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My Favorite Movies – Black Rock (2013)

14 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Three girlfriends go camping on an isolated island and guess what–they’re not alone. That’s the setup for the tense and well-executed thriller “Black Rock,” which mixes both mumblecore and bare-bones genre filmmaking flawlessly. Who cares how limited resources were for making this film when there’s such skill and craftsmanship, not to mention an appealing cast of protagonists to root for, involved?

Directed by and co-starring Katie Aselton and written by her husband Mark Duplass, “Black Rock” features three women (Aselton, Kate Bosworth, and Lake Bell) who decide to rekindle their childhood friendship by escaping to their favorite place from growing up: an island off the coast of Maine. Two of the friends (Aselton’s Abby and Bell’s Lou) aren’t on good terms due to a betrayal from long ago, but the third and ringleader of the trio (Bosworth’s Sarah) manages to keep the peace (for a little while, at least).

Right off the bat, all three actresses are extremely believable in their roles. I buy them as friends, their dialogue rings true, they share unique chemistry, and they’re a cut above your standard thriller movie characters. (Aselton, in particular maybe because she also directed the film, stands out with real charm as a comic actress early in the proceedings–but her emotional moments late in the film are effective too.)

Not long after they’ve set up camp, they find they’re not alone, as three hunters (Will Bouvier, Jay Paulson, and Anslem Richardson) happen upon them. They recognize one of them from way back when, so they figure they’ll spend some time together, catch up, get a little drunk, and have a good time…

It doesn’t turn out that way.

Without giving away specifics as to how this came to be, all three women are now threatened with death by these gunmen (who, by the way, were in the military and have served numerous tours overseas), who plan to hunt them through the woods and kill them. A bit of “Deliverance” mixed with a bit of “The River Wild” mixed with a chilling and tight script from Duplass help make the back half of “Black Rock” effectively thrilling. What also helps is that by then, I’ve come to know the key characters and root for them to take some control of the horrific and grisly situation. Thankfully Sarah, Lou, and Abby aren’t completely helpless nor are they invincible superheroines–they feel like real people thrust into a world they didn’t make.

But when the chips are down, they do prove to be worthy badasses. An interesting theme “Black Rock” keeps is one of the power of friendship, as cheesy as that sounds. Each group, of the heroes and the villains, is loyal to each other and that’s what motivates their actions.

Oh, and while keeping this spoiler-free, there is a scene in which Lou and Abby strip naked in the woods at night–but this scene isn’t gratuitous; there’s a reason for why they’re doing this.

You know how they say don’t go camping in a horror movie? Well, how can you know you’re in a horror movie unless something terrifying happens while you’re camping? That’s essentially the mindset of the movie.

My Favorite Movies – Gremlins (1984)

3 Dec

By Tanner Smith

“Die Hard” is technically a Christmas movie, but I’ll watch it anytime. “Gremlins,” however…even though it was initially released in the summertime, it just feels right to watch only in Christmastime. (That’s probably just me though.)

I DO think of Christmas when I think of “Gremlins.” The pleasant small-town setting looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. Christmas tunes are either hummed by characters or played in the playground. It even begins with the adorable little creature Gizmo being given as a Christmas present.

But I guess I can see why some people don’t like to associate “Gremlins” with the holiday season. The little red-eyed monsters attack Santa Claus, they tie up the dog outside in Christmas lights (poor pooch), and then there’s that random hella tragic speech about how the female lead found out there was no Santa Claus!

But that’s kind of why I love to watch this movie each Christmas too. I already have “Home Alone,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story,” “Arthur Christmas,” and whatever “Christmas Carol” adaptation I feel like watching–why not a twisted horror-comedy about little monsters raise hell in a quiet little town on Christmas? I need a little variety! (And hey, why not a little dark comedy like “Bad Santa” or “The Land of Steady Habits” to go along with it? Those take place on Christmas too.)

“Gremlins” is a Spielberg production directed by Joe Dante (who made another favorite of mine: “Matinee”). It begins with a Spielbergian touch as young adult Billy (Zack Galligan) cares for his new pet, a strange big-eyed little creature called a Mogwai, named “Gizmo.” Right off the bat, Gizmo is freaking adorable–he reminds me of my late beloved Shi Tzu puppy.

