My Favorite Movies – Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

18 Jun

By Tanner Smith

What is the greatest sequel of all time? “The Godfather Part II” or “The Empire Strikes Back?” Well…it’s easy to say either one, but I’ll go with The Empire Strikes Back simply because it had more to prove.

I mean, “The Godfather Part II” had a lot to follow up with too, since its predecessor was a Best Picture winner. But “The Empire Strikes Back” had more to lose (and…yeah, I guess it did lose people upon initial theatrical release, but I’ll get to that in a bit) because it was a sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time and it had to bring in both the kids and the adults. The first movie already entertained the kids highly–simple themes, black-and-white aspects, nothing but adventure, and so on–and it helped bring in older audiences because of its added simplicity. But with the sequel, they needed to show that they weren’t here for the moment–they were here to stay. Audiences needed to be entertained, but they needed to leave this film wanting more and thinking even more about what they already saw.

What resulted was one of the greatest films of all time. (I should apologize for the hyperbole, but…I won’t.)

“The Empire Strikes Back” is entertaining, for sure. The battle against the Imperial Walkers, the chase into the asteroid belt, the lightsaber battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, among other sequences, are just as thrilling as anything in “A New Hope.” But there’s something else to this movie too. Under the guidance and teachings of wise Jedi master Yoda (which is still the greatest muppet work I’ve ever seen in any movie–the way it’s able to communicate even nonverbally is outstanding!), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has to learn more about what it truly means to master the arts of the Jedi. In any other movie, he’d go through some tough scrapes, then go in to fight the villain at the end, and come out victorious…but not in this movie.

“The Empire Strikes Back” does not end happily. The heroes are beaten and defeated (and one of them is captured), the villains are more powerful, and we now know more about the connection between Luke and Vader than what we ever could have expected (with what is still probably the greatest twist in any movie)…and audiences had to wait three years before learning what would happen next in “Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.”

And that’s where audiences were split on the film in 1980. Many people weren’t especially happy that they didn’t get the “Star Wars” movie they wanted. (Oh, how times haven’t changed.)

Quick side-note: I like to think the emotional responses left from audiences match the ones I went through as an audience member for 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” (At least we only had to wait one year for that film’s conclusion.)

But other people knew back then that what they just saw in “The Empire Strikes Back” took a lot of guts and left them thinking and discussing with others about everything. And in the years since, people have come back to it with a better mindset. It’s the darkest “Star Wars” movie we’ve gotten and it’s also the greatest–and it’s one of my top 30 favorite films of all time.

Now, about Star Wars Episode Vi: Return of the Jedi–I love parts of it, but other parts of it could’ve been cut out or expanded upon or simplified or whatever. It’s still an entertaining film for what it is and I still like it, but that’s about as far as it goes for me.

There are two other “Star Wars” movies that I’ll talk about in this series in the future because I can’t help but place them in my personal top 400-500 favorite movies (and yes, that is as far as the list goes–I’m not sorry, I love movies so much)–but I had to start with the two “Star Wars” movies in my top 100: “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” both of which the Force is still strong with.

My Favorite Movies – Star Wars (1977)

18 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Star Wars! How could this NOT be on my list of personal top 100 favorite movies? The movie that helped change pop culture geekdom/fandom for better or worse started with a hugely entertaining thrill ride from 1977 that still holds up even to this day. And I freaking love it!

…But as I mentioned in my initial review, which I wrote/posted here on Smith’s Verdict over five years ago (NOT the first time I saw “Star Wars,” mind you), there’s hardly anything new I can bring to a retrospective of one of the most popular movies of all time than my own personal feelings toward it. I’ve loved “Star Wars” (which I only refer to as “Episode IV” or “A New Hope” to avoid confusion in conversation) since I first saw it at age 15…but since I’ve learned more about the story of how it was made, I respect it even more.

Writer-director George Lucas took a big risk in making this film. Science-fiction fantasy-adventure wasn’t held in high regard at the time, so a classic-Western story set in space wasn’t being taken very seriously by studios, investors, or even most of the cast and crew. Lucas had made a big hit with the nostalgia-filled comedy “American Graffiti,” which gave him some free reign–but still, it was hard for people to believe that his next film wasn’t going to be a silly kid’s film. Nobody believed in “Star Wars” except for the guy in charge. it was his vision, and due to his anxieties and depression, he had trouble verbally communicating it often. Even when he showed it to his friends and colleagues, such as Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese, among others, the only one who saw something special in it that could make it a huge phenomenon was Spielberg. (But De Palma did lend a helping hand in crafting what is now popularly known as the introductory “Star Wars” opening crawl, which helps set the audience up for the universe they’re about to see.)

