Archive | May, 2021

My Favorite Movies – Honey Boy (2019)

21 May

By Tanner Smith

Shia LaBeouf isn’t doing so hot right now…again…

Just when we thought 2019 was his comeback year, he gets himself into more trouble in 2020. It’s a shame.

The guy is talented! And he has a bunch of issues he’s still working through…even after his therapeutic exercise in screenwriting, called “Honey Boy,” which is an intriguing and disturbing look into his psyche. (LaBeouf wrote the screenplay while he was in rehab.)

“Honey Boy,” directed by Alma Har’el, is LaBeouf’s semi-autobiographical account of dealing with his mess of a father, who depended on him financially when he was a child actor. LaBeouf’s fictional counterpart is a movie star named Otis (Lucas Hedges–because if it’s not Timothee Chalamet, it’s always Lucas Hedges). He’s a big-time actor with an extreme alcohol problem. After an accident due to drunk driving, he’s sent to rehab, where his counselor (Laura San Giacomo) diagnoses him with PTSD, and she wants him to write an account of his past memories that might have triggered certain violent behaviors.

This leads to flashback sequences that make up half of the movie, as we see 12-year-old Otis, now in his child-actor days (and played by Noah Jupe), and supervised by his father…and this is where it gets real interesting, especially when you know the behind-the-scenes story of this movie. The father, James Lort, is played by Shia LaBeouf himself. He’s portrayed as someone who is charming and funny…and someone who is clearly on-edge, as he tends to have manic and aggressive tendencies. He’s four years sober but he’s wildly unpredictable. He’s annoying on set of the TV show Otis stars in and an overbearing boor at the motel he and Otis are living in for the time being. (He also used to be a rodeo clown, hence his constant pressure on Otis to be better prepared before showing up on set.)

James is basically a terrible father, and I wonder how much of a wreck Otis’ mother (played in a voice cameo by Natasha Lyonne) must be if this guy is having to look after Otis. Maybe James is more financially dependent of his own son… Damn.

“Honey Boy” is a powerful, upsetting, and moving story about show business life and how abuse to younger talent can lead to adult consequences. Push too hard and deny them a childhood, and it doesn’t usually go over well. (Btw, check out the documentary “Showbiz Kids” on HBO Max for more about that topic.) That it was written as a cathartic expression of LaBeouf battling his own demons makes it even more intriguing.

Naturally, this moving independent drama was ignored by the Oscars, so…Indie Spirits to the rescue again! It was nominated for four Film Independent Spirit Awards: Best Director, Best Cinematography (Natasha Breier), and Best Supporting Male twice (for LaBeouf and Jupe). Good call, guys.

There just aren’t as many honest and brave movies as this one lately, and I admire “Honey Boy” for telling this story the way it fit…and I still have some hope for Shia LaBeouf.

“Honey Boy” is available on Amazon Prime.

My Favorite Movies – More 2010s Films (That I Already Covered Before)

20 May

By Tanner Smith

For the “My Favorite Movies” series, I have a lot of films to write about…but some films from the past decade, I already talked about in my Looking Back at 2010s Films series. Because I love these movies so much, I should have more to say about them that I didn’t before–and when I do, I’ll make separate posts for each of them. But for now, here are the 2010s films I already covered before that I consider “new favorites”:

Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls
Before Midnight
Life Itself
Ruby Sparks
Inside Out
Whiplash
Boyhood
Gravity
Get Out
Frances Ha
The Social Network
The Spectacular Now
Take Shelter
Midnight Special
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Spotlight
Parasite
Hugo
Fruitvale Station
Mad Max: Fury Road
Inside Llewyn Davis
Black Panther
Avengers: Infinity War
Spider-Man: Homecoming
War for the Planet of the Apes
Chronicle
Big Hero 6
Kung Fu Panda 3
The Wind Rises
Columbus
Argo
Attack the Block
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Boy Erased
Super Dark Times (mmm…actually, I might have more to say about that one in the future)
Gerald’s Game
Let Me In
The Visit
The Invitation
The Final Girls
Ouija: Origin of Evil
The Sacrament
ParaNorman
Split
Sinister
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Stuck
The Way, Way Back
The Edge of Seventeen
Gifted
The Kids are All Right
Searching
Unfriended
Everybody Wants Some!!
Short Term 12
Operation Avalanche
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
I, Tonya
Miss Stevens
The End of the Tour
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Lean on Pete
True Grit
The Big Sick
Tangled
It Follows
Safety Not Guaranteed
Sing Street
Logan
Bridesmaids
It
Mistress America
Creed
The Disaster Artist
Private Life
Love & Mercy
Green Room
Last Flag Flying
50/50
Love, Simon
Buried
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Hush
Cop Car
127 Hours
10 Cloverfield Lane
Blue Ruin
The Gift
Celeste and Jesse Forever
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

