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Revisiting: The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003)

30 Apr

By Tanner Smith

The Battle of Shaker Heights–it’s not one of my “favorites,” necessarily, but there is a place in my heart for it (right next to movies like “The Wackness,” Click, and “Clerks II”).

This was the winner for the second Project Greenlight contest for screenwriting and directing. As with the first contest winner (2002’s Stolen Summer), the making of 2003’s “The Battle of Shaker Heights” from its conception to its premiere screening was chronicled heavily for HBO’s reality series Project Greenlight. I own this collection of “Project Greenlight 2” on DVD, complete with the finished movie.

But way before I even knew about Project Greenlight, I first saw the movie on cable-TV. when I was 12 years old Because it starred Shia LaBeouf and I was a diehard “Even Stevens” fan (it was made just as “Even Stevens” ended and Shia had just done “Holes”), I was hooked from his appearance alone. It was one of the first “indie” films I ever took interest in (and then shortly came the “Napoleon Dynamite” craze). A few years later, I bought the Project Greenlight 2 DVD set and checked out what went on making the film.

I’ve seen a lot of BTS docs as a kid, on DVD extras for movies like “The Goonies,” School of Rock, and “Back to the Future.” But this was different–it showed the ugly side of making a movie for a studio. There were producers breathing down the directors’ necks. The directors were pains in the asses. The writer is either in or out of the loop. There was hardly room for compromise a lot of the time. There’s a lot of passive-aggressiveness amongst the crew. (And strangely enough, despite the film being made for Miramax, Harvey Weinstein stays out of the picture.) It was like, “DAMN! THAT’S what it’s like to make a movie?!”

It made me upset…yet at the same time, I binged the entire series and saw it through because I was still intrigued by it all.

Anyway, back to the movie. Shia LaBeouf stars as a sullen teenager named Kelly, who is a war reenactor. The battles are his way of escaping everyday life, which he finds boring and unfulfilling. He makes friends with Bart (Elden Henson), who comes from a privileged WASPy home and wants to do something for himself. Kelly and Bart’s friendship sparks a developing change in Kelly, which begins as Bart suggests they use their tactical skills to stage a payback operation against Kelly’s bully Lance (Billy Kay).

Speaking of whom, this is my favorite exchange between Kelly and Lance:

LANCE: “Why are you d*cking with me, you little d*ck?! You wanna play, d*ck-face?” KELLY: “Wait…you just used ‘d*ck’ as a noun, adjective, and a verb. That’s impressive.”

Kelly also develops a crush on Bart’s older sister Tabby (Amy Smart), who is soon to be married (like Kelly cares about that). Kelly tries to be smooth and confident around her, but Tabby, being the smart artist that she is, doesn’t take him too seriously. Kelly’s of course too blind to realize he should be with his cute, friendly co-worker Sarah (Shiri Appleby), and that blindness could lead to a bit of trouble. Where this story goes is pretty easy to figure out, but both Shia LaBeouf and Amy Smart still play it really well.

There’s also Kelly’s parents–his mother Eva (Kathleen Quinlan), who’s a commercial artist, and his father Abe (William Sadler), who works with drug addicts and has been clean for five years. In the film, these characters seem underdeveloped. But in the Project Greenlight show, we see more of who these people are, and the Abe character in particular is the most compelling character in the story. Miramax, worried about whether they could market a comedy or a drama, insisted upon numerous cuts to the film, which resulted in the more emotional parts of the movie left on the cutting room floor.

Screw you, Weinsteins.

The film we got isn’t great, but it is good, in my opinion. LaBeouf shines in the lead and it’s really his character and his journey that makes the movie worth recommending. But sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the studio kept their dirty little hands off a product they should’ve believed in in the first place.

But, and I’m not giving credit to the Weinsteins in the slightest here, that might have something to do with the film’s pair of directors Kyle Rankin & Efram Potelle were extremely difficult to work with! I get that they were amateurs getting their big break to make a studio-funded film, but these guys seriously needed to try harder in being professional. Watching the show again recently, I sided with producer Chris Moore, who had to keep telling them again and again that they needed to learn compromise.

I had to look up both directors to see if they had done anything since. They had made a few projects, though not together and not of much note. It’s actually shocking to see that Rankin directed “Run Hide Fight,” the controversial action thriller film I heard about recently. As for Erica Beeney, the screenwriter for whom I always felt sorry, she wrote “Captive State” a couple years ago.

