Archive | April, 2021

My Favorite Movies – Big (1988)

24 Apr

By Tanner Smith

I wish I could be as gleeful and excited as Josh Baskin when he got his first paycheck at his first job–“187 dollars?!!” Actually, I was once, back when I had my first job–it felt good to earn an honest pay for once.

“Big” has been one of my favorites since childhood–even when I didn’t get a lot of the jokes as a kid, I was still with the movie because it was so likable and appealing and wanted to treat me like an adult. (I think the target audience was both children and grownups–the PG-rating standards were pushed a little bit back when it was made and released.)

I first drawn to it at a young age (I think I was 8 or 9, I forget…) because like most kids, I wished I was bigger or grown up. As I got older, the comedy spoke to me more, so I kept coming back to it for that. Not too long after, I felt like I “got” it, like I knew what it was trying to tell me all that time–and I loved it even more.

The film is about a 12-year-old New Jersey boy named Josh (David Moscow) who is going through the normal average pre-pubescent stages–he’s being nagged by his parents to do his chores, he wants the attention of the pretty girl, he’s too short for the best carnival rides, all of that stuff. He comes across a fortune-telling machine that asks him to make a wish…so he wishes he was “big” (or “grown up”). (He doesn’t realize until after he’s made the wish that the active machine was unplugged the whole time. Spoooooky…)

The following morning, Josh is surprised to find that his wish has come true–he’s now taller, bigger, and played by Tom Hanks. His own mother doesn’t recognize him, but he’s able to convince his best friend Billy (Jared Rushton) of the situation. So, Billy helps Josh lay low in New York City until he can find the machine and wish himself back to being a kid again. But meanwhile, he needs work–so he gets a job working at a toy company. (He gets the job too easily, but remember it’s a fantasy.) He gets the attention of the boss, MacMillan (Robert Loggia), because rather than analyze target demographic surveys and processed datas and all that junk, Josh tests toys the old-fashioned way: he plays with them.

The best scene in the movie, I think everyone who’s seen it agrees, is the one where Josh and MacMillan meet at a toy store and play the carpet piano. Josh starts playing the scales and “Heart and Soul,” and it’s right there in a quiet little moment where MacMillan is reminded of his own childhood and smiles at the memory, leading to a piano duet between the two–first “Heart and Soul” and then “Chopsticks.” Everything about this scene is gold–it’s beautifully shot and choreographed, it’s funny, and it’s charming. I love it.

Anyway, Josh gets a promotion at work and blows everyone away because no one understands toys better than he does–he knows what kids want! (Go figure.) He gets a nicer apartment, he makes a decent living (ah screw it, it’s more than decent–I WANT THAT APARTMENT!), he upholds new responsibilities, and he even gets a girlfriend in a pretty coworker named Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), who has somewhat of a reputation amongst her male coworkers. This strange, interesting man interests her, so she tries to pick him up…

“I WANT to spend the night with you,” she tells him. He doesn’t quite get it: “Do you mean sleep over?” “Well…yeah.” “Well OK…but I get to be on top!” That is one of the jokes that went WAY over my head as a kid!

The more time Susan spends with Josh, the more she loosens up. She doesn’t carry herself as much as the movie continues. Josh has the same effect for other people, including MacMillan, who gets sick and tired of all the business talk around the office. Josh even has that effect on the uptight a-hole executive Paul (John Heard)–when Paul gets ticked off at Josh, he becomes a schoolyard bully (which he probably was as a kid).

It’s an interesting theme, but even more fascinating is Josh’s development as he continues further into the adult world (and his friend Billy has to remind him who he really is). When the time comes where he’s offered the opportunity to go back and live his teenage years before handling all the adult responsibilities…will he take it?

Just writing about “Big,” I’m reminded of the things I love about it. There’s a wonderful delicate balance of comedy and drama. Tom Hanks is phenomenal as the literal man-child. The supporting cast, especially Robert Loggia as the boss and Jared Rushton as the only one in on the secret, is excellent. The final act is emotionally charged. The directing by Penny Marshall is tender-hearted and cheerful. And so on.

