Archive | May, 2021

My Favorite Movies – 12 Angry Men (1957)

25 May

By Tanner Smith

I talked about so many modern films recently, so now I’m going back to the 1950s with a film in my top-20: 12 Angry Men.

There are some snooty jerks who mock films that are “talky” and in which “nothing happens.” Well, I don’t associate with them, because if you have the right writing, acting, and directing, films that contain one long conversation after another can be the most insightful, powerful films ever made.

That’s how I feel about Spotlight, the “Before” trilogy, The End of the Tour, The Breakfast Club, Everybody Wants Some!!, and “12 Angry Men”–great dialogue, great acting, and I could listen to all of these people for another two hours.

Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” is set almost entirely in one room–inside this room, a courtroom jury of 12 men are deciding the fate of an 18-year-old boy charged with murdering his father. Did he? 11 of them think the answer is clear: he’s guilty. But one (Henry Fonda) isn’t so sure–things don’t quite add up to him. Their decision has to be unanimous, so they spend the entire rest of the film putting more pieces together so they can determine whether or not the kid is truly guilty.

There are no clear answers here. There are merely deductions, possibilities, even contradictions to both facts and opinions. What if the boy really did kill his father and they’re arguing about whether or not he should be let go? You’d have to have a really strong case to prove otherwise, and the way the mystery leaves room open for more answers is truly fascinating. What’s the proper way to use a knife like the murder weapon? Can you hear someone shout at the top of their lungs over the deafening sound of a passing el train? Can you remember the last movies you saw in a moment of distress? Could those two distinct marks on the witness’ nose be made by anything other than eyeglasses?

A lot of discussion, a lot of conflict, and a lot of interest–and this is all coming from a jury that needs to do its job well or risk letting an innocent man die.

My favorite scene: without giving it away, it’s Juror #3’s moment of revelation, wonderfully acted by Lee J Cobb.

I have seen the 1997 made-for-TV remake by William Friedkin–it’s fine; it’s still the same dialogue delivered by great actors (and as good as Lee J Cobb was, George C. Scott is probably a step up as Juror #3), and it’s worth a watch if you love the original play and the ’57 film and are curious to see how it’s handled here.

My Favorite Movies – The Rental (2020)

24 May

By Tanner Smith

The Rental was an honorable mention on my year-end top-20 list…seeing as how I’ve been watching it again and again just shortly after, maybe I should’ve found a spot for it on the list. And in the months that passed, I’ve watched it quite a few more times. I could say, “I’m not even sure it’s that good–I just like it a lot.” But…I do think it’s that good.

“The Rental” was the directorial debut of Dave Franco, who co-wrote the film (with mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg) based on his personal paranoia about house-sharing. I hope it was therapeutic for him, but at the same time, I can see some people watching this horror film and thinking twice before renting an Airbnb.

Before the blood hits the fan, “The Rental” works as a nicely-observant comedy-drama about two couples who rent a large remote seaside dwelling for the weekend. The renters are Charlie (Dan Stevens), his business partner Mina (Sheila Vand), his wife Michelle (Alison Brie), and his brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), who is also Mina’s boyfriend. The film does very well at setting up these four main characters as real people with moral dilemmas…especially when they get high on ecstasy on the first night, leading to Mina and Charlie hooking up in the shower.

Well, that was a mistake, wasn’t it. Oh well, it won’t happen again and neither Michelle nor Josh need find out about it. But then Mina discovers there are tiny hidden cameras in the house…including one in that same shower.

I love it when a thriller eases you into the terror. For the first half-hour or so, “The Rental” is an indie dramedy as good as a writer like Swanberg has ever done (maybe even better), and Franco proves to be a solid director and knows to put interesting people at the center of the screen.

But now we’re getting into some tense stuff here. What about these hidden cameras? How many are there? Why are they there? Who put them there? What happens when Mina and Charlie try to figure it out without their significant others knowing their secret? (Btw, that’s why they don’t call the police right away. Priorities, I guess?)

I won’t give away what happens as the characters (as well as the audience) try to find answers to these questions. But I will say it works pretty darn well as a horror film, with lots of surprises and chills to come as things go from relaxing to uncomfortable to downright nightmarish for these people who just wanted to share a relaxing weekend together and have no idea what’s coming for them next.