It seemed destined to fail. And then…well, I think you know what happened next.

That is a wonderful behind-the-scenes story, and I sincerely hope that there’s a cinematic biopic made about it in the future. (That, and the making of “Rocky,” which is equally inspiring, if not more so.)

Little did people know how highly successful “Star Wars” would become, leading to a franchise that has its hits and misses, to be sure, but will always be unique. And it began with this extremely fun film that is admittedly as simple as they come, with obvious heroes and obvious villains (again, classic-Western story here) and a treacherous journey with a lot of obstacles to overcome. But who cares how simple it is? It’s hugely entertaining and an amazing thrill ride that makes for two hours of great entertainment!

Side-note: I don’t particularly care for the Special Edition/”New Hope” version of the film, or the other Special Editions, for that matter. I don’t watch the “Star Wars” original trilogy on Disney+ (which has the updated versions); I just watch the original versions on DVD, which I’ll always treasure.

I’m sorry I can’t get into much more detail about the film (and if you want more, here’s my original review). As a stand-alone entry in a longer series of films, this film works wonders. It takes a lot to beat it in terms of sheer entertainment…now, in terms of something a little deeper than that, that’s what its sequel is for! (I’ll get to that soon…)

My Favorite Movies – The Mighty (1998)

17 Jun

By Tanner Smith

The Mighty is a film that just gets better and better each time I see it…and I would add “which is more than I can say for “Simon Birch,” though that’s really not fair.

Both “The Mighty” and “Simon Birch” were family films that came out in 1998, and people seemed to argue about which one is better. But why? They only have one similarity: a friendship between two adolescent outcasts with disabilities that they see as for a heroic reason (and even that’s handled differently in both films).

I watched both these movies a lot when I was a kid. “Simon Birch” had enough innocuous charm and likable characters for me to continue watching it, while “The Mighty” felt more natural and in a realistic setting (at least, when it doesn’t show the characters’ fantasies of King Arthur’s knights, but there’s a purpose for that). I’ve watched both movies again as an adult, and…honestly, the stuff that moved me in “Simon Birch” really irritated me now. It also follows an annoying trend I’ve seen in a lot of family movies (I also mention this in my review of The Journey of Natty Gann): everyone in the supporting cast must be a one-dimensional jerk so that we can feel more sympathy for the main characters (however, there were two exceptions–Ashley Judd’s brief role as the mother one of the boys, and Oliver Platt as Judd’s boyfriend who’s a genuinely nice guy). And, I’m sorry to say this, even Simon, the title character, grew kind of annoying. While I don’t hate it, as it does have its worthwhile moments, it’s just a reminder to me that it is possible to outgrow some of the films we watch repeatedly as children.

“The Mighty,” on the other hand, I didn’t watch as much as “Simon Birch” back in the day. I think it was because it was a little too real for me. I mentioned in my review of The Secret of Roan Inish that there are two kinds of family films, one better than the other that most kids won’t want to check out but then will notice how much it grew on them since they watched it. “The Mighty” is a film like that. While it has its lighthearted moments (which are needed to balance out the heavier moments), this film is a little tougher in its issues (not so tough to gain an R rating, of course) and more poignant than one might expect. I can see real people in these characters, and they’re acted wonderfully (especially Kieran Culkin and Sharon Stone); I can feel what they’re going through; I like the philosophies that are used to connect the King Arthur stories to real life; the film even has a way of using sarcasm to say things about the characters’ backgrounds (for example, Kevin tells Max, “My dad was a magician–he heard the words ‘birth defect’ and disappeared.”), which is a risky but refreshing move; the fantasy aspects are not overdone; and so on. In the review, I complained about an unneeded climax involving the late James Gandolfini as Max’s psychotic father who causes Max to ultimately stand up to him and fight his inner demons as well. But I don’t think I mind it so much anymore).

What don’t I enjoy about “The Mighty?” Well, maybe that very catchy theme song by Sting…eh, who am I kidding? I like that too.

My Favorite Movies – Last Action Hero (1993)

16 Jun

By Tanner Smith

To quote the Honest Trailer of “Batman Forever,” “Yep, this is definitely the worst movie I’ve seen 40 times.”