And arguably most importantly, it’s THE SCREENPLAY–the only way this script by Gary Ross (who went on to write and direct “Pleasantville,” another favorite of mine) and Anne Spielberg (sister of Steven) could have been ruined is if the original casting choice (Robert De Niro) was put in the lead role. (I love De Niro, but I could never see him as Josh.)

I love this movie. I always have and I always will.

Last thing I’ll say about “Big” is I usually stick with the original cut. The extended version is fine (though I would’ve liked to see that legendary alternate ending), but I think they made the right editing choices for the theatrical cut. If you’re a “‘Big’ completist,” it’s worth checking out–but I don’t think you’ll love it as much as the version you’ve come to know and love at that point.

My Favorite Movies – Phantasm (1979)

17 Apr

By Tanner Smith

Just for fun, I’m going to insert quotes from Siskel & Ebert’s harshly negative review of this movie at certain points in this post, starting with, “[Phantasm] has no social significance whatsoever.” Already an odd start for reviewing a horror film.

To be honest, there are times when I’m looking at a cheesy horror or sci-fi or action film and wondering why it was made. But then there are times when I just have to answer my own question with, “Well, why not?”

Don Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” is a very unique supernatural-horror film. It has the biggest number of inventive horror aspects I’ve seen in just one movie. It has the very “indie” feel of making it up as they went along. It inspired a series of sequels that I honestly have no interest in whatsoever. And I have to wonder if I would enjoy it if I were seeing it for the first time today at age 28 as opposed to growing up with it since age 14.

Well, I revisited Phantasm as well as “The Gate,” another horror film I grew up with at the same time–and I’ll tell the truth: I didn’t enjoy “The Gate” nearly as much today as I did “Phantasm.” (So no, I won’t be talking about “The Gate” in this series. But it’s still a cool movie and I have a soft spot for it.)

So, what are among the horrors in “Phantasm?” Take it away, Ebert: “There’s a few nice touches, like a severed finger that kind of creeps around with a mind of its own and a weird little stainless steel ball that flies through the air, and it has two claws that come out, and they dig into your forehead, and the little screw comes out and drills into your brain…kinda like a lobotomy from a dentist!”

Yeah, there’s that and the three-foot hooded monsters and the giant fly creature and the seductive (and dangerous) Lady in Lavender and the super-strong Tall Man and the portal to another dimension and–should I continue?

Way before I read director Don Coscarelli’s memoir “True Indie,” about making his films with limited resources, I dug the hell out of “Phantasm” just because it was ambitious and creative and funny and also one of the inspirations for me as a filmmaker. Is it overstuffed with ideas? Absolutely–but what do I care anymore?

Ebert? “The movie’s really just a bunch of special effects and horror cliches borrowed secondhand from The Late Show–they’re sprung together, they make no particular point… If the movie had a better story and even remotely convincing characters, along with those unique little touches like that stainless steel buzzsaw for the brain, it might have been a pretty good horror film. But as it is, Phantasm is a mess!”

Oh, you’re just jealous because you couldn’t do it.

The scene with the sphere is still effective after all these years (I keep forgetting it’s tied to a fishing line and shot in reverse after it’s been thrown)–though, it’s hard to believe it almost gave the film an X rating; it’s kind of tame by today’s standards. The scene that frightens me the most is when the kid, Mike (Michael Baldwin), has a nightmare of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) looming over him like a boogeyman.

It’s just a fun movie about young people coming across something unexplainable and trying to survive it, much like Coscarelli’s inspiration, Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” And I admire the “true indie” spirit behind it.

My Favorite Movies – Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

17 Apr

By Tanner Smith

What makes a winner and what makes a loser? Who is anyone to decide that anyway?

Co-directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, who would go on to make Ruby Sparks (a film in my top-20), “Little Miss Sunshine” is about characters in a win-or-lose situation. What they learn along the way is that the ultimate resolution doesn’t matter as much as the hard work it took to get there.

