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My Favorite Movies – The Haunting (1963)

31 Oct

By Tanner Smith

It’s Halloween, so I thought I’d talk about my all-time personal-favorite scary movie, the movie that gives me chills each time I see it, the movie I make it a tradition to watch every Halloween night (“in the night…in the dark…”): The Haunting.

“The Haunting” is one of my absolute favorite movies–definitely in my top 20 as of now. And it’s the film that gives me the absolute chills no matter how many times I see it.

Based on the Shirley Jackson novel (“The Haunting of Hill House”) that also inspired the popular Netflix series, “The Haunting” is a 1963 psychologically gripping gothic story set in a haunted house in which you don’t know how much of the haunting is real and how much is in the unstable mind of Eleanor (Julie Harris), a mentally tortured woman who is utterly insecure and just wants to belong somewhere. She’s part of a small group of people, including Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), clairvoyant Theodora (Claire Bloom), and cynic Luke (Russ Tamblyn), who are investigating the goings-on of a supposedly haunted mansion known as Hill House. Surely enough, things do go bump in the night, with many loud noises keeping everyone awake, things appearing where they shouldn’t be, and some kind of presence that continues calling to Eleanor and lures her further into the house’s trap…

A lot of people found “The Haunting of Hill House” to be scary. Even if they don’t find “The Haunting” particularly scary, it’s still a brilliant character study and a great psychological dive into madness.

You don’t see the ghosts. You don’t see the monster. You don’t know what’s bending the door inward, trying to get in. You don’t know what’s causing the misery. You don’t know what truly haunts Hill House. You just know that it’s something. And honestly, what I come up with in my head is more frightening than anything I could’ve seen…or anything the terrible 1999 remake (also called “The Haunting”) could’ve imagined with its CGI monstrosities.

The scenes that scare me the most in “The Haunting” are the scenes involving Eleanor alone in parts of the house, as things get worse and worse for her. You just know that what she’s going through is going to end up claiming her life if she isn’t careful. And as it’s been established many times in the film, she isn’t careful–she’s meek, fragile, and sensitive, and she does a lot of things without thinking. She just wants to belong somewhere, and the thing that haunts Hill House continues to bring her further into something that could claim her life. Striking cinematography and eerie music helps make these scenes utterly unnerving, but it’s Julie Harris’ performance that makes it all work.

And then there’s the ending–good Lord, the ending is the real winner here! The haunting is real, it stays within everyone involved, and it will never ever go away… That’s not directly said in the movie, but I get the idea fairly easily when it reaches its creepy close, with a final piece of voiceover narration…coming from a source that shouldn’t have had to deliver it! (Seriously, it’s one of the scariest moments I ever experienced in my years of watching movies!!)

Films like “The Others,” “The Blair Witch Project,” and ‘Paranormal Activity” owe a lot to the psychological turmoil of “The Haunting.” (And of course, the series “The Haunting of Hill House” owes a lot too.) It was a game-changing horrific experience in the 1960s, and it’s still among the best horror films now. And it’s my personal favorite…and I’m going to watch it again on Halloween night.

My Favorite Movies – Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

7 Oct

By Tanner Smith

Napoleon Dynamite is very much an indie filmmaker’s dream. Talk about the little indie film that could! Here was a little movie made in a Mormon community by people who just wanted to make a nice, down-to-earth, funny movie…who I doubt would have even suspected that it would become the pop-culture phenomenon that it was!!

No joke–this movie was EVERYWHERE for a while! Everybody was quoting it, they were telling all their friends about it, and there was a TON of merchandise sold that was based on it–“Vote For Pedro” t-shirts, Napoleon’s PE t-shirt, flipbooks of Napoleon’s finale dance, quote books, and even the shooting script was available in bookstores!

How did this happen?? When I was 12 years old at the time of the movie’s release, I only heard about it because everyone in school was talking about it, and so I jumped on the bandwagon. But what did THEY get out of it? What about “Napoleon Dynamite” spoke to them in such a way?