“The Rental” probably isn’t for everybody, and when answers are revealed, I can see a lot of people turned off by its ability to negate many other parts of the film. But that’s another reason I really like it–it uses an old-fashioned Hitchcockian approach to unraveling this chilling mystery.

I will say this though. The Invisible Man was my favorite horror film of 2020, but there’s one scene in “The Rental” that scared me more than any horror film in 2020–and it happens during the end credits.

What can I say? “The Rental” truly grew on me. I liked it before; I love it now. And I look forward to seeing what director Dave Franco does next.

My Favorite Movies – Dead Again (1991)

24 May

By Tanner Smith

Ohh, how am I going to get across how great this film is without spoiling it?

“Dead Again” is a 1991 thriller directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, best known for Shakespearean film adaptations. (And btw, if anyone’s wondering if I’ll be talking about any of those for this series, yes I am–“Hamlet’ and “Much Ado About Nothing”…I couldn’t really get into Henry V.)

Branagh plays a private investigator named Mike Church, whose recent case is finding the identity and memory of a pretty woman (Emma Thompson) who seems to have lost all sorts of either. A hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) decides to help by putting her under hypnosis to see if it helps any, believing that a past life might have led to trauma in her present life. (Interesting leap there, but whatever.) Sure enough, the woman, nicknamed “Grace,” has visions of the tragic romance of Roman and Margaret Strauss (also played by Branagh and Thompson), which ended with cold-blooded murder. Mike doesn’t believe in any of this, but then he gets hypnotized as well…and suddenly, his courtship with Grace could be dangerous.

Oh, and Robin Williams is in this too. (He asked for his name not to be included in the credits so his appearance wouldn’t mislead audiences–well, that didn’t prevent his appearances in the film’s trailer!) He brings a dark comic edge to his side character of a grocery employee who used to be a psychiatrist and warns of the possibility of the past coming back to haunt and harm the present. “The karma credit plan,” he states: “Buy now, pay forever.”

And…really, I should just stop right there. There are two key twists to this story. One of them is probably easily guessable, but honestly, upon subsequent viewings, it really works–especially when you see how tightly woven writer Scott Frank’s screenplay is is making sure everything fits together. It makes the ending and the overall resolution all the more fitting and fascinating (and pretty nasty too).

Btw, the present-day story is set in Northern California and both Branagh and Thompson hide their English accents rather well. Branagh, I was most surprised by–how is it that the most English of English actors sounds more convincing with an American accent than Benedict Cumberbatch and Hugh Laurie? Don’t you usually have to sport a Southern accent for that?

I admire Branagh’s Shakespearean works, but this Alfred Hitchcock homage is pretty damn good. Maybe it’s good that “Dead Again” is underrated, if it means the twists aren’t overtly spoiled for people coming into it cold.

Seriously. Check this one out. Even if you don’t believe in reincarnation, give it a chance and see how the movie plays with that angle. You might still be intrigued.

My Favorite Movies – Eighth Grade (2018)

23 May

By Tanner Smith

Here’s a film from a couple of years ago that I did not want to see, that I didn’t expect to see again (or even WANT to see again), and that I DEFINITELY didn’t expect to call it one of my new favorites!……And yet here we are.

A film about the hardships and awkwardness of experiencing eighth grade (even if it’s just from one eighth grader’s perspective) did not sound like my cup of tea. (I didn’t care if critics were praising it across the nation—critics also praised the well-crafted yet utterly miserable “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” a film about a shy 7th grade outcast.) My reason for this—I don’t have many fond memories of eighth grade, especially after a terrible seventh grade year (Though, that’s not to say there weren’t bright spots here or there.) Any film that effectively captures what it’s like to be an outcast in junior high school is not going to appeal to me.

Why do you think there are more movies about high-schoolers than middle-schoolers? Because who wants to remember what middle school was like??

But I’m glad I took a chance on this film: Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.

Many of us remember what it was like to be 13-14 years old. Even if we were popular in school, we still faced many a challenge within ourselves and within our social circles, such as going through puberty, finding our sexual identities, maintaining particular images for people, and other awkward, confusing aspects that come with the age. We went through hard enough times when we were alone—add school to it, and it makes things even more uncomfortable!