But there are rules that come with owning a Mogwai: keep it away from bright lights (and sunlight will kill it), don’t get it wet (just let it clean itself like a cat), and NEVER feed it after midnight. (Whatever you want to say about how it’s “always ‘after midnight'” is pretty much moot–“Gremlins 2: The New Batch” already had fun with analyzing the concept.) When all three rules are broken, that’s when Gremlins gets more fun, as Dante goes with a sci-fi thriller approach, paying homage to 1950s monster films.

Oh, not just with the small town being invaded by otherworldly beings–Dante literally throws in Robby the Robot and the infamous Time Machine at random spots of the movie! (Dante always likes to fit in references to such in each of his films.)

“Gremlins” has a body count–don’t show this to kids unless you’re sure they can take it. When the Mogwai multiplies into more of them, they become vicious fanged beasties with scaly claws instead of furry paws. And they do kill people, and many of the Gremlins themselves get killed in pretty grisly ways too, especially when Billy’s mother (Francis Lee McCain) defends herself against some of them in her own kitchen. There’s also an intense scene in which Billy is nearly sliced by a Gremlin with a chainsaw. This film is rated PG, but this was back when PG didn’t just mean “Practically G” and also it paved the way for the PG-13 rating (along with Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” which came out the same year as “Gremlins”). If you want to show this to your younger family members, keep that in mind.

I guess you could say “Gremlins” is a lovely bit of coal to fit into your Christmas stocking–and I enjoy it as such.

My Favorite Movies – Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

23 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Here’s one from my personal top 100. No, top 50. No, you know what? Maybe even top 10! It’s pretty much my definition of “a perfect movie,” and since it takes place around Thanksgiving, it’s declared the ultimate “Thanksgiving movie.” What better time of year to talk about it?

I’m of course talking about “Pieces of April.” What a delightfully droll indie gem with a winning performance from Katie Holmes as a quirky, rebellious young woman struggling to make everything perfect for her dying mother because this might be her last Thanksgiving– No, it’s obviously Planes, Trains & Automobiles. OF COURSE it’s “Planes, Trains & Automobiles!” Why would it be anything other than “PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES??”

Sorry, not sorry. I love this movie. (Btw, “Pieces of April” is really freaking good too.)

Where do I begin with this one? Why do I love it so? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s my idea of a “dramedy”–part comedy, part drama, and overall wonderful. With movies like this, City Lights, and 50/50, among others, I’ve learned that if there’s anything more important than a comedy that makes you laugh…it’s one that makes you feel.

Where does the comedy come in? Well, Steve Martin and John Candy are a great comic duo with differing personalities–Martin’s Neal Page is an uptight, tidy marketing exec; Candy’s Del Griffith is a messy, joyous (and blabbering) traveling salesman (of shower curtain rings). They meet by chance as they try to fly from New York City to Chicago. Del doesn’t have a good first impression after inadvertently stealing Neal’s cab en route to the airport, and it gets even worse when they’re seated together on the plane and Del WILL NOT SHUT UP. When a snowstorm forces them to land in Wichita, Del helps Neal find a motel room to sleep in…and one bed for them to share together.

We’re not even a half-hour in before Neal totally loses his cool with this slob. Del’s a good-natured guy, but he’s just too much for Neal when it comes to being friendly. And Neal blows up and lets him have it; at one point, he states that he could tolerate an insurance seminar before sitting next to Del on the plane and listening to him tell his boring anecdotes again. This kind of thing usually happens near the final act of your typical buddy comedy–but this is not your typical buddy comedy, as writer-director John Hughes will assure you. (This isn’t the only time Hughes toys with conventional story elements in this movie.)

Steve Martin’s long rant is funny…but the scene doesn’t entirely play for laughs. During this rant, we often cut back to John Candy’s face as the character takes it all in with genuine pain–and when Martin is finally done, Candy delivers a heartfelt monologue of his own, resulting in a wonderfully touching moment that makes me forget I’m watching a comedy.

Oh, and the morning after…is always a riot to watch. (“THOSE AREN’T PILLOWS!”)