“The Battle of Shaker Heights” didn’t define anyone’s career, but it’s still a decent flick and I like to pop in the DVD every once in a while. And that’s about as good a recommendation as I can give, when it’s all said and done.

My Favorite Movies – The Breakfast Club (1985)

30 Apr

By Tanner Smith

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” -Atticus Finch, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“We think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us–in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions.” -Brian Johnson, “The Breakfast Club.”

High school–what a time. It doesn’t matter how popular you were because you were just as confused and messed up as the rest of us. And the reason we still get movies about the high-school experience even today is because we all still need them–those currently in high school can find something to latch onto and those out of high school are reassured it wasn’t a great time for anybody.

And we have the late John Hughes to thank for it. He wasn’t the first filmmaker to reenact the high-school experience on film–but he was definitely the key influencer, bringing it into the mainstream and reminding movie audiences that, yes, teenagers are people too.

After scoring a big hit with the teen comedy “Sixteen Candles” in 1984, Hughes was able to make something a little more mature and quiet for his next project, which would be “The Breakfast Club.”

Little did he know it’d be arguably his most popular film. EVERYONE saw “The Breakfast Club,” and more importantly, everyone connected with it. And people still love it even to this day.

It was even a major influence on me–my favorite films to make are indie dramedies, and “The Breakfast Club” is an indie dramedy…in spirit. (It was already made for a big studio, so it wasn’t like “Napoleon Dynamite” or anything like that.) Conversation-driven, character-piece, slice-of-life? I’ve just described a bunch of modern indie films…and “The Breakfast Club.”

Like I need to describe the film’s plot to anybody. Five high-school students spend a Saturday in detention together, they’re all very different (a brain, a jock, a recluse, a bad boy, and a beauty), and by the end of the day, they’ve expressed themselves to each other in ways they couldn’t to anybody else.

And that’s about it. This was a cut above the sex and booze-filled antics of the teen films released prior (there are drugs in “The Breakfast Club,” but it’s only pot), and Hughes just let his characters talk and relate to one another. What resulted was something that was perceptive and emotionally true. It’s also funny in how frank and honest it is in these interactions–that’s how the best dramedies are: come for the humor, stay for the drama.

As a result, “The Breakfast Club” is always watchable and consistently entertaining.

It’s also just a great idea to bring in members of five different cliques together and humanize them like this. I get the feeling the dialogue practically wrote itself when Hughes wrote the screenplay. (Hughes is best known for turning out a script in one weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of those.)

My favorite character has always been Allison, played wonderfully by Ally Sheedy. Her story’s as sad as the others’, but she also scores many of the biggest laughs in the movie. (Second favorite is Bender (Judd Nelson).)

And uh…yeah, some scenes are a little…problematic…I’ll neither deny nor ignore it. To say it was a different time isn’t really an excuse. I’ll direct you to Molly RIngwald’s New Yorker essay about it.

I still really enjoy “The Breakfast Club.” Great characters, great moments…and one of the greatest movie endings ever. When Bender walks along the football field and lets out a silent cheer while thrusting his fist in the air, what is he celebrating? Getting the girl? Sticking it to the vice principal? Whatever the case…it was a good day.

Last thing I’ll say is…man, is the TV version of this movie pretty lame. “Flip you!” “Oh my Lord.” “DAMN YOU!” I mean, come on, that’s just hilarious.

My Favorite Movies – The Stepfather (1987)

28 Apr

By Tanner Smith

it’s easy to dismiss “The Stepfather” as just another ’80s slasher film. But it’s more than that if you look underneath the surface.

Terry O’Quinn stars in chilling lead performance as a complicated psychotic, which elevates some of the dumber material. (Among the “dumber material”–a newspaper runs a year-old story about a fugitive killer and doesn’t bother to print a picture of him??) I find this killer more creepy and unsettling than Freddy or Jason (…but no scarier than the crazy aunt from Jack Ketchum’s “The Girl Next Door”–she still faces no competition, in my opinion), because of two things: one is how little I know about him (and when he has his little freakouts, he seems to repeat things that were said to him in his past, but even that’s sort of vague), and the other is what he stands for.

He wants to live a life like the father characters in ’50s-’60s sitcoms because he sees them as pleasant and wholesome, and he can’t live in reality–a world where things can get difficult and sometimes uncompromising. And when he doesn’t like the changes in the new family he marries into…he slaughters them and goes searching for a new one.

How deranged is that?! And what makes it even scarier is that he could fool anybody into thinking he’s a good guy, because HE sees himself as a good guy!!