And there are many other films from the 2010s that I will talk about (or talk more about) at some point (such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower, “Begin Again,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and others)–and like I said, if I have more to say about each of these treasures, then I’ll say it–but until then, those are some of my personal favorite films of the 2010s.

And if you came into this series late, also check out my posts for other 2010s favorites such as Sleepwalk With Me, Don’t Think Twice, The Land of Steady Habits, Brad’s Status, 20th Century Women, Cedar Rapids, mid90s, Lady Bird, The Farewell, The Dirties, and Lights Out.

My Favorite Movies – Funny People (2009)

20 May

By Tanner Smith

I love the art-imitates-life aspect of movies–it works for Sylvester Stallone in the “Rocky” movies, Mike Birbiglia in Sleepwalk With Me, Chris Rock in “Top Five,” and others. Judd Apatow allows that for actors, usually comedic actors–he gives them more of a chance to shine by giving them roles that are similar to themselves. (He’ll have them write their roles most of the time.)

For Adam Sandler, it’s a little different. In Apatow’s “Funny People,” Sandler plays a Hollywood star best known for standup comedy and some really, REALLY terrible comedic films. Sound familiar? Well…this Sandler character is a little different. Whereas Sandler in real life is a family man with lots of friends and a reputation for being one of the sweetest guys to work with in show business, George Simmons is lonely, with no real friends, and pretty much a standoffish jerk.

Why is Sandler playing this role so similar to himself and yet different from himself at the same time? I don’t know–but it’s interesting to think about.

“Funny People” is essentially a modern-day “Great Gatsby” tale. George Simmons is millionaire Jay Gatsby, and the Nick Carraway role is played here by Seth Rogen as aspiring writer/comedian Ira. Ira gets an opportunity to write for George, who has decided to get back into his standup act after being away from it for so long, and he becomes George’s personal assistant and later confidante. When things go from bad to worse for George, Ira has to be the one to get him to open himself up more to the people in his life.

George is diagnosed with a rare blood disease that’s slowly killing him, which causes him to reexamine his life. He even reaches out to an old flame, Laura (Leslie Mann), in hopes of reconnecting with her long after she’s settled down, gotten married, and had two kids. (She’s basically Daisy in this “Great Gatsby” parallel.) Upon hearing of his illness, Laura does reenter George’s life…which gets even more complicated when halfway through this two-and-a-half-hour film, George is suddenly better.

Btw, they gave this part away in the trailer–shame on those in charge of marketing this film for that! (Eh, I just gave it away too, so I’m not any better.)

The first half of “Funny People” has always been my favorite. It’s wonderfully written, very funny, very moving when it needs to be, and it showcases some of Adam Sandler’s best work as a serious actor. It’s one of my favorite Seth Rogen performances as well–he plays Ira as one of those aspiring artists who doesn’t quite have all the confidence he needs. There are also a lot of colorful supporting characters, such as Ira’s roommates, moderately successful comic Leo (Jonah Hill) and full-of-himself sitcom star Mark (Jason Schwartzman); Ira’s potential love interest, another standup comic named Daisy (Aubrey Plaza, playing it the best way Aubrey Plaza can); and Randy (Aziz Ansari), who is described by Apatow as “Souljah Boi as a standup comedian.” Also, upon watching this film again, is that Bo Burnham as one of Mark’s co-stars in “Yo Teach”?! (It is!!)

Funny People also looks GREAT–the cinematographer was Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s frequent DP, which would explain why this Apatow dramedy looks just like a Spielberg film.