This is only the first act! The rest of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” includes a lot of great moments that follow, such as Neal trying to lose Del while fate keeps bringing them back together, they take a train, they rent a car, Neal has his infamous profane breakdown in front of an auto clerk, Neal and Del realize THEY’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY on an expressway, they finally become friends and learn a lot about each other on their journey to get Neal home in time for Thanksgiving dinner with his family… There’s just so much going on in this movie, and at barely an hour-and-a-half of running time, every minute counts.

A lot of it is very funny and the rest of it is very endearing. I already mentioned Del’s reaction to Neal’s angry words towards him (which is one of my favorite moments in any film honestly). But there are some more tearjerking moments that come right near the end.

And this movie earns those tears. We’ve spent this entire movie getting to know these two characters, and by the end of it all, we love them both.

Oh, and here’s a delicious piece of irony–if Del and Neal had just stayed at the Wichita airport, they would’ve been able to catch a flight out and make it to Chicago right on time. But where’s the fun in that?

I truly love this movie and I’ll be watching it with my family this Thanksgiving Day. It is one of my absolute favorite movies of all time.

My Favorite Movies – Home Alone (1990)

16 Nov

By Tanner Smith

It’s the hugely successful family comedy that didn’t get many positive reviews from critics at the time–well, it still remains a holiday classic to this day, so I wonder who brainwashed who?

I grew up with “Home Alone” and I still watch it every holiday season. It’s hilarious sometimes, heartwarming other times, and altogether a delight to watch every time.

And believe it or not, this is actually one of the first instances that pop into my head when I think of “character development.” Look at Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) at the beginning of the film and then look at him at the end of the film–this 8-year-old little bratty pissant has learned self-preservation and the value of family. It’s intriguing to see this kid’s coming-of-age journey in between.

I can see someone (let’s say an adult) watching this movie for the first time and thinking to themselves, “This is an annoying self-entitled little puke–why am I watching a movie about him?” And…yeah, in the early scenes, Kevin can be a bit much for the audience to handle, let alone his large family. But that’s just because most of us would rather forget how annoying and bratty we were at that age.

Then the kid is accidentally left alone in his large suburban household, after his extended family left for a vacation to Paris in a hurry. Well, now what’s to do? Easy answer: jump on the parents’ queen-size bed, eat all the junk food, go through your older brother’s private collection, watch violent movies, and do things your parents would never let you do before (like ride a sled down the stairs and out the front door)! That’s the first day alone–but on the second day, he needs a new toothbrush, so it’s time to steal some hidden money from the house and go out to buy one. And on the third day, he goes grocery shopping and even does some laundry because he knows when there’s play, there’s also work to be done.

Kevin is smarter than maybe even he thought, which also comes through when he learns of the constant reappearances of two burglars, Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), outside the house. He comes up with clever ways to fool them into leaving–turning on all the lights, setting up a fake house party with mannequins (seriously, how many mannequins are in this house??), and matching firecrackers with a TV-movie shootout. (“Keep the change, ya filthy animal!”)

But the charade doesn’t fool the “Wet Bandits,” as they’re called, for long, as they learn the kid’s home alone and decide to rob the house with him inside. So, Kevin sets up elaborate traps all around the house for them to fall into…bringing us to the hilarious sequence late in the film in which Harry and Marv get beat up…BAD!

This whole extended sequence is the comedic highlight of the film–it’s a kid’s wish fulfillment to take down the bad guys, and this takes it to the extreme. It’s been proven that many of these pranks would actually KILL someone in real life (go watch the “Honest Action – Home Alone” video on YouTube for a health professional’s opinion)–but in a movie, seeing irons and paintcans bounce off their heads and knock them to the ground is a riot to watch because Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are hamming it up big-time and play it as jerks who have it coming–it’s like a Three Stooges short or a Tom & Jerry cartoon in that the harder the hits, the funnier they are.

Eh…except when Marv steps on a nail. That was too much for me. (OUCH!!)

Obvious joke is that Kevin has become the Jigsaw Killer, to which I say, “Go see ‘Better Watch Out’ for a twisted version of ‘Home Alone’–the kid in THAT movie makes Macaulay Culkin’s sociopathic character in ‘The Good Son’ look like the Nutcracker Prince!”

