Archive | May, 2014

Man Shot Dead (2014)

28 May

1488182_681277818586835_3910100358730003304_n

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Filmmaker Taylor Feltner, the oldest of four boys in a big family, left his small Arkansas town of Morrilton at age 17 while everyone else stayed. “So I always felt a bit like an outsider,” he says. “When I come home with a stranger’s curiosity, I look at the family that raised me and I wonder what their lives were like before I came along.”

That’s part of his opening narration in his 74-minute documentary, “Man Shot Dead,” which premiered recently at the Little Rock Film Festival. He states that he will talk to certain members of his family and ask them about a certain incident that resulted in the murder of his grandfather. In some way, it has affected everyone in the family, and he is going to find out how. He comes home to Morrilton, AR, with his documentary crew and equipment, and aspires to gain insight about what happened, why it happened, and what happened after.

The main focus of “Man Shot Dead” is not the subjected incident itself but the reactions to it in present-day, as we learn through the dialogues of Feltner’s grandmother (Bernie), mother (Karen), and aunts (Glenna and Wanda). We’re first introduced to Bernie, who talks about how she first met her husband, Glen Dickson, and what he was like and how they related with each other through marriage. (“We never called each other by our first name,” she says at one point. “It was just ‘Honey.’”) Their daughters, Glenna, Wanda, and Karen, loved him and have fond memories of him.

It’s after that nostalgic opening that the documentary steadily decides to talk about the incident that cost Glen’s life on the night of July 25, 1966. Feltner and his brother, Grant (who we see often in the film), haven’t been told much about it; Grant has only heard little things about it. Feltner wants to know the full story, but because there are no reliable witnesses available and an inconsistent police report, he asks Karen, Bernie, Glenna, and Wanda to tell what they know about it. The only things that are most absolutely certain are that he was on another person’s property and he was shot with a rifle. It was ruled as justifiable homicide.

Why Glen was there to begin with is anyone’s guess. No one knows for sure, save for the only living witness, whose father was the one that shot him. Unfortunately, it seems she is unreliable. Later on, we see Feltner send her a handwritten letter, only to receive a response from presumably her lawyer. He sends another; no response. There are no clear answers to the reasoning behind Glen Dickson’s death, and to Karen, Bernie, Glenna, and Wanda, it seems that while there’s hardly a way to forget about it, it doesn’t hurt to at least try and let it be after all this time.

The main story being told in “Man Shot Dead” is how this family, the surviving mother and three daughters, continued on with their lives after Glen, the sole provider for the family, was killed. Understandably, they were all devastated at first (though Karen was probably better at hiding it, since according to Glenna, she didn’t cry the night they all heard the news). They stayed at a relative’s house for a while in Morrilton before Bernie knew they had to have a home of their own and bought a house. Bernie admits that raising and providing for three kids was rough at first, but through time they all managed to get by. They’ve grown very close together, always taking care of each other.

stills_ManShotDead

Now, some things may be kept inside that neither person wants to talk about, and they even joke about counseling and how they all might need it, particularly Karen who says she has more to say about herself that she won’t on film. Midway through, she sums up her life, and her family’s life: “Whether it just be that one night or things that happened before that, it set the stage for our lives. Our life has been great. We have a wonderful mother that took care of us. But it also robbed us of the things that we’ll never know about.” All the more heartbreaking is that she hardly had a chance to know her father, as she was only eight years old when he died. In probably the most poignant moment of the film, she states while holding back a tear, “I think every girl needs her daddy.”

The film is also a story of a man really getting to know his family in ways he hadn’t before. With his family’s history and the important event that changed their lives suddenly revealed to him, through this documentary project, Feltner can see these people not just as his mother, his grandmother, and his aunts; he understands what they’ve been through, knows what kind of people they were and how they became who they are now, and now sees them, particularly his mother, as stronger than he may have originally conceived.