The second half of the film is less successful, as George and Ira travel to Laura’s house in Marin County, which results in mistakes and consequences and a lot of misunderstandings and sad truths and arguments and… Part of me wants to interfere and bring George and Ira back to LA, where all the best stuff was.

BUT despite that, it is necessary to have this second half. Now that George has had a complete recovery, with no traces of the leukemia whatsoever anymore, where does he go from here? It would have been so easy to just end it with the good news–but the intriguing thing is, George was happier when he was dying. So, whatever lessons he learned, he completely forgets about. Why is this interesting? Because it works best as a cautionary tale for lonely, depressed, bipolar people (not just actors) who need the right people in their lives, or else they’re going to run cycles that take them down worse turns each time. (That’s what I get out of it, anyway.)

Plus, in this film’s second half, we have Eric Bana (whom Seth Rogen was previously praising in “Knocked Up” and now co-stars with here). He plays Laura’s husband, who doesn’t take too well to certain news. This character could have been boring, but thankfully, Bana has enough comedic chops to keep it interesting.

I’m still calling “Funny People” one of my favorites, because even though I prefer watching one half over the other, it still works as a whole because of the questions that are worth answering and discussing.

My Favorite Movies – Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

20 May

By Tanner Smith

I can thank film critic Richard Roeper for this one. I remember seeing on TV the “Ebert & Roeper” review for “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” back in April 2008, when Roeper declared his love for the movie and even said it might be one of his top 50 favorite comedies of all time.

He got a lot of hate mail for that statement. But it’s 13 years later and I doubt anyone would want to argue with him about it nowadays–because “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is a very, VERY funny movie!

Btw, Roeper responded to the haters in the most dignified way a critic could: “Well guess what, I think ‘Blazing Saddles’ is overrated, how do you like them apples!”

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is a film about a guy going through a rough time after his girlfriend for five years breaks up with him. He’s played by Jason Segel, who also wrote the screenplay–yet another classic example of an actor writing the right role for himself to play. He isn’t afraid to make his character, Peter, pathetic and miserable…and he also isn’t afraid of showing you his pecker.

This film is full of hilarious moments and characters. Everyone is so funny here–Russell Brand’s rock-star Aldous Snow (whom he would play again in “Get Him to the Greek” two years later) is so funny; Paul Rudd’s stoned surfing teacher is so funny; that newlywed couple is so funny; Jonah Hill’s stalker character is so funny; Bill Hader as Peter’s stepbrother, holy crap is he funny! Mila Kunis is absolutely delightful as Peter’s rebound–she has a great sense of comic timing, is quite fetching, and makes her character the kind of woman *I* would’ve liked to be around in a time of crisis. Even Kristen Bell as Sarah Marshall could have been someone for us to hate, but even she’s funny; I especially love when she imitates Aldous Snow’s Cockney accent.

There are a lot of moments that make me laugh each time I watch this film; too many to name even–video conversations between Peter & his brother and his wife; the advertisements for fake TV shows; and the naked breakup. (Side-note: Segel has a point; who wants to remember what they wore during a breakup?…A better question is why is that line only said in the trailer instead of the movie?)

But my absolute favorite is at the end when the film gives us a glimpse of Peter’s musical adaptation of Dracula…performed by puppets!

One of the top 50 best comedies of all time? Maybe, maybe not. But then again, humor is subjective, not objective. It just depends on your sense of humor. But this one makes me laugh each time I see it. I love it.

And by the way, because of this movie, I now know that the state fish of Hawaii is the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a! (“Yeah, bitch!”)

My Favorite Movies – Don’t Think Twice (2016)

20 May

By Tanner Smith

I talked about Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me recently and also mentioned that I didn’t even know about it until I saw his other film “Don’t Think Twice.” But I wouldn’t have known about “Don’t Think Twice” if I hadn’t worked at a movie store three years ago–I was alphabetizing the Blu-Rays, I got to the Ds, I found something called “Don’t Think Twice” featuring all these talented funny people, and the cover included a highly positive review blurb from one of my favorite film critics (Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune). I was like, “What is this??”