My guess is because it’s like nothing they ever saw before. It’s a story about a high-schooler, which we’ve seen many times before, but this one was so different (and so funny) in the way this particular high-schooler and his friends and family were portrayed. We can laugh at them, quote them, even sort of identify with them in ways we don’t want to admit.

Napoleon (played memorably by Jon Heder) is not very likable. He’s a sadsack high-school student who would make a nerd look cool. (I think that’s how the late Roger Ebert described him.) He can’t even get in with the nerd crowd because he can be pretty obnoxious when he’s not unbelievably awkward. He’s not one of those “movie outcasts” that everyone picks on because he’s different–he’s an outcast because he deserves to be! There’s something very sad and yet so very funny about that idea alone. And that’s why I love this movie. As much as I love a good coming-of-age teen comedy/drama, there’s something very refreshing about this sort of anti-coming-of-age teen comedy/drama, in that it takes most conventions we’re familiar with and tones them way down to the point where we get laughs from the mere lack of cliche.

There’s also a bunch of colorful supporting characters, such as Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) who constantly dreams of living in the past (I love how he keeps checking his biceps when he has his arms crossed), Napoleon’s brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) who at least has a better chance at finding love than Napoleon does, Napoleon’s buddy Pedro (Efren Ramirez) who is just as emotionless as Napoleon, and the ultra-shy Deb (Tina Majorino) who at least isn’t afraid to talk with her mouth full. Oh and there’s also the very quotable, macho Rex (Diedrich Bader), who has a couple scenes as a would-be martial-arts instructor…I don’t know WHY he’s in this movie, but I’m glad he is.

There’s hardly a story in “Napoleon Dynamite”–it just rides on the characters themselves, which helps make scenes memorable. Who doesn’t remember what a liger is because of this movie? Who doesn’t remember Napoleon complimenting Deb’s poofy sleeves on her dress at a school dance? Who doesn’t remember Deb’s method of taking glamour shots? Who doesn’t remember how Napoleon wins Pedro the election for class president? And so on. It’s mainly an episodic slice-of-life where we spend an hour-and-a-half spending time with odd, quirky characters. And that’s why I think a whole lot of people latched onto it back then.

My favorite scene: the dance scene! We’ve spent pretty much the entire movie watching this sadsack loser with no energy, and now here we are seeing him present a TON of energy! It’s a wonderful payoff.

“Napoleon Dynamite” doesn’t force us to hate these characters, because it doesn’t necessarily mock or even hate them. It shows its heart near the end and we can appreciate any hint of redemption these people might have in their lives. The film isn’t about that, mind you, but it does show a bit of hope seeping underneath the surface.

My Favorite Movies – Surfacing (Short Film) (2009)

18 Aug

By Tanner Smith

Surfacing is a 30-minute short film I love to play repeatedly on my laptop because it helps inspire and motivate me whenever I’m in a writing or thinking mood. I don’t know if it’s a film that writer-director Bruce Hutchinson, lead actress Kristy Hutchinson, cinematographer Chris Churchill, and/or anyone from the supporting cast want to forget about since it was made so long ago–but to them, I say this with all sincerity:

You made a damn good film and I love it wholeheartedly.

“Surfacing” is a film about a college swimmer, Hannah Gill (played wonderfully by Kristy Hutchinson), who has temporal lobe epilepsy and also Geschwind Syndrome (a phenomenon that involves characteristic behavioral changes following a seizure). But her seizures are getting worse and could end her life unless she gets an operation that could help. Does she want to be rid of the thing that gives her the most joy in life? (A better question would be, can she still feel that joy without it?)

It’s a character-based slice-of-life drama that uses this conflict to get us in the heads of Hannah, her sister (F.E. Mosby), her swim coach (Pammi Fabert), and her friends as they figure out how to handle the situation. Those moments wouldn’t matter as much without the quieter, softer moments which show the characters just hanging out together–watching the sunset, studying in the library, etc. There’s also a lovely tender moment in which Hannah’s sister is there for her during another seizure, and it’s played beautifully.

