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My Favorite Movies – Stop Making Sense (1984)

13 May

By Tanner Smith

Here’s one that’s just 88 minutes of pure unadulterated music. And I LOVE IT!!!

It’s Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, and it’s just a showcase of the band performing 16 songs live as the cameras are right on stage with them. This is as intense a concert film as you could get as we the audience are not only marveling at the awesomeness of this ambitious band’s performance art, but we’re right there in the action too. There are no backstage interviews with the members of the band nor is there any footage of setting up for the concert–once David Byrne steps out with his guitar and rhythm recording to perform “Psycho Killer,” it’s off to nonstop music we go.

This is the film that made me a fan of the Talking Heads. I admired how much they put into their music–elements of punk and rock and pop and ska and r&b and overall just a wonderful mix with original talent.

I haven’t seen this film on a big screen–I would love for that opportunity to happen once in my lifetime.

My favorite scene (or music number, in this case): “Girlfriend is Better,” complete with the “big suit.” There are other songs I like better, but that’s just a funny-looking suit.

I don’t have much else to say about it. It’s just awesome!

My Favorite Movies – 20th Century Women (2016)

9 May

By Tanner Smith

I’m not sure I have a favorite type of movie, but small, observant, down-to-earth character pieces are right up there for me.

One of the best of the past decade is writer/director Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women–there’s no telling how many times I’ve streamed this film on Netflix by now.

And I don’t say this about every one of these movies, but I would like to see more movies that show these characters as they develop over time (something like Richard Linklater’s “Before” movies).

Set in Santa Barbara 1979, it’s about a single, middle-aged mother named Dorothea (Annette Bening) whose 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is discovering girls and music and other stuff in a confusing time for him.

And it’s not just a coming-of-age for the boy; it’s a coming-of-age for the mother too, because she herself gets tested along the way of her son’s journey through life. Dorothea believes in letting Jamie go off on his own and make his own mistakes, but there are times when that worries her, especially when Jamie nearly dies in a game with his friends. (I speak from experience–teenage boys do the dumbest things when they get bored.) Thus, she recruits her boarder, punk-loving Abbie (Greta Gerwig, always a delight), and Jamie’s neighbor girl-friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), to help him. Abbie introduces the kid to her favorite music and the punk scene, and Julie teaches him how to fit in with the other guys their age (and even that becomes kind of a wake-up call for her). All of this confuses Dorothea, who feels out of step with the times and wonders herself what this modern world does to someone who wants to become an adult–what does that mean nowadays, and so on.

All of these people connect and then grow apart, but it’s moments like these that a lot of us can never forget because they and the people within those moments helped shape who we are.

The characters, which also include a working-class handyman named William (played by Billy Crudup) who lives in Dorothea’s boarding house, are all very interesting and keep me coming back to this film again and again so I can be in their company and learn something more about them through each subsequent viewing.

That’s the kind of film I love–films that introduce me to such appealing characters and how they get around in the world they live in.

My favorite scene: Dorothea and William check out two different albums to see which side of the punk scene they would belong to. They can’t get into Black Flag, but they have a fun time grooving to the Talking Heads’ The Big Country. For a Talking Heads fan like me, this scene is pure satisfaction.

My Favorite Movies – Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

9 May

By Tanner Smith

Remember that “South Park” episode where everyone caught the “smug?” A cloud brought on by George Clooney’s Oscar acceptance speech that threatens to make everyone in South Park think they’re better than everyone else?

Well, I’ve never seen “Syriana,” the film for which he won the award and gave that “extremely smug” speech. But I have seen Clooney’s other 2005 film, Good Night and Good Luck, which he himself directed and co-wrote. And as highly left as it is, I very much doubt it could be seen as smug. (Well…except maybe for people like Rush Limbaugh, who probably saw the film as nothing more than blatant leftist propaganda during the film’s initial release.)

