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Looking Back at 2010s Films: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2013)

14 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” is a horror slasher film that is best known for its long-awaited release. It generated a ton of positive buzz at festivals in 2006, including TIFF and SXSW, and then…the studio that bought the rights decided not to release it for some reason. (Damn it, Weinsteins.) Then after it had already had a UK release long before, it was already released briefly in limited theaters before hitting VOD and DVD in late 2013 (thus barely making it qualify for my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films). And then the film that garnered a ton of good press at these festivals didn’t seem so special, with many reviews that said there’s hardly anything special about it apart from the gritty, grindhouse-like cinematography is top-notch.

What do I think of it? Well, at first, I didn’t think it was anything too special (though the cinematography was pretty nifty)…but that didn’t stop me from revisiting it again a few more times on Netflix. Much of the reason I like to watch it again has to do with the ending (which I’ll get into in a moment).

The film is well-directed, by Jonathan Levine. This was Levine’s first film, and while it’s a shame his debut got shelved for seven years, I am glad he made three well-received films (“The Wackness,” “50/50,” “Warm Bodies”) while waiting for this one to get released. By the time most of us got to see “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane,” we already knew it’d be well-directed. It’s well-acted, from actors who’d go on to other things in the waiting, including Amber Heard, Michael Welch, Whitney Able, Edwin Hodge, and Luke Grimes (who I’ll always know as Enoch from “War Eagle, Arkansas”–Fifty Shades of what?). But what did throw a lot of people off upon seeing it for the first time in 2013 was that up until the ending, it’s…well, let’s be honest, just another horror slasher film–a bunch of teens go partying at a secluded farmhouse, try to get their hookups, drink, do drugs, and then get slaughtered by an unknown psycho. (Though, unlike most modern horror films, it was shot on film and given a gritty aesthetic that calls back to horror films of the ’70s.) So why did it get all that hot buzz at festivals? I think it has to do with the ending and what the film means in hindsight–that’s why I revisited it myself. It seems like a teenage coming-of-age story disguised as a slasher film–it’s like “Dazed and Confused” meets “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

The “Mandy Lane” in the title refers a high-school girl (Amber Heard) who was very awkward before she blossomed over the summer. Now, every guy wants her and, as evidenced in an opening scene, will do anything for her. Some guys invite her to a ranch out in the country, and some other guy starts to kill them one-by-one. Is there some kind of connection between the killings and Mandy Lane? Is she next?

SPOILER ALERT!!!!

Mandy was a social outcast before every jerk on campus wanted to sleep with her. When her friend Emmet (Michael Welch) convinced one of them to jump off a roof to impress her, Mandy started to realize the lengths these jackasses would go to for her. Watching the film again, a few looks she gives early in the film actually did hint that she was more devious than she was letting on (it’s also hinted that she had a messed-up childhood, though it’s not really explained). In the end, it all turns out that this night was part of a murder-suicide pact, with Emmet enacting all the murders of the partygoers, most of which were guys who were trying to one-up each other for the alpha-male position in attempts to seduce Mandy. They’re all like predators…only they didn’t realize Mandy was the predator, manipulating everyone’s emotions, both the guys’ and the girls’, everyone who thought they had a chance at scoring with her, getting her to try some other things, etc. But when Mandy and Emmet reunite, she realizes that Emmet did all this for her, showing her that he’s no better than the rest of them. So, Emmet dies, while Mandy survives, with the local farmhand, Garth (Anson Mount), getting her out of there…and it seems she can control his emotions too.

Seeing the film again with that knowledge made it more interesting, as I realize there’s more on this film’s mind than graphic violence (there isn’t even that much gore to be found). It actually captures both male and female insecurities (guys trying to one-up each other, girls’ body issues) in a unique way that could actually speak well and directly to high-school teens. The characters aren’t bad people; they’re just dumb, naive, insecure high-school kids, which makes their tale all the more tragic.

“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” deserved more than it got. It definitely didn’t deserve to spend seven years on the shelf, when all the studio execs could’ve done was sit on it for a little bit, rather than let their minds be influenced by a negative test screening…ONE negative test screening…did they forget all the positive press from some of the highest-ranking film festivals in the country??

Again, nice move, Weinsteins.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Hunger Games Movies (2012-2015)

12 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, let’s talk about the “Hunger Games” movies!