I love the cinematography from Chris Churchill–its raw, documentary-like style adds to both the realism and the charm of the film. I also love the use of the film’s soundtrack–it feels like it’s constantly playing in Hannah’s head. (To further illustrate the point, she listens to a song on her iPod and then that same song plays during her swim meet.)

There are many layers to Kristy Hutchinson’s performance as Hannah–as someone going through such a complicated illness with seizures that cause her a feeling of grace, Hannah feels intense energy and joy post-seizure, guilt when the moment passes, confusion when she’s unsure whether or not to cure herself because of those moments, disappointment, sadness, and then acceptance. When she gives a poetic speech about embracing the beauty in the world, I’m not thinking, “What a manic pixie dream girl”–I’m instead understanding why someone going through this would say these things. It’s wonderful work.

I also love that Hannah can be a little too much to handle sometimes–for instance, in any other film featuring a disease-stricken character, that person would be complaining about feeling fatigued when someone is pressuring her to go out and party, whereas in this film, SHE’S the one pressuring her friends to go out and party even though THEY’RE tired.

It’s funny–I used to think Hannah’s friends and sister were boring and now I see where they’re coming from when it comes to being friends with Hannah. And I still like Hannah for the same reasons they do.

Check out “Surfacing” here.

A Cry in the Wild (1990)

27 Jul

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“A Cry in the Wild” is a Corman-produced low-budget film adaptation of the popular novel “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen… Is it one of my favorites?

Well, it might be. There are some things that could have been improved, a few little details I could have done without, and I’m not entirely sure its emotional impact weighed down on me as much as it should have. But when I think of what it did right, especially in keeping with the spirit of the book “Hatchet” (which I read in middle school), “A Cry in the Wild” is an overall involving, moving, and thrilling adventure.

This film was made around the time low-budget pioneer Roger Corman, best known as a trailblazer for independent film, wanted to branch out and start making films that were more aimed at children. (What followed were many straight-to-video family films that I rented as a kid–needless to say, they don’t hold a candle to “A Cry in the Wild,” no matter how crazy and “guilty-pleasure-y” some of them might be.) So, he brought on Corman graduate Mark Griffiths to direct it and the original novel’s author Gary Paulsen himself to write the screenplay. (One major change from book to film: it’s a bear that antagonizes the lead character instead of a moose, simply because, according to Paulsen, moose are too dumb to train for a movie. Way to think smart in adapting your own source material.)

Our lead character is a teenage boy named Brian (Jared Rushton). A child of divorce, Brian is on his way to his father in Canada via a single-engine plane (flown by a pilot played by the ever-reliable Ned Beatty). But when the pilot has a heart attack and dies, Brian crash-lands the plane into a lake in the forest. Now stranded in the Canadian Wilderness (and bear country) with nothing but a small hatchet (which his mother had brought him as a gift before he left), Brian must learn to survive using his wits and everything around him that could possibly help in some way. He builds shelter, finds food, makes fire, and deals with threats such as a porcupine, a bear, and even a tornado. (There’s also a white wolf that seems ambiguous as to whether it’s a friend or foe–for some reason, this film has sequels known as “the White Wolves collection,” neither of which has anything to do with Gary Paulsen’s sequel novels to “Hatchet.” Not for me.)

All the while, Brian deals with flashbacks involving his parents’ divorce. The “Secret” that haunts Brian works well enough in the book, but in the film, it doesn’t feel entirely necessary–mostly because the payoff isn’t strong enough to warrant the drama, in my opinion.

The dramatic emotional weight is more felt when Brian struggles to survive in a world he didn’t make. A lot of the film is told in silence as Brian learns how to hunt, how to fish, how to build, and ultimately how to survive, using his one hatchet. (When he nearly loses the hatchet late in the film is a moment where I genuinely gasped.) It doesn’t always work, such as the few moments when Brian speaks his thoughts (mainly for the audience)–and as good as he was in other movies like “Big” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” Jared Rushton isn’t always able to carry our attention for very long. However, because he is a kid, it’s not impossible to feel something for him when he’s figuring things out for himself within those quiet moments (and there are more of them than of the latter). Thus, it’s easy to feel happiness when he’s finally able to avoid extremely irritating mosquitoes after building his first campfire. Rushton can even provide funny moments when the time is right, such as when he refers to a thieving raccoon as a “monkey man.” (“Better keep away from my berries, pal.”)