Let me be clear–there is SO MUCH about “Last Action Hero” that doesn’t make sense. Like, AT ALL.

And everything that just about every critic has said about it…they’re right. It is a huge mess.

But damn it if it isn’t an interesting, fun, and amusing…huge mess. I can’t even take back my mixed review I posted for it here long ago.

But, dude…Schwarzenegger…the meta humor…the cool stunts…the fun premise…the Hamlet sequence…Charles Dance and his glass eye…that awesome-as-hell moment where Schwarzenegger busts through the skylight between two gunned henchmen and causes them to shoot each other…Tom Noonan as a caveman-like axe murderer…Ian McKellen as Death–THERE’S SO MUCH ABOUT THIS MOVIE TO LIKE!!!

“Last Action Hero,” directed by John McTiernan of “Die Hard” and “Predator” fame, is a heavily ambitious movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie movie about a young boy who is a huge fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and magically finds himself transported inside of one. I first saw this movie as a kid, and that idea alone was what got my interest to begin with.

The kid, named Danny (played with convincing pluck and energy by Austin O’Brien), has an opportunity to see an exclusive sneak preview of the latest in a series of Schwarzenegger films called Jack Slater (in which Schwarzenegger plays the titular LA cop). It’s “Jack Slater IV,” in which Slater is out to avenge the mob murder of his “second cousin” (played by the late Art Carney)–I love that he’s always referred to as his “second cousin,” because action-movie motivations always have to be “personal” in some way. (Btw, I guess he really didn’t mean that much to Slater because he isn’t even mentioned again after the first reel!)

Danny is friends with an old-school projectionist (Robert Prosky) who gives him the opportunity to see the movie late at night while he checks the print. For a gag, he gives him a golden ticket he claims to be “magic.” But soon after the movie begins, the ticket’s magic works all too well, transporting young Danny right into the middle of a chase scene in the streets of LA, where he suddenly appears in the back seat of Slater’s car. This chase scene is a lot of fun and the kid actually makes a good comic foil (and audience stand-in) for all the madness happening all around him, such as the car hurling off a bridge and going upward from an aqueduct.

In the greatest of action-buddy-movie contrivances, Slater’s captain Dekker (Frank McRae) lets Danny be his new partner on the case, since he knows more about it (from watching the movie’s prologue on-screen). This is all while Danny is trying to convince Slater that this is all a movie and he is played by a famous action star named Arnold Schwarzenegger. One of my favorite bits is when they visit a video store where Danny tries to prove it, and he’s shocked to find that Sylvester Stallone is the star of “Terminator 2!”

What about the fact that LA is filled with gorgeous buxom women? “This is California,” Slater retorts. And what about the fact that about over 9 million people live in LA alone, despite everyone having a 555 telephone number? “That’s why we have area codes.” Man, I love that!

The bad guy in the movie is supposed to be Italian mobster Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn), but the one who truly takes center stage is his supposed henchman (er, “lackey”), the sophisticated straightshooter Benedict (Charles Dance), who sports a glass eye. When he gets hold of the kid’s magic ticket is when Danny has to bring Slater into the real world to find him–but this isn’t like the movies (though it’s close enough, I guess). This is where the movie starts to drag, but there are still some interesting ideas here or there.

Oh, but before that happens, we get a thrilling sequence in which Slater and Danny have to infiltrate a mobster’s funeral to dispose of a body that is set to detonate nerve gas. This includes a lot of madness involving a crane that the little kid has to learn quickly how to operate while Slater has to dodge bullets from the guns of just about EVERY GUEST AT THE FUNERAL–but it’s a movie, so the odds are in the heroes’ favor.

Look, I’m not going to lie–this movie’s nuts, man. I didn’t even mention the fact that there’s a cartoon cat in a trenchcoat walking around Slater’s police station like he’s a normal member of the force. Is the cat a character in “Jack Slater IV??” I don’t know what the deal is, but…where was I going with this?

Maybe I just love the spirit of the movie. And the self parody of the action-movie genre. And the ingenuity of the screenplay (co-written by Shane Black).

Or maybe I just love it ’cause it’s fun. Let’s go with that.

My Favorite Movies – Breaking Away (1979)

16 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Previously on Smith’s Verdict: “Is it better to win or to keep your self-respect?”

Well, this movie, “Breaking Away,” takes it a step further.