We have Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), a type-A personality who strives to be a motivational speaker and sell a book about his own “9 steps to winning.” He’s married to Sheryl (Toni Collette), an overworked mother to teenaged Dwayne (Paul Dano) and 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin). Dwayne reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence to prepare himself for the flight academy. And it’s Olive’s obsession with beauty contests that sets the story forward, as she earns a spot in a girls’ beauty pageant called Little Miss Sunshine in Redondo Beach, California. So, the family, which also includes suicidal Proust scholar Frank (Sheryl’s brother, played by Steve Carell) and Richard’s profane, heroin-snorting father (Alan Arkin), has to drive from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach in two days in order for Olive to compete. Their VW bus might not survive the trip…

Being a road movie, the symbolism is obvious–the journey is more eye-opening than the destination itself. Richard gets harsh news about his book sales, forcing him to reevaluate his own values. Frank copes with having attempted suicide and wonders what to do next as an unemployed Proust scholar. Dwayne learns something about himself that completely shatters his own world. Many of these well-defined characters have their own little thing to get through, and it’s through Grandpa, who is unorthodox but still more experienced than the others, that they learn that they don’t have to do it alone. With the right support and effort, there is satisfaction in the outcome, win or lose.

An effective piece of symbolism is in the form of the bus, which has a shot clutch. The only way to get it going is for everyone to push it together to start it.

As moving and effective as its overall meaning is, “Little Miss Sunshine” is also hilarious in the ways it pushes these characters along their journey, such as a sequence that recalls “Weekend at Bernie’s” and a show-stopping encounter with a patrol cop. The screenplay by Michael Arndt is great at balancing comedy and drama–if there’s anything more important than a comedy that can make you laugh, it’s one that can make you feel. And with characters as colorful as these, it’s easy to feel something for them.

This film tells us that it’s not about what we achieve but how we behave in attempting to achieve it. And if you disagree with what society declares a winner or loser, well…screw ’em. What do they know anyway?

Now…I HAVE to talk about the final act, in which they get to the Little Miss Sunshine contest and are totally unnerved and disgusted by who/what Olive is sharing the stage with. I worked as a PA for the reality TV show “Toddlers & Tiaras” once, and I can tell you that the horrified reactions of most of the characters during this totally unpleasant experience in the final act of this film are very accurate. Every time I rewatch the film, it’s a truly uncomfortable sequence…but it’s totally worth it to get to the ultimate (and hilarious) payoff, which is basically a great big middle finger to those kinds of beauty contests!

Actually, no–it’s TWO middle fingers! One isn’t enough.

God bless you, you little indie film that could (and did). And I salute you for making me believe that it’s OK just to be OK.

My Favorite Movies – The Farewell (2019)

16 Apr

By Tanner Smith

There are movies that take time and many viewings to become one of my favorites–even if I praise it at the start, there’s a difference between “one of the best” and “one of my favorites.” But there are also movies that click with me right away so I already know it’s a new favorite.

The time I saw Lulu Wang’s wonderful, emotional comedy-drama The Farewell in a theater, I knew I was seeing something special.

It’s a comedy if you laugh because you recognize the reality and the honesty of the family dynamic and Awkwafina’s Chinese-American lead character feeling out of place in Changchun and the overall “lie” that drives the narrative. And it’s a drama because said-lie is a family reunion–a wedding that is actually a ruse for the whole family to see Nai Nai (Mandarin for “grandmother”), who doesn’t know (but the family knows) that she has terminal cancer. Naturally, the emotions are going to be there, especially since Awkwafina’s Billi doesn’t understand this is a typical Chinese family custom and feels the need to tell her beloved Nai Nai.

And like my favorite “dramedies,” like “50/50” and “Frances Ha,” “The Farewell” blends both the comedy and the drama flawlessly. Both work because the characters work–you have to laugh with them before laughing at them, and thus, you feel what they feel when something as serious as cancer troubles them.

If there’s anything more important than a comedy that makes you laugh, it’s one that makes you feel.

My favorite scene: There’s an extended dinner sequence in which the family talks about whether or not moving from China to America is the right thing. Is the American Dream a myth? Some think so, while others think it hasn’t been achieved yet.