What else is there to love about “Home Alone?” There’s actually a lot.

For one thing, I already mentioned that it was heartwarming. The way Kevin’s mother (Catherine O’Hara) practically threatens violence in her complicated journey to get back home to Kevin on Christmas Eve is funny but also very sweet. And of course, there’s the scene that even made George Costanza cry in one episode of “Seinfeld”–the church scene, in which Kevin has a moving heart-to-heart with an elderly, formerly intimidating neighbor (Roberts Blossom).

John Williams’ music score is also great, with a lot of memorable orchestral themes making for the best music composition I’ve ever heard in a comedy.

Director Chris Columbus’ work is often what could be labeled as “workmanlike,” but he deserves credit here for his uses of the colors red and green in the backgrounds and foregrounds to give the film a Christmas atmosphere. That’s another reason I love to watch this film around Christmas–it just FEELS like the type of film to watch during the season.

And of course, there’s young Macaulay Culkin, who was in the spotlight for a long time after this movie, which sadly didn’t do his life and career any favors. (Though, at least he seems happier now.) His work here in “Home Alone” is absolutely genuine, giving us a very bratty but also very innocent character to follow throughout the film. By the end, we’re happy that Kevin has learned his lesson…until “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.”

“Home Alone 2″…is basically the same movie except set in New York. You could call it “Home Alone 2: The Search for More Money” (of which it made a bundle, because of course). Culkin and Columbus even make fun of what a pointless sequel it is in “Home Alone’s” audio commentary. But with that said, I do enjoy watching this sequel every year too. It has enough fresh humor and a certain charm to it that makes it fun for me to watch… Just don’t expect me to call it a legit good film–let me put it this way: it both “is” and “isn’t” “22 Jump Street,” at the same time. But if the people who made it can mock it and have fun with it at the same time, why shouldn’t I?

“Home Alone” is another holiday treasure written by the late, great John Hughes (“Planes, Trains & Automobiles”). I’ll probably watch it about 4-5 times by Christmas Day. (And that goes for “Home Alone 2” as well.)

My Favorite Movies – Half Nelson (2006)

15 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Acclaimed actor Ryan Gosling received his first Oscar nomination for playing a middle-school teacher with a crack habit in the great 2006 drama film, Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden’s “Half Nelson.” Gosling had already shown promise as a young rising star, with gripping work in “The Believer,” “The Notebook,” and “Stay.” But it was his performance in “Half Nelson” that became the breakthrough that his career needed.

“Half Nelson” is about good people who adopt bad habits, such as a father figure (played by Anthony Mackie) who is a drug dealer. And Gosling’s character Dan Dunne is the one in question. He’s a history teacher for an inner city middle school and he’s very good at what he does, despite (or rather, because of) not sticking to the assigned syllabus. One of the most subtle touches of Gosling’s performance is that the only thing that truly gets him excited is when he gets to talk of arguments of power and world politics (whether in or out of the classroom), showing that it’s the very thing he has a real passion about. But it’s mostly when he’s outside of school (or even when he’s in the teacher’s lounge) that he’s half-dead, even smoking crack as a vice to get him through the strangeness of life.

He forms a friendship with one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), after she discovers his habit. And he learns more about her (such as how Mackie, the dealer, gets her involved in his business), enough to get an idea of what she needs and what she should avoid. But who is he to judge? Therein lies the interesting question surrounding Gosling’s character—can a basehead be a good role model? Is that even possible?

Gosling has to portray a man who means well, who is good at his job, and who can give good advice…but he also has to portray him as flawed, destructive, irresponsible to himself and potentially others. Who is Dunne in the classroom? He’s a cool, hip teacher whose class most of us would be happy to take. Who is Dunne outside the classroom? He’s practically a zombie. We see how he lives in his small apartment, how he wakes up in the morning on a hardwood floor, and how he drags himself to work each day.

This is why Gosling’s performance is so powerful and why it deserved many accolades—he’s able to pull it off with the right amount of body language, carefully written dialogue (and a bit of improvisation as well), and subtlety to get us to understand what goes on in this person’s head and why we should care.