The suspense of “The Stepfather” comes from how he may react when his new teenage stepdaughter Stephanie not only causes trouble and gets expelled from school (thus ruining his image of a “perfect daughter/Daddy’s little girl”) but also suspects that her stepfather is the killer mentioned in the newspaper. And we know that if Stephanie keeps pushing this further, she and her mother are going to wind up murdered like “the stepfather’s” other victims. And you don’t want anything bad to happen to them.

This is smart, clever filmmaking, and Terry O’Quinn portrays one of the most interesting and creepy antagonists I’ve ever seen. “Who am I here?”

My favorite scene: the creepy-as-hell basement scene, in which Stephanie witnesses one of her stepfather’s manic freakouts…and when he finally notices he’s not alone, he immediately switches back to calm. (“Hi, honey.”)

This is one that I definitely disagree with both Siskel and Ebert on–Ebert gave it a mixed review, praised O’Quinn’s performance but criticized the violence; but Siskel was much more harsh, likening the violence to “Friday the 13th” and “I Spit On Your Grave” (that’s a bit of an overreaction, in my opinion).

“The Stepfather” is one of my favorite thrillers…but seriously, why didn’t they print the guy’s picture in the newspaper? Did the editor think it would ruin the serial killer’s sex life??

My Favorite Movies – School of Rock (2003)

27 Apr

By Tanner Smith

When an indie director takes on a mainstream project, two thoughts cross my mind–is the director going to compromise with the studio (because studios often give tough ultimatums and can ruin careers) and/or is the director going to put their all into it rather than treat it simply as a work-for-hire?

Well, Richard Linklater knew he had to branch out from the artistic spotlight at some point–thankfully, writer Mike White, actor Jack Black, and the Paramount studio called him on-board to make their feel-good comedy blockbuster into something more noteworthy.

The result is “School of Rock,” which is a hugely entertaining comedy that managed to overthrow most of its competition in 2003 just because of how much fun it is and even how sweet its tone is.

I loved it at age 11; I still love it to this day.

This actually wasn’t my intro to Jack Black. I caught some of Shallow Hal on cable TV, but before that, I knew Jack Black as the villain from…”The Neverending Story III” (yes, I did watch that thing as a kid). Watching him in “School of Rock,” I recognized just how talented he truly was, carrying a film and taking center-stage and just inviting his audience to share the joy and excitement with him.

In the film, he plays Dewey Finn, a wannabe hardcore rocker who, as the trailer put it, “would have sold his soul for rock n roll…but nobody was buying it.” He’s very certain that his band is going to become successful once they win a big upcoming battle-of-the-bands competition, but the rest of the band sees him as an embarrassment because he’s too extreme in his performances. So, he decides to start his own band…but he needs members to join. He starts to see an opportunity rise when he poses as his roommate (Mike White), who is a substitute teacher, to sub for a prestigious elementary prep school where students are ordered to conform–it turns out many of his students are musically talented, so he decides to use his time prepping the kids for an exclusive class project: “Rock Band.” And so, he gets the kids ready for the competition as he teaches them to lighten up and not worry so hard about following or breaking rules.

If ANYONE at that prep school had done so much as check Dewey for ID, we wouldn’t have a movie, so let’s just move on.

Richard Linklater gets to make a family movie and this just feels the type of family movie he would make. The kids feel real, the numerous conversations about music and how it can reach people feel natural, and Jack Black’s character’s personality of try-hard hardcore (try-hardcore?) rocking is a way of life rather than just a plot gimmick. Even the uptight principal, played wonderfully by Joan Cusack, feels real–in any other movie, she’d be the villain; here, she gets drunk does a Stevie Nicks impression because she’s not such a stick-in-the-mud after all. (This family movie knows the difference between a villain and an antagonist.)

And yes, I call “School of Rock” a “family movie.” This is a great film for both kids and adults to enjoy. There is very little reason for the MPAA to rate this movie PG-13.

The film’s screenwriter was Mike White, who wrote the part specifically for Jack Black after having worked with him on the film “Orange County.” And thank God, because this was the role that gave Jack Black plenty of time to shine after taking hilarious side roles in movies like High Fidelity. (He did have a leading role in “Shallow Hal” before “School of Rock,” but I don’t think that one gave him a lot to work with. This one definitely did.)

Something else I love about this movie is that it takes music seriously. When Dewey is practicing with the kids and teaching them basic lessons in “rock,” he’s able to mold their talents into something they didn’t expect, and in doing so, they find their own artistic flairs and self-expressions. That’s what art does to people, and this movie shows that particular lesson with music.