Here’s the thing though–I don’t think you have to be a liberal to know that Senator Joseph McCarthy was a corrupt thug. He was an a**hole, people were scared of him, and he used his power to assure that anyone who disagrees with his politics were shamed by their country. Even his defenders would probably say he went over the top.

“Good Night and Good Luck,” set in the mid 1950s, is a film that reminds us that McCarthyism was just as present in 2005 as it was in 1940s-1950s. (It’s still present in the 2020s.) And it’s also a film that reminds of how to handle bullies like that, as we too have certain power of the people–back then, it was TV; today, it’s social media, for example. How do you go up against someone who uses blunt verbal force and trigger words to scare people? You use calm rationality AND (this is most important) carefully chosen words.

“Good Night and Good Luck” is a dramatized account of the public struggle between McCarthy and CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow (played brilliantly by David Strathairn). Murrow dedicated episodes of his popular TV news program “See It Now” to attack McCarthy’s persecution of men he views as un-American. Now, this was at a time when the media was afraid to go against McCarthy, in fear of themselves being targeted and labeled as “Communists” as well. Murrow was warned that McCarthy won’t stand for this public attack. But as Murrow carried on with his crusade, he managed to discredit McCarthy’s most damning allegations, resulting in the Senate investigating McCarthy and McCarthy’s reign of terror come to an end. (MIC DROP!)

The scene in which Murrow responds to McCarthy’s counter-attack is my favorite scene in the film. McCarthy was given permission to put himself on the show to correct any errors Murrow made in previous episodes–instead, he accuses Murrow of being a Communist (and even calls him “the leader and the cleverest of the jackal pack”) and cites some supposed evidence to support this claim. Well, how’s Murrow gonna get through this one?……….

Well first, he brings up that McCarthy never mentioned any errors made from previous shows. Then, he looks at McCarthy’s accusations against him one by one. He claims one to be false and the other to be true–but there’s more to the latter. Apparently, a late Socialist author dedicated a book to Murrow after being moved by his wartime broadcasts long ago, and Murrow states, “He was a Socialist. I am not. He was one of those civilized individuals who did not insist upon agreement with his political principles as a precondition for conversation or friendship.”

I’m gonna type that again because it bears repeating even in this day and age:

“He was one of those civilized individuals who did not insist upon agreement with his political principles as a precondition for conversation or friendship.”

Like I said: carefully chosen words.

The dialogue in “Good Night and Good Luck” is pitch-perfect. It’s all calculated, calm, and forward (except when Murrow’s crew gets together to chat–then it’s as natural and sloppy as real conversations). And when you’re fighting a battle this controversial, that’s especially important.

Oh by the way, all of McCarthy’s footage in this film is genuine real archive footage of the man himself. No actor played Joseph McCarthy. This is literally the way he talked and the way he behaved. And here’s a funny story–test audiences didn’t believe it was really him; they thought the “actor” playing McCarthy was too over the top! That’s just too funny.

How far do you go in journalism and when do you go beyond just reporting the news? That question is asked throughout “Good Night and Good Luck,” and I think its lesson is to know what you’re against so you can know what you’re for and to use your means of expression for something more meaningful rather than, as Edward R. Murrow put it about TV, “wires and lights in a box.” And that about sums it up.

Now, please…don’t be smug.

My Favorite Movies – Cedar Rapids (2011)

8 May

By Tanner Smith

It was around the third viewing I started to recognize this one as a “favorite.” A few days ago, I was watching some ’70s films like “Rocky,” “Harold and Maude,” and “Being There.” Then I randomly decided to watch “Cedar Rapids,” and I couldn’t help but notice…it feels like a Hal Ashby film from the ’70s! The way the characters talk and relate to each other, the low-key approach to the filmmaking, the delicate balance of outrageous comedy and gentle drama… Actually, now that I think of it, even John C. Reilly’s party-animal character reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s Bad Ass character in “The Last Detail!” (Except, Reilly in this film says a lot of things that Nicholson wouldn’t have been allowed to say in the ’70s.)