I read the first two (out of three) books in the “Hunger Games” series by Susanne Collins when I first heard the movies were being made. I skipped the last book, because…well…the second book (“Catching Fire”) didn’t really grab me as much as the first one did.

About a year later, “The Hunger Games,” the movie, was released. I really liked it. I thought it was well-acted with great performances from Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, Lenny Kravitz, among others. And I thought it had great social commentary about what we perceive as entertainment, what draws the most attention in times of crisis, what classes find valuable, and so on. Yes, it is very dizzying with its constantly shaky camera movements and the whole purpose of an action film is to actually SHOW the action…but to be fair, I don’t want to see the bloody deaths of children. (Btw, even though they aren’t shown in graphic detail, this movie should’ve gotten an R rating! PG-13, my ass.) I will criticize the heavy amount of closeups and the actual “hunger” of the Hunger Games going ignored, but the shaky-cam? Eh. Doesn’t bother me that much.

Even though I wasn’t entirely sold on the second book, “Catching Fire,” I was still curious to see how that film adaptation would turn out…and to my amazement, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” turned out to be even better than the first movie! (It’s my favorite of the four “Hunger Games” movies.) I don’t know if it was a case of toning the material down while still getting a clear understanding about what made it worth selling to begin with, or if the new director (Francis Lawrence, taking over for Gary Ross) with a different style had something to do with it (I CAN SEE THE ACTION NOW), or whatever. But either way, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” had elements of what made “The Hunger Games” compelling and added to it by deepening the themes, broadening the characters, exploring the environment this story is set in, and heading into darker territory. This was like the “Empire Strikes Back” of young-adult book adaptations! And I loved it–and I still hadn’t read “Mockingjay,” the final book, so where was it going to go from there??

They split “Mockingjay” the movie into two parts (because of course they did).

“Part 1” is fine–it still has more of that commentary coming out and giving us more survival techniques for the resistance in this war-driven world, and Jennifer Lawrence carries a great deal of it (of course). But “Part 2” is where things get REAL good. This is the final resolution, the story that’s going to make things right…or are they? We get a lot of tough questions and even tougher answers, and we find ourselves asking, what would WE do if we had the upper hand on our enemies? It’s a lot more thought-provoking than I expected. There isn’t a lot of action in it, but I didn’t need a “Return of the King” type of climax for this series that’s talking to people about hard choices, such as moral uncertainty of war–I just needed something deeper than that. And I got it. And I admired this franchise for taking that risk.

My ranking of the films:
1. Catching Fire
2. Mockingjay Part 2
3. The Hunger Games
4. Mockingjay Part 1

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Way, Way Back (2013)

11 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, there are four films that come to mind when I think of movies that really capture the essence of summertime–“The Sandlot,” “The Flamingo Kid,” “Call Me By Your Name,” and…”The Way, Way Back.”

Everyone has that Summer That Changed Everything–it’s that precious coming-of-age experience that you never forget. For super-awkward teenaged Duncan (Liam James, to whom I’m always going to refer as Young Shawn from the first few seasons of “Psych”), that time comes with a job at a water park. This kid definitely needs something fun in his life–his mom (Toni Collette) is going through a rough time, her new boyfriend (Steve Carell) is a jerk, there’s no one to hang out with, and it doesn’t help that he’s uncomfortable in his own skin. But that changes when he runs off to a water park near Carell’s vacation home and finds himself getting employed by the wacky man-child manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), which he decides to keep a secret. He fits in with the older staff members and has numerous misadventures that help boost his self-esteem and cause him to take chances and stand up for himself.

“The Way, Way Back” was co-written and co-directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, who also won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for their collaboration on the Alexander Payne film “The Descendants.” Rash has said that he put a lot of his own childhood experiences into the character of Duncan…even down to his own mother’s ex-boyfriend labeling him a “3” on a scale of 1 to 10. (No joke–he admitted this in the BluRay bonus features! People can be very cruel.) There’s obviously a lot of passion put into this script, and it shows. The comedy and drama feel like they’re part of the same movie (like the best “dramedies”) and the characters all feel real and fleshed out……well, for the most part. Allison Janney’s constantly-drunken, wisecracking single mother character feels a little too out-there, but…eh, it’s still Allison Janney–she’s always great even when she plays obnoxious.