Here’s an interesting piece of trivia: “The Farewell” won Best Feature at the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards, the same award that writer-director Lulu Wang’s boyfriend received from the Indie Spirits for his film just one year prior: Best Feature, Barry Jenkins, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Maybe these two talented people should write/direct something together–I’d see it! 

My Favorite Movies – Signs (2002)

16 Apr

By Tanner Smith

I HAVE to go into spoilers here if I’m going to defend this one. Here’s a sleeper hit that everyone was talking about positively before they asked themselves, “Why would aliens come to a planet mostly covered with water if that’s what hurts them?”

I don’t think they ever bothered to actually answer that question. They’re ALIENS! What the hell do they know about water??

Oh, and why couldn’t the alien get out of the kitchen pantry through the wooden door? Well…at the end of “Signs,” there’s the alien from the pantry…obviously it got out of the pantry!! It’s going to take some time for something to bust through wooden planks like that when these aliens don’t have laser guns.

I wrote an entire post about why a lot of people’s criticisms towards “Signs” don’t make sense to me. (Check it out here.) My point is there is nothing anybody can say against this movie that is going to make me love it any less. It’s still wonderfully made, effectively acted, beautifully directed, and hella suspenseful–this film makes great use of silence to add tension.

My favorite scene: the scariest scene in the movie is the first reveal of the alien, seen through shaky home-video footage. The alien appearing into frame is scary, but what really sells it is Joaquin Phoenix’s horrified reaction towards watching it–he’s so shocked that he gets out of his chair and takes a few steps back because he just can’t believe it! Stuff just got real!!

Richard Roeper added “Signs” to his best-of-2002 list and put it best with this wonderful quote: “Any director can blow up the world. But what M. Night Shyamalan does is riskier: he tries to blow our minds.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

My Favorite Movies – Superbad (2007)

16 Apr

By Tanner Smith

I just freaking love “Superbad,” OK?! 

I remember a time back when for me and my friends in high school, this was the must-see movie for us! One of us even had one of those shirts that said “I Am McLovin” (anyone else remember those?). We just HAD to see this movie, and when it was released on DVD, we watched it over and over and over again.

As I got older, some of the more outrageous comedy sort of wore out on me (while the rest of it still makes me laugh out loud). But I also saw something more within the movie too. “Superbad,” for all its talk of partying, drinking, and getting “lucky,” is subtly an anti-party movie. Really think about it–all Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) want to do is get drunk, have sex with their crushes, and party all night. They go through great lengths to get liquor. On the way, they wind up at a rowdy adult party where partying gets nasty and unwelcoming. They finally get to the party where their crushes are, and Evan’s crush gets crazy-drunk while Seth ultimately strikes out by drinking and accidentally giving his girl (Emma Stone in one of her first roles) a shiner. Do you think these guys are going to want to act this way after that crazy night? I don’t think they would, especially after they’ve declared their shared platonic love to each other at the end of the night.

This makes “Superbad,” a movie I loved as a teen, somewhat more realistic and also a better film to watch as an adult. As funny as it is, I think it works as a cautionary tale too.

Of course, Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) doesn’t learn a single thing, but whatever–let the kid have a good time this night. (“BREAK YO’SELF, FOOL!”)

My favorite scene: Fogell reveals his fake ID to Seth and Evan, which has one name: McLovin! The dialogue here is so silly, you have to be a genius to write Fogell’s idiotic logic. (That’s one of the reasons I’m jealous of Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s writing.)

Like I said, some of “Superbad” doesn’t work as much for me–for example, what was the point of the multiple penis drawings, other than Rogen & Goldberg wanted to push the envelope? (I think I just answered my own question.) But a lot of it still does, and that’s what keeps me coming back to it every once in a while. It’s naughty, it’s hilarious, it’s even kind of sweet.

My Favorite Movies – The 400 Blows (1959)

15 Apr

By Tanner Smith

One of my most unpleasant memories of film-school was in a Film Theory course in which we learned about Auteur Theory by watching Francois Truffaut’s French New Wave classic The 400 Blows.