The song they ultimately perform at the battle-of-the-bands competition is a fun song. (With any music film, you need memorable music to make it work.) And the scene itself stays true to its tone, even when the kids’ angry parents force themselves into the front row…or at least, it stays true to rock-n-roll.

My favorite scene: after Dewey has heard the kids play for music class, he’s gathered all his instruments and immediately puts the kids at work as soon as they return to the classroom. He duels with the guitar player, Zack, who never played electric guitar; he has the piano player, Lawrence, play “Touch Me” by The Doors on keyboard; he teaches the cello player, Katie, to play bass; and…OK, the audition for the drummer, Freddy, is a little weak (just a few taps on the drums and cymbal), but the kid already plays percussion and likes to hit things, so let’s have him learn as he goes. Fair enough.

“School of Rock” is one of those movies where I can’t just watch the movie–I have to watch all the DVD extras too. And there are some GREAT ones, such as the making-of documentary, the kids’ first experience at the film’s premiere, and my personal favorite, an MTV “documentary” about Jack Black’s daily routine (which includes a collab session with his Tenacious D partner, Kyle Gass).

I love this movie. It’s smart, it’s funny, and it rocks.

My Favorite Movies – Mean Creek (2004)

27 Apr

By Tanner Smith

I don’t have a lot of depressing movies in my “Favorite Movies” collection, but…wow, has “Mean Creek” done a number on me.

I remember first seeing this film on TV when I was 13. The best way to describe its effect on me back then would be: it mentally scarred me. And then the second viewing convinced me this was going to be that certain arthouse film I decide to show my friends. I showed it to my best buddy and it messed him up too. Then he kept telling everyone in school about it…though only about two or three more kids in school actually checked it out. Not that we were intending to create a “cult following” out of this film but admittedly it felt good knowing about something that wasn’t getting a lot of attention (from Manila High anyway) that we felt we had to share with people.

“Mean Creek” is a film about teenagers who have had misfortunes in their lives that make them outcasts that are now suddenly faced with a moral dilemma within the biggest crisis in their lives. And it all begins as a revenge prank on a school bully. It’s as if it’s saying what could start out as a merry joke on someone else’s expense could end up being the very thing you regret the most in life.

Josh Peck is nothing short of brilliant as George, the bully in question. This is probably the most disturbing teenage-bully character I’ve ever seen in a film, but he’s also the most three-dimensional as well. Sometimes he can be seen as lonely and pathetic in the ways he tries to fit in and find friends, but other times he can be very mean and obnoxious. And it’s his loud mouth that becomes his fatal flaw in a scene in which he becomes so angry that he shouts hurtful putdowns to each of the other characters one by one. It’s just such a great performance with a lot of levels to it.

And I can also say the same for Scott Mechlowicz as Marty, who is bruised by his father’s suicide, abused by his older brother at home, and has a lot of anger built up inside that he is eagerly awaiting to take out on George. He’s the one who doesn’t want to back out of the plan to humiliate George and even tells him the truth about what he and the other teens were going to do to him, because he wants to hurt him. And then when the inevitable climax occurs and he tries to keep everyone in control in what he believes is the best thing for everyone, even he can’t help but feel miserable about what he’s done.

That’s another reason “Mean Creek” works so well: it’s an “anti-revenge” story. Many films centered on characters seeking vengeance never allow time for the characters to truly think about what they’ve done after they either humiliate or destroy the person who’s wrong them. This film does. The last half-hour or so of “Mean Creek” is arguably the best element in the film because it shows the kids dealing with what they’ve done and the effects this revenge has had on all of them. They talk about it, they think about it, they consider the consequences, they realize the guilt from keeping quiet, and so on.

I think the reason this film got to me when I first saw this film at age 13 was not entirely because I felt so bad for the bully (though I did) but because I was wondering myself what I would do in that situation, and how I would feel. Would I go with my peers? Would I tell anyone what I’ve done? How could I go through life knowing everyone I know would suddenly look at me in a different way and never forgive me for this? And what if I didn’t have much to do with it but I wasn’t able to stop it either? Or what if I could’ve stopped it but I didn’t?

There’s another film that came out recently that tackles with the same type of subject matter, called Super Dark Times. I like that film a lot too–I think the reason I hold “Mean Creek” in a higher regard was superficially because of the effect it had on me when I first saw it.