Everyone else is GREAT. Liam James sells “awkward” really well, and he’s all too relatable. There are a lot of levels to Toni Collette’s mother character that become too obvious when watching the film again. Steve Carell’s character is a jerk but a realistic one–you can tell there are times when he wants to do better, but there’s just too much in the way…like a harpy played by Amanda Peet. AnnaSophia Robb is a three-dimensional dream-girl. Maya Rudolph is great as the water park’s general manager who takes things more seriously than Owen and yet can’t resist Owen’s charm at the end of the day. River Alexander is funny as the lazy-eyed kid who is constantly picked on by his mother (Janney) and ultimately becomes Duncan’s friend. And Faxon & Rash are good and funny in their own side roles as water-park staff.

And then you got Sam Rockwell……I’ll just say it–this is my absolute favorite Sam Rockwell performance. He’s great in a complex role in “Moon” and even better in his Oscar-winning performance that actually made a bigoted a-hole kind of empathetic in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and he’s always been great in other stuff. But look at him here in this clip and you only get a little taste of his energy in this movie! Every time he’s on screen, I smile! And he BECOMES this movie.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Short Term 12 (2013)

9 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films…you know, some day, for one of these posts, I WILL get back to talking about films that the Oscars appreciated at least nearly as much as I did.* But for now, here’s one of several 2013 treasures that were completely shut out by Oscar.

Actually…let me list a few! “Mud.” “Fruitvale Station.” “The Spectacular Now.” “Frances Ha.” “The Way, Way Back.”

Sheesh! At least “Before Midnight” was recognized for its screenplay.

(Btw, I love “Gravity” and “Her,” so I’m not an Indie Spirits snob. And at least the Oscars recognized “Nebraska” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.”)

Where was I? Oh yeah, “Short Term 12.” I don’t think I was the only one who was shocked and dismayed that Brie Larson wasn’t nominated for her excellent performance in this film.

In the film, she plays Grace, a supervisor for a youth group home, where she looks after troubled teenagers day by day. She can relate to most of these kids as she too comes from a broken home….In fact, she was physically and emotionally abused by her father. So, you could say the reason she works at this facility is to make sure the youths have a better life than what she grew up with.

This proves an interesting contrast when you consider her coworker/boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who came from a loving foster home–you could say he’s there to make sure the kids know the love he grew up with.

Based on the short film of the same name by writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton (available on the feature film’s DVD extras), “Short Term 12” is an emotionally authentic study at the lives of troubled youths–what they go through, what they’ve been through, and how their futures can be in their own hands.

Among the youngsters are Jadyn (Kaitlyn Dever), a newcomer to the facility, whom Grace notices some similarities to her own teenage life, and Marcus (Lakeith Stanfield, the only actor to return from the original short), who was emotionally/physically traumatized by his mother and is about leave the home now that he’s reaching age 18. Grace and Mason listen to them tell their stories the only ways they know how in two particularly memorable moments–Marcus uses his own rap song to tell his story; Jadyn uses an illustrated parable from her journal.

I realize how many actors’ careers have really gone somewhere since this film. Lakeith Stanfield is one of today’s most reliable character actors. Kaitlyn Dever continues to impress me with each passing film (including “Booksmart,” which features my favorite performance of hers so far). Rami Malek, who recently won an Oscar, is in this movie as well, playing a meek new worker who finds a way to reach one of the kids.

Brie Larson is now one of our best actresses, and she did win an Oscar two years later (for “Room”). And she’s brilliant here as Grace. It’s really her story, as the film focuses predominantly on her inner life as well as her interactions with other characters. She’s subtle in her portrayal, but more importantly, Cretton’s writing of her is subtle as well. It’s understated and low-key, so we get as much as we can get without resorting to melodrama. I don’t feel a single false note in Larson’s performance.

And “Short Term 12” is a small masterpiece. A terrific film that I put in my personal Top 200 Favorite Films list. It’s a film that teaches us that no matter what we went through in our youth, we can help shape ourselves a bright future.

*At least half the titles on my best-of-the-2010s list were Oscar nominees/winners, so at least there’s that.

Don Jon (2013)

12 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A man is addicted to porn. A woman is addicted to romance films. They go out together. But it doesn’t last. Not because one addiction gets in the way. But because both addictions don’t serve them well. The message of the film “Don Jon,” written and directed by (and starring) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is that one-sided relationships lead to unhappiness.