Gosling IS this movie—if he didn’t convince us that he was capable of so many layers to put on this performance, it would all fall apart. Dan Dunne is not a bad person—he just has a bad habit. We know a lot of people like that, and “Half Nelson” reminds us of it.

Ryan Gosling would go on to stardom and subsequent impressive performances (“Drive,” “The Nice Guys,” and “La La Land,” just to name a few). But we shouldn’t forget that it was “Half Nelson” that showed the world that he deserved the attention to begin with.

My Favorite Movies – Phantom Town (1999)

3 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Why am I talking about THIS movie?

Well that’s a stupid question–the answer is “Because it’s awesome!”

Or maybe it’s just nostalgia goggles, since I grew up with these straight-to-video movies that were made with kids in mind. But I watched A LOT of cheesy direct-to-video family fare, and upon rewatching them as an adult for curiosity’s (and nostalgia’s) sake, a lot of them didn’t hold up as well. (Some of them were just straight-up PAINFUL to rewatch!)

So, I don’t have the best explanation as to why I enjoy “Phantom Town” just as much now as I did when I was a little kid…but I don’t care. I just like it. Not too long ago, I even admitted it was one of my top 100 personal faves.

“Phantom Town” is about three kids whose parents disappear one night and they go out to look for them. Their only clue is the name of a desert town (“Long Hand”) they seemingly got lost in, but the town doesn’t seem to appear on any road map. They do find the place, which seems to be in an Old West time warp. But it’s a bit more complicated than that, as it turns out the whole town is taken over by an ancient evil that seeks to consume the souls of anyone who enters its domain.

Oh, and there’s a lot of green slime that the people bleed…I was 8 years old when I first saw this movie over a dozen times, and I was a big “Goosebumps” book fan at the time, so I kept referring to the green slime as “Monster Blood.” (Oh, and the furniture bleed the stuff too, because the whole town is like one giant living creature. It even has a nervous system underneath, like a cavernous maze–and guess what, there’s more green down there too.)

Like I said, I was about 8 years old when I first watched it (my parents rented it for me at the video store countless times). Every time I watched it, I always loved it. (And when I taped it once on TV, I was even more excited when I found three deleted scenes that weren’t on the official VHS release!) Why did I love it so much? In hindsight, I think I have my answer. It wasn’t talking down to me because it knew it was made for kids like me–instead, it wanted TO SCARE ME because that’s why I was seeing a scary movie!

There’s creepy music, with what sounds like moaning over the score, that I’ll never forget. (In fact, every time I rewatched the film and the music started to play over the opening main title, I always got shivers!) There are zombies posing as the kids’ parents, scratching at the car windows while the kid is trapped inside the car. (WTF?!) There’s a scaly gunslinger chasing after the kids. There’s a giant eyeball monster with tentacles that trap them at one point. There’s all kinds of odd folklore (which I’m not sure is accurate to Native American lore, but I’m going to guess it isn’t) that’s set up before the kids set foot into the evil town. The film even ends with the little girl screaming when she realizes that the nightmare isn’t over after we thought our heroes escaped it! This is just before the credits roll–no other movie I was seeing at that age was that gutsy!

I can’t help it. I have a real soft spot for the movie. Granted, the CGI is pretty bad, which makes me appreciate the practical effects even more. Some of the acting is a little wooden, particularly from the middle child, played by Taylor Locke, who was related to one of the film’s producers (but at least he’s better here than he was in “Aliens in the Wild Wild West”–oh yeah, THAT was a thing!). And not everything really adds up when you really think about it. But I can never look at “Phantom Town” as just another one of those cheap monster movies I watched as a kid, because I still love watching it as an adult.

My Favorite Movies – Begin Again (2014)

20 Oct

By Tanner Smith

Here’s a movie that I watched for the first time during quarantine in 2020 and I instantly fell in love with.

“Begin Again,” written & directed by John Carney (who also made Once and Sing Street)…you know, I don’t like that title. “Begin Again?” I’m just gonna call it “Twice,” because it’s essentially a Hollywood remake of Carney’s indie hit “Once.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with it having many shades of “Once.” Far from it. In fact, I absolutely praise and adore this movie for being so great at being what it is: a wonderfully acted & executed “a-star-is-born” story with equal parts domestic realism and fairy-tale sweetness.