My Favorite Movies – mid90s (2018)

26 Apr

By Tanner Smith

Maybe I should just stop rewatching movies and just let my original thoughts be. I fear change………

How DARE subsequent viewings of certain movies force me to like them better than my initial mild recommendations deserved??

My biggest issue with Jonah Hill’s directorial debut mid90s upon first viewing was the ending. I said in my initial review, “I’m all for ambiguous conclusions, but I don’t think there was a conclusion to be found at all. […] At the end of ‘mid90s,’ I don’t feel like much was accomplished. But thankfully, that’s not what I’m going to remember for time to come, when I’m thinking of ‘mid90s.’ I’m going to remember the memorable characters, the effective time capsule, and my own teenage memories.”

Hey, IDIOT-PAST-TANNER–did it ever occur to you that maybe Hill’s intention with the ending was to leave his audience with that exact type of nostalgic feeling??

Set in the mid-1990s (obviously), mid90s is about a short, scrawny 13-year-old boy named Stevie (Sunny Suljic) who falls in with a crowd of skateboarders to escape the abuse of his older brother. He of course comes of age and learns he doesn’t have to take the hardest hits, on or off the board. Call it “The Sandlot” meets “Kids.”

Jonah Hill does a really good job as a first-time director. If I didn’t know any better (or recognize today’s actors like Lucas Hedges and Katherine Waterston), I’d swear this film was actually made in the mid 1990s. The aesthetic is reminiscent of a ’90s indie flick, and the passive-aggressive attitudes of these ’90s teens feel genuine. (In fact, it’s rumored that a theater projectionist asked the distributor where they found a lost treasure from the 1990s…I hope that’s not true, but that says something about the film’s quality.)

Besides, we need a break from the ’80s anyway, right?

There’s hardly a plot here, but that’s not what matters–what matters is the emotions that are felt throughout. This poor kid has been pushed around and beaten up by his jerk older brother, and he takes up skateboarding as a sporty means of escape…mainly because when he falls, he’s used to getting hurt. This is disturbing and screwed up–it makes you feel for the kid even more, even when his friend Ray (Na-kel Smith) tells him after the most brutal accident, “You literally take the hardest hits out of anybody I’d ever seen in my life. You know you don’t have to do that, right?”

And it’s not just the sport that can used as a means of escape–it’s who you’re sharing the escape with that also truly matters. These other kids have their own problems, but altogether, each other is what they need to get through.Would I relate to any of the kids if I saw this film at a younger age? I’d see a part of myself in Stevie aka “Sunburn”, but if I’m being honest…I think I was more like Fourth Grade, the kid who’s always filming with a video camera because he wants to make movies someday. I was pretty dumb at that age (and filming stuff constantly) but not dumb enough to say some of the things he says in this movie. (“Can black people get sunburned?”) But I won’t go there.

The authenticity of the kids, of course, means there’s a lot of misogynistic and homophobic language, which sadly was very common in the mid-90s. Hill wanted his characters to discuss why they talk like that, but producer Scott Rudin (who himself is gay) advised against the idea, stating he didn’t think anyone would have this conversation in the mid-90s. Hill also said in an interview, “I’m not celebrating it–I’m just telling the truth. Why are artists supposed to be like the moral police? YOU make the decision.” Meaning, this is a conversation that would probably most definitely take place nowadays, but probably not back then…maybe.

OK, now I’m going to talk about the ending, so SPOILER ALERT!!!

Everything DOES add up at the end of “mid90s”–Sunburn takes the biggest hit he’s ever had (and ends up in the hospital), he makes amends with his abusive older brother, his mother finds out in a wonderful quiet moment how much his friends care about her son, and Ray, the older kid, reassures Sunburn that he doesn’t have to hurt himself anymore.

“mid90s” doesn’t end with a bang, but it instead chooses a quieter approach–I just didn’t see it that way the first time and I felt empty as a result.

Actually, none of what I just said is why my opinion has changed so highly on “mid90s.” (They’re good factors, though.) No, the part that really got me was what happens after–Fourth Grade, who has minimal dialogue throughout the film and is constantly filming everything with a video camera, shows his friends a movie he put together based on stuff he’s filmed. It’s a montage of all the good times they all have together. We know all of these kids have their troubles–but none of that matters when they’re together because they help each other get over those issues by just having a good time together.

I had something similar happen to me in my life with my old friends (I was filming everything, which basically means I was Fourth Grade)–my friends were upset about something, more upset than I was, and so I put together a little film about all of us having fun together prior to the disappointment we all faced (because I didn’t want them thinking of it as anything other than a fun time with friends).