And that’s the big surprise about the film that continued to impress me with repeated viewings: its ability to portray addiction in a way that affects romantic relationships. Addiction to anything can overwhelm someone’s life, but it can also impede on a promising relationship. “Don Jon” is a comedy, and it is a funny movie, to be sure. But its heavier aspects, while subdued, are more relevant to keep filmgoers coming back to it.

The film’s protagonist is Jon (Gordon-Levitt), a regular working-class New Jersey “guy’s guy”—works out, hangs out with his bros (Rob Brown & Jeremy Luc), and is all about the one-night stands, hooking up with random chicks he meets at the bar. But, as he explains in voiceover narration, even though he gets plenty of action from picking up random women nearly every night, nothing excites him more than climaxing while watching online pornographic videos. He loses himself in Internet porn because he can’t lose himself in real-life hookups, and so he can’t bring himself to any sort of commitment with any woman.

Jon has a pattern he repeats throughout his young-adult life that’s changed when he finds himself in an actual relationship, with a gorgeous blonde named Barbara (played by Scarlett Johansson). (Every other girl he picks up is either an “8” or a “9,” whereas Barbara is a “10,” or a “dime.”) She’s a Jersey goddess who could make any man’s dream come true, once said-man has cracked her tough shell. She teases Jon and promises a lot but keeps things on hold, thus giving Jon more of a challenge—one that makes him more active in attempts to please her. But as the relationship continues, Jon realizes more and more how unhealthy it is. Sex with her is disappointing, because there’s still something missing. It’s also abundantly clear that just as Don is addicted to a fantasy world given to him by porn, Barbara is addicted to a fantasy world given to her by theatrical romances. Both addictions give them different visions for ideal partners, which is what Jon ultimately realizes, thanks to encounters with Esther (Julianne Moore), an older classmate at a local community college. She’s more experienced in life and in romantic relationships and is able to let Jon know a thing or two.

“Don Jon” is a dark comedy with important matters to address when it isn’t making us laugh. It has quite a few things to say about the shallow ways men attempt (or even don’t bother to attempt) ways to relate to women, and vice versa, and there are things that are said about how different forms of entertainment can mold someone’s way of thinking toward the opposite sex. Therein lies the problem with Jon and Barbara’s relationship—they don’t know a thing about how to really relate to someone romantically; they’re both getting their imaginations from something that does not come from a real place (for Jon, it’s porn; for Barbara, it’s Hollywood writing). That’s what makes Jon’s friendship with Esther, which develops into something more as the film continues, all the more special, because Jon is learning more about what it really means to connect with somebody personally, which a lot of people will say is the ultimate key to any working relationship. (Esther even warns Jon at one point, after spying him watching porn on his phone in class, that the activity he watches isn’t real.)

(By the way, if you’re wondering, yes, there are bits and pieces of Internet porn videos scattered throughout the film, which do contain nudity. The film is rated R, so there isn’t much pornographic activity that would supply an NC-17. Even this plays an interesting role—in order to further the point that porn is nothing like the way things are in real life, the physical activity between the actors is more subdued, meaning not much revealed skin.)

Oh, and there’s also a subplot including Jon’s family, such as his overbearing father (Tony Danza) and shrill mother (Glenne Headly)—these two are funny but not very necessary, in my opinion. (I don’t think we need to be shown that Jon gets his chauvinism from the way his parents relate to one another.) But out of those scenes comes an effective mike-drop of a resolution for Jon’s sister (Brie Larson), who spends most of her screen time playing with her cellphone silently. She’s the Quiet Observer, not unlike Silent Bob in Kevin Smith’s films, who speaks only when the protagonist needs to hear something very important. When her time comes, it’s wonderful.

Gordon-Levitt, already proven to be a fully capable actor, proves with “Don Jon” to also be a fully capable writer/director. The way he shapes the story is effective, even in the ways he shows how repetitive his character’s life is in early-to-mid stages of the film (the concept of “routine” isn’t always successful in other movies). He also has an ear for the way people talk and communicate with one another, whether personal or casual, making for some really good dialogue for his actors (and himself) to deliver. And of course, he delivers a great performance in a role that could’ve easily been detestable.