“Breaking Away,” directed by Peter Yates (of “Bullitt” fame) and written by Steve Tesich (who won the Oscar for this screenplay), is about a working-class 19-year-old in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana. Like his friends, he still lives at home, isn’t in college, and isn’t sure what to do with his life. He does however have an affection for the sport of bicycle racing–he idolizes the famous Italian bike racers so much that he even speaks in an Italian accent, plays opera records much to the frustration of his father, and even renames Jake the cat to “Fellini.” He even manages to pick up a college girl, who thinks he’s an Italian exchange student, and he continues the ruse from there.

This is Dave (Dennis Christopher). His friends aren’t doing any better than he is–they spend nearly every day together and go swimming in water-filled rock quarries to pass the time. Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) has some idea of what he wants to do, which is marry his girlfriend Nancy (Amy Wright). Mike (Dennis Quaid) used to be a popular high-school football quarterback and is resentful of everyone who made it to college football except for him. Cyril (Daniel Stern) is even less ambitious, which would be so sad if he wasn’t so funny. (Cyril has the best lines in a film that is filled with great lines of dialogue.)

They’re labeled “cutters” by the university students, as a dirty slur to describe “townies” and because their parents were among the stonecutters who cut the limestones on numerous designs (including on campus). (The term “cutters” was made up for the film; the actual term is “stoners,” which wasn’t used for obvious reasons.) There’s a wonderful scene in which Dave’s father (Paul Dooley, wonderful here) takes a stroll with Dave on the college campus and talks about how he regrets the legacy he left behind for Dave. Dave says he doesn’t mind…his dad does.

Mike is sick of feeling inferior to the college guys (which include a young Ellis from “Die Hard,” I kid you not), so he wants to get him and his friends enrolled in the annual Indiana University Little 500 bicycle race–really, it’s a way for Dave to prove himself, so the four can sign up but Dave will actually ride the race for the team’s win. But Dave believes he’s better than a silly college race, so he sets his mind on competing with a professional Italian cycling team for a big cross-town race.

What happens to Dave in this race and what it leads to afterwards always inspires me each time I watch this film. So many people will do anything to win no matter what–but as this movie argues, what does that even prove? Dave learns (and I think his friends learn this too) that it’s the little accomplishments (and how they’re accomplished) that truly matter.

People generally root for the underdog in movies–it’s not just that we want them to win; what’s more important is how they win. (It’s kind of like watching a KC Chiefs game!)

I mentioned there were some funny lines from Cyril in this movie. Here are a few of them:

“When you’re 16, they call it sweet-16. When you’re 18, you get to drink and vote and see dirty movies. What the hell you get to do when you’re 19?”

“We rednecks are few. Paleface college students are many. I counsel peace.”

“We may plead, but we would never beg!”

And my personal favorite: “I wouldn’t mind thinking I was somebody myself.”

None of these sound very funny out of context. Just watch the movie if you haven’t already.

My Favorite Movies – The Bad News Bears (1976)

16 Jun

By Tanner Smith

When I was a little kid, I watched a lot of children’s sports movies, such as “Little Giants,” “The Big Green,” the “Mighty Ducks” movies. I didn’t watch “The Bad News Bears” until I was a little older, at age 13. And even though I had seen its copycats many, many times and enjoyed them each time, there was still something about “The Bad News Bears” that just felt so fresh and new to me at that time. Why is that?

Well, for one, I knew it wasn’t talking down to me because I was a kid. This 1970s movie was made for adults AND kids, and director Michael Ritchie and screenwriter Bill Lancaster weren’t afraid to insert a little dark comedy and a lot of sardonic humor into what would’ve been your standard kid’s sport movie about an underdog Little League baseball team. The coach is an alcoholic grump. The kids are little big-mouthed smartasses. And the important lesson is more for the adults than the kids: don’t take out your frustrations associated with failure on those younger than you.

Oh, and it’s also…not very politically correct. I’m sure many people who have seen this movie remember a certain line of dialogue from a little tough-guy kid putting down his teammates which includes harsh racial slurs–damn, was that a different time!

Walter Matthau stars in one of his most iconic roles as Morris Buttermaker, a former minor-league baseball player who’s now a grumpy drunk. He’s been asked to coach a Little League team that has been formed as part of a lawsuit to allow all children to play. As you’d expect, the kids are not very skilled and Buttermaker isn’t an ideal coach–he even passes out due to drunkenness on the pitcher’s mound during practice.