We know this. We went through it. And even though things are far different now (thanks to social media) than they were, say, 15 years ago, that doesn’t matter because today’s eighth-graders still go through it. Do I have to bring it up? Yes, for this reason—”Eighth Grade” is a sweet, intelligent, sometimes-funny, sometimes-unsettling, always-accurate slice of life that I think today’s eighth-graders will gain a lot of insight from in order to feel better about themselves. (Forget the “R” rating—this film was made for the teens who need it!)

But what would adults get out of it? Well, why did standup comedian Bo Burnham make it to begin with? Because he often suffered panic attacks before performances and wanted to create a story that dealt with anxiety. He chose the eighth-grade setting because he considers it a crucial period of self-awareness. He said in a Huffington Post interview, “I wanted to talk about anxiety and what it feels like to be alive right now, and what it is to be unsure and nervous. That felt more like middle school than high school to me. I think the country and the culture is going through an eighth-grade moment right now.”

What did I get out of it myself? Why do I avoid “Welcome to the Dollhouse” like the plague and yet hold a special place in my heart for “Eighth Grade?” Because as honest and uncomfortable as “Eighth Grade” can be, it comes from a place of both love and hope. After this film’s end, I get the feeling that while Kayla (wonderfully played by Elsie Fisher) will still suffer anxiety attacks as time goes on and she gets older, she will not only overcome them but she will never be alone. I think she’s going to be OK.

My favorite scene: as much as I love the speech made by Kayla’s father (Josh Hamilton) near the end of the film (it’s a great “father” speech that reminded me of a similar one in Call Me By Your Name), my favorite scene is one that takes us right in the middle of Kayla’s anxiety, as she nervously enters the pool party and is unsure about what to do next.

Really good stuff here.

My Favorite Movies – Brigsby Bear (2017)

23 May

By Tanner Smith

Oh, how I wish I had seen this film in theaters in 2017.

Brigsby Bear is a WEIRD one to describe to people–so I usually start with, “It’s one of the most original films you’ll ever see!”

Or, “There is nothing quite like the feeling I have when I make movies with my friends. And this film captures that.”

Or, my mom’s personal favorite: “It’s dope as sh*t!” (which is a line from the movie)

Brigsby Bear is so creative that to try and summarize its plot would be difficult. (I’ve seen many overstuffed movies for which that WASN’T a good thing.) But I can describe what this film means to me personally.

The main character James (played by SNL’s Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote the film) is making a movie with his friends based on his hero since childhood (Brigsby Bear). They have very few resources, they get family and friends to contribute, they get a cop friend to steal props for them (don’t ask–it’s complicated), and they work together to make what they believe is an awesome piece of work.

I get it. Everything about that moment, in which they’re making their movie and hanging out together, I totally get. And what’s even better is this movie gets it too. What do I personally love more than making movies? Making movies with great people who want to make them with me.

If you haven’t seen this film, I won’t dare go into who exactly Brigsby is, how James ended up with him as a childhood idol, or what exactly James’ deal is and what led him to make this movie. Going into it blind is the best way to start out. And then seeing it again, you’ll get even more pleasure from it.

And fun fact: this is one of those movies I watched the most during Covid lockdown. I truly love this film.

Check out “Brigsby Bear.” It’s dope as sh*t!

Solos (Amazon Prime Series) (2021)

21 May

By Tanner Smith

The anthology series “Solos,” released via Amazon Prime, features episodes that have one thing in common: the theme of human isolation. Seeing as how most of us spent a great part of 2020 in self-isolation, we could relate. But the question is, how many stories in this seven-episode series can we see ourselves in? How many can we see others in? And more importantly, should we care?

Well, obviously, yes, we should care. Did I care? Well, let’s take a look at each individual episode…

Leah (Episode 1)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Morgan Freeman narrates each episode by setting us up for what we’re about to see. For Episode 1 (“Leah”), he narrates: “If you traveled to the future, could you escape your past?”