And we do too, as a result of the finished product. I felt like I knew these people while I was watching this documentary and listening to them talk about what they knew, what they discover, how things were then, how they are now, and how they’ll go on living. And I understood them and was interested in everything they had to say. Karen Feltner, in particular, is one of the most fascinating people I’ve come across in a documentary—you don’t see characters in narrative fiction as compeling as this woman.

I should also praise “Man Shot Dead” on a technical level as well. Using old photographs, written documents, home-video footage, and even sound effects in the chilling sequence in which we’re told, according to the police report, what happened that fateful night, the film’s editing, by Jessica Schilling, is top-notch and makes the film even more captivating. It’s also shot gorgeously, by Feltner, Jennifer Braddock, Gabe Mayhan, and Andy Featherston—the sequence I think of in particular is where we see the brother, Grant, walking through a rural countryside and fishing in a nearby river.

“Man Shot Dead” is one of the very best films I’ve seen so far this year. I hope that after its world premiere at the Little Rock festival, it receives more audiences and recognition any way it can. It’s worth seeing to meet this family.

Advertisements

Manny (2014)

28 May

manny-1024x576

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I must confess that I didn’t even know the name Manny Pacquiao before I watched this documentary about him, “Manny.” I knew nothing about him—that he was a boxer, that he was also involved in politics, where he came from, or even that he liked to sing and has even performed a duet with Will Ferrell on “Jimmy Kimmel” once. But after seeing this film, I doubt I’ll forget him.

Co-directed by Leon Gast (who also directed Oscar-winning “When We Were Kings”) and Ryan Moore (a first-time director who first imagined the project), and narrated by Liam Neeson, “Manny” delivers a clear portrait of the Filipino professional boxer who also had other ambitions in mind that he managed to succeed. His story is a familiar one (the rags-to-riches tale) but it’s still inspiring to see how Pacquiao has risen from a time of poverty in an obscure Philippine village to international stardom. We’re told interesting tales, from Pacquiao and other interviewees, about his early life in the Philippines, including how Pacquiao credits his physical strength to working with fisherman as a boy.

Most of the documentary tells about his boxing career. We meet the people who helped train him and supported him, including his uncle Sardo Mejia, his friend Buboy Fernandez, managers, promoters, boxer Freddie Roach, and others, as well as celebrities such as Mark Wahlberg. Arguably most importantly, we also get highlights from his most memorable fights, each of which represent how much his fame heightens through time, from the mid-90s to 2013 at least (as far as I know, he’s still fighting). Now it seems as if everyone who follows boxing knows who Manny Pacquiao is. In this documentary, he’s even mentioned along with Muhammad Ali at one point.

We also get into Manny’s other ambitions, as we see how he gets into entertainment. He acts in cheesy movies with titles such as “Wapak-Man” and “Anak ng Kumander,” plugs products in TV commercials, and, yes, even has a brief singing career, which includes a duet of the song “Imagine” with Will Ferrell on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and a session recording “Sometimes When We Touch” while being coached by Dan Hill at Capitol Records. That’s the funniest sequence in the film, as Hill tries to give Manny voice lessons while treading lightly in possible fear that he will get brutally punched.

Manny is also involved in politics, as he becomes a congressman in the Filipino House of Representatives. But something that is considered later in the film, and it’s something I was waiting to be addressed, is the question of how Manny’s other activities affect his boxing career. Does he truly have his priorities in check? Does he need to quit one thing or another?

This documentary is gorgeously shot and very well-edited. The best sequences are the latest fighting sequences; it was like I could feel the knockouts being given from Pacquiao to Miguel Cotto, Pacquiao to Ricky Hatton, and Juan Manuel Marquez to Pacquiao (in one of only very few losses for him). These punches are very brutal, and the way they’re shot and edited make it seem almost as if we’re there at these boxing matches (that’s how I felt when I saw this film on the big screen at the Little Rock Film Festival).