Anyway, I decided to make a post about it after watching it again this morning. So here we are.

Ed Helms stars in the film, and as tired as I am of the typical Helms character (I mean, I liked him fine in “The Hangover,” but his Andy Bernard is one of my least favorite characters in “The Office”), he shines here as the naive, idealistic, socially awkward insurance salesman named Tim Lippe, who is put in a fish-out-of-water scenario, leaving his home to spend a weekend in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where everything is strange to him. He doesn’t understand why the hotel front desk needs his credit card if he’s paying with traveler’s checks, he doesn’t pick up on certain social cues (such as a pickup from a prostitute, to whom he gives a butterscotch candy), and he’s horrified to find he’s sharing a room with a black man, a fellow salesman named Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). (When he’s on the phone with his lover back home, played by Sigourney Weaver, who tries her best to make it clear that she doesn’t want a romantic commitment, he exclaims, “There’s an Afro-American man in my room!”)

Tim Lippe’s sincere naïveté reminded me of Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardiner in “Being There.”

Anyway, Tim is in Cedar Rapids to represent his insurance company at a regional conference. He’s actually a replacement for the company’s best salesman who died in an act of autoerotic asphyxiation. (Though no one at the company wants to talk about HOW he died, especially not Tim, who saw the man as a moral Christian.)

Tim is given one instruction from his uptight, moralistic boss Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root): stay away from Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a foulmouthed cynical salesman. But it turns out Dean is sharing the hotel room with Tim and Ronald, so it’s hard to avoid his loud mouth and ability to get people to party with him.

As you would expect, a lot happens with Tim in this wild, eventful weekend. He participates in conference activities such as a scavenger hunt, he makes friends with Dean, Ronald, and flirty Joan (Anne Heche), he has a drugged-out experience at a rowdy house party, he learns harsh truths about people he thought he could count on, and he even goes as far as to abandon his own principles (not a good thing in this particular case). But the film is not funny because it’s laughing at this innocent character throughout–it’s funny because it’s sincere. It likes Tim Lippe. It’s not funny when he’s being humiliated; it’s funny when his pure good-guy persona causes him to be confused by certain things in this strange land called Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And that’s what gives the film its heart as well.

The heart also lies in the film’s biggest strength, which is its character interaction. I’ve seen so many buddy comedies where the friendship is forced to further the plot forward–but here, the friendships Tim forms with Joan, Dean, and Ronald feel REAL. They’re given time to naturally develop. (And in an 86-minute film, that should truly say something.)

The director of “Cedar Rapids” was Miquel Arteta, who is best known for his films that have as much to with heart as they do comedy. Not all of his films work for me though, like the forgotten “Youth in Revolt” and the overrated “Beatriz at Dinner,” but I really like his trademark style. And I also like “The Good Girl,” which I thought was his best film until I saw this one. (He also directed the critically-praised “Chuck & Buck,” which I have not seen yet.) The writer was Phil Johnston, and his screenplay was nominated for the Indie Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.

You know, the name Phil Johnston doesn’t sound familiar to me. Let me see what he’s written since “Cedar Rapids”….. Whoa. “Zootopia” and the “Wreck-It Ralph” movies?? The guy gets around! Kudos, Phil!

If you haven’t seen “Cedar Rapids,” I highly recommend it. It’s a pitch-perfect indie comedy that deserves more attention. Also, stay during the end-credits–it’s one of the biggest laughs of the movie!

My Favorite Movies – Scream (1996)

8 May

By Tanner Smith

“Scream” became popular for still being a solid slasher-horror film while satirizing slasher-horror films. When a serial killer is on the loose, a bunch of savvy high-school kids recognize the scenario as something from a slasher movie. The rules for survival are put in place:

1) Don’t have sex.
2) Don’t drink or do drugs. (An extension of #1, in that committing any sin gets you killed.)
3) Never EVER say “I’ll be right back,” because chances are…you won’t be right back.