It is easy to feel more intimidated by a bear than a moose on-screen, but there is one moment where Brian and the bear wrestle in the lake–I think Brian gets away too easily. It kind of takes away some tension when the bear attacks Brian’s shelter later in the film.

Eh, nitpicks. What do I love about the film, apart from the quiet moments of survival? I mean, this isn’t “Cast Away,” obviously–but I’m always a sucker for movies about people figuring difficult things out all alone.

…Actually, come to think of it, that might be it. Maybe I just enjoy “A Cry in the Wild” for making the most of its low budget, an author adapting his own novel in a way that best suits it, embracing the ingenuity of such a project, and giving us a survival drama story that is never boring, a bit uneven, but overall affecting. Could a better movie have been made from the source material? Maybe–but I’ll take what I can get. And I truly enjoy “A Cry in the Wild.”

My Favorite Movies – The Dirties (2013)

29 Jun

By Tanner Smith

I’m a big admirer of the found-footage gimmick. From “The Blair Witch Project” to “Rec,” from “The Sacrament” to the “Creep” movies, from “Paranormal Activity” to “The Visit,” there’s so much to admire about films and filmmakers that do so much with so little.

Those are horror films. The Dirties may contain the slow-burn horror element, but there’s far more on its mind than that…despite being available on Shudder, the horror-film streaming service (and if you read the reviews on the Shudder page for “The Dirties,” you notice people were expecting something far less than what the movie actually is–and that’s a shame).

This is a movie about an approaching high-school massacre, which is such a morbid topic that you’d think no filmmaker would make something that was other than artistic or (God forbid) exploitative. But the main character is so likable that the fact that he transforms into a killer is very difficult to comprehend.

That’s exactly the point–and what’s even better is that this movie ends where the typical news report would begin.

What drives Matt to kill? There are both obvious answers and not-so-obvious ones that I can’t help but consider the more times I watch the film. All we know is what we see in what is essentially his movie–but even his behavior is in question as he’s often called out for play-acting for the camera so he doesn’t have to deal with reality.

I wrote an essay about what I thought it all meant, but I’ll admit I may have gotten some things wrong. You can read it here.

Very haunting stuff–and not in a morbid film. “The Dirties” is a strange and memorable film that offers a lot more than your typical Shudder subscribers usually want.

And to me, it’s the high-standard that found-footage films need to try and meet.

My Favorite Movies – The Puffy Chair (2006)

5 May

By Tanner Smith

I’ve made it no secret on this blog that I’m a fan of Mark & Jay Duplass (aka the Duplass Brothers), pioneers of micro-budget filmmaking. From directorial feats like Baghead to Cyrus, from producing gems like Safety Not Guaranteed to 7 Days, they make a great impression by making small films feel important.

And it began with their debut feature: “The Puffy Chair.”

After making no-budget improvised short films (some of which were accepted at the Sundance Film Festival) with very few resources, brothers Jay & Mark decided to make a feature film with the same spirit and passion that they put into the shorts. (And their parents, who are credited as executive producers, loaned them $15,000 to shoot it.) The result is “The Puffy Chair,” an indie-dramedy feature that focuses on relationship issues–for example, it’s one thing to say you’re going to commit to your significant other; it’s another thing to actually commit. (How did Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” put it? “Sh*t or get off the pot.”)

It’s as indie and as “mumblecore” as it gets, with then-unknowns casting their girlfriends and friends (and paying them $100 a day), using minimal camera equipment, and improvising a good chunk of the dialogue. But I’ll say this (and I don’t know if it’s controversial or not)–when it comes to the indie-mumblecore era that was prominent in the 2000s, I get so much more out of “The Puffy Chair” than I ever do with others. (All respect to mumblecore grads like Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, whose works I also admire–I like their later works better than their mumblecore entries.) Much of it has to do with the likability of the actors (which include Mark Duplass himself and his then-girlfriend/now-wife Katie Aselton, both of whom co-starred in the FX series “The League” and collaborated on Aselton’s feature film Black Rock, in two of the three leading roles), the universal theme of relationship trauma, the raggedy nature of the filmmaking, and some good laughs to balance out the emotional elements.

Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton star as Josh and Emily, a couple in their mid-20s. They’ve been together for years, but now, they’re simply coasting, with no real future plans in mind. Josh is waiting for either something really good or really bad to happen to decide for him whether or not he should propose–while Emily wants him to propose. In the film’s prologue, we see these two having fun together before she gets angry at his subtle ignorance and storms off, leading to him pulling another charming move (imitating Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything”–except he left his Peter Gabriel CD at home) and inviting her on a road trip with him from New York to Atlanta for his father’s birthday.

On the way, they pick up Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), Josh’s neo-hippie brother. (This is news to Emily–she knew they were visiting him; she didn’t know he’d be the third wheel on this road trip.) And they’re also going to pick up a purple La-Z-Boy recliner (the titular “puffy chair”) that resembles one Josh & Rhett’s father had a long time ago and Josh purchased on eBay–they plan to deliver it as their dad’s birthday present. Being a road-trip movie, you expect things to go wrong and they do–Josh keeps showing his well-meaning but constant inefficiency (which causes friction amongst him and Emily), a motel night-stay goes wrong, the chair is terribly worn-out (can you get a chair reupholstered within 24 hours for a few hundred dollars?), Rhett meets a woman named Amber (Julie Fischer) which then leads to further complication, and so on. By the time they reach their destination at the end of the film, Josh has to make a decision with Emily, whether to grow with her or stop kidding himself for both their sakes.

The film is all about Josh & Emily’s relationship trauma, and we even get hints of some of the things that caused the complications–Josh used to be a musician (now he’s a booking agent) and his touring schedule resulted in much time away from Emily, and it’s also hinted that she caused him to leave his band. Is there a future for them? (A road trip may just be what they need to truly evaluate where they are at this point…) At times this dysfunctional-couple dynamic is painful to watch, but it’s always realistic and it’s also very funny, particularly in the ways the three main characters work off each other, the misadventures they go on together (particularly at the first motel, when they try to get a cheap room), and especially what the puffy chair in question must go through before the trip is over.

It’s all beautifully handled, and the ending to “The Puffy Chair” is both satisfying and bittersweet–though, you may not be all for it upon initial viewing; when you stop to think about it, however, it seemed very inevitable.

“The Puffy Chair” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005 and was released theatrically in 2006. Little did Mark & Jay Duplass know that it would pave the way for a bright and successful career for both of them (and for Katie Aselton, who’s now a prominent character actress) and light the way for budding filmmakers they inspired.

My Favorite Movies – War of the Worlds (2005)

3 May

By Tanner Smith

I KNOW, I KNOW!!! Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” isn’t a great movie. I’m as annoyed by Dakota Fanning’s Rachel as much as the next person. I’m not entirely sure why Tim Robbins’ crazy survivalist had to be there. And the arc with Justin Chatwin’s Robbie could have been handled a lot better. I KNOW! I’m not going to try and defend this movie like I always seem to do with Signs, a superior alien-invasion thriller. I’m aware of this movie’s faults……

But every time I watch this movie, all the good stuff in it is so freaking good that they make the movie worth seeing again and again!

Maybe I’m a little biased towards “War of the Worlds” because of my first viewing of it at age 13. My family and I saw it in a theater, on the biggest screen with the best surround-sound in the old Malco cinema in Jonesboro, AR–to me, it was INTENSE! Everything was blowing up, everyone’s running for their lives, I felt like I was there in the middle of it…honestly, I can’t think of another theatrical experience like it–it just blew 13-year-old Tanner away!!

I remember stepping out of the theater with my family afterwards and being relieved that everything was still here, we were still alive, everything was OK.

So what is it about Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” that makes it so powerful?