When the kids’ spirits are broken during a disastrous first game, Buttermaker decides to take his job more seriously. Even though the team votes to opt out of the season, Buttermaker shouts that they have no choice and they’re gonna get better no matter what! (I love that scene–it’s even funnier in the remake.) They even recruit a couple other kids with their own skills: Amanda (Tatum O’Neal) and Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley). Soon enough, the team gains more confidence and starts winning games and make it to the championship game versus a team coached by the aggressive and competitive Roy Turner (Vic Morrow).

Mistakes are made, lessons are learned, a kid is even SLAPPED at one point (jeez, 1970s, you were HARSH), and I don’t even give a damn about the outcome of the game more than how everyone reacts to it. Because this movie is far more better-written than any of its copycats that came after.

Why does “The Bad News Bears” stand out even today? Because it’s not like those other movies–instead, it’s an interesting, unflinchingly honest look at competition in modern society. We get that in the way Buttermaker’s backstory about his old playing days and his personal life is given to us, as well as Buttermaker’s counter-rival Turner, who just wants to win because it’s probably the way he was coached as a young person and will do what it takes to achieve…well, ANYTHING in his life. The kids are portrayed as real kids and ones who need positive role models in their lives–Buttermaker may not be the best example they got, but he is the only one and it turns out he’s not too bad at it.

See? Both adults AND kids can get something out of this comedy, and that’s the reason I think it still holds up today.

I saw its first sequel, “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training”–it’s not very good, but it does have its funny moments here or there. I never watched “The Bad News Bears Go to Japan” in its entirety–I saw the first 10-15 minutes once and then changed the channel.

I do like the 2005 remake, directed by Richard Linklater, though I’m a little disappointed by how faithful Linklater was to the material–it’s pretty much the same script as the original, only updated. The best part about it, though, is Billy Bob Thornton as Buttermaker–Thornton goes beyond Matthau’s grumpy demeanor and instead plays Buttermaker as a guy who most likely has a body stashed in the trunk of his car. To me, that makes his scenes with the kids all the more hilarious.

What’s more important to us? To win or keep our self-respect? Well, maybe this will help–as the wise Bill Murray said in “Meatballs,” “IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER!”

My Favorite Movies – Permanent Record (1988)

16 Jun

By Tanner Smith

“Permanent Record” is an underrated teen-related film from the ‘80s that deserves to be checked out. What’s it about? Teenage suicide…

Yeah, before this taboo subject was satirized in the black-comedy “Heathers” a year after this film’s release, it was centered on two serious teen films in the mid-1980s. One of them was a made-for-TV after-school special called “A Desperate Exit” (or “Face at the Edge of the World,” as it’s sometimes called), starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Rob Stone. Then, a couple years later, indie filmmaker Marisa Silver, along with a team of three writers, approached the subject with more thoughtfulness in “Permanent Record.”

The suicide aspect doesn’t arrive until midway through the film. Up until that point, we get a nice, accurate (sometimes disturbingly so) portrait of a model high-school student who just wants everything to be “perfect.” David (Alan Boyce) is a good boy. He’s a nice guy, gets good grades, is a talented musician, helps compose the music for the school production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” and has just received a good scholarship. To his best friend Chris (Keanu Reeves) and other students in his class (including two played by Jennifer Rubin and Michelle Meyrink), David has it made. But something is wrong here. David doesn’t feel like he can handle all his responsibilities and would rather not be depended on for once. The great thing about this first act, aside from first-rate acting & direction, is just how subtle David seems to be taking his crises as they worsen to him.

When you hear the word “suicide” associated with this film, it should come as no surprise that David does kill himself. At first, his friends think it was an accident that killed him. But then Chris receives a posthumous letter from David, saying nothing went the way he wanted, and that’s when things become clear. What isn’t fully clear to them is why he did it. David was the person they wanted to be and he took his own life when he couldn’t handle the pressure. Or was it for something else as well? And will they follow in his footsteps and do the same thing he did? Nothing is spelled out as to why David committed suicide, but it is hinted that when he expected perfection out of life, he felt he was doomed because it would or could lead to failure and despair. Ultimately, it’s up to the survivors to make the right choices and go on living.

There is much in “Permanent Record” that is cheesy and dated, and some of the dialogue is a little off (that, and sometimes Michelle Meyrink’s line readings are a bit stilted). But there is a lot however that does ring true and are executed very well.