I rented the DVD from the library before quarantining with my family during lockdown in 2020. Soon after watching it (for the first time), I’ve shown it to my mom, who loves it as much as I do, and we watched it countless times together.

I could say I don’t know how I missed this movie when it was released in 2014, but maybe I was too focused on films like Boyhood and Life Itself to pay attention to much else. But better late than never.

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo star in the movie. Knightley plays an English singer-songwriter who joins her boyfriend (Adam Levine, strangely not playing himself) who’s a pop icon making it big in New York City. That her talents are underappreciated by his record label is bad enough, but he’s also been having an affair with one of his assistants. This leads her to perform a sad ballad at an open-mic rathole, where no one seems to pay attention to her…except for Ruffalo, who plays a depressed, alcoholic, washed-up record producer who hears magic in her performance.

The moment I saw that scene, in which Ruffalo watches and listens to Knightley perform her song “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” was when I knew I was going to love this movie. Upon first viewing, I had to rewind and replay it three times before continuing the rest of the film. Everything about that scene made me happy. It’s a moment in which Ruffalo shines as a down-on-his-luck alcoholic depressive suddenly finds purpose.

It’s also a good song, which leads me to another reason for me to love this movie: the original soundtrack is very impressive! As the movie progresses, with Ruffalo producing an album for Knightley and her newly recruited backup band in a most unconventional way (not recording inside a studio but all over NYC outside), we get catchy tracks like “Coming Up Roses” and “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home,” all of which I would happily pay for, download, and listen to repeatedly!

Oh, and there’s a song Knightley and James Corden (playing her friend who helps with the album) perform a breakup song for Levine over voicemail. The song (“Like a Fool”) is good, but there’s a moment where Corden tries to bring a kazoo into the accompaniment that freaking kills me! (Corden gets a lot of flack as an actor, but he’s funny and likable here as Knightley’s friend.)

The only songs I didn’t care for were the ones I don’t think I was supposed to like, such as Levine’s remixed pop hits. Whenever they play, I mock, “Ugh! I’m sick of Maroon 5!”

And I love the overall spirit of these talented people “going indie,” as I like to put it, and creating their art without the help of wealthy studio execs. (You could argue that’s a bit hypocritical, since this film was made and released by a big studio. But do I care? NO!)

The biggest song that apparently got a lot of attention after this film’s release was “Lost Stars,” which was also nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar. We hear many versions of this song (including a horrible studio-influenced remix), but the final version, performed by a sincere Levine…..yeah it’s pretty great. (Congrats, movie–you got me to like a 2010s Adam Levine song.)

So, yeah! I love “Begin Again”–er, “Twice.” I love it as much as any other movie made by this super-talented filmmaker who clearly loves music and film and the way the two can blend together to convey emotion and passion.

My Favorite Movies – Knives Out (2019)

18 Oct

By Tanner Smith

I actually want to say very little about “Knives Out” because I don’t know how many people have seen it by now. And to those people who haven’t yet, I say this: it is a perfect film to go into as cold as possible. All I’ll say about it is there’s a wealthy family, the patriarch is found dead, is it suicide (like the police determined) or is it murder (like Daniel Craig’s private-detective Benoit Blanc suspects)…and that’s all I’m going to say about the plot because believe me, it gets complicated. And fun.

You think you’ve seen it all in terms of “whodunnit” and “murder mystery”? I don’t think you’ve seen one quite like “Knives Out!”

This is a wonderfully crafted movie, so much so that as great as it is to see it for the first time, it’s surprisingly even better the second time. When you know all the secrets upon seeing this film again, it’s easier to admire and appreciate all the delicate care that went into crafting this BRILLIANT screenplay and the expert filmmaking that followed. Rian Johnson, who was on a lot of people’s sh*t-list for quite some time because of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (those people, Johnson rubbed off as “trolls” and “manbabies”), showed everyone his truest talent by working super hard.

Thankfully, it paid off. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t love this movie.

Again, I don’t want to go into too much detail here, because it’s too good for me to spoil. This is going to be one of those films that will stay with me and fascinate me with each passing viewing.