Other rules scattered in the film are not to say “Who’s there?” or investigate a strange noise outside your safe zone. And also, as movie-geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy) exclaims, “EVERYBODY’S A SUSPECT!!!”

This was from a 1990s point-of-view. With the solid horror movies of today, we have a new important rule: just do what you can do and hope for the best. That way, things are less predictable in knowing who lives and who dies.
It’s a lot scarier when there are no rules (which is something that Scream 4 (or “Scre4m”) proclaimed in 2011).

I love “Scream.” It has a neat mystery, a unique blend of horror and comedy while still keeping a consistent tone, and likable characters (which is more than I can say for a lot of other ’90s horror films).

But this one part always bugged me–for all the beatings the killer takes, wouldn’t it have been interesting if one of the suspects ended up with a black eye or a broken nose or something? That would’ve added to the mystery element!

I also really like “Scream 2,” which I think is underrated. The commentary about that thin line between horror and reality (which was hinted at in “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”) is more compelling in this one, particularly in the prologue that shows a horror-movie audience applauding a murder, not realizing right away that there’s a murder happening right in front of them and it’s not fun anymore. And the twist involving the identity of one of the killers, I thought was very well-done and I didn’t see it coming. (Though, that scene in which the boyfriend serenades Sidney in the cafeteria…yeah I always skip through that part.)

“Scream 3″…sucks. I can’t beat around the bush when it comes to this one–it’s just not as memorable because it’s just not as fun or energetic as the other two films.

I like “Scre4m” a lot more now than I did when I first saw it. It’s got a lot of good stuff in it.

The late Wes Craven made good horror films because he focused on making good films first and good scares second.

My favorite scene: a drunken Randy watches Halloween alone and shouts advice at the TV (“LOOK BEHIND YOU!”), totally unaware that the killer is creeping behind him. That’s the best piece of satire in the whole film.

And always remember not to blame the movies for violence in real-life, because “MOVIES DON’T CREATE PSYCHOS–MOVIES MAKE PSYCHOS MORE CREATIVE!!!”

My Favorite Movies – Munich (2005)

7 May

By Tanner Smith

No matter how many times I watch this movie, I ALWAYS tense up every time it gets to the part with the bomb, the phone, the wrong person answering the phone, and the desperate race to stop the bomb from detonating! Everything about this scene is masterfully done–the editing, the sound design, the directing, everything about it raises the suspense of this already-tense scene to “Good God get me out of here” levels!

Director Steven Spielberg made “Munich” soon after “War of the Worlds” in 2005. (Actually, it might have been made right after “WotW’s” release–the time it took to plan, shoot, edit, and release Munich was SIX MONTHS!) “Munich” was Spielberg’s attempt to understand the war on terror by using a parallel story from the 1970s–in this case, it’s the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, where a Palestinian terrorist group attacked and killed Israeli athletes. A team of covert, ex-Mossad operatives are assigned to assassinate all involved in the massacre.

Even though James Bond himself (Daniel Craig) plays one of the assassins, this is as far from a Bond movie as you could get. (Actually, as cold as Craig’s James Bond could get, his hotheaded character here is more bloodthirsty!)

Eric Bana stars as Avner Kaufman, the leader of the team. For Avner, patriotism is most important, which is why he decides to leave his pregnant wife for seven months to partake in this mission that takes him and his team across the globe. But as the mission goes on, things get more complicated, especially when his conscience starts to get the better of him. By the end, Avner isn’t so sure what has been accomplished here.

While the fictional setting is the 1970s, it matched the world of the 2000s. When “Munich” ends with a striking image (of what, I’ll leave you to discover if you haven’t seen it already), it all becomes clear what Spielberg has been saying with this film from the start.