Well, for one thing, Spielberg keeps the perspective on ground-level. We’re with Ray (Tom Cruise) every step of the way, so we see the horrible invasion through his eyes. We don’t even learn how far this attack has spread until HE finds out. It makes it feel more real that way. A lot of the time, we don’t even see the action–we just see the aftermath of it, such as an airplane that has crashed into the house where Ray and the kids were sheltering. There are also dead bodies floating along a river and a passing train whose cars are ablaze. This is like a dark version of “Close Encounters,” to reference another Spielberg film.

In addition to the twisted parallels of “Close Encounters,” there’s also this key difference of father figures–in “Close Encounters,” Richard Dreyfuss abandoned his family to pursue the aliens; in “War of the Worlds,” Tom Cruise tries to keep his family as far away from the aliens as possible.

The first attack, of which Ray is right in the middle, recalls some images of 9/11, made especially clear and terrifying when Ray returns home and realizes he’s covered in the ashes of the deceased. Spielberg, soon after making this movie, also made Munich, which was his way of trying to comprehend the war on terror–“War of the Worlds” is more about trying to survive it.

“Munich” is a great film–“War of the Worlds” may not be great, but I still love it.

My favorite scene: Ray and his kids manage to get the only car operating and escape the second wave (and again, we’re kept with the characters, at the car, so what we see of the action is very limited). Ray tries to explain what’s happening, Robbie tries to calm a panicking Rachel, and all while we’re focused on them riding in a speeding car, this all takes place in one shot! Spielberg, you madman.

My Favorite Movies – Before Sunset (2004)

14 Mar

By Tanner Smith

“Before Sunset” was a sequel that hardly anyone asked for, but Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy were going to make it anyway! (God bless those three.)

Taking place nine years after Before Sunrise, Jesse (Hawke) is on a book tour, promoting his novel which is an account of the one night he spent with Celine (Delpy). His last stop is a bookstore in Paris, and guess who’s there!

Yep–Jesse and Celine finally meet again after nine years. And Jesse only has about an hour before his plane leaves, so that gives them another reason to walk and talk. They catch up, talk some more about life and how things are different now that they’re older, and still feel that same connection they felt nine years before. Is this a second chance?

That’s really all there is to it. The conversation Jesse and Celine started in the mid-1990s picks back up again in the mid-2000s–except this conversation takes place in real time. A lot has changed, some things haven’t changed, and of course it’s always great to listen to these two people talk. (We also see a lot of Paris, France as these two walk-and-talk through it–the cinematography from Lee Daniel is remarkable here.)

I love when films bring back the same characters to actually continue their story instead of remind us constantly that we should be watching the original movie they’re best known for. What’s the same with Jesse and Celine? What’s different about them? What’s to talk about here? Well…there’s a lot. And it all feels real and natural; and it’s beautifully written and acted by Hawke & Delpy.

The ending of “Before Sunset” is PERFECT. Honestly, it’s one of my absolute favorite endings, without a doubt. And it makes the movie for me.

Now, I have a confession to make–I caught “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” a little late, in 2012. BUT it turned out to be the right timing to prepare myself for Before Midnight, which opened in June 2013. Each film takes place nine years after the other and I was very curious and excited to see Jesse and Celine again after “Before Sunset.” The result…well, it’s my favorite film of the 2010s, if that answers your question.

The “Before trilogy,” as it’s called, is a wonderful, delightful, moving, insightful experience of time and humanity. It will always have a very special place in my heart.

My Favorite Movies – Before Sunrise (1995)

14 Mar

By Tanner Smith

Here’s one from my personal top 5: Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” which is hands-down my favorite romance film.

“Before Sunrise” is a film about two people in their early 20s–an American man named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy). They meet by chance on a train, start up a conversation, and form a nice connection–one that sadly has to end because Jesse has to get off in Vienna to catch a plane back home. But, in one of the best pickup scenes in movie history, Jesse convinces Celine to get off the train with him so they can spend the night talking some more:

“Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them, right? Well, I’m one of those guys. That’s me, so think of this as time travel, from then, to now, to find out what you’re missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband to find out that you’re not missing out on anything. I’m just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and you made the right choice, and you’re really happy.”