Really good stuff here. Good job, Jonah.

My Favorite Movies – Adventureland (2009)

26 Apr

By Tanner Smith

Like a lot of people, I was disappointed that director Greg Mottola’s follow-up to “Superbad” wasn’t…well, much like “Superbad.” I would still recommend “Adventureland” for what I saw it as: a funny, sweet coming-of-age dramedy that wasn’t anything special. But then after watching it again a few years later, holy cow, it’s something special–it even caused me to write my first revised review. (Link: https://smithsverdict.com/2013/06/28/adventureland-2009-revised-review/)

Everyone remembers their first job, and not everyone has the most pleasant memories of it–but there were some things worth remembering about it, whether we want to acknowledge them or not. James (Jesse Eisenberg) is the artistic type: one who would rather do anything but work a minimum wage job at a summer amusement park. But that’s exactly what happens to him, as he’s in charge of games at Adventureland for the whole summer, just so he can pay for grad school in New York City.

This is one of those theme parks where half the games are rigged and even if you win, you throw away the crappy prize soon after.

James makes friends with his coworkers, including deadpan intellectual Joel (Martin Starr), and starts a possible fling with Em (Kristen Stewart), who is also heading to NYC after the summer. When the bombshell Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) is also working at the park and starts flirting with James, that’s when James has trouble.

I know the obvious choice is for James to stay with Em because she seems more his type, but how many of us made smart choices at a young age? Even if we’re smart, who says we can’t act stupid? What makes it even more complicated is that Em is the secret mistress of Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park’s maintenance man who is married.

There’s more to these characters than we expect, and in a weirdly effective way, both the comedy and the drama come from how they react to each situation. And things don’t resolve in ways we expect them to either.

“Adventureland” is about the routine experiences of a summer job, finding ways to keep it interesting through the people you meet and the misadventures you have, and with characters that grow a convincing bond together. It’s about structure and about character, and I loved spending time with these people. I wondered what would become of these people years down the road.

Oh, I forgot to mention it takes place in 1987–pre-social-media, and a time when if you wanted to ask a girl out on a date, you had to call her house phone and ask her father if she was home.

My favorite scene: I’m not entirely sure this is my favorite scene, but it has my favorite quote in the movie. It’s when James and Joel are thinking about the future, and Joel wonders what the point is of being an artist, especially since Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, was so insignificant that he was referred to as “Henry” Melville when he passed.

James disagrees:

“No, I mean, he wrote a seven-hundred page allegorical novel about the whaling industry. I think he was a pretty passionate guy, Joel. I hope they call me Henry when I die, too.”

My Favorite Movies – Shaun of the Dead (2004)

26 Apr

By Tanner Smith

“Shaun of the Dead” is a great film because it works wonderfully as both a zombie-movie and a satire of a zombie-movie. The zombies still pose a threat, there’s still a lot of the zombie-movie survival conventions, and there’s still a lot of bloody action–the twist is that it’s all happening to a couple of slackers who don’t even realize there’s a zombie attack until it affects their daily routines.

Shaun (Simon Pegg) has no direction in his life, and his buddy Ed (Nick Frost) is even less ambitious. These jokers wouldn’t know a zombie if she popped up in their backyard…hey, is that a zombie girl in their garden? Anyway, they become more wary of the mayhem that’s happening in town, and they race to find shelter with Shaun’s mother (Penelope Wilton), Shaun’s ex Liz (Kate Ashfield), and Liz’s flatmates Dianne (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran). Their plan is to “wait for all this to blow over”…but it’s not as simple as that.

And as funny as “Shaun of the Dead” is (and it’s VERY funny), it also tackles the hardships of surviving such an experience, such as the harsh sacrifices that have to be made.

But even with that in mind, it is fairly consistent in how funny it is. It’s not camp nor is it unintentionally laughable; it’s just funny. Much of that has to do with some of the best timing I’ve ever seen in any comedy. (Actually, something writer-director Edgar Wright is known for is quick comic timing in all of his movies.) And it has fun with the premise of a zombie invasion, while paying heartfelt homage to George Romero zombie flicks.

It’s also a film with a cautionary message about getting too used to routine. Shaun would’ve stayed ignorant in his cycle if the dead didn’t walk the earth. The zombies are essentially representative of those who are so desensitized to life that they have nothing more to do in life (or…death).