Of Spielberg’s most serious endeavors, “Munich” may not be the best (that still goes to “Schindler’s List,” in my opinion), but it’s definitely one of his most accomplished. One of the things that drew controversy amongst this film’s release was Spielberg’s decision to attempt to understand both sides of the war against terrorism without easy answers. But that’s the point he’s making here: there are no easy answers when it comes to questions like when vengeance becomes disadvantageous, when a patriot with the best intentions at heart loses a good part of himself, and whether a war on terrorism can truly be won. So many of these questions, people don’t even want questioned.

But that is why “Munich” is as powerful as it is.

And that’s all I’ll say about it…but I will share this quote from “Knocked Up,” when Seth Rogen and his friends talk about how awesome “Munich” is: “That movie was Eric Bana kicking f***ing ass! You know, every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed–‘Munich’ flips it on its ear! If any of us get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana in ‘Munich’.” I bet Seth Rogen was starstruck when he co-starred with Eric Bana two years later for “Funny People” (which was also shot by Spielberg’s frequent cinematographer Janusz Kaminski)!

My Favorite Movies – Pineapple Express (2008)

7 May

By Tanner Smith

As much as I love the balance of raunchy comedy and heartfelt drama in Judd Apatow productions like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” The Big Sick, and even Superbad (hey it’s got a heart too)…I freaking love the outlandish nature of “Pineapple Express,” a movie that is a great chunk of comedic dialogue/improvisation, outrageous action set pieces that show they were using their budget like it was no problem, and a weird anti-drug message even though I highly doubt many of the people involved took it to heart long since this movie’s release!

I guess you could say there’s some heartfelt drama in the scenes in which the main characters’ friendship develops, but…I never took it that seriously!

Thing is, I always saw “Pineapple Express” as a hella FUNNY movie! Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s typical mix of sharp wit and blunt outrageousness is elevated to action-comedy levels, all of the actors are having a ton of fun with their roles, and…what is my favorite scene in this? I don’t know!!

Is it the scene in which a panicked (and stoned) Dale (Rogen) tries to explain to his dealer Saul (James Franco) about the murder he just witnessed? Hilarious! Is it the long fight sequence between Dale, Saul, and the hilariously unreliable Red (Danny McBride)? Hilarious! Is it the chase scene where Saul has to kick through the red-slushee-drenched windshield in order to see where he’s going? HILARIOUS!

How about the whole final act in which Dale and Saul have to fight their way out of the villains’ lair, which is already invaded by Asian mobsters? (They never specify which “Asians,” so…racist? I dunno.) Even many of the violent deaths are so random and gratuitous, I just can’t help but laugh!

And in between all these hilarious sequences are some nicely handled down-to-earth moments where characters are just sitting around and talking. The director was David Gordon Green, who’s best known for low-key slices of life (and “Halloween 2018”), so seeing this director’s style brought to a Rogen/Goldberg script produced by Judd Apatow is actually pretty awesome. There’s a scene early into the proceedings as Dale and Saul just hang out and shoot the breeze, and it actually feels like a real conversation as opposed to many mainstream comedies were they’re improvising just because they desperately want to be funny.

I mentioned the actors having a ball with their respective roles, and there are A LOT of them here! Seth Rogen is great at being…well, still Seth Rogen, but still the likable type of Seth Rogen. James Franco is hilarious as an intentional extension of Brad Pitt’s drug dealer in “True Romance.” But there’s also Danny McBride as the hilariously unreliable dealer who constantly goes back and forth between helping our heroes and betraying them; Gary Cole and Rosie Perez as the sinister drug lord and corrupt cop who are out to kill these guys; Kevin Corrigan (from True Romance–coincidence?) and Craig Robinson who deserve their own buddy comedy as the two hitmen sent out to dispose of Dale and Saul; James Remar and Bill Hader as a general and a private in a hilarious (I keep using that word) prologue set in the 1930s; Ed Begley Jr. and Nora Dunn as the parents of…Dale’s high-school girlfriend played by Amber Heard……

OK…even though the film makes it very clear Angie (Heard) is 18, it’s still kind of icky that this 20something-year-old process server is making out with his girlfriend by her locker.