And it works! She gets off the train with him, and they spend the whole night just walking and talking, about numerous topics like philosophy, religion, love…all while they’re falling a little bit in love, which makes it all the more tragic that this might be the first and last time they spend together.
And, well…there are two sequels, so it’s safe to say they do see each other again (although it’s way down the road).

A lot of “Before Sunrise” is driven by dialogue, and what dialogue it is! I mentioned in my post about The End of the Tour that if you have the right actors playing the right characters saying the right dialogue, it can be some of the most powerful films I could ever pay attention to. That’s exactly the case here (and with the other two movies, “Before Sunset” and Before Midnight). Director Richard Linklater and his co-writer Kim Krizan wrote the initial script, but Hawke and Delpy actually rewrote a lot of it themselves, though they weren’t credited. (They did share credit with Linklater, however, in co-writing the sequels together.) That should tell you how much Hawke and Delpy care about their own characters and what they’re saying.

But what is “Before Sunrise” truly about? What do we learn about Jesse and Celine (and about ourselves as an audience) as we listen to them talk throughout the night? Well, through what we learn about the two (such as Jesse getting over a harsh breakup shortly before this fateful night), we could take away the theme of Jesse’s self-discovery through someone else. And perhaps Celine feels the same being around him. And maybe the two feel a strong connection in each other–maybe not a sense of “love” necessarily but more a sense of “fulfillment,” which leaves open room for a relationship (which makes the other two films all the more intriguing).

My favorite scene: this is one of my top five favorite movies, so it’s hard to pick just one to talk about. I love the pickup scene, I love the scene in which they imagine what they’ll each their friends about each other, I LOVE the ambiguous ending in which they go their separate ways and keep thinking about each other! But I guess if I have to pick one…there’s a scene in which Jesse and Celine are in a listening booth at a record store, and they listen to a song while trying to avoid eye contact. The body language from both Hawke and Delpy in that scene is nothing short of brilliant.

I love this movie. It’s a beautiful piece of art and I never get tired of listening to these two people talk about whatever they want. And I also love “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.”

I don’t have a lot of new material to add to “Before Midnight,” so you can reread my decade-end retrospective here (I called it my favorite film of the 2010s and I still stand by it). But “Before Sunset”…I’ll get to that one real soon.

My Favorite Movies – Humpday (2009)

11 Mar

By Tanner Smith

I wrote about Laggies yesterday; I might as well write about the late, great Lynn Shelton’s most infamous film today.

“Humpday” was indie filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s third film and it immediately got more people’s attentions in 2009. The reason for that? The concept alone was very funny–two long-time best buddies who are getting too old for the drunken one-ups-manship decide they’re going to partake in an amateur porno film in which they have sex together…but the problem is they’re not gay and the idea kinda makes them nervous. This came out the same year as mainstream comedies about male bonding like “The Hangover” and “I Love You, Man”–“Humpday” takes that male bonding and asks…what are the limits? (Or, in other words, what does “I love you, man” even mean, when you think about it?)

Maybe today it’d be no big deal to make a film like this and it’d probably be lost in the shuffle of films tackling something like sexual identity–but this is 2009 we’re talking about here, so it was good for this film to gain popularity when it did. (Plus “Humpday” is really freaking good.)

And it was good for writer-director Lynn Shelton, who made this film for less than 20 grand on a mostly improvised script, to gain recognition for it as well. Looking at the behind-the-scenes documentary on the film’s DVD, it’s very clear everyone on set loved Lynn Shelton, who clearly had a vision to project. If not for this film’s success, I’m sure she would’ve still made films, but “Humpday” was the seed that grew an even more distinguished film/TV career.