I have a few complaints about this film, however. One is that the final 15-20 minutes seemed to me like one too many false endings. Another is kind of a personal preference, but I would have liked to see more of Manny’s mother Dionisia, who is only seen briefly as she talks about raising Manny and what he was like as a child. And I wouldn’t have minded an interview with Manny’s kids either (how is he as a father? Would he like them to fight as well? Etc.), though we have some input from Manny’s wife, Jinkee. To be fair, I think it was hard enough to edit this film with all the interview footage, documenting footage, and media coverage; what they have is good enough, I’d say.

“Manny” is a good documentary, showing that arguably the best, most interesting documentaries are the ones that serve as character-studies. It tells the story of Manny Pacquiao effectively and gives us an appealing, fascinating guy that I’m glad I could be introduced to this way. And I’ll just say I’ll never listen to “Sometimes When We Touch” the same way again.

Little Accidents (2014)

23 May

14063-4

Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Sara Corlangelo’s “Little Accidents” is an ensemble drama that tries to intersect many character stories around not just one tragedy but two at least. As the title suggests, these tragic events are caused by little accidents. While some individual traits work well on their own, and it’s well-acted and suitably atmospheric, the film as a whole lacks focus. There are three particular characters that are given the most attention, but there are also side characters that apparently have much more purpose than is being shown so that when something important is said to them or when something tragic happens to one of them, it’s hard to feel for or even understand them when you hardly got a chance to know them. This is a problem I notice in most ensemble films that try to connect a few character stories into one film: it leaves little room for development on certain aspects.

One of the central tragedies in the film is a fatal mining accident in the small coal town of Beckley, West Virginia. Possibly due to managerial negligence, 10 miners lost their lives, and a lot of Beckley locals are wondering who’s to blame for it. Reserved, quiet Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook) is the lone survivor, which means he’s the perfect subject for interrogation in the investigation. And he also gets unwanted attention from everyone in town, not just because he’s the lone survivor of this incident but also because half of them are afraid he’ll say something against the mine which will cause it to shut down. What he knows could ruin the livelihoods of everyone who works there.

Meanwhile, another tragedy occurs as teenage Owen (Jacob Lofland), whose father died in the mine accident, in involved in the accidental death of one of his schoolmates, J.T. (Travis Tope). Feeling responsible, he hides the body and doesn’t tell anyone about what happened. The only witness was his Down-syndrome-afflicted little brother (Beau Wright), whom he makes promise not to tell anyone, even their mother (Chloe Sevigny).

J.T.’s father, Bill Doyle (Josh Lucas), is one of the corporate executives for the mine and is also under investigation for the mine accident. When J.T. disappears, he and his wife, Diana (Elizabeth Banks), start a public search for him. As time goes on, they come to expect the worst, as they grieve their son’s loss. At the same time, Owen tries to carry on with his life with his silent guilt. Feeling sorry, he gets himself a job doing yard work for Diana and Bill. But when they befriend each other, Owen is even more unsure about whether or not he should tell them what happened to J.T.

Somewhere in all this, Amos gets back into the picture, as Diana, who isn’t very close with Bill anymore and seeks comfort elsewhere, meets Amos at a Bible study and begins an affair with him. But something I have to wonder is what was the clear motivation for Diana in this affair. I mean, I know she’s grief-stricken over the loss of her son and needs someone to be with when Bill isn’t always there for her when he has the investigation to deal with; but is it possible that she’s just cozying up to Amos to keep him from testifying against the mine and its executives, including Bill? I recently asked a friend who saw this with me what he made of this relationship; a possible conclusion is that maybe she started out genuinely liking him and feeling comfortable around him in this distressing situation but then she realized that she does indeed care for her husband when it’s possible that Amos may actually testify against him. Either way you look at it, it still gets Amos to realize what he has to do.