I had already seen “The 400 Blows” about a year before watching it in class. I knew it was a great film and something special, and watching it in this class and learning about Auteur Theory made it all the more intriguing to me…when it ended with that iconic image of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) looking to the camera with a look of question (like, where does he go from here?), I was getting ready to applaud but nearly everyone else in the class was laughing. One student in the front row even said, “Why would you want to show us that? That was one of the worst movies EVER!”

I felt so bad for the professor that at one point, as I ran into him in the hall, I told him, “For what it’s worth, ‘The 400 Blows’ is one of my favorite movies.”

And it is, too. It’s also one of the biggest influencers for my favorite subgenre of film: the coming-of-age story.

It’s also one of the tougher ones: no melodrama or sentimentality–it’s just showing this troubled kid who always gets in trouble with school and with his parents, puts himself in a bad position many times, and everyone sees him in the worst possible light. Even when he changes his mind to return something he had stolen, everyone wants to label him as a bad egg. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film, done in one shot (which was actually the young actor’s audition footage–Truffaut liked it so much he included it in the film), we get numerous reasons for his unhappiness.

My favorite scene: the psychologist interview I already mentioned is a highlight, but my favorite scene is still the ending that my peers/classmates laughed at. Yeah, that awkward optical camera zoom-in is dated, but what it means, I will never forget. Antoine has just done yet another thing that will get him in even more trouble, he has no idea where to go from there, and neither he nor we have any idea what is going to happen to him. The push-in on his face says it all: an uncertain young man faces an uncertain future.

Truffaut has made four other films featuring this character of Antoine Doinel–I’ve only seen the immediate follow-up (“Antoine and Colette”) but not the others. Not yet, anyway…

My Favorite Movies – Yes, God, Yes (2020)

15 Apr

By Tanner Smith

A few months into 2021, there’s a few 2020 films I consider “favorites.” For instance, I’ve already seen I Used to Go Here, The Rental, Bad Education, and The Invisible Man countless times. But there’s one particular film from this past year that I think I’m going to treasure…

I thought it would be “Soul” or even David Byrne’s American Utopia, but actually…it’s Yes, God, Yes. (Kind of an unfortunate title, but read on.)

Based on the short film of the same name, “Yes, God, Yes” is about a devout Catholic teenage girl, named Alice, whose world is changed when she discovers pornography and…self-pleasure, I’ll call it for my most sensitive FB friends.

Natalia Dyer of “Stranger Things” fame plays Alice–Dyer is 25 years old and could probably still play these naive-teenage-girl roles when she’s 45!! She absolutely shines in “Yes, God, Yes” as her character goes through a coming-of-age personal journey that never strikes a false note. (I’m surprised that this film didn’t garner any Indie Spirit Award nominations, especially for Dyer’s great performance.)

Alice is curious about sex but totally inexperienced in the subject. She’s also afraid to try experiencing it because her Catholic school teaches that it’s a sin to engage in premarital sex–and even after marriage, sex is strictly for procreation. That’s why when a rumor starts in the halls about her having been intimate with a male classmate, she has no idea what anyone is talking about. (I’d say what sexual act is being questioned in this rumor, but it’s funnier when you hear it yourself.) She didn’t do it, but now she’s being slut-shamed due to the rumor. She also has growing feelings of sexual desire (not helped by a cybersex encounter in a chat room), for which her friend Laura (Francesca Reale) and Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) cause her to feel shame.

Alice thinks if she goes on a school-funded retreat, she’ll get back to the path of righteousness. But there’s a lot on her mind that leaves her more curious to explore her sexuality…including a hunky senior, Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), from whom she craves attention.

One of the things I admire most about “Yes, God, Yes,” written and directed by Karen Maine (who was a co-writer for “Obvious Child,” another challenging film on taboo subjects), is how frank and honest it is about this girl’s story, and it’s never mean-spirited. It’s handled in a sweet, sincere manner. It can even be very funny but never because of cheap, exploitative jokes. We laugh at these moments for the same reasons we feel for Alice throughout the film: because the film feels real.