When I got home from work, I found the film on Netflix. So I check it out, and…yeah, it’s really freaking good!

Since then, “Don’t Think Twice” is no longer on Netflix and I still don’t own it, so it’s one of the DVDs I often check out from the library pretty much each visit.

“Don’t Think Twice,” written and directed by Mike Birbiglia (who also co-stars in the film), is about a New York improv troupe called The Commune. They’re a group of friends who each have normal, mundane lives and boring jobs, but when they perform together, that’s when they all feel alive. Right away, I’m sure a lot of my struggling-artist friends can relate (because I certainly can!!).

I want to use this opportunity to appreciate the awesome cast in this movie. Mike Birbiglia plays Miles, who founded the troupe and also teaches improv while he’d rather gain a spot as a regular on the SNL-type variety TV show “Weekend Live.” (It’s pretty much the same as “SNL,” but you know–copyright and stuff.) Keegan-Michael Key plays Jack, who is undoubtedly the most talented of the troupe (but often shows off when he feels the mood dying). Gillian Jacobs plays Sam, the troupe’s emcee and Jack’s girlfriend. Kate Micucci is Allison, who also uses her talent and ideas for other ventures, such as a graphic novel in the works. Tami Sagher is Lindsay, who lives off her wealthy parents. And last but not least, Chris Gethard is Bill, who just doesn’t feel it with the improv as much as he used to.

Those are the briefest character descriptions I could come up with for this post, but trust me when I say all six of these people are well-defined, three-dimensional characters, and they’re all acted wonderfully.

The story for “Don’t Think Twice” kicks in as Jack showboats during a Commune performance in which a Weekend Live staff member is in the audience. He and Sam are invited to audition for the show, which angers the rest of the group (though they do their best to voice their support because that’s what friends do…hard as it may be). Sam blows off her audition because she feels more comfortable doing smaller improv-type stuff like The Commune rather than in the big leagues with Weekend Live…..Jack, however, earns a spot on the show.

This film is not only funny in the ways it deals with realistic issues that improv performers face but it can also be brutally honest, such as when one admits he doesn’t feel the joy in performing as he used to, another wants to find other ways to break into the field, and the most heartbreaking of all, when your friends want you to pitch their ideas to your superiors when your superiors couldn’t care any less about YOU.

In the process, those who aren’t entirely affiliated with improv also learn more about the art, such as how it’s always important to agree with the setup because “it’s all about the group.”

And once again, I have to point out my stance on comedy-dramas (“dramedies”), which is: if there’s anything more important than a comedy that makes you laugh, it’s a comedy that makes you feel. I can laugh at a lot of the antics The Commune come up with on stage, and I can also laugh at a couple of the situations that follow off stage–but more importantly, because of that, I can feel something when, say, Bill faces a family crisis and/or Sam has self-esteem issues.

I don’t know how I missed “Don’t Think Twice” when it was initially released, but I’m glad I found it when I did. Three years later, it’s still a wonderful, funny, moving film…I’ll probably watch it again today, because why not?

My Favorite Movies – Sleepwalk With Me (2012)

20 May

By Tanner Smith

I have a real interest in films that are written from a real place, like the screenwriters had funny experiences happen to them in difficult circumstances–for example, scripts like 50/50 and The Farewell and even “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was written from some sort of “write-what-you-know” experience.

Here’s a story about standup comedian Mike Birbiglia, originally told in his one-man Off-Broadway show and on an episode of the radio program “This American Life” (a great showcase for these kinds of stories that could be made into films easily). For a while, Birbiglia had issues with REM sleep behavioral disorder due to unexpressed anxiety. This resulted in some really bad sleepwalking experiences, which Birbiglia wouldn’t see anybody about…until he suffered an unfortunate incident in which, while sleepwalking, he broke through a second-story hotel room window and one of the shards was dangerously close to his femoral artery!

No joke–he could’ve bled to death! Since then, he’s gotten help and turned his plight into art with his one-man show, “This American Life,” and this film, “Sleepwalk With Me,” which he co-wrote and co-directed (with Seth Barrish)–he also stars in it as a semi-autobiographical version of himself: Matt Pandamiglio, aspiring comedian (not too much of a stretch).