In the end, Jon learns how to lose himself in someone he actually wants to share a deep connection with (and who actually wants to do the same with him). And it’s taught in a way that a lot of people could learn from as well, particularly those who are merely obsessed with “image.” Best of all, it doesn’t feel artificial or forced—despite the film’s quick pace, there are still ways for Gordon-Levitt to find ways for story aspects to occur more or less naturally. Small flaws be damned (I already mentioned how Jon’s parents’ scenes didn’t really work for me), “Don Jon” is a terrific film.

V/H/S/2 (2013) – V/H/S: Viral (2014)

27 Aug

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V/H/S/2

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As someone who enjoyed the found-footage horror anthology “V/H/S” as more-or-less a “guilty pleasure,” I was curious to see what could be done as a follow-up. Would “V/H/S” be a worthy horror franchise or would it wear out quickly after a desperate cash-grab attempt?

“V/H/S/2” (or “S-V/H/S,” as it was originally called) is about on par with “V/H/S” in that it’s uneven yet enjoyable for the best parts (just enough for me to recommend). There is one big difference, however—“V/H/S/2” has a middle segment that is creepier, more outrageous, and more fun than any of the other segments in either of the two “V/H/S” films. It itself is a terrific horror film worthy of a recommendation.

Once again, the wraparound story for the anthology involves people sneaking into a house and watching unsettling VHS tapes. While I thought the previous film’s connective tissue had some chilling subtle moments, I felt it was weak overall with a lack of clever resolution. But with this one (directed by Simon Barrett), I surprisingly found myself more involved in what was happening, as once again, little things change here and there that had me edgy—the surprise was I thought the twist was actually unique and well-done. My only problem with it is after the characters watch the segments in between. The things they see don’t seem to faze them very much; they just seem to shrug it off and continue to the next one each time.

The first segment (“Phase 1 Clinical Trials,” directed by Adam Wingard) is shown through a man’s ocular implant with a camera. The doctors warn him that the implant is experimental (hence the camera, to see how things go at first). Shortly after he gets it, he starts seeing visions of people who shouldn’t be there. It’s an unsettling, effectively done chiller with an ending that made me look away.

The second segment (“A Ride in the Park,” directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale) is shown mostly from the POV of a Go-Pro attached to a bicyclist’s helmet. The bicyclist is attacked by a zombie and soon becomes one himself. He turns others into zombies and they set off in search for fresh meat. This is a neat twist on the zombie-movie, with enough visceral gore to appease genre fans.

The third segment is the aforementioned best: “Safe Haven,” directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans. The narrative here is more intricate than any of the previous segments, and it definitely works as its own short horror film. It involves a news crew getting the scoop on a cult run by an Indonesian deportee (played chillingly by Epy Kusnandar) who promises immortality to his followers. I could tell where this was going as soon as I knew a cult was involved, and it seemed to lead to where I thought it would. But after that, there was still about 15 minutes left to go…and man, I was way off! Would you believe me if I said Kool-Aid was the least of the worries here? This segment has a ton of surprises, neatly horrific developments, and unforgettable additional elements that make it worth recommending for all genre fans, if they can take it.

Unfortunately, after that, we get to the weakest segment in the series: “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” from Jason Eisener (best-known for “Hobo With a Shotgun”). With a goofy fun-sounding title like that, I expected much more than what I got. Maybe it was because nothing could top “Safe Haven,” but I just wasn’t interested in this part at all. It’s fairly straightforward—teens have a sleepover, aliens invade, they try to get away, they get abducted, the end. Oh, and there’s a camera attached to a dog. It might be enjoyable for some, and it may not be fair comparing it to “Safe Haven” after all, but I expected a better end portion than this.

I recommend the film overall, but it really comes down to “Safe Haven.” It’s worth seeing just for its own insanely entertaining bit of craziness.

But then we take a step down in quality and quantity; the ultimate end of a promising horror franchise; the final nail in the coffin…

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V/H/S: Viral

Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“V/H/S: Viral” is not merely bad—it’s obnoxious. With the previous films, you could tell they were labors of love from indie filmmakers having fun with this style of “hyper-realistic” horror. But with this, you can tell it’s a feeble cash-grab attempt. I don’t feel any passion put into this at all, and everyone else seemed to agree with me, as no future “V/H/S” films were planned since this film’s release.