Alan Boyce is very, very good as David, capturing the perfect “model student” to a T. He has such a natural charisma that I’m actually surprised he didn’t go anywhere after this. But as it turns out, he’s not the main focus. The main focus is on David’s best friend Chris, played by Keanu Reeves, who, between “River’s Edge” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” was a rising star. His performance in this film is one of his best, playing a confused kid who has to grow up and face reality when he would rather just kick back and party. A scene that shows Reeves’ remarkable ability is when Chris barely witnesses David’s end–Chris is drunk off his ass when slowly but surely realizes the horrible truth that his best friend is gone.

Another performance I want to single out is Jennifer Rubin (probably best known to horror movie buffs as a punk girl from the third “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie) as a shy girl who secretly loved David. Her scenes with Chris as she talks to him about the future she imagined with them and their friends are heartbreaking. The part that gets me the most could have been the most clichéd but I bought it with no problem—it’s a payoff to David’s “lost song” that he wrote before he died that serves as a memorial for him, during the play. There are other teenagers in this movie, including David’s “friend-with-benefits” who never saw their relationship as more than just sex (and therefore, she has no clear answer for why David committed suicide either) and a nerdy boy who tries to belong with the in-crowd which includes David and Chris and such (he ends up helping with the music for the school play). They get their moments to good effect.

Yeah, some of these actors look too old for their parts, which makes it kind of weird whenever Reeves (24 at the time) keeps asking for beer. But the film is well cast and performed.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the best character in the film. It’s not one of the teenagers; it’s actually the high-school principal, played by Richard Bradford. This is one of the best authority characters in any teen film I’ve seen. He’s understanding, he’s patient, and when he’s impatient or tough, we can understand why. How can we understand why? Because unlike most “teen films,” we do see scenes away from the teenagers that give the principal more character. Thanks to the attention given to him, this is quite possibly the most three-dimensional high-school-principal character I’ve ever seen in a teen-related film, and Richard Bradford does a good job playing him.

“Permanent Record” is well-directed with care by Marisa Silver. Silver’s debut film before this was 1984’s “Old Enough,” which was about two 13-year-old girls from opposite sides of the tracks who become friends for a summer. While I don’t think it’s as good as “Permanent Record,” it does show that this director did have a gift of empathy for her characters and the world they live in. (It’s easy to see why she went from film to literary arts.) That’s especially true of “Permanent Record.”

A few words about Gerry (2002)

10 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Previously on Smith’s Verdict: “And as far as the argument of ‘Last Summer’ being ‘too slow’ for some people goes, well…I’ve seen Gus Van Sant’s ‘Gerry,’ so what else you got?”

“Gerry”…is NOT one of my favorite films, but it is a film that I hold in some special kind of regard because…just because.

It is what it is, and what it is…helps me sleep sometimes. (No joke–when I was going through my early stages of Multiple Sclerosis and suffering some insomnia as a result, this film helped me get some sleep!)

My fellow film buffs are probably giggling when I mention that, but those who have no idea what this movie is, let me tell you: “Gerry” is a film about two guys (played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get lost in a desert…and they wander around…and they talk a little bit…and they walk…and walk…and walk…and walk…and walk………and walk……….and………

That’s it. That’s literally the entire film! Oh, and one of them dies at the end. I would’ve issued a spoiler alert for that, but…nah.

And it’s just…so…fascinating. To think that a director as talented as Gus Van Sant (whose “Drugstore Cowboy,” “Good Will Hunting,” and “Finding Forrester” I really admire) would really go through with this…..

Remember when he remade “Psycho” shot-for-shot? He said he did it “so no one else would have to.” Maybe that’s why he made a film about two guys wandering around in a desert: so no one else would have to. That’s strangely kind of commendable in a sense.

To watch “Gerry” is to be hypnotized–even AFTER you’ve muttered to yourself in a daze, “Good God…they’re really going for it…it’s so boring…so long…when will it end?? I feel so tired…and alone…and confused…what is life…what is love…who am I…”

Is “Gerry” profound or just pretentious? Well…yes. It’s just…beautifully empty.

“Gerry” was part of a trilogy of films Van Sant called his “death trilogy.” He followed “Gerry” with a similarly slow-paced film called Elephant, which showed the mundane average goings-on of a typical high-school day before a shooting occurred. Then came “Last Days,” which was inspired by the death of Kurt Cobain and showed the slow deterioration of a similar rock star. All 3 of these films are slow and uneventful–but they definitely leave an impression.