I didn’t know who Mike Birbiglia was until I saw the film “Don’t Think Twice,” which he also directed, co-wrote, and co-starred in. After that, I looked up what else this guy was famous for (and I remembered he was also in “The Fault in Our Stars”) and I came across this story and was like, “Whoa, dude, that needs to be a movie!” And to my surprise, it WAS a movie–it came out in 2012, it got good reviews (including shoutouts from Roger Ebert and Judd Apatow), and obviously I missed it.

I checked it out from my local library one day and was instantly blown away.

For one thing, while Mike Birbiglia isn’t the most polished actor, he’s got an everyman likability to himself that makes him enough of a goofball for me to laugh at him but enough of a relatable guy for me to like him…even when his character of Matt Pandamiglio learns that he scores the biggest laughs in his standup comedy by turning his emotional plights (such as the questionable fate of his relationship with his girlfriend, played by Lauren Ambrose) into a part of his act. Yeah, it’s a jerk move to make fun of his relationship without letting his girlfriend in on the joke, but at least it still shows where it comes from, thus making for a fascinating character/dramatic study.

The film also works wonderfully as performance art, as Birbiglia pulls a lot of tricks like breaking the fourth wall and showing us visual representations of his wildest dreams–my favorite of these sequences involves infidelity and a “pizza pillow.”

And it of course leads to the inevitable moment in which he notoriously breaks his way out of his second-story hotel room and onto the ground below and later has to get glass splinters removed from his legs (the result of which was 33 stitches). I have to wonder what reliving that experience for film was like for Birbiglia…

Is it funny because it’s true? Is it funny despite being true? Maybe what it is is a story so crazy that it must be true. Everyone likes to hear crazy stories, ESPECIALLY if they’re true.

Side-note: three movies I watched the most amount of times during the Covid-19 lockdown–“Begin Again,” “Brigsby Bear,” and “Sleepwalk With Me.”

My Favorite Movies – The Land of Steady Habits (2018)

18 May

By Tanner Smith

This Netflix Original film didn’t make my year-end list for 2018–it wasn’t even in my honorable mentions. I liked it when I saw it…I didn’t think I’d be watching it about 10 more times in the following two years or so.

But it’s great–better to realize it late than never.

“The Land of Steady Habits” was written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, who specializes in slice-of-life dramedies such as “Walking and Talking,” “Please Give,” and “Enough Said.” (She also co-wrote Can You Ever Forgive Me? and directed a couple great episodes of “Parks and Recreation.”) As much as I like “Enough Said,” about which I’ll probably have a post in the future, “The Land of Steady Habits” might be her best work.

MIGHT be. (Her debut film “Walking and Talking” gets better each time I see it.)

Ben Mendelsohn stars as Anders, a former Wall Street trader who has no idea what he wants out of life anymore except not to do the things he’s used to. He divorces his wife Helene (Edie Falco) and goes into early retirement–and he left her their house as what he sees as a generous gesture…even though he’s not paying the mortgage anymore.

Anders is full of sh*t. And that’s the point–he represents the type of flawed individual who doesn’t possess the disciplinal nature that causes them to act selflessly. As the film continues, we go from getting angry at this tool to empathizing with him as his humanity surfaces further. Oh, and he’s also still very much enamored with his ex-wife and shows up to parties where she might be…and where old friends would rather he just disappear. But also, Helene also has a new boyfriend. (He’s played by Bill Camp, one of the best character actors working today, as evidenced by his appearances in “Wildlife,” Love & Mercy, Midnight Special, and a whole bunch of other films from the past few years.) But Anders soon meets Barbara (Connie Britton), a single mother with the sharp wit and equally unorthodox demeanor that just might be what Anders needs right now. Many of the other characters in this film are also full of sh*t–this includes Anders and Helene’s 20something-year-old son Preston (Thomas Mann), a former drug addict who still lives with his mother, takes a job as a reading teacher (a job his mother got him), and has no aspirations in life. (Anders sometimes has to play the “tough-love” card on him, even though he’s not really one to talk.) There’s also Sophie & Mitchell Ashford (Elizabeth Marvel and Michael Gaston), who seem to be going through the same thing with their drug-addict teenage son Charlie (Charlie Tahan) that Anders and Helene went though with Preston but would rather pretend there’s nothing wrong unless it best suits them. (Shades of Ordinary People here.)