“Solos” gets off to a good start with an intriguing, well-written episode called “Leah.” (Side-note: Each episode is named after its central character.) Anne Hathaway stars in a deeply-layered performance as Leah, a brilliant physicist who is obsessed with time travel and works/lives in her mother’s basement (which looks more like a Dave & Busters, if you ask me–I was expecting her to play the slots for tickets on one of the devices with blinking lights). Well, she gets her answer, resulting in some tricky conversations with two versions of herself. The dialogue, written by series creator David Weil, maintains a delicate balance between sparky/funny and heavy/philosophical–and that also goes for the episode’s tone as well, with skillful direction from Zach Braff. But the real reason “Leah” works is because of Anne Hathaway’s performance. In one half-hour-long short film, Hathaway has to play up all the emotions we know she’s capable of from films such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Les Miserables”–not only is she game for it; she gives us even more. Some people will have trouble with the ending, and I can understand if they do–without giving it away, I saw it as inevitable rather than disappointing. So far, so good. Now, to the next one…

Tom (Episode 2)

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Freeman’s narration: “Imagine meeting yourself. Who do you see?”

Episode 2, “Tom,” doesn’t waste any time–it jumps right into it…I wish that were praise but it’s more of a criticism here. The problem is I wish they had wasted a little time to ease us into a fascinating development that we’re just supposed to accept even though we don’t know a damn thing about where we’re supposed to be. Here, we see Anthony Mackie as Tom getting angry at…Anthony Mackie as Tom. This “reunion” (as Tom 2.0 calls it, to Tom’s anger) is brought about as a way of Tom to replace himself as he doesn’t have much time left to live. (Apparently, in this future, you can pay 30 grand for another version of yourself.) Tom is angry from the start, thinking Tom 2.0 looks nothing like himself (but really, he’s just being picky), and this leads into a conversation between the two Toms about what Tom paid for and what Tom 2.0 is responsible for. Confused? Well, it makes more sense the way they put it. The idea is fascinating, much of the dialogue is riveting, and Anthony Mackie does as well with a dual performance as Anne Hathaway did in the previous episode–but the story element of having someone else replace you after death doesn’t feel fully developed. The episode is 24 minutes long; I wish writer-director David Weil had taken at least 2-3 more minutes for a little more world-building.

Peg (Episode 3)

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Freeman’s narration: “How far will you travel to find yourself again?”

“Peg,” Episode 3, does jump right into things, but unlike with Episode 2, I can understand fairly quickly (within 3 minutes) where Peg is and how Peg got here. Pretty satisfying so far, thanks to carefully chosen dialogue–that’s going to be the thing I listen for, since each episode takes place in one location with one person (or one person who is multiplied in some fashion) and the viewers need something to latch onto in the beginning. Here, we have Helen Mirren as 71-year-old Peg, who is part of an experiment (seemingly with other senior citizens) that has her hurtling through the farthest reaches of space. She’s been afraid to take chances and now here she is in a spacecraft (and sporting a tight red spacesuit) and communicating with an AI as she considers how she got here and what she might expect in her remaining years wandering the universe. (There. Within the first few minutes, I’m hooked.) Helen Mirren is nothing short of spectacular in this role–if there’s any distinguished British actress who can make a space odyssey seem dignified and beautiful, it’s Helen Mirren. Even before she marvels at the moon upon gazing at its majesty through the craft’s window, I was with her. We get to know this person named Peg and we feel for her when her destination is…well, you probably already know it, but you’ll stay with her to get to it. “Peg,” directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, is melancholy, beautifully written, and marvelously acted–and it’s the best the series has to offer so far. God bless you, Helen Mirren–you will always be The Queen.

Sasha (Episode 4)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Freeman’s narration: “Is the threat outside greater than the one within?”

“Sasha,” Episode 4, is set 20 years after some kind of virus outbreak has kept everyone inside–including Sasha, played by Uzo Aduba. It’s her birthday today–why not venture outside, as Sasha’s AI (yes, another AI in this series) suggests? Sasha, very comfortable on her couch, with a novel in one hand and a wine glass in the other, puts it bluntly: “F*ck. That. S*it.” Whoops, there’s a cough after another gulp of wine, but not to worry, as the AI assures her, she does not have the virus. “Would you like another nose swab?” asks the AI. “NO!” she quickly protests. Barely a minute into “Sasha,” we know where we are. Sasha is content after all this time, with her AI, which calls itself her “companion bot”…or maybe she’s just too used to her daily routines…or maybe she’s in complete and total denial and doesn’t want to venture into the world outside her comfortable home…you know what, I’m just gonna stop explaining the story here. The best thing each of these episodes has to offer is the journey of self-discovery–when one is kept inside one place for an extended period of time, they’re given time to self-reflect. But with Sasha, where does it end? When does contentment become self-hazardous? Is Sasha in danger of wasting her life while she keeps herself inside, not living her life? And what about the people in her life? Truly moving work from Uzo Aduba kept me intrigued and wondering, and so far, this is the most effectively unnerving episode in the series.