(Btw, I like “Elephant”–it’s both compelling and terrifying. “Last Days,” I barely remember.)

Overall, “Gerry” just reminds me of something that could’ve been made in film school as an experimental art piece. And it was made by a high-profile director and starred high-profile actors who are hardly given much to do other than spew some BS every several minutes (if even), get in a tough spot where one of them has to jump from a tall boulder, and just…walk…a lot!

I just can’t get emotionally invested in these two guys because I’m not even sure whether or not THEY’RE emotionally invested! At least with Last Summer, I knew who those two guys were!

A film this abstract is something for the Sundance crowd, right? Well…yes and no. Apparently, there were many walkouts during its premiere screening in 2002. I can’t say I blame them, but at the same time…how often do we get movies like this?


That’s it, I’m done talking about “Gerry.” I should’ve stopped at “this film helped me get some sleep!”

I don’t love it, I don’t hate it–it’s just admirable and yet frustrating at the same time.

It is…what it is.

My Favorite Movies – Last Summer (2013)

10 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Mark Thiedeman’s “Last Summer” has this in common with 45RPM–both independent films were made in Arkansas and they both premiered at the 2013 Little Rock Film Festival. (They were also probably the most talked-about selections in the festival.)

I wasn’t as active in the festival as I would be a year later, when I was part of the press and would see as many of the festival’s films as I could. So, I didn’t see “Last Summer” because my mind was more focused on “45RPM” and the made-in-Arkansas short films. When Mark Thiedeman won the LRFF2013 Best Arkansas Director award for “Last Summer” was when I regretted missing it. I’d surely see it some day…

Then I saw Thiedeman’s follow-up film, Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls, at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival–I was as blown away as everyone else who saw it. (“Sacred Hearts,” by the way, is still a masterpiece seven years later–I love coming back to it every now and then. It’s a real treasure of a film.) After practically singing its praises in a review, I wondered when I could see “Last Summer.”

Shortly after, “Last Summer” was released on-demand. So, I checked it out…

I was perplexed. Maybe a little confused. Maybe even a little annoyed. But I was intrigued.

It was very slow. It seemed to rely more on atmosphere than character. It seemed rather void of traditional narrative structure. And by the end, I didn’t feel as emotionally overwhelmed as I think writer-director Mark Thiedeman intended.

I told myself as time went on that it wasn’t for me–but I still thought about it often. I thought about the beautiful cinematography that showed off the summertime nature setting and made me feel like I was there. I thought about that special last summer for most of us before we have to break away from our loved ones. I thought about the film’s small-town setting and how it reminded me so much of my own upbringing in a Northeast Arkansas small town. I thought about that dialogue-heavy opening scene that establishes the mood for the rest of the film. I thought about that ending some more. I thought, hey wait a minute, I should watch this again!

And watch it again, I did. A few more times, actually, on Netflix. And after catching it again recently on Tubi long since that last Netflix streaming (I think it was 3-4 years ago?), I knew I should write about it for “My Favorite Movies”–because it still speaks to me.

“Last Summer” is essentially a 70-minute visual poem about the emotions felt by a teenaged small-town-Arkansan named Luke (Samuel Pettit) who is facing the end of a romance between him and his boyfriend Jonah (Sean Rose), who is leaving for college. Luke is a talented athlete but a mediocre student, whereas Jonah is seemingly great at everything. (According to Luke, Jonah even sold a painting he made when he was 4 years old.) We all had that in common, whether with best friends or with lovers, where the main thing you have in common is each other.

The film begins with an overture, as Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 5” plays over about five minutes of images that will more or less play a part in what we’re about to see. I highly advise you to stick with it because what follows is a key introductory scene establishing character through dialogue.

This scene, which features a conversation between Luke and his summer-school math teacher (Deb Lewis), gives us all the exposition we need, and it’s written carefully and beautifully. It sets us up for the rest of the film, which simply shows us rural working-class homes, small-town life, the boys walking through the woods, and so on. We know what the central dilemma is for Luke and Jonah, which is similar to a theme in one of my personal favorite films, War Eagle, Arkansas–will you stay in your comfortable hometown or will you leave and see what else is out there?

And the best part is that it’s not spelled out for us in this imagery (or even in the voiceovers from the boys that appears at one point or another). Luke and Jonah don’t even exchange a lot of dialogue with each other, but I can still tell how they feel about each other. It takes a talented filmmaker like Thiedeman to pull off something like that.