Not that it’s at all implausible, but it’s always interesting in films such as this how people from different classes in a small town are brought together and able to talk to each other like this. I think the most touching friendship is the one that develops between Owen and Diana; the best scene in the film is one in which Diana helps Owen with yard work and they talk about J.T., and Owen tells her what J.T. was like the last time he saw him (because she knows he was there around the time he disappeared). The dialogue and acting in this scene is just perfect and captures the pain and guilt that both of them are going through with one not realizing the full truth about the other.

The film contains a lot of atmosphere as it presents this town and picks just the right locations to show us. The film’s director of photography, Rachel Morrison, captures the setting really well with the aid of natural-light 35mm photography. The actors are solid too—this is some of Elizabeth Banks’ best work as a distraught woman dealing with loss and also feeling guilty about benefit; Boyd Holbrook is suitably subdued as soft-spoken Amos who eventually must face corruption; and Jacob Lofland (in his first film since “Mud”), as a guilt-ridden kid who tries to consider the penalties of his actions, is emerging as a most promising young actor with great range.

But unfortunately, other good actors are left with unwritten, underdeveloped roles that they try to pull off. I guess Josh Lucas gets a fair amount of screen time, but Chloe Sevigny is wasted as Owen’s mother; we know nothing about her except she lost her husband in the accident and she’s able to buy her sons the latest technologies with settlement cash. That’s about it—there’s no character here. I can say the same about Amos’ father whom Amos lives with after recovery. They get only two brief scenes together before something inevitable (at least, if you’ve seen enough movies) happens, and by that time, when you should feel bad for him and for Amos, I feel like I didn’t know a damn thing about him.

By the main aspects of “Little Accidents,” I should like this film. And I do, at least a little. At the end of the film, when characters must reveal their hidden truths, it does have a certain emotional power to it. I think what bothers me about it is that while it spends time with emotional connections with these characters from different classes, there are hardly any room for connections in their own. Because of that, in my opinion, it doesn’t make the new relationships seem entirely special or noteworthy.

Maybe I’m focusing too much on the little things in this film and a second viewing might change that. As I’m writing this review, I come to think that maybe I should give “Little Accidents” a pass, since I think its main intention was to show how people are brought together during tragedy. In that respect, it does work well. I don’t know; if I see the film again and it changes the way I look at it, I’ll revise the review. For now, I give it a mixed review.

Valley Inn (2014)

22 May

1544603_263786480460163_9040261442275233140_n

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m just going to say right up front that I was a little uncertain about writing this review. I thought maybe I should see it a second time just to make sure I wouldn’t neglect to mention something important (non-spoilers, mind you). With that said, there’s a lot that happens in “Valley Inn,” with many side characters and subplots. And if I get to see it again later, I’ll revise my review unless it’s not anything important I forgot to comment on the first time.

“Valley Inn,” which recently premiered at the Little Rock Film Festival, is a two-hour comedy-drama, shot in Northwest Arkansas, and takes place mostly in Hindsville, a small community in Madison County. This is one of those films that show a pleasant portrait of a small Southern town and its residents, and while sometimes it can be a little overly drawn, it manages to present itself as a cute, enjoyable film that didn’t bore me or make me wish I was somewhere other than this town.

“Valley Inn,” directed by Kim Swink and Chris Spencer (and written by Swink and Nelsie Spencer), begins as New Jersey college student Emily (Jordan Scott) is assigned by a Christian book company to travel to Hindsville, Arkansas, to sell books door-to-door for the summer. She brings along one friend, Maddy (Whitney Masters), and stays one night in a secluded rural home. But one day and one night in this change of scenery with some odd folks is too much for Maddy, as she takes the car and leaves Emily alone in town for the summer. (Sheesh, that’s pretty low.)