All of the actors are fantastic here, but the one that impressed me the most was Charlie Tahan, who has a small but pivotal role in this film. He was great as the troubled teenage killer in Super Dark Times; here, he’s not violent, but he’s still very much troubled. Also, his story of how he uses art as a form of escapism is truly moving–I’ve seen this story aspect many times in other movies, but it takes the right character, the right dialogue, and the right delivery to truly sell it. His interactions with Anders, with whom he often gets high (once on PCP!), are wonderfully handled as well, and Mendelsohn is a great foil for Tahan. (Charlie Tahan is one of my favorite young actors working today–I should check out “Ozark” now, shouldn’t I?)

Obviously, at age 28, I’m not old enough to know enough people like Anders to say “The Land of Steady Habits” is totally accurate–but it does FEEL real, other critics have used their own personal experiences to relate to it, and I did know plenty of people like Preston and Charlie. (…I still know those people, actually–hell, I even see a little bit of myself in Preston.)

Why is it one of my new favorites? I think it’s just the spirit of it–the droll, sardonic, cynical spirit of it all. Or maybe I see it as a cautionary tale about what could happen to me if I don’t take what I learned in school or from my parents and put it all to good use in adulthood. Or maybe I just see it as a way of feeling comfortable whenever I inevitably screw up, because that’s just what happens, whether I intend to or not.

Either way…”The Land of Steady Habits” speaks to me.

My Favorite Movies – Brad’s Status (2017)

18 May

By Tanner Smith

Funny thing–the first time I watched “Brad’s Status” was when I Redbox’d it over three years ago. I watched it with my fiancee Kelly. Neither of us cared for it that much. We both thought Ben Stiller’s bitter, resentful “Brad” should stop complaining already!!

Seriously, Brad has a pretty great life. He’s got a great wife, a great kid, a great house on a great (quiet) street, great great great… It’s only when he’s thinking about the bountiful wealth obtained by his college buddies that he thinks he’s hit bottom.

Both Kelly and I agreed upon watching the movie…that Brad needs to lighten up, get a little perspective, and realize how good he has it.

BUT let’s be honest–when we compare ourselves to others, no matter how comfortable we might be, we each think to ourselves…why aren’t I more satisfied? Why do THEY get these great things in life, but not ME?

Point being, and the reason I gave the film another shot (and ended up watching it enough times to realize it deserves a spot as one of my new favorite films)…is that it is so easy to look at this through a clearer perspective when we are not currently in that envious mindset.

“Brad’s Status,” written and directed by Mike White, stars Ben Stiller as Brad Sloan, who runs his own nonprofit that matches foundations with deserving beneficiaries. Brad is going through a midlife inner turmoil, when he just can’t stop thinking about how rich and successful his old friends have become. He lets us know this with some of the best chosen moments of voiceover narration in film history that let us into his thoughts (complete with the perfect music score that makes us feel as anxious as Brad). And this is happening on a weekend in which he accompanies his brilliant, socially awkward, musically talented 17-year-old son Troy (Austin Abrams) to check out potential colleges, leaving his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) at home. Time for some father-son bonding…and time for some jealousy when Brad considers Troy may grow up to be a rich, successful musician…or one of those street performers who will play for any amount of change.

See what I mean?? Brad’s got it bad. And thankfully, the movie doesn’t ignore his problem. The best scene in the movie, which helps Brad wake up a little bit, is when one of Troy’s friends, Ananya (Shazi Raja), asks Brad for some life advice and gets tired of what he has to rant about. She tells him dead-on that he has nothing to complain about.

Thank you, Ananya. Thank you for saying what Kelly and I have been thinking all along.

The rest of the movie, from that point on, very cleverly pulls the rug out from under us (and I won’t give away how it does). Brad starts to see the light and appreciate what he has rather than what he doesn’t…but maybe that’s just for now. For all we know, Brad could have another mental breakdown the following week.

But we do know this–it does happen…and it does pass.