Screw it, I love this crazy movie. I loved it as a teen and I love it as an adult.

My Favorite Movies – Jaws (1975)

6 May

By Tanner Smith

Here’s the film that helped create the “summer blockbuster,” made Steven Spielberg famous, and gave us three or four of the scariest movie moments we’ve ever seen!

The production problems of “Jaws” are well-known (half the crew even dubbed the film “Flaws”), particularly with all the troubles that can be imagined when filming out at sea. And Spielberg was a young talent with a couple feature films under his belt, and he had huge ambitions in making “Jaws.” But there were many ways the film could’ve gone wrong. Thankfully though, Spielberg used what he had to his advantage and created a film that impressed just about everyone nationwide.

One of the problems he faced was working the animatronics of the shark, which posed the question, “How can you make a scary shark movie without a well-functioning shark?” Spielberg found a way to fix that problem as well: by not showing the shark most of the time but making the audience feel its presence. You see the shark’s POV underwater, you see blood in the water, you see HUMAN LIMBS in the water, the characters attach barrels to the shark so they know it’s still there, and up until the ending, you only catch glimpses of the monstrosity. But most importantly…John Williams’ chilling score. With just two simple notes and an accompanying theme, we were able to be scared of the shark without actually seeing it.

“Jaws” is the perfect example of the phrase “less is more.”

We do see the shark up close when it destroys the ship and attacks the men onboard, and you can see why it wasn’t used more before: it looks fake. We’d be laughing at the film if we got to see more of this thing and if the film wasn’t so well-made leading up to this point.

I love watching this film with a crowd (I did twice–once at the Cinemark in Conway; the other with my cinema-history class at UCA)–when the head pops out of the boat underwater, there’s always at least three or four people SCREAMING. (That’s a great jump-scare, by the way–most jump-scares are false scares following a loud noise, but that ain’t no false scare!)

The main characters are also great. Brody (Roy Scheider) is a great everyman, trying to save his community by stepping outside his element to help catch a shark; Quint (Robert Shaw) is a wonderful Captain-Ahab-type who just wants to capture this damn beast of the sea; and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is wonderful comic relief while also knowing everything to know about marine biology. (My favorite Hooper moment is when he sarcastically laughs at some amateur fishermen who are out to hunt the shark and then mutters, “They’re all gonna die.”)

My favorite scene: the infamous moment in which we get our first look at the shark, as Brody finds himself staring it in the face for a brief moment before backing up slowly and informing Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” That’s another thing I love about this movie: Spielberg’s ability to insert much-needed humor to a terrifying situation.

Quick sum-up of my thoughts on the sequels: “Jaws 2” is an okay movie, even though the only reason it exists is for box-office reasons. “Jaws 3-D” is hilariously bad. And “Jaws: The Revenge” is EMBARRASSINGLY hilariously bad (though it makes for one of my favorite Siskel & Ebert reviews, slamming it). I hope Michael Caine got paid well for that last one.

My Favorite Movies – Baghead (2008)

5 May

By Tanner Smith

I didn’t want to call Baghead one of “my favorite movies” because it’s just so…simple?

But the whole “mumblecore” thing has definitely been a big influence on me as an indie filmmaker, so if I had to pick one, I guess I’ll have to pick “Baghead,” my favorite of the directorial efforts of Jay & Mark, the Duplass Brothers.