My favorite scene: I’ll try to be as vague as possible…but it involves a lot of people talking down to each other…and they have no idea what’s coming to them soon after. (If there’s anything I love more than seeing horrible people get theirs, it’s seeing RICH horrible people get theirs!) I remember at the theater I work at, my coworkers and I would catch glimpses of that scene when the film screened–we giggled hysterically because we knew what was coming, having already seen the film.

There’s been talk of a spin-off film featuring a new mystery involving Benoit Blanc–I will happily see it!

My Favorite Movies – The Exorcist (1973)

15 Oct

By Tanner Smith

There were people who thought the Devil himself was actually in on “The Exorcist”…hopefully, no one still thinks that after actually WATCHING “The Exorcist.”

If you look at IMDb Trivia for “The Exorcist,” it states that apparently actress Linda Blair, who played a girl possessed by a demon, received death threats from religious zealots who believed the film “glorified Satan.” First of all, who were these people–Westboro Baptist?? Secondly, there is no way “The Exorcist” “glorified Satan.”

I’ll get to that, but first, here’s a little background:

“The Exorcist,” nearly 50 years old, is still declared one of the scariest movies of all time. This film holds up really well, and the scenes that freaked a lot of people out then still scare them now. There are many reasons why it still gets under the skin of many people, but I think the main reason is that it doesn’t seem like it was made as a horror film–it seems more like it was made with intent focused on character development and gritty atmosphere, and director William Friedkin used that to make it all the more impactful when the more horrific stuff occurs. The film is scary because it feels real. That’s how many of the best horror films become successful.

I will admit…the first time I saw “The Exorcist,” I was 14 years old and had already seen the most iconic moments from the movie (thanks to a DVD I repeatedly watched, about unforgettable movie moments)–the possessed Regan (Linda Blair) vomiting on Father Karras (Jason Miller) and the parts of the exorcism that included spinning the head around and floating above the bed. I was expecting more scenes like that, not character drama, inner battles involving questioning faith, suffering loss, and lots of hospital visits. (Though, even watching it today, I think a few scenes involving medical-help could’ve been trimmed.) I just didn’t “get” “The Exorcist” when I first saw it. As time went on, however, I was able to see what it was truly about and that it was not just another scary movie; when I did, I really loved it.

Anyway, the plot involves wealthy actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and lower-class priest Damien Karras (Jason Miller) in two separate stories that wind up together when it becomes clear that Chris’ ill pre-teenage daughter Regan (Linda Blair) is possessed by a demonic spirit. Before Karras even visits the possessed Regan, we’re over an hour into the movie, and we’ve already gotten to know these characters as flawed people who are put into a situation that challenges their belief system. Chris is so successful in her line of work; she and Regan are happy together; it doesn’t seem like anything can go wrong…and then Regan gets very sick, and Chris tries so many things to make sure she gets cared for. And Karras is shaken after the death of his mother–this causes him to question his faith for a good period of time before Chris finds him and begs him to see Regan, now that she’s exhausted other options.

Something I love about when Karras first meets the possessed Regan, tied to a bed, her face all distorted, and her voice altered (and recorded by Mercedes McCambridge), is that he eases into believing that there’s something wrong with this girl apart from mental trauma. Regan demands he remove the straps keeping her confined to the bed. His response? “If you’re the Devil, why not make the straps disappear?” He’s challenging her. It’s only when he notices something that can’t be explained that he can’t deny what’s really happening. Then, he calls for an exorcism with Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), and that leads to a battle of wits and fears.

The film takes its time with the scares, and that’s why it affected audiences (some of which had to be taken out of the theater by paramedics). “The Exorcist” is essentially a character study interrupted by the supernatural, which makes for an intriguing horror film. We feel bad for Regan because she’s a sheltered child suddenly being taken over from within. We feel sympathy for Chris because she learns evil can invade her life, no matter how rich she is. And we feel what Karras is going through in this complicated point in his life when he doesn’t know what to believe anymore and he needs something to help regain his faith. (Jason Miller is really the emotional backbone of the movie–he’s really good here.) When something terrible happens to them, we feel it as it hits us deeply.