“Humpday” also stars two indie filmmaker-actors who got their start in the same mumblecore film world as Shelton: Mark Duplass (whose Duplass Brothers productions are other favorites of mine–“The Puffy Chair,” Baghead, Cyrus, Safety Not Guaranteed, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”) and Joshua Leonard (indie filmmaker and also an in-demand character actor long since his role in “The Blair Witch Project”). They play Ben (Duplass), a happily married man with a loving wife named Anna (Alycia Delmore), and Andrew (Leonard), Ben’s shaggy free-spirit college buddy whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years before he shows up at Ben & Anna’s house out of the blue. Anna likes this guy; he seems harmless. And Ben suddenly feels the freedom he had as his college friend that’s sort of limited now that he’s in a committed relationship with Anna. Ben joins Andrew at a party (and unfortunately leaves Anna, who was cooking her famous porkchops for him, hanging at home for the night), where a bunch of young, wild, and free swingers (including Lynn Shelton herself) hang out, get high, and pretty much do whatever they want. (Mind you, these people aren’t very young themselves.)

And this is where Ben and Andrew get into a dare contest where they dare each other to make a gay pornographic film in which two straight guys (themselves) partake in anal sex. They’re going to submit their “art project” to the HUMP! film festival, a showcase for homemade erotica. It’s beyond daring, the idea of two (straight) guys having sex together, so they decide they’re gonna go for it…or are they?

Well, maybe they will. The next day, after sobering up, they think maybe this is a good idea–or, at least, they’re not willing to back down from this challenge. So they get a hotel room and…oh wait, first Ben has to tell his wife what he and his old friend will be doing. How she handles the situation once it’s revealed is one of the film’s highlights–Anna isn’t your one-dimensional conventional movie-wife type; she’s more reasonable (and complex) than that.

What helps this admittedly sitcom-like scenario feel so real is the improvised, unfurnished feel of it all. I’m usually not for entirely-improvised dramedies. (But why shouldn’t I be? They’re only annoying if the editors don’t cut out the overly-excessive improvisations.) But Duplass & Leonard’s chemistry is very natural, the interactions they share with other characters feel real, and it makes the final act, in which Ben & Andrew get to the room to make the “art project,” feel natural and real as a result. (The editing works as well–a scene thankfully doesn’t goes on too awkwardly long and it doesn’t feel unfocused.)

“Humpday” is also very perceptive. Shelton addresses, with “Humpday,” the contradictions of the modern everyman–for example, while they may not be homophobic in theory, that doesn’t mean they don’t feel uncomfortable about the idea of having sex with the same gender. When Ben ponders that, he thinks about what it means to have an identity and to have a motivation. It makes the resolution all the more interesting, and…well, I won’t go into it here, but a film critic looked back at the film not long ago and felt it “chickened out” at the end–I find that to be an over-simplification of what Shelton was going for here.

“Humpday” is a funny movie, but it’s also smart and insightful. “Laggies” may be my “favorite” of Lynn Shelton’s movies, but I have no problem with calling “Humpday” her best movie. And the Indie Spirits (yes, they come to the rescue yet again for the movies too important for Oscar to care about) seemed to agree–they gave Shelton and “Humpday” the coveted John Cassavetes Award (the award given to the best creative effort made for less than $500,000). Kudos!

Oh, wait a minute, there’s a French-language remake of this film? That sounds unusual (usually, we’re the ones remaking French films). This one is called “Do Not Disturb.” I haven’t seen it, but Lynn Shelton apparently did, based on this interview with Indiewire in 2019–“One of the most interesting kind of gender studies lab experiments I’ve ever experienced was watching, side by side, my version and the French version of ‘Humpday,’” Shelton said. “It is f**king fascinating.” This version was apparently very scripted whereas Shelton’s was mostly improvised; it was made with more money than Shelton could get her hands on at the time; it had French stars such as Charlotte Gainsbourg in it; and it was directed by a man, whereas part of the appeal of Shelton’s version was she was a woman putting twists on the male-buddy-comedy conventions…that’s not to say a male director can’t do that, obviously, but read the rest of the Indiewire interview and you can guess what the problem was with the French remake.

Maybe I’ll check out this “Do Not Disturb” film at some point. But first, I’ll watch “Humpday” a couple more times in the near future–maybe I’ll even turn it on after publishing this post.