It’s also a film with a message: how we need to be more open about ourselves and trust each other with honesty and respect, because that’s what Jesus would want us to do. (You could also go to an extent and argue that the message is about how we need to understand our own sins so that we can deal with them better.) Alice learns that just about everyone, including Father Murphy, is hiding something, which confuses her even more. That leads her to a calm discussion with a kindly bar owner (played wonderfully by Susan Blackwell) who assures her that it’s only human to discover where certain developments may lead personally.

In this scene, she basically taught poor Alice in just a few minutes a lesson that no one in that school could in years.

“Yes, God, Yes” ends ambiguously, with no easy answers (at least, that’s how I see it). Where Alice goes from here is anyone’s guess. But I wish her the best. She’s bright and sweet and lovely–she deserves to be happy.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve streamed this wonderfully acted, subtle, gentle comedy-drama on Netflix in the past few months. And the greatest part about it? It’s short–about 77 minutes, including credits! That’s another thing I admire about “Yes, God, Yes”–it’s only as long as it needs to be.

You know, maybe that’s the reason I love it so. It’s a wonderfully-crafted, beautifully-detailed “compact film” (if you will) that wastes no time establishing characters or motivations and yet gives us just enough material to make us understand it all, without ever once wearing out its welcome.

“Yes, God, Yes” is currently streaming on Netflix and available elsewhere on-demand–I can’t recommend it enough. It’s honestly the kind of wonderful, charming little indie comedy that I’d like to see more of.

My Favorite Movies – Lights Out (2016)

15 Apr

By Tanner Smith

You know, I sometimes don’t know right away whether or not a movie I see will become a “favorite.” Sometimes, I’ll see it and give it a positive review and want to see it again. And after a good amount of time, I’ll have seen it enough times so that when I’m reorganizing my DVD/Blu-Ray collection, I pick up that particular one and think to myself, “Yeah…I think this IS one of my favorite movies! Maybe not in the top 100 but top 200 maybe?”

Believe it or not, David F. Sandberg’s 2016 supernatural horror film “Lights Out” is one of those movies. Why? I’ll try to explain.

Based on Sandberg’s truly scary short film of the same name, “Lights Out” tells the story of a broken family trying to survive as a supernatural demonic entity haunts them–and the monster can only overpower you in the dark. In the light, you’re safe. In the dark, you’re doomed!

“The Babadook,” this is not. In fact, it’s a much simpler film than the complex “The Babadook”–but that’s part of what I like about it. “Lights Out” has the attitude of a mainstream horror film but a serious message about fighting depression underneath the surface.

The characters are all well-developed and interesting. Maria Bello delivers great work as Sophie, the mother of an adult daughter named Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and a pre-teen son named Martin (Gabriel Bateman)–she has mental health issues that seem to be worsening and it worries little Martin as she seems to be talking to herself…or is she? Things get creepier when it becomes clearer to Martin that there is someone else with his mother–someone who told her to stop taking her medications because “she” can make everything better for Sophie. Martin can’t sleep at night because of what’s happening, so Rebecca, who has been estranged from Martin and Sophie for a while especially after her father mysteriously died (we see in a very creepy prologue, featuring Billy Burke as the father, how he died), now has to play a parental role to protect him as it seems things aren’t safe with Sophie as long as this thing is with her. When Rebecca learns of who/what this thing is, she and Martin learn they have to protect Sophie from it as well.

They feel like real people I can identify with. There’s another character worth mentioning because he’s my favorite in the whole film: Bret (Alexander DiPersia), Rebecca’s boyfriend. Any other horror film would have written this guy as your one-dimensional idiotic jerk who would be the first to die. But not only is Bret supportive, loyal, and resourceful–he lives!

“Lights Out” was made by someone who clearly loves horror movies enough to know when to break the rules and when to follow them, and like Mike Flanagan (the king of modern American horror these days), he puts atmosphere and character ahead of scares so that we care about who the scares are happening to.