OK, now let’s talk about the load of junk that’s been hurled against “The Exorcist” that the film “glorified Satan.” That is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard about how people regard a horror film. I don’t think ANYONE who thinks that has actually seen the movie. For one thing, William Peter Blatty, the author of the film’s source novel, was Catholic and wrote the book based on his studies. For another thing, this is more a film about coming to grips with yourself and finding the courage to continue in dire situations, which is one of the common things the Bible teaches us. And finally, it’s a story based on faith and how it can help you out of some situations. How do I know this? (SPOILER ALERT!) Because the Devil doesn’t win in this movie. There is no way you can make me believe that “The Exorcist” glories the Devil in any way!

There are so many other movies about demon possession and exorcism…but not one of them came even close to the power “The Exorcist” brought us.

My Favorite Movies – Hot Rod (2007)

14 Oct

By Tanner Smith

I did not catch “Hot Fuzz” or Superbad in theaters in 2007, but I did see “Hot Rod” TWICE in a theater and it made me laugh out REALLY loud–so at least I was exposed to some good cinematic hilarity that year.

“Hot Rod” came out at just the right time for 15-year-old me. A few months prior, I had watched my first “SNL” episode (the one with Shia LaBeouf, the weekend “Disturbia” opened) and that was where I discovered comedians like Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Fred Armissen, and of course Andy Samberg–and I also discovered upon subsequent episodes more of what Samberg and his buddies Jorma Taccone and Akiva Shaffer, collectively called The Lonely Island, were about.

Lazy Sunday. D*ck in a Box. Roy Rules! And then I caught a trailer for something called “Hot Rod,” which starred Samberg as a would-be stuntman who crashes HARD and gets back up for me…and I just knew I HAD to see this movie!

It didn’t disappoint. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said I “lol’d,” because a lot of the nuttiness I was seeing on the big screen was HILARIOUS to 15-year-old Tanner!

Nowadays, “Hot Rod” is still so damn funny, but there’s one scene in it that still makes 29-year-old Tanner laugh out really loud upon each viewing. It’s the “Footloose” homage set on a mountain that results in…well, if you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you.

Another scene that still makes me LOL is the riot scene, featuring the song “You’re the Voice,” by John Farnham.

How’s the rest of the film? Well, while a lot of the hilarity has worn off on me with time, the charm sure hasn’t. “Hot Rod” is surprisingly sincere and isn’t mocking the characters so often, because it likes these central characters.

Speaking of whom, the central characters of Rod (Samberg) and his crew (Jorma Taccona, Bill Hader, and Danny McBride) are all funny and (more importantly) likable. I wish Isla Fisher as the love interest had more to do than just play the typically bland love interest, because if you watch her in other movies like “Wedding Crashers” and “Definitely, Maybe,” she’s freaking hilarious–here, she’s just a pretty face. But Will Arnett as Rod’s rival for her affections is amazing here.

Samberg was already becoming one of my favorite funnymen, thanks to the SNL Digital Shorts, but upon seeing this movie initially, he cemented his status (along with Jack Black) as one of my favorite funny people in America. (The Tenderloins, aka the Impractical Jokers, now share that high ranking for me as well.)

Since this film’s release, Samberg and his fellow Lonely Island cohorts have released other gems like Jizz In My Pants and I’m On a Boat, among other classics (btw, I own all of their albums), Samberg landed a main role on the show Brooklyn Nine-Nine, he killed as a host on the Indie Spirit Awards in 2013 (I’ll never forget his monologue, which sticks it to the Hollywood system), and the Lonely Island guys are all still working together, even as producers on recent movies such as Brigsby Bear, Palm Springs, and I Used to Go Here. (When I see their logo “Lonely Island Classics” pop up in the same font & background as “Sony Pictures Classics,” I smile from ear to ear.)

I almost forgot to mention “Hot Rod” was directed by Akiva Shaffer, and he, Samberg, and Taccone had all collaborated on the screenplay after it was initially written by Pam Brady as a Will Ferrell vehicle. Shaffer and Taccone also co-directed (and co-starred in, with Samberg) the equally funny “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” nine years after “Hot Rod.” And it’s a shame that neither of these two movies were box-office hits, but it’s a blessing they were both able to find more life on home media.