Among the comedic highlights in the movie include Shaun and Ed’s first encounter with the zombies, the group pretending to be zombies to be unnoticed, and the jukebox bar brawl. Though, I do have to ask…why did they bring out their LP collection and throw some at the zombies? I know they’re not the sharpest tools in the shed, but…they didn’t really think that was going to work, did they?

But whatever, it’s still funny to hear their tastes in music–what album would YOU get rid of during apocalyptic times?

My Favorite Movies – Lady Bird (2017)

24 Apr

By Tanner Smith

First thing I’ll say is I WANT TO SEE A MOVIE ABOUT THE FOOTBALL COACH CHARACTER FROM “LADY BIRD!” Or maybe a sitcom about a similar character: a high-school football coach who has to direct the school musical and puts his extreme all into it.

It’s a small role in this great film called “Lady Bird.” The coach, Father Walther (Bob Stephenson), has only about three scenes (one of which is my favorite scene in the whole film)–but when he shows up, it’s memorable.

In any other film, he’d be this disgruntled middle-aged dumb jock who doesn’t care about directing “The Tempest” for the school play and doesn’t take it seriously at all. But in “Lady Bird,” to hell with that noise! It turns out Father Walther gets just as excited about play rehearsals as he does about football plays! It’s hilarious and I can’t get enough of it–PLEASE give this character his own movie, I beg of you, Greta Gerwig!

The trope of a coach being thrown into something he’s not familiar with is an old one. But here, it’s given new life. And that describes the whole film itself.

“Lady Bird” is a comedy-drama film about a high-school teenager who comes of age in her senior year. See, right there, it doesn’t sound very fresh–it sounds like a bunch of other movies. I remember, the first time I saw (and loved) it, I tried describing to friends…and it just sounded like “The Edge of Seventeen” or “Mean Girls” or something. That’s when it hit me: writer-director Greta Gerwig breathed new life into a familiar concept.

Saoirse Ronan, one of the best actors working today, stars as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a bright but not very accomplished Catholic schoolgirl. She’s not very popular but she’s not an outcast either–the only one below her average status is her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). Lady Bird lives in Sacramento but yearns for life in New York because she finds California boring. She and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) don’t get along–in fact, in the film’s surprising opening scene, they go from getting along to arguing in just a couple of seconds! Her father (Tracy Letts) finds it in his heart to help Lady Bird with East Coast college applications when her mother doesn’t totally like the idea. (She says it’s because they can’t afford tuition, but it’s also implied that what she means is she doesn’t want to be too far away from her daughter.)

I’m just laying out the basics of what life is like for Lady Bird in this movie. In just an hour-and-a-half, the film “Lady Bird” guides us through a full year in this girl’s life, as she argues with her mother sometimes, gets along with her other times, courts a cute boy (Lucas Hedges), meets another boy (Timothee Chalamet), makes friends with the popular girl (Odeya Rush), has a falling-out with Julie, gets back together, and on and on until the end of the film, in which she learns that not everything is about her and everything that she has known all the time is more special than she thought.

This leads to a heartwarming ending in which everything makes sense. It’s the end to a journey in which one hopes for something enlightening and it becomes something unexpected and yet still enlightening at the same time. And that’s all I’ll say about it–if you haven’t seen the film, please check it out.

Greta Gerwig, who wrote and directed the film, is one of my favorite people in show business. She became one of my favorite actresses ever since “Frances Ha” in 2013, and I made sure to see everything she’s in from that point forward because she’s so charming and lively and quirky–not just in movies but in real life too, as shown in interviews. She’s also a great writer, as evidenced before with the Noah Baumbach-directed films “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” (both of which she starred in). And I just had to see “Lady Bird” because it had Gerwig’s name on it as both writer AND director.

If I may quote from Richard Roeper’s review, “Please write and direct another 25 films, Greta Gerwig.”

I concur. Make as many as you can, Greta Gerwig–I will see it.

Gerwig followed up “Lady Bird” with a wonderful adaptation of “Little Women” in 2019…and I’ll get to that soon enough.

Back to the football coach. This guy’s just a freaking riot. I could watch that scene in which he’s delivering the play blocking a thousand times and not get tired of it and laugh every single time!

My Favorite Movies – Big (1988)

24 Apr

By Tanner Smith

I wish I could be as gleeful and excited as Josh Baskin when he got his first paycheck at his first job–“187 dollars?!!” Actually, I was once, back when I had my first job–it felt good to earn an honest pay for once.

