot would be uninteresting if the part wasn’t played by an interesting actor who helps keep the film grounded in reality.

OK…let’s talk a little about the ending. Without giving away what happens, I still don’t like it. I feel like the film does so well, right up until this final minute or so. It feels so anticlimactic that it made me wonder why I spent so much time leading up to it. It let me down with how abrupt it was. But the more I thought about it (and I’ve watched this film several times), I might give the film a little bit of credit that there might not have been any other way it could’ve resolved itself…but I don’t know if I can forgive the film for immediately cutting straight to the credits with an upbeat pop song that tried to make me forget the utterly dire resolution I was just subjected to!

However, I can’t let something like that get in the way of the delightful horror-comedy I enjoyed for years (even if many of those years were spent in much denial). “An American Werewolf in London” is very well-made, contains Landis’ trademark blend of lightheartedness and weightiness, and may just be the best “werewolf movie” I’ve had the pleasure of seeing.