Emily finds a room to sleep in above the Valley Inn, the local café & hangout where all local gossip is spread. And from here on in, it’s an episodic series of events involving Emily trying to fit into the town, make a good quota on her book sales, and even finding herself in a relationship with the local preacher’s handsome son, Lee (Colley Bailey). Oh, and there’s also a brief subplot involving “Sunday/Fun Day” with other members of her “bookfield,” where everyone is perky and happy, and the leader doesn’t allow tardiness, even for church reasons.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are also many side characters and subplots in “Valley Inn,” and every now and then, the film cuts back to these people for us to catch up. There’s the nice woman who runs the Valley Inn (Natalie Canerday); there’s the “cowboy” with a reputation (David Lansbury); the waitress he constantly tries to woo (Joey Lauren Adams); there’s the high-class couple (Kenn Woodard, Mandy Fason), one of which may have a secret deceitful plan in mind, and their pretty daughter (Jaclyn Marlan); there’s the elderly woman (Candyce Hinkle) who refers to Jesus by the nickname “Jerry”; good God, there are a lot are a lot of quirky characters she comes across. Some of them are caricatures, and not much time is used to develop anything other than one trait; but to be fair, isn’t there one thing you know about people you only meet once in a while in a strange place? That’s what the film basically is—a vacation from one place to another (in this case, from a New Jersey town to a small Southern town) and the many people they come across. In that respect, I liked these people and was curious as to what would happen each time we cut back to them. There’s a scene later on that begins as people walk out of a church, apparently for a funeral—I actually kind of gasped because I was concerned about knowing which one of them died. That scene comes way late in the film, and that’s how I knew “Valley Inn” worked for me. I cared about these people. And also to the film’s credit, I can see some of these people in my own small hometown. Oh, and there’s also a brief subplot involving “Sunday/Fun Day” with other members of her “bookfield,” where everyone is perky and happy, and the leader doesn’t allow tardiness, even for church reasons.

(Oh, and I forgot to mention the small part of a little boy who makes his own home war movie with his friends and other, older locals. I not only feel like I knew this kid; I feel like I was this kid when I was making random home movies in my hometown!)

We get a good feel of the town. Aside from the Valley Inn, we see rural-area homes, urban houses, annual rodeo events, cattle auction yards, a country-music jamboree, a low-water bridge, a beautiful swimming hole, and even a brief moment at the home of a shotgun-packing meth-cooker (whom Lee must rescue Emily from)—hey, when someone goes door-to-door for a full summer, you expect to come across at least one psycho.

Now I have to make a confession. I went into this movie not knowing exactly what it was about. I knew about some of the cast members and that it was labeled as “a love-letter to small town America,” but not much else. When I was introduced to Emily and Maddy, and it shows Maddy reacting to their place of assignment, the population number of the town, a dead critter on the side of the road, and trying her best not to laugh at the behavior of her house hosts (even when Hinkle refers to Jesus as Jerry), I kept paying attention. I expected the story would be about Maddy as this stubborn New Jersey girl who comes across these people, learns about tolerance and patience, and manages to befriend the locals. Granted, that’s probably predictable, but the way Whitney Masters was playing Maddy, I would have looked forward to it! She has a natural, appealing screen presence that Jordan Scott by comparison seemed kind of bland, even with her perky morning mantra, “I feel happy! I feel healthy! I feel terrific!” (By the way, doesn’t she wake people every time she shouts it in the early morning? Does anyone even mention it to her?)

But no—Maddy is gone from the movie after 15 minutes, and she never returns. So instead, we have a character arc for Emily as she goes from being repressed to a free-spirit. There’s nothing wrong with that, as Emily does seem like the type of person who needs a change in her life, and the people she comes across, particularly Lee who manages to kidnap her from one of her door-to-door business days (by the way, guys, don’t try that at home), are just the people to help her break free. And Jordan Scott did manage to make me care for her.

Yes, “Valley Inn” does go all over the place (actually, you could call this five or six LRFF Arkansas Shorts thrown into one). Yes, some of it is corny and predictable. Yes, some of it is over-the-top (I won’t go into “Fun Day” and its crazy leader). But I can’t hate this movie or even give it a mixed review; there’s just so much that I like in this—the actors, the overall atmosphere, the smart writing (some good dialogue here), and little details that amount to the big picture. Something else I like about “Valley Inn” is that it’s very chill. It has a laid-back tone that strangely works in the film’s favor. A lot of it is just watching these people interact with each other and go about their days and make a living in this town. And I don’t mind that in the slightest. I enjoyed “Valley Inn”—it’s cute, it’s funny, and it contains a great deal of atmosphere.