For those who wonder what I’m talking about, here’s a definition of “mumblecore”–a subgenre of independent film characterized by naturalistic acting and dialogue (sometimes improvised), low-budget film production, an emphasis on dialogue over plot, and a focus on the personal relationships of people in their 20s and 30s. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

“Baghead” is a strange, wonderful little film is centered around four actors who are down on their luck–one of whom is played by Steve Zissis, who went on to star in the Duplasses’ HBO series “Togetherness”; another is played by the one and only Greta Gerwig, who back then was labeled the “mumblecore queen.” They decide to take a trip to an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods so they can all work on a script idea for them to star in together. One of them has a nightmare about a stalker with a paper bag over his head, which sparks a new idea for a film: a horror movie about a “baghead” stalker-killer. But WOULDN’T YOU KNOW IT–there seems to be an actual baghead lurking outside the cabin!!

I know–what are the odds, right?!

This isn’t really a horror film, necessarily. It’s mostly a romantic comedy about Chad (Zissis) hoping to score with the lovely Michelle (Gerwig), who has a crush on Matt (Ross Partridge), who used to date Catherine (Elise Muller)…and then occasionally, Baghead shows up. It’s only near the end of the movie where the suspense truly elevates, and its payoff would be disappointing only if you’re going into this film thinking it’s a standard slasher flick. And I admire Jay & Mark Duplass for handling things unconventionally.

And how the movie was made was basically this: Jay, Mark, their actors, and a very small crew, went up to a cabin in Austin, Texas, in August 2007, and decided to just make a movie. They got the film completed just in time for Sundance 2008 and they ended up selling it for a whole more than it took to actually make it.

Jay & Mark’s first film was a similarly made-on-the-spot production “The Puffy Chair.” I admire that film more than I “like” it, though to be fair, I think it’s because I saw “Baghead” first. They followed up Baghead with their first studio production: Cyrus, starring popular actors like John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, but still made with the feel of a “Duplass Brothers production.”

The story of the Duplass Brothers, as chronicled in their wonderful autobiography “Like Brothers,” inspires me even today. They teach me that it doesn’t matter what I have to make art–it’s what I do with what I have that truly matters.

My favorite scene in “Baghead”: there’s actually a fairly creepy scene in which Michelle is waiting for Matt to enter her bedroom; Baghead appears and Michelle thinks it’s Matt playing a joke, so she takes her top off…but IS it Matt? She isn’t so sure anymore, and Baghead keeps watching until he suddenly walks away… Uncomfortable.

How did I first find out about this movie? Well, in June 2008, there was an episode of Ebert & Roeper in which Richard Roeper and guest critic Michael Phillips talked about it. They both admired it for its strangeness–Phillips in particular admitted he probably liked it so much because he saw many other films at Sundance that year that were even more pretentious than this one.

I may be dealing with a copyright issue here, but…here’s a transcript of that initial review, aired in mid-June 2008:

MICHAEL PHILLIPS: “I can’t think of a single reason why BAGHEAD should work at all…but it does. This new microbudget film by the Duplass brothers gives us four LA friends who want to jumpstart their fledgling film careers. So they head to Big Bear, east of LA, with the idea of writing a screenplay in the woods. For a while, the characters spend time scaring each other for fun, drinking too much, and then SOMEONE appears outside the cabin with a bag on his or her head. No one knows who it is, and at this point, a nicely observed deadpan comedy gets more and more interesting.”

(shows clip from trailer–“Somebody saw me naked!”)

PHILLIPS: “I don’t want to inflate Baghead or anything, but for me, the Duplass brothers show us, with Baghead, how the so-called ‘mumblecore’ genre should be done–with a sense of humor to go with a sense of everyday realities. In very limited release this weekend, it opens wider over the July 4th weekend…and I say ‘see it!'”

RICHARD ROEPER: “I’m with you, Michael–I liked this film quite a bit! I think this guy should’ve walked into that movie ‘The Strangers’ where they had the guy with the sackcloth over his head! (chuckles) This one’s a lot more entertaining–it’s very funny, it’s smart, and it can be really scary, and…it really has some nice performances as well, so, you know, people should look for this one.”