Jenny (Episode 5)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Freeman’s narration: “Do you wish you could take back the worst day of your life?”

Oh boy…this one, I’m still processing. I mean…yikes. This is actress Constance Wu’s finest hour (or “finest 22 minutes”), playing a drunken young woman named Jenny, dressed as a winged angel and seemingly stuck in some kind of waiting room and going on a lone tangent. She is telling us about the worst day of her life…and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. The way the ramble goes from funny to dark…you just know she’s had better days in her life. This episode starts off hilarious and ends up being tragic…and I apologize for the constant use of ellipses, but it’s to further the point that this one kind of broke me inside (just a little, anyway). And the ending…I refer you to my first exclamation: “Oh boy…”

Nera (Episode 6)

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Freeman’s narration: “Who decides who belongs in the world?”

You know, after that last episode, I was starting to wonder if “Solos” might be getting a little high on itself in its philosophical questions. But with two episodes left, I’m curious to see if it can keep momentum going. (I haven’t disliked any of the episodes so far–even Episode 2 had something to it that caused me to recommend it.) I pressed play for Episode 6, “Nera,” and started streaming, not expecting much…

This is the best episode in the series. Much as I loved Constance Wu’s descent into madness and even Helen Mirren’s recollection of her life, even those treasures of “Solos” doesn’t match what Nicole Beharie’s poor Nera has to go through. Nera is completely alone in a cabin where a harsh winter storm is keeping everyone inside. She is pregnant…and giving birth TONIGHT! She calls her doctor and can’t get through (she can’t even get through to 911), so she has no choice but to have the baby all by herself–rather quickly too, but…that’s just the beginning of this unusual ordeal. With scary direction by Tiffany Johnson and a riveting script by Stacy Osei-Kuffour, “Nera” works wonderfully as a short film but has great potential to be expanded into a feature film. There’s something sinister about this episode’s story, especially when Nera’s baby is revealed to be more than expected and when mentions of a new fertility treatment (previously used by Nera) are dropped. What results is freakish and terrifying and something I’d love to see more of in the future. (I’m sure neither Johnson nor Osei-Kuffour nor even David Weil will be reading this review, but I implore to them–please make this into a feature film. I will pay to see it.)

And finally, we come to…

Stuart (Episode 7)

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Freeman’s narration: “Who are you if you can’t remember who you are?”

We finally see what Morgan Freeman has to do with “Solos” besides vague philosophical questions to lure us into each episode. In Episode 7, “Stuart,” Freeman plays Stuart, an old man suffering dementia. And he’s not alone in this episode–no, it’s not an AI he gets to interact with but a young man named Otto (Dan Stevens). Otto is reminded that “solos” aren’t allowed visitors (oh, NOW I get it…I think), but he becomes an exception when he travels a long way to visit Stuart. (Stuart is apparently living his last days in this futuristic treatment center that I can deduce is responsible for the plights of characters in the previous episodes–that is not the only connection the others, I assure you.) Otto has come to give Stuart “memory implants” that seem to made everything come back to Stuart. Stuart remembers everything with ease…but he doesn’t remember Otto. Who is Otto? And where is this going? I’ll leave that for you to discover.

A very solid finish to an exceptionally strange and intriguing series.

“Solos” is available on Amazon Prime.

My Favorite Movies – Amadeus (1984)

21 May

By Tanner Smith

One time, I watched Amadeus with a friend who hadn’t seen it before. He’s such a movie buff that he thought he could guess exactly what was going to happen with Mozart and Salieri in this movie, and I kept having to tell him “no” or even lie and say “yes” just to see how he’d react. This is just one source, but it could show that what “Amadeus” isn’t is “predictable.” What it is is one of my all-time favorite films.