Before I Disappear (2014)

21 May

before-i-disappear

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Before I Disappear” is Shawn Christensen’s premiere feature-length film based on his Academy Award winning short film, “Curfew,” and it’s a dark, riveting, successful portrait of a man who’s hit rock-bottom and may be able to find a way out again.

Christensen wrote, directed, edited, and co-stars in this film as Richie, who has found nothing to live for after the death of his girlfriend. Severely depressed, constantly threatened by moneylenders, and even discovering a grisly sight in one of the bathroom stalls at the place he works as a janitor, he contemplates suicide. One day, he cuts his wrist and lays in the bathtub for a while. Not dead, he answers a phone call from his sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum). Maggie needs him to pick up her pre-teenage daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), whom he has never met. After bandaging his wrist, he picks her up and drops her off at her apartment until he’s called again to babysit her. The problem is she’s a spoiled brat and he has enough on his plate already. The only reason he’s here is because Maggie, whom he has spoken to in years, is relying on him, which is enough for him to carry on living for a while longer.

A mysterious circumstance (though actually, it’s one of many) causes Richie to Sophia to leave the apartment and walk across the dark side of the city through the night. Richie introduces Sophia to a few places and people he knows well, though they’re not right for a girl her age and he’s not even sure if it’s right for him anymore. As the night grows longer, Richie discovers new harsh truths about some already-harsh people in his life and also comes across unfortunate discoveries related what he saw in the bathroom stall. All while he awaits reuniting Sophia with her mother, Richie must consider the rest of his possibly-short life in order to know if he truly has something to live for.

“Before I Disappear” is a carefully-constructed character piece that is skillfully acted. Shawn Christensen has many hats to wear behind the camera, but he must also act center-stage. As what can probably be expected of someone who must direct his own acting and carry out his own written character, Christensen is nothing short of brilliant, delivering the perfect amount of staggering coldness and genuine emotion that is just right for the character. But he also knows his character and script inside and out, and because of that, he is able to deliver subtleties about the character that tell about his past and his current feelings. Watch this film again, and you might notice something about his performance that you haven’t before. He’s perfect here.

The character of Sophia is not easy to like at first. She’s cold towards her uncle (though to be fair, she’s never met him before) and kind of annoying. And I thought her transition to caring wasn’t entirely convincing to me. I thought it was going to cause a problem for the relationship that develops between her and Richie as the film went on. But surprisingly, the script doesn’t let her down either nor does it let down the character of Maggie, her mother. I won’t say exactly how or why, but you can see full dimensions in these characters as you can see what they’re going through and come to feel for them.

I’ll admit I at first thought the story was overstuffed when it introduced grim subplots including Richie’s drug-addicted, bad-tempered friend (Paul Wesley) and his intimidating mafia-type boss (Ron Perlman), both of whom have connections in one way or another. But as the film went on, there wasn’t a moment when I was bored or thought I’d rather spend running time with another story. And there are many ways to keep it interesting, including a strange but fun sequence in which people in a bowling alley randomly dance to Goodnight Radio’s “Sophia So Far.”

I haven’t seen “Curfew,” Christensen’s short film this is based on, but after seeing “Before I Disappear,” I am curious to seek it out and even more curious to see what this extremely talented filmmaker has in store next.

The Night the Blackbirds Fell (Short Film)

21 May

1393715_542818722464712_1081021356_n

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As tough as it is to admit, something a lot of people will be curious about every New Year’s Eve is whether or not thousands of birds will suddenly drop in Beebe, Arkansas. Ever since Beebe made international news in January 2011, when more than 3,000 red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky and roughly 85,000 drum fish were washed up along the Arkansas River shore, it drew concern and investigation afterwards, even when it happened again in the beginning of 2012.