It also takes talented actors to assist as well. Samuel Pettit is excellent as Luke–he hits every perfect note that he has to portray with this character, and it feels as though he IS this character. Sean Rose is also terrific as Jonah, who arguably has the more complex dilemma of the two leads, seeing as how he knows he has more opportunities than Luke and isn’t sure he wants to fulfill all of them. Also, Deb Lewis does solid work as she sympathizes with Luke’s situation (as seen in the aforementioned expository opener).

Something else I admire about the film is how it was shot. To my understanding, it was shot with Canon DSLR cameras and in natural light, which helps give it that raw passion and style. I don’t see a pretentious indie film project trying to be “edgy”–I see Mark Thiedeman making a labor of love and inviting me to share the experience rather than distract from it.

So, “Last Summer” is not “traditional,” as I mentioned in an above paragraph. So what? Artists have different ways of presenting their art and you either go along with it or you don’t. And as far as the argument of “Last Summer” being “too slow” for some people goes, well…I’ve seen Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry,” so what else you got?

My Favorite Movies – 45RPM (2017)

10 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Wait…Juli Jackson’s “45RPM” was in film festivals starting 2013 and it wasn’t officially released until 2017?! Well, that just further proves a point I made in other posts–2017 was a darn good year for movies!

What are my absolute favorite movies (my top 5 desert-island movies, if you will)? War Eagle, Arkansas. Stand by Me. Back to the Future. Before Sunrise…..and Juli Jackson’s “45RPM.”

Now, let me just say right off the bat…it can definitely be argued that I have a personal bias towards this film because…well, I’ll get to it in a little bit.

“45RPM” is about an artist named Charlie, who gets a grant to create something new and unlike her previous painted works. But she doesn’t feel inspired to paint anything different because all she thinks about is a song she heard as a child–from her father’s Southern garage-rock band’s 45 LP, which she hasn’t heard since. She believes listening to the song again will help her see the image in her head more clearly, so she goes on a wild goose chase to a record store in Memphis–but it turns out to be a bust. But the store owner, Louie, also develops an interest for the record because his favorite obscure bluesman may have contributed to it way back when. So, Louie brings Charlie along on a road trip through Arkansas. They go to swap meets, garage sales, antique stores, wherever they can find clues that can lead them to a copy of the record if it even still exists.

I was very, very hesitant about calling “45RPM” one of my all-time personal favorite films for a long time. For one thing, I know the director. Juli Jackson, who wrote and directed the film, is an old friend/mentor of mine, and her story of making this film inspires me to this day.

For another, I know many of the actors in it, such as Candyce Hinkle, Johnnie Brannon, Jason Willeyy, Duane Jackson, and other Arkansas talents I’ve worked with since the making of this film.

And also, I’m IN the film! I play the emo laundromat employee who directs Charlie and Louie to another potential clue. (I’m only in it for a minute–filming that scene was one of the best days of my life.)

But I can’t help my feelings towards this wonderful film that I’m more than proud to have been a part of. The writing is excellent; the story is engaging; the two lead characters of Charlie and Louie are very appealing and brilliantly acted by Liza Burns and Jason Thompson; there’s a great feel for Arkansas throughout a great portion of the film (it still feels like home to me); I love that the soundtrack is mostly filled with Southern garage-rock singles; and…I can’t help it–I love, LOVE this movie!!

Every time I watch this film and I know my scene is coming (about an hour and 13 minutes in), I’m very tempted to skip ahead to the next scene. (It’s not my best work as an actor.) But I can’t–because it’s a reminder that I was part of this great film, even for a little while.

When posting about my favorite movies, I like to talk about my favorite scene of the movie in question. Well…for “45RPM,” I have three favorite scenes. One is a scene in which music aficionado Louie tries to communicate to artist Charlie why he doesn’t create his own music–the dialogue in this 3-minute segment is priceless. Another is a scene I loved reading in Juli’s screenplay–it involves a bridge, and that’s all I’ll say about it. And the third is an emotional final moment, filled with clarity and nostalgia.

There aren’t enough kind words I can say about this treasure of a film that I embrace wholeheartedly. And I consider it my personal mission to introduce any new people to it however I can. (One of my personal victories for me this year was getting a coworker of mine to watch it–after he did, he said he loved it, and I told him everything I knew about the making of it.)

I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it again: I LOVE this movie!

“45RPM” is available on-demand.