It’s funny, because I’m not that big a fan of classical music. Not that I dislike it (far from it); it’s just that I don’t listen to it that often. (There’s a difference.) But I still adore this movie both as a story about the creative process and a character study about an ingenious but immature artist and a mediocre but hard-working one who’s very envious of the other. Either way you look at it, it’s still an engrossing film (so engrossing that I constantly forget how long it is because it moves at a brisk pace–I can easily watch this 160-minute film in one sitting).

“Amadeus” isn’t entirely historically accurate, but so what? It’s historical fiction that captured the spirit of Mozart, so it can’t be taken that seriously. I learned that Mozart did put more effort into his work than this movie may have given him credit for, and it’s unlikely Salieri really wanted to murder him. But again, so what? It’s Salieri telling the story anyway, thus the film dabbles with the “unreliable narrator” element brilliantly, which makes it one of the more uniquely beautiful and innovative historical-fiction films ever made.

I haven’t seen the director’s cut, but frankly, I don’t want to. The film is perfect as it is and it doesn’t require additional material. I don’t need to see it either. It’s like Mozart would want it–if something is good enough not to be changed, don’t change it.

My Favorite Movies – Cloverfield (2008)

21 May

By Tanner Smith

Before I start with “Cloverfield,” let me just state for the record that I’m not one of those movie reviewers (I’m not a “film critic” so much as “movie reviewer” nowadays) that are afraid to publicly change their opinions on certain movies–for that matter, I’m not afraid of rewatching those certain movies either. It happens. For instance, I may have given Cloverfield 3 stars out of 4 initially, and maybe my reasons still hold up–but you know what? It stayed with me. It stuck with me. I love revisiting it. I admire the craftsmanship. I get something new each time I watch it. Hell, I’ve even watched it at least 50 times in the past thirteen years since its theatrical release! Therefore, it’s a “favorite.” (So is its companion piece 10 Cloverfield Lane, but I didn’t underestimate that one right away–I gave it 3 1/2 stars.)

Watch a movie a few more times and your feelings towards it will probably change. And I’m not ashamed to admit it.

And this is why I have Revised Reviews…or reviews in which I revisit these films just so I can talk about why I love them after some time has passed. (Hence, “My Favorite Movies.”)

Anyway, back to “Cloverfield.”

I was there…I was one of the witnesses to the most devastating, confusing event I ever saw unfold in front of my eyes…the horror…everything seemed so normal, and then…buildings blew up…flaming debris flew all over the city…and then the head of the Statue of Liberty suddenly made its way onto the street!! But the most horrifying part of it all?

The trailer didn’t have a movie title! OH, THE HORROR!!

Yes, I was one of those moviegoers that was confused and yet intrigued by that infamous teaser trailer that came before the first “Transformers” movie back in 2007. The first-person camera perspective capturing all the mayhem happening in Manhattan added to the tension and made me want to see the movie so I can understand just what the hell was going on! There was no title in the trailer–just a release date: 1-18-08. (For a while, I thought “1-18-08” was the title!)

Six months later, we got “Cloverfield.”

While The Blair Witch Project helped inspire this film’s look, “Cloverfield” was the film that helped make the “found-footage horror” subgenre popular (and the success of Paranormal Activity, which was made with even less money, would help even more a year later). What makes it effective is how slowly it builds everything up in the first 20 minutes. Everything seems normal, with a bunch of 20somethings hanging out at a party and going through some drama they have to talk each other through. And then suddenly, midway through a conversation, BOOM! The building shakes, there’s an explosion, the power goes out all over the city for a moment, everyone’s panicking and wondering what’s happening, they watch the TV news as soon as the power’s back on, they all go up the roof to find out more, A BUILDING BLOWS UP, THERE’S FLAMING DEBRIS HURLING ALL OVER THE CITY, EVERYONE’S SCREAMING AND YELLING AND GOING CRAZY–

I love that. Everything can seem so ordinary before it all goes to hell. “Cloverfield” captured that perfectly. And having it come from the first-person camera perspective helped a lot in making it effective–we are there watching the action happen. And what’s even more impressive is the production value–because the film looks cheap (in that this disaster movie is shot on ground-level with a handheld camera), it’s easy to forget that we’re bearing witness to many big-budget pyrotechnics that fit right at home in a “Godzilla” movie (blowing up the Brooklyn bridge, the military firing at the monster in the street, etc.). And because we’re seeing it at this level, it’s more disturbing and intriguing.