These mysterious bird & fish deaths are the topic of the 40-minute documentary, “The Night the Blackbirds Fell.”

Directed by Will Scott and written by Brian C. Campbell and Gustav Carlson, “The Night the Blackbirds Fell” presents the investigation of these mysterious animal deaths in a crafty, entertaining way. It uses a mix of sketch drawings and computer animation to present fictional characters looking up real-life media coverage, documenting first-hand testimony and explanation, and connecting theories and facts together to gain answers. It’s an interesting narrative flow, as the animated characters dig deeper into the mystery surrounding what killed the birds and the fish.

It begins as Danny (voiced by Matt Duncan), a university student developing a thesis project, walks alone from a New Year’s Eve 2010 party when he comes across a fallen blackbird, which he names Virgil, before encountering a shower of falling birds. As he watches TV and laughs at the jokes made by Jon Stewart and SNL, he quickly realizes how serious it is when he watches news coverage of the strange phenomenon. He decides to create a website as his thesis project, called “The Night the Blackbirds Fell,” as he investigates the wildlife deaths and adds new interview footage to the site.

Among the interviewees are Beebe residents, scientists, roost landowners, and anyone else who has an opinion on what happened and how it happened. It seems that everyone has their own theory as to how the blackbirds fell and how thousands of drum fish were washed ashore. Oil, toxins, military conspiracies, roost relocations, fireworks, and even, the grand consensus given by the media, the beginning of the End Times (I’m surprised Harold Camping wasn’t mentioned at all during this). You name it, someone has thought of it. It’s a puzzle that Danny must piece together as he (and the actual documentary crew) research and visit these different places and people, including a nuclear power plant and a Wal-Mart where a birds’-thicket once was (that’s a nice environmental message there). There are also two interviewees that give some input and who only agreed to be a part of the documentary if their faces and names were never revealed (one of them has his voice changed in post-production). One of them claims to know “who” killed the blackbirds.

Are the bird deaths and the fish deaths connected? Danny believes so, but Betty isn’t so sure. “The Night the Blackbirds Fell” has a clever mix of fiction and documentation with the mixture of interview footage and scripted animated sequences. The animated scenes are presented with a certain quirkiness that works well for the most part. Sometimes it’s funny when Danny and Betty’s reactions to most of these are about the same as the audience’s, and Betty’s snide commentary works for comedic effect. But other times it can seem a little forced, like an educational TV special, particularly when the film cuts back to the two and they recap on the footage they just watched. Mostly, however, it’s engaging enough to keep your attention. Some of the lines are good too—I love when Danny watches the SNL Weekly Update that shows Andy Samberg as a “lone-survivor blackbird” (with a heavy Southern accent), and reacts laughingly, “He sounds like my aunt!” And I admit it was a cute idea to have the bird, Virgil, as the “Lassie” of the situation, always pointing Danny towards important clues.

There are two shots that stay with me after seeing this documentary. One is a beginning wide shot that features the Beebe roost landowner, Lee Hayes, standing in the middle of the land and watching thousands of birds flying around. Another is an ending shot of more birds flying near a McDonald’s arch pole. These shots speak volumes as they indicate the possible extinction of blackbirds, as well as environmental threats to nature and people in Arkansas. It’s as if the film is saying that we need to rethink our connection with wildlife and by the end, it challenges us to consider the way things are now and how they may turn out to be in the future, especially if we’re going to keep checking on Beebe every year and see if more of these incidents occur, without actually contemplating them.

“The Night the Blackbirds Fell” is a well-crafted, intriguing film that entertains with the graphic-novel-style segments, involves/educates with the documentary aspects, and leaves the viewer thinking about it afterwards.