“Big” has been one of my favorites since childhood–even when I didn’t get a lot of the jokes as a kid, I was still with the movie because it was so likable and appealing and wanted to treat me like an adult. (I think the target audience was both children and grownups–the PG-rating standards were pushed a little bit back when it was made and released.)

I first drawn to it at a young age (I think I was 8 or 9, I forget…) because like most kids, I wished I was bigger or grown up. As I got older, the comedy spoke to me more, so I kept coming back to it for that. Not too long after, I felt like I “got” it, like I knew what it was trying to tell me all that time–and I loved it even more.

The film is about a 12-year-old New Jersey boy named Josh (David Moscow) who is going through the normal average pre-pubescent stages–he’s being nagged by his parents to do his chores, he wants the attention of the pretty girl, he’s too short for the best carnival rides, all of that stuff. He comes across a fortune-telling machine that asks him to make a wish…so he wishes he was “big” (or “grown up”). (He doesn’t realize until after he’s made the wish that the active machine was unplugged the whole time. Spoooooky…)

The following morning, Josh is surprised to find that his wish has come true–he’s now taller, bigger, and played by Tom Hanks. His own mother doesn’t recognize him, but he’s able to convince his best friend Billy (Jared Rushton) of the situation. So, Billy helps Josh lay low in New York City until he can find the machine and wish himself back to being a kid again. But meanwhile, he needs work–so he gets a job working at a toy company. (He gets the job too easily, but remember it’s a fantasy.) He gets the attention of the boss, MacMillan (Robert Loggia), because rather than analyze target demographic surveys and processed datas and all that junk, Josh tests toys the old-fashioned way: he plays with them.

The best scene in the movie, I think everyone who’s seen it agrees, is the one where Josh and MacMillan meet at a toy store and play the carpet piano. Josh starts playing the scales and “Heart and Soul,” and it’s right there in a quiet little moment where MacMillan is reminded of his own childhood and smiles at the memory, leading to a piano duet between the two–first “Heart and Soul” and then “Chopsticks.” Everything about this scene is gold–it’s beautifully shot and choreographed, it’s funny, and it’s charming. I love it.

Anyway, Josh gets a promotion at work and blows everyone away because no one understands toys better than he does–he knows what kids want! (Go figure.) He gets a nicer apartment, he makes a decent living (ah screw it, it’s more than decent–I WANT THAT APARTMENT!), he upholds new responsibilities, and he even gets a girlfriend in a pretty coworker named Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), who has somewhat of a reputation amongst her male coworkers. This strange, interesting man interests her, so she tries to pick him up…

“I WANT to spend the night with you,” she tells him. He doesn’t quite get it: “Do you mean sleep over?” “Well…yeah.” “Well OK…but I get to be on top!” That is one of the jokes that went WAY over my head as a kid!

The more time Susan spends with Josh, the more she loosens up. She doesn’t carry herself as much as the movie continues. Josh has the same effect for other people, including MacMillan, who gets sick and tired of all the business talk around the office. Josh even has that effect on the uptight a-hole executive Paul (John Heard)–when Paul gets ticked off at Josh, he becomes a schoolyard bully (which he probably was as a kid).

It’s an interesting theme, but even more fascinating is Josh’s development as he continues further into the adult world (and his friend Billy has to remind him who he really is). When the time comes where he’s offered the opportunity to go back and live his teenage years before handling all the adult responsibilities…will he take it?

Just writing about “Big,” I’m reminded of the things I love about it. There’s a wonderful delicate balance of comedy and drama. Tom Hanks is phenomenal as the literal man-child. The supporting cast, especially Robert Loggia as the boss and Jared Rushton as the only one in on the secret, is excellent. The final act is emotionally charged. The directing by Penny Marshall is tender-hearted and cheerful. And so on.

And arguably most importantly, it’s THE SCREENPLAY–the only way this script by Gary Ross (who went on to write and direct “Pleasantville,” another favorite of mine) and Anne Spielberg (sister of Steven) could have been ruined is if the original casting choice (Robert De Niro) was put in the lead role. (I love De Niro, but I could never see him as Josh.)

I love this movie. I always have and I always will.

Last thing I’ll say about “Big” is I usually stick with the original cut. The extended version is fine (though I would’ve liked to see that legendary alternate ending), but I think they made the right editing choices for the theatrical cut. If you’re a “‘Big’ completist,” it’s worth checking out–but I don’t think you’ll love it as much as the version you’ve come to know and love at that point.