Once the film gets going, it hardly lets up. Our heroes, including Rob (Michael Stahl-David), Lily (Jessica Lucas), Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), and the camera-operator/comic-relief Hud (T.J. Miller), are in the middle of a city evacuation due to the presence of a gigantic monster that’s attacking the city. (And because we only see the monster from afar, we don’t get any info about it–the only explanation for its existence is merely implied.) But Rob has something else on his mind, as he decides to head deeper into the city to save his ex-girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), for whom he still has feelings. His friends decide to follow him (especially Hud, because after all, he’s got to film everything), and we’re treated to one scary situation after another.

There is a quiet moment in which our heroes are safe underground in a subway station–they separate from each other to take in everything that’s happened already and, in a truly disturbing effective moment, they listen to the action happening above ground and can only imagine what could be happening right now. I felt that moment, and the acting, especially from Lizzy Caplan, is spot-on.

The scariest scene for most people who see the film has nothing to do with the big monster (though we do get a nice “eating” moment with the beast near the end). It’s set in a dark subway tunnel, which our heroes have to walk through when most of the streets are blocked off. OK, fine, it’s dark and there are rats, but the trains aren’t running and the gigantic monster can’t fit in there anyway. What do they have to worry about?……There are smaller monsters that come from the big monster…and they find their way into the tunnel…and we don’t see them until the camera’s night-vision is turned on…and they attack!

Trying to make your way through a really dark place is scary enough. You never know what’s in the dark waiting for you…

Of course, people complain about the film’s shaky camera movements. (In fact, theater owners had to warn people who were prone to motion sickness not to sit in the front row when they saw the movie.) Director Matt Reeves wanted to capture a realistic amateur look, since the film is being shot by characters who hardly know how to operate a video camera in the first place. It is annoying, but when you really think about it, it’s sort of acceptable, especially in the scenes in which Hud is running for his life. I don’t think he’s as concerned about getting “the perfect flowing running shot” as he is about capturing “how it all went down.”

“Cloverfield” is a truly effective horror film, and I enjoy watching it more than I enjoy watching any recent “Godzilla” movie, honestly. It’s like a “Godzilla” movie in which the perspective is always from the witnesses of the mass destruction. And it would help give birth to other “found-footage” movies…for better or worse.

My Favorite Movies – Matinee (1993)

21 May

By Tanner Smith

I’m just going to start this one with my favorite scene from “Matinee,” because it’s one of my absolute personal favorite movie scenes, no doubt about it.

Our young protagonist Gene (Simon Fenton) is given the opportunity to help one of his idols, schlock-meister Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), prepare for the big premiere of his new horror film “MANT!,” about a man who becomes a giant ant. Woolsey gives the kid sound advice about the benefit of watching a scary movie: keep your eyes open during the scariest scenes and you can walk out of the theater feeling happy to be alive. He then tells a story about why he makes monster movies, using a parallel story of a caveman who barely escapes a mammoth attack, draws the mammoth on the cave wall and then makes it look scarier to show to his cave friends. “Boom! The first monster movie,” Woolsey explains.

This is then followed by a POV shot through a movie theater lobby, as we hear Woolsey’s dialogue: “The guy tears your ticket in half; it’s too late to turn back now. The water fountain’s all booby-trapped and ready, the stuff laid out on the candy counter, and then you come over here to where it’s dark–there could be anything in there. And then you say… Here I am! What have you got for me?”

I’ve always loved this scene…. Watching it now, in a time when theaters face uncertain futures, it’s kind of bittersweet too.

Joe Dante’s “Matinee” takes place in Key West, Florida in 1962–a time when everyone feared nuclear attack from Cuba (and Key West is only 90 miles away from Cuba!). Well, monster master Lawrence Woolsey sees this as the perfect opportunity to showcase his new horror movie (people are already scared; this will add to it, his logic says)! His previous film was about a psychotic hypnotist named Dr. Diablo–I would’ve loved to see that fake movie! (“They hypnotized you [in the theater]?” someone asks Gene, a big-time horror-movie buff. “I don’t know,” Gene says. “They guaranteed you wouldn’t remember.”)