The more I thought about it all (again, gaining a little more perspective), the more I admired what writer-director Mike White set out to accomplish with this moving comedy-drama. And he picked the perfect actor to play this complicated part: Ben Stiller.

“Brad’s Status” is definitely the most “Ben Stiller-est” Ben Stiller movie ever made. And Brad Sloan is the perfect role for Ben Stiller. In “The Meyerowitz Stories,” “While We’re Young,” “Greenberg,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and even the “Night at the Museum” movies, among others, we’ve noticed in the past decade just how good Stiller is at playing a neurotic who is hardly satisfied with where he is at his point in life. Stiller has played self-centered, passive-aggressive, humorously unhappy men who aren’t so easy to like but even harder to hate. And now we have Brad’s Status, which is probably the most aware of Stiller’s trademark niche.

But the point of “Brad’s Status,” in which the main character has a midlife crisis, is that this feeling does exist. And it passes. The ending is ambiguous, but there is a ray of hope that Brad will be fine with his status. With the aid of White’s insightful screenplay and direction, Stiller nails the role. Sometimes, he’s frustrating to watch (to the point where I want to look away). But even still, he’s always convincing and it’s not too difficult to understand why he thinks this way throughout the film.

He is what makes “Brad’s Status” an important study in how to cope with personal regrets. This guy may not be easy to like, but just remember—this could be us some day.

So…yeah, I love this movie. I didn’t love it when I was first saw it. But throughout the three years to follow, I’ve come around to seeing what made it special.

2017 was such a special year for movies that even when you’re not sure about a certain 2017 film, it’ll still grow on you! (And heads-up: there will be many 2017 films in this My Favorite Movies series! Lady Bird was only the beginning…)

My Favorite Movies – The Daytrippers (1997)

17 May

By Tanner Smith

I love director Greg Mottola’s work (that I’ve seen anyway). I love Superbad. I love Adventureland. I love the three “Arrested Development” episodes he directed. And he also directed a majority of the episodes of the short-lived series “Undeclared,” which I also love.

I didn’t see Mottola’s debut feature “The Daytrippers” until last year during the quarantine. I liked it…since then, I’ve seen it a few more times, it crosses my mind sometimes, I streamed it recently on-demand, and…yeah, I love it. It’s a new favorite. So I’m gonna talk about it!

“The Daytrippers” starts off as a droll comedy of oddball characters and then it develops into a heavy drama about relationships in crisis–I’ll admit, the first time I saw the film, I thought the shift was overbearing; but the more I watch it, the more I understand how it came to be.

It begins as Eliza (Hope Davis), a seemingly happily married young woman, discovers a love letter near her husband’s bureau. Concerned that her husband Louis (Stanley Tucci) might be having an affair, she takes the letter to her Long Island family home and shows it to her mother (Anna Meara), who suggests she go to New York to confront Louis about it face-to-face.

And that’s what Eliza decides to do…oh wait, no, I’m sorry–Eliza, her overbearing mother, her pushover father (Pat McNamara), her wild sister Jo (Parker Posey), and Jo’s live-in intellectual boyfriend Carl (Liev Schreiber) all pile into the family station wagon to do a little sleuthing in the city.

Most of the film involves these oddball characters spending the day together. It’s clear that Jo’s parents (particularly the mother) like her boyfriend Carl more than her, as they care more for his comfort and are intrigued by his ideas for his in-the-works novel (whose story is so wild, I’ll leave it for you to discover) and his class-related ideals. (Carl’s my favorite character in the film–he’s full of sh*t, but he means well, he’s funny, and he has his moments of warmth.) The mother, played to an obnoxious level by Anne Meara, is so forward that when a young stranger helps the family unwind (after a hilariously inept would-be car chase scene), she invites herself and everyone else into his home for lunch–she even sends the young man and Eliza out to get groceries, I kid you not! (When the guy’s father comes home, even he isn’t able to get them to leave.) Jo doesn’t have much ambition, but she is someone for Eliza to confide in (something that pays off beautifully later in the film). And the father is so much of a pushover that it’s a relief when the mother ultimately crosses the line and he realizes he HAS to tell her off for the sake of everybody else in that damn car.