I think what this film is trying to say is that we’re all obsessed with viral videos and many members of our generation are looking to capture the next best online hit. I think (but I’m not sure, as the motivations are muddled at best) that was the intention of the wraparound story to present that message. But the result is so confused and baffling that it’s hard to find the sense in it. Even the ending, which should spell out what it means, left me scratching my head. But on the plus side, it made me feel better to know it was over and I didn’t have to think about it anymore.

From what I could gather, it’s about teens trying to make their own viral videos and weird things happen that endanger their lives…and that’s all I got.

There’s no structure of people finding VHS tapes and watching horrific shorts. It’s just a bunch of random shorts thrown in between this strange supposed-wraparound.

(Just to state up front—I won’t list any names of the directors of these segments. I like to think I’m doing them a favor.)

The first random short is “Dante the Great,” which is about a magician who obtains a mystical cloak that truly is magic and gives him unbelievable power, which goes to his head. His assistant has to confront him and fight him one-on-one and somehow gain the upper hand against his real magic. This actually would be a neat idea and the effects are decent, but its execution is all over the place. Sometimes, it’s shown as a documentary. But then there’s hidden camera footage that no one could have gotten. There’s cheating in “found-footage,” and then there’s this.

The second segment is “Parallel Monsters” is a little better. It has an intriguing concept of a guy unlocking a portal to another dimension and switching places with his counterpart, only to find that it’s not what he expected at all. What he finds is creepy enough and it leads to some effective imagery. But unfortunately, it ends on a disappointing note.

After the passable “Parallel Monsters,” we are then cursed with the most detestable part of the film: “Bonestorm,” about a bunch of loud, rude, crude, vulgar, obnoxious, detestable skateboarders who go to Mexico and fight off a bunch of cult members looking for a sacrifice (I think; it was hard to tell exactly what was happening). This is what got me over the edge, as I facepalmed myself and wondered if it was even worth sitting through the rest of this thing. But I faced it head-on, as painful as it was. “Bonestorm” was such an aggressively bad short. Its shot choices are repetitive and with no style put into it, making it painful to look at—even skateboard videos and video games have more style than this thing.

Even the message of the film makes no sense! I just realized that even though there’s this stupid wraparound story that’s supposed to talk about young people and their obsession with “going viral,” neither of these three segments have ANYTHING to do with that in the slightest! They’re just random shorts trying to recapture that spirit of the previous films and failing miserably. No thought went into this at all. “V/H/S: Viral” is a lazy, badly-done conclusion of a “trilogy” made by people who I would guess didn’t care for what it was going to be as much as how quickly they could turn it in. I hated this movie.

The Dirties: What Does This Underrated Indie Flick Say About Media and Society?

18 Jun

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By Tanner Smith

WARNING: This editorial contains spoilers for the film in question, “The Dirties.”

In 2013, an independent Canadian film called “The Dirties” premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival. Since then, filmmaker Kevin Smith helped with distribution by way of his company, Kevin Smith Movie Club, and it has since been released on home media and video-on-demand. Those who have seen it are rather split about it—some say it’s a fresh, compelling take on bullying while others either call it either a self-praising “meta-mockumentary” or an irresponsible look at a risky topic that shouldn’t be touched upon. That topic in question is “school shooting.”

There’s no doubt that whenever those two words are mentioned, people’s minds are at unease. People recall numerous horrifying occurrences in which students were killed by gunmen on campus, which then leads them to wonder why they happened to begin with. The answers from media and society are usually unclear, so people come to their own conclusions, mostly having to do with mental disorders or TV/film violence. “The Dirties” is a controversial film that raises similar questions but also manages to deliver its own interpretation as well.

The film is told through the perspective of a video camera and is about a teenage movie buff named Matt (played by writer-director Matt Johnson) wanting to make his own movie. He buys wireless microphones to use and has someone film him and his best (and only) friend, Owen (Owen Williams), presumably all the time. The movie he wants to make is a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which he and Owen exact revenge on a gang of bullies in their high school, whom they dub The Dirties. When that movie is complete, Matt comes up with an idea to make another movie—a more realistic one in which he actually brings a gun to school and shoots The Dirties. Owen doesn’t take Matt’s idea seriously at first, but he starts to question his sanity when he not only continues to play-act in front of the camera (as if living his own movie), but also has blueprints of the school and has been firing guns for target practice.