Gene is a Navy brat whose father is one of the blockade ships outside of Cuba. That scares his mother (Lucinda Jenney) and his little brother Dennis (Jesse Lee), who is already a nervous wreck because Gene keeps taking him to see scary movies. A monster-movie matinee may be the perfect distraction.

There are other characters in the mix, like a paranoid theater manager (Robert Picardo) who has a fallout shelter in the theater basement, Gene’s new friend Stan (Omri Katz) who asks out the pretty girl in school Sherry (Kellie Martin), a rebellious would-be radical (Lisa Jakub) whom Gene takes a liking to, the resident bad boy Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire) who doesn’t like that Stan is moving in on his ex-girlfriend (Sherry), and many other colorful characters that it’s hard to keep track of them all! Somehow, all of these story elements and characters come together in a brilliant final act in which Murphy’s Law takes effect on this “MANT!” premiere.

And I love it! The brilliantly clever screenplay by Charlie Haas brings all these characters and all these subplots together seamlessly, which makes the last half-hour or so of “Matinee” all the more entertaining. And I always love revisiting it.

I loved “Matinee” as a kid and I still love it as an adult.

My Favorite Movies – Call Me by Your Name (2017)

21 May

By Tanner Smith

WOW, 2017 was a great year for movies! Get Out, The Disaster Artist, It, The Big Sick, Lady Bird, Logan, Split, Last Flag Flying, War for the Planet of the Apes, Brad’s Status, Columbus, and The Meyerowitz Stories–and I’m going to also talk about “Brigsby Bear” and maybe “Ingrid Goes West” at some point. HOW did this happen??

I often wondered if Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name is truly one of my new favorites or simply a great film with some of my favorite moments in it. But I realize the moments make the movie, and they keep me coming back to it.

Also, the overall feel of the film keeps me coming back to it. This movie is set in summer 1983 and it truly feels like summertime, like the equivalent of a lazy summer afternoon where you either want to do nothing or try something new.

Side-note: I’ll analyze the atmosphere because I gave up trying to analyze the meaning of the flies that keep buzzing into the scene every now and then–honestly, with each viewing, I kind of forget they’re there (except for the one in the last shot–that’s unavoidable).

“Call Me by Your Name” is a film about finding hidden passions within one’s self, and nature can allow those things we keep deep within ourselves to shine through. Think about it—have you ever gone away somewhere like the woods or the boonies or an isolated country home and felt like you were inspired to pursue something special that you weren’t entirely sure about before? Well, in this film, the countryside of summer-1983 Northern Italy and the boredom surrounding it pushes the characters on their journey of self-discovery.

It’s even paced like a slow, worry-free summer day. Guadagnino is patient about showing us what the characters are going through while letting us take in the beautiful scenery & environment. There’s nothing to do in this location anyway (except to discuss philosophy, music, art, and such), so there’s nothing to hurry about either.

Now, what about the lovely moments that cause me to return to this film every now and then? Most of them have to do with music, particularly the placement of the wonderful songs by Sufjan Stevens–Futile Devices, Mystery of Love, and Visions of Gideon. The “Futile Devices” scene is beautifully shot and emotionally impactful, as Elio (Timothee Chalamet) waits and longs for for Oliver (Armie Hammer) one night–and the song is beautiful. And the final scene, featuring the song Visions of Gideon, is a one-take closeup of Elio as he contemplates what he had and what he will always remember–this scene is why Timothee Chalamet, one of the best young actors working today, got the Oscar nomination, and he plays it perfectly. (It’s also nice to see him give a quiet little nod to “Boyhood,” another favorite of mine, at the end of the take.)

And another favorite moment comes before that amazing final shot: a scene in which Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) tells his son that he knows what he and Oliver had experienced that summer, that he could have experienced something similar when he was Elio’s age, and that it’s important to learn and grow from it instead of move on too quickly. It’s a beautifully written and acted scene.

Overall, “Call Me by Your Name” is a moving, beautiful film about love, desire, and heartbreak–three things we can all relate to. Sometimes, it is a little slow, but I think taking it all in makes the experience all the more enthralling and the memorable moments all the more memorable. That’s why I call it one of my new favorites.