I’m sure Eliza wishes she had just stayed in bed that morning…

The family comes across other characters along the way, such as a writer played by Campbell Scott who strikes up conversation with Jo at a book-signing party (and does something that would’ve earned him a slap in the face if he did it with anyone else). In tracking her husband, Eliza finds herself at another party, where one of the guests clings to her, played by Marcia Gay Harden–I wish her entertaining character had more screen time.

There’s so much character in “The Daytrippers,” as well as so much lively charm. Even when the characters can be a little grating, particularly the one played by Anne Meara (who was a turn-off for some critics at the time, particularly Roger Ebert), I still stayed with them, which made the emotional resolution all the more intriguing and well-earned.

Now, the ending…I’ll tread lightly here because I don’t want to spoil it for anybody. The film’s payoff was shocking in a way for the 1990s, but how does it hold up a couple decades later? Well, it’s not quite as shocking anymore, but it’s still a timelessly heartbreaking discovery for the characters. How they ultimately respond to it is what makes the ending all the more special.

And that makes the film overall worth revisiting–it’s probably what earned its placement in the Criterion Collection too.

Even if the tone goes from playful to somber, it still works because the characters remain consistent throughout, even to a fault that the characters themselves are aware of. I admired the way Mottola chose to develop the story here.

And that is why I am quite baffled by Siskel & Ebert’s 1997 review of the film–they didn’t just dislike it; they flat-out HATED it because the characters were just too much for them to care about. Actually, that’s not the part that baffles me about it–what truly baffles me are Siskel’s way of summing up the film.

He said, and I’m quoting directly here, “Didn’t you wonder, ‘Why was this made?’ Where was the juice? What was the excitement here?? I couldn’t understand on anybody’s part! Why would anyone finance this? Why would anyone go out and make it?” DAMN!

That is one of the harshest quotes from any Siskel & Ebert review I have ever seen…and its context was a film that I really wish both of them had revisited.

My Favorite Movies – Sounder (1972)

17 May

By Tanner Smith

I didn’t grow up with Sounder like I did with Old Yeller–probably an unfair comparison, since “Sounder” isn’t necessarily a boy-and-his-dog story, but I’ll get to that. I had always heard of it as a kid, but I never actually sat down and watched it until I was 22.

And I loved it. I think I would’ve loved it as a kid too. It’s truly fantastic. I now own it as part of a collection of 12 classic family films–the other 11 seem generic by comparison.

Strangely, even though the movie is named after the dog, Sounder himself is the least interesting element of the movie. (I never read the book the film was based on, so maybe he played a bigger part there.) That’s because Sounder, the film, is more about this family of black sharecroppers trying to survive in 1933 Louisiana. The family is starving, so the father (Paul Winfield) steals a ham. Then he’s taken away to prison, and so the boy, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), has to go out and look for him. The mother (Cicely Tyson) and her children have to look after the crop so they can survive. David Lee learns about opportunities outside of the farm, but he isn’t ready to leave his family for them. And so on. It’s great seeing how these characters live in this environment, and it’s done with astonishing realism.

And it does feel real, in the sense that it’s not just a nonstop parade of horrible misery–it knows when to saw the joyous moments too, such as when characters get together to play a game of baseball, and those scenes feel real too. And the emotions that are felt, especially near the end, when the father talks to his son about his choices in life, are spot-on and brilliantly acted.

My favorite scene: The aforementioned father-son moment near the end is wonderful and reminded me of a similar scene in “Old Yeller” (another comparison), but my personal favorite scene is one that lays down the theme of the whole film–it’s a classroom scene set midway through the film, as a student tells a story about how he saved his sister from drowning even though he himself couldn’t swim and no one believes his story except David Lee. Why? Because David Lee knew the kid had to do it, just like the family knew they had to keep going through the tough times.

Random side-note: “Sounder” is the only G-rated movie I know of in which a character uses the word “peckerwood.” I know MPAA ratings were weird back then (there’s no way “True Grit” and “Planet of the Apes” would get G ratings today–hell, their remakes are PG-13!), but that made me laugh! I mean, “what the hell” and “damn it,” I knew you could get away with, but “peckerwood”?! Wow.