I Believe in Unicorns (2015)

20 May

unicorns

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Leah Meyerhoff’s “I Believe in Unicorns” is one of the most compelling coming-of-age stories I’ve seen. I haven’t seen how a feature about teenagers this direct or this honest in some time. There are parts in this film that are so accurately portrayed that it’s kind of hard to watch. It’s a frank, sometimes-brutal portrayal of a teenage girl’s first love experience that shows her come of age in an effective way.

The film stars Natalia Dyer in an excellent performance as Davina, a secluded 15-year-old girl who cares for her handicapped mother (Toni Meyerhoff) and has only one friend (Julia Garner) at school. More than often, Davina daydreams of herself as a princess in a fantasy world of unicorns and dragons. What she doesn’t have in this world is a prince. In reality, she advances towards an older skateboarder, Sterling (Peter Vack), a bad-boy who represents the rebellious spirit within Davina’s soul. Davina and Sterling spend time together. After they have sex, Davina, who was a virgin up until that point, wants to explore her sexuality even further.

I thought I had the rest of the story figured out in the first half-hour. Sterling would shut her out, Davina would grow desperate to earn respect from him again, and she’ll learn an important life lesson. Is that what happens? Actually, no. They do see each other more. When they find that their sexual encounters in Sterling’s room isn’t enough, they decide to hit the road and run away from their boring, lonely family lives just to be together.

The further they go on this journey and the longer they are together, they behave like characters in a fugitive road movie but don’t commit acts of violence toward people they come across. They instead commit acts of violence towards each other (or at least, for Sterling, it’s physical as he has a mean streak; and for Davina, it’s mental because she can say the wrong things to Sterling and set him off). The only way this road trip will end is if things go too far in their sexual sessions, and when it happens, it’s presented with the right amount of time to understand when and how it came to this and how the line will be drawn. Without giving much away, it builds up to a choice Davina must make in order to make herself happy—or if not happy, then fine enough without escaping the harsh realities of her life.

I was a little concerned when I knew there were going to be stop-motion animation sequences showing unicorns and dragons in Davina’s fantasy world, and I thought the gimmick would wear off fast. But the way it’s handled is in a sensible way that doesn’t get old and has something new to represent at crucial moments that mirror Davina and Sterling’s adventure together. It makes the film more profound in that sense. They let you know what Davina is thinking and further depict examples what she’s going through.

The characters are rich and fully realized, thanks to intelligent writing/characterization by Meyerhoff. The film is shot and written in a way that makes everything feel like the real deal, but the honesty and cruelty can mainly come through if the actors were credible. Boy, are they ever. Natalia Dyer is brilliant in the role, capturing the loneliness and curiosity of an adolescent girl going through her first sexual experience with a boy who may not be good for her. Also, give Meyerhoff credit for casting an actual teenager in the role, so the authenticity can come through. This was a risky move to pull, given how unflinching the film is on sex. But because there’s a real teenage girl in the role, we can see and understand what she goes through. She’s great here.

It was a great move not to make Sterling into just a bad guy. He’s not entirely bad; he’s misunderstood while his arrogance can get the best of him. He’s flawed, which makes him more realistic. And he’s written as a three-dimensional character—he can be enthusiastic, he can be upset, he can be angry, he can be confused, and we get to know more about him not just from his dialogue but from his actions as well. There are many emotions for the actor, Peter Vack, to pull off, and he does a great job with the role. When he changes quickly from endearing to hurtful, you believe it. There’s one particular scene later in the film in which Davina and Sterling get a motel room and start to get busy. In one long shot, the scene turns from intimate to violent after a certain action on Davina’s part that causes Sterling to react immediately. This would be a difficult task for an actor to pull off, and Vack is completely convincing.

I can’t think of another recent film that is harder or even as frank about teenage sexuality than this. Even with its fantasy sequences, some of which show a unicorn battling a dragon, it’s still very compelling because it shows how Davina will have to separate fantasy from reality.

Sometimes the film is heartfelt; sometimes that’s confusing; sometimes it’s upsetting. You know what? That’s teenage love.