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The main character of Matt is trying to become a movie star of his own creation. He’s constantly making film references that no one else understands, tries to become the thing he’s referencing, and as the film goes on, he thinks less of what famous people would do and what he would do, since he has become what he usually references. And thanks to the obscure cameraman (whose identity is never revealed), he’s never alone. This is a modern problem in today’s society, that today’s kids film themselves and act in front of the camera. But Matt, who faces issues of bullying and alienation, actively puts himself on camera 24/7, and so he’s always trying to perform and he can’t seem to break out of it. Even when Owen acknowledges what he’s doing is insane, Matt can’t bring himself back to reality and instead wants to further his own interpretation of reality and continue making his movie.

Owen, meanwhile, would rather try something else than keep making a movie with Matt. He wants acceptance among his peers, which is something Matt clearly quit trying to achieve. He longs for the attention of a girl he likes; he wants to make new friends; he wants to try something new. The biggest turning point in his life is when Matt is so obsessed with his art that he never talks to Owen like a real person anymore and, even scarier, actually seems serious about conducting his own school shooting.

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When looking for someone or something to blame for school shootings, media and society sometimes like to point the finger at violence portrayed in TV and movies, suggesting that watching it can make someone want to commit destruction. But this film shows how that’s actually never the case. What it tries to address is the issue of youth psychology and how it’s never always how we interpret it. According to filmmaker Johnson in an interview with cinema-scope.com, “The news always tells you the story of the kid starting at the last chapter of his or her life: that kid was a loner, or whatever. Which is really irrelevant to what happened. If you actually wanted to know what happened to the kid, you look at the first 200 pages of his life.”

That leads into the film’s ending. Some people complain that the film ends anticlimactically with no clear reasoning or logic. It ends with Matt, after having shot The Dirties in the school hallway and scared away his classmates, finding Owen cowering in a corner. He says, out of breath, “What are you doing? It’s me.” The scene cuts to black, the end credits roll, and that’s the end. But if you really think about it, it ends where the typical news story would start. The news story would start where the tragedy ends, but the film is a representation of what happened beforehand, which no one would want to talk about.

“The Dirties” may be one of the most important films of recent years, delivering a compelling portrait of disaffected youth and a descent into sociopathic behavior. It accurately portrays kids with real issues—being bullied, isolation, moving on, drifting apart, and even at some points, being bullies to each other and eventually to their own bullies. When the promising sociopath feels like a real person, instead of a standard, cold, distant, ruthless, cold-hearted killer, that makes it overall tragic; when a funny, artistic, even empathetic guy is also bullied and more, that can cause him to take drastic measures for vengeance.

“The Dirties” is not merely an unflinching portrayal; it’s also a cautionary tale. The back half of the film is laced with misfortune (albeit with an underlying comic tone, brought on by Matt trying to keep things lighthearted). One scene features Matt telling Owen he thinks he might be a “psychopath”—is this a cry for help or more play-acting? Whatever it is, Owen doesn’t listen. Shortly after, Owen has moved on and become just another face in the halls and another member of society the film specifically criticizes—his mind is elsewhere and he doesn’t see Matt as a friend in distress. So, in a way, it’s Owen, Matt’s best and only friend, who actually drives Matt to do what he ends up doing in the end of the film. As Owen fears for his own life when he sees what Matt has become, Matt doesn’t understand what’s changed and why he can’t see him for what he is, hence the line, “What are you doing? It’s me.” It’s a truly sad moment. We know what’s really going on, but no one else does. Even Matt doesn’t see the trouble in what he’s done.

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It’s a challenging concept when the victim is the one with the gun, at least in this film. Many people who see the film arguably miss the point of it (or they’re too busy questioning the identity of the cameraman), but those who don’t can’t help but wonder: Who’s really to blame for occurrences like this? Are they portrayed the exact opposite way? Etc.

More people should seek out “The Dirties,” which is available on demand. It’s the kind of film that will force them to ask questions and find answers they’re uncomfortable about, and it also emphasizes the importance of reaching out and helping those who need assistance and companionship. If society chooses to ignore or mishear cries for help, even from their own friends, it can lead to damage to themselves and/or others. That’s the theory Johnson tried to portray in “The Dirties,” and it’s hard to argue that it’s far off.

My original review: https://smithsverdict.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/the-dirties-2013/