Now, as for the ending…I was a little unsure about the ending because you could look at it many different ways. One way is that there’s a sacrifice from one character that had to be made to protect the others. Another way is to look at it as tragic that it had to happen. Another way is to think there were many other alternatives to this. Another way, the sickest way, is to say this ending promotes suicide, which I definitely don’t think is the case. There is an extended ending (seen on the film’s Blu-Ray) that doesn’t really work because it makes it seem pointless overall. Without giving it away, I think the ending works as a way of combining tragedy and the will to keep fighting because things are always going to be tough. Plus, it’s amazing I’m even thinking so hard about this for a horror film in which it’s destined that people die.

Whatever the case, I know David F. Sandberg worked really hard in making this more than just another mainstream supernatural horror film. He made a mainstream supernatural horror film that is truly about something. And it’s also given me inspiration in writing my own horror films these past couple years, so I know the film has had that effect on me.

My favorite scene: would it surprise anyone if I said it was the “cellphone scene?” Those who know the film know what I’m talking about.

My Favorite Movies – The Dirties (2013)

15 Apr

By Tanner Smith

Why do I love this movie so much? I’ll try to explain…

For one thing, it’s an example of passionate, resourceful, independent filmmakers using everything to their advantage. “The Dirties” was made for cheap, with the film’s financing coming out of pocket. The film is executed in the style of a documentary–but not just any documentary; a documentary made by a bright high-school kid…made by a guy in his 20s playing a bright high-school kid.

The kid is Matt (played by Matt Johnson, who also wrote and directed the film)–he’s a goofy, energetic movie geek who lives for movies to the point where he has cameras on him all the time in order to become the star of his own movie. (I give up wondering who’s constantly filming him within the context of the movie. Another classmate? An older documentary filmmaker? Who is cinematographer Jared Raab supposed to represent here? It doesn’t matter to me anymore–but it’s fun to think about.) He and his best (and only) friend Owen (Owen Williams) are making a wish-fulfillment fantasy film in which they exact revenge on a gang of bullies called The Dirties, based on bullies they frequently encounter in campus hallways. When the beatings continue, Matt gets the idea to plan his own school shooting–he’ll go into the school with guns and shoot “only the bad guys.” Owen doesn’t think he’s serious about this, but as Matt digs deeper into this crazy idea (practicing with multiple firearms, measuring hallway lockers, marking school-building blueprints, keeping pictures of the bullies marked on his wall, etc.), it gets really disturbing. It also doesn’t help that Matt always seems to be acting for the cameras, which Owen ultimately calls him out on. Where their friendship goes from there and how the film ultimately concludes…if you want spoilers, check out my in-depth analytical essay about it.

The story of how this film was made is fascinating. Apparently, writer-director-actor Matt Johnson and his co-star Owen Williams, amongst many of the crew and other actors, actually went to a public school and posed as students (“21 Jump Street” much?) in order to make this film.

Now…how they were able to get away with filming the ending, which involves a school shooting, I’m not entirely sure. If I could get my hands on one of those out-of-stock Limited Edition Blu-Rays of the movie, with all sorts of extra content, I would love to get answers to the questions like that which have been on my mind more often than I’ll admit.

“The Dirties” is very entertaining, but most importantly, it’s more than that. Its subtext is equally disturbing and effective. It raises an interesting social commentary about the issue of youth psychology and how it’s never always how we interpret it. Even when Matt plays up his own craziness on-camera (by reading aloud the very definition of “psychopath” and asking his mother if she thinks he’s “crazy”), you still have to wonder what’s really going on inside his head as he performs his actions. No matter what clues may seem obvious, there will always be questions that we will continue to ask without ever getting clear answers about why something as horrible as this happens.

The genius of “The Dirties” is that it ends where the typical news story would begin…and even if we think we know how it all came to be, there are still some things we’re still not sure about. What did Matt write down while reviewing some of the footage? Why did Owen call Matt the night before the shooting? All of these things could have given us a much clearer perspective, but instead, while we know some things for sure, other pieces of the puzzle are still left a mystery. And that’s why I believe the film is so special: it tells an important story but it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers either.

“The Dirties” is as as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. And I look forward to seeing what else the mega-talented filmmaker Matt Johnson has in store for us in the future.

NOTE: Oh, and there’s also the end credits…these may be the very best closing credits to a movie I’ve ever seen.