PHILLIPS: “I saw it the first time at the Sundance Film Festival, and I didn’t know if I was laughing then because I had just seen 10 movies that were so much lamer and more pretentious than this. But you know, second time through, it works well as its own kind of comedy.”

ROEPER: “Absolutely.”

Side-note: I miss this show. Roeper and Phillips had a good rhythm in reviewing new movies together.

My Favorite Movies – Halloween (1978)

4 May

By Tanner Smith

It’s the scary movie that made the late film critic Gene Siskel too nervous to walk home after an initial preview screening!

It’s the little indie horror film that could…and did…and set up a long string of disappointments (except for “Halloween (2018)”–that was a pretty good one).

John Carpenter’s “Halloween.” Man, even today, that opening-credit sequence and its subsequent murder scene gives me chills–THIS is how you begin a scary movie!

When I first saw it (at age 13, on the AMC channel), even when I had already seen countless slasher films at that time, I knew there was something special about it. I think it taught me that there could be far more to a horror film than just cheap scares, because “Halloween” had a great deal of heavy atmosphere and provoked more thought in my head than something like “Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Scream” or the “Friday the 13th” movies or any of the ’90s-horror films I was renting at that time. (“Psycho” taught me the same thing; I saw that around the same time I saw “Halloween” for the first time.)

I didn’t even notice at first that there’s very little graphic violence and almost NO blood (except in the opening murder scene). This movie scared little, dumb 13-year-old Tanner with…great filmmaking! Imagine that!! “Halloween” doesn’t specialize in blood or gore; it just relies on suspense, of which it has a great deal.And I’m not gonna lie–the first time I saw the moment in which the killer pops back up near the end, while first watching the movie late at night at age 13, I shouted “OH SH*T!” out of sheer fear. (I can’t be sure, but I think I woke up my parents with that remark.)

But…the film isn’t perfect. I know it’s not. I can tell it wasn’t filmed in the fall season or in Illinois, for that matter–note the palm trees in the background. (“Halloween 2018” contains a better feel for the Halloween season, thanks to the bigger budget.) Some of the acting isn’t very good, and some of the dialogue is even worse. And no matter how many times I watch the film, I still question why Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) just throws the knife away when she could’ve kept it for safety’s sake.

But when I think about “Halloween,” I don’t think about little things like that. Instead, I remember the fantastic cinematography (by Dean Cundey, who went on to shoot blockbusters like “Back to the Future” and “Jurassic Park”), the iconic music score (by Carpenter himself), the brilliantly disturbing one-shot prologue, the silent looming killer, the likable characters I don’t want to see get killed, the metaphors of fate and evil which are scattered all over the film, Dr. Loomis (played terrifically by Donald Pleasance), and the haunting ending that signifies that evil will never die. This film is also credited for that horror-film trope that states that the “final girl” must be a virgin in order to survive–John Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill argued against that, saying that the horny teens die because they’re so preoccupied with the prospects of getting laid that they don’t realize there’s a killer at large, while Laurie has other things on her mind and is more observant. When she finally realizes the danger she’s in, she has chances of survival. She does survive, though she may be mentally scarred for life…

That leads to “Halloween 2018” (or “Halloween: The Return of Good Filmmaking”), which was a solid sequel 40 years later, tackling how this incident affected Laurie all this time. And I’ll be curious to see what the upcoming “Halloween Kills” and “Halloween Ends” bring us in the future.

My favorite scene: the closet scene. Laurie is hiding from Michael and locking herself in a closet, but Michael knows she’s in there and tries busting his way in. The tense music is great, the filmmaking is spectacular, and you have to wonder what you would do if you were in Laurie’s shoes as she’s trying to use whatever she has around her to fight back.

So, if you feel like you’re in a scary movie, just remember these important rules of survival:

1) You can never have sex.

2) You can never drink or do drugs. (An extension of 1.)

3. Never, ever, under any circumstances, say, “Linda, you a**hole!” (…Or was it something else?)