Archive | May, 2014

A Night in Old Mexico (2014)

20 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The premise for “A Night in Old Mexico” goes like this—an ex-rancher who’s lost his South Texas land to the banks is about to live in a trailer park when he, along with his visiting grandson, takes off for a fun, exciting night across the border, where he runs into a series of mishaps involving crooks, a bounty hunter, and a bag of money that winds up in his possession. If that sounds a bit old-fashioned, it was originally written by “Lonesome Dove” alum Bill Wittliff as a “Lonesome Dove” episode more than 30 years ago. Now that it’s finally made in the 2010s, I’m not sure I could tell you which parts were updated in the final draft of the script. But in the spirit of things, I don’t think I care very much.

“A Night in Old Mexico” is a gritty, well-made thriller made even better by the leading performance of Robert Duvall. Duvall has always been one of those actors who puts his all into everything he’s in and clearly has fun doing whatever he has to do. The story itself is fine and fairly timeless, but it’s Duvall who gives the movie its backbone. He turns in a strong performance as Red Bovie. He’s an ex-rancher whose South Texas spread has been set up for foreclosure, since the cattle has died and his son ran off years ago, leaving him with nothing and no one to help him. Along comes his grandson, Gally (Jeremy Irvine), whom he hasn’t met before and who shows up for a visit. He shows up the day Red is supposed to move into a tiny trailer park.

When Red and Gally show up at the trailer park, Red quickly realizes it’s not for him and hurriedly speeds away, with Gally in the front seat. They head down to Mexico for a long night of drinking and partying. Along the way, they pick up a couple of rowdy hitchhikers, who, as we saw in a prologue, have already committed murder and have taken a bag of money. Red kicks them out when they drink too much of his beer, which means they now unknowingly possess the bag.

In Mexico, Red roams the village and streets, looking for some action, with Gally reluctantly in tow. As the night continues, they befriend a down-on-her-luck singer (Angie Cepeda) but eventually realize what they’ve been holding onto and that there are people out there who want it back. And wouldn’t you know it—they happen to be nearby.

Something I really liked about “A Night in Old Mexico” was that I couldn’t predict from one situation to the next what would happen. There are many twists and turns the story takes, especially with the villains because there’s surprisingly more than the two hitchhikers. When the thriller aspects kicked in, I was curious to see where it was going, especially if this Red Bovie character was involved. He is an interesting character, and Robert Duvall does a great job at bringing him to life. He’s gruff but sensitive too. He has a heart of gold but also a knack for finding excitement and trouble. Sometimes he’s not entirely likable but you can see why he acts one way or another.

The scene that lets you know right away that Duvall still has that quality that made him a star. It’s a scene early on in which he sits alone in a barn and contemplates suicide. He talks to God while he struggles to pull the trigger on his revolver. You can see he’s a man who feels like he’s hit rock-bottom and that God has abandoned him. You can also see why he would need a good night out.

I enjoyed “A Night in Old Mexico” for what it did with its premise and for turning out a neat thrill ride. But more importantly, I enjoyed the film for Robert Duvall. Without the character and Duvall playing him, the film would’ve been merely okay. There are probably too many villains, only half of which are interesting; we don’t get to know the singer very well, except that she’s standoffish and presumably downtrodden; and come on—what did Red do for her that was different from every other guy that leers at her? Was it because of his age? Was it because he was Robert Duvall? But those are just nitpicks. I recommend “A Night in Old Mexico.”

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Devil’s Knot (2014)

20 May

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Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I can probably see why filmmaker Atom Egoyan agreed to direct this film. It is a compelling subject matter that he touched upon in one of his earlier films, “The Sweet Hereafter.” That 1997 film was about how a community struggles to come to grips with an unspeakable tragedy while expressing anger and grief. Egoyan probably thought he could make something as strong if he created a fictionalized version of the 1993-1994 “West Memphis Three” trials. But Egoyan is in a no-win situation with this material. A fictional film based on this material would be extremely difficult to pull off, and I’m afraid that Egoyan’s attempt, titled “Devil’s Knot,” is an okay-try but hopelessly redundant.

I can’t think of anyone seeing this movie who won’t know about the West Memphis Three or the child murders at Robin Hood woods in West Memphis, Arkansas. That’s one of the biggest problems with this film. The WM3 trials have been big world news and the subject of a trilogy of documentaries called “Paradise Lost.” Those documentarians went into the courtrooms, caught the trials and testimonies from the defendants and witnesses on camera, and also captured how the town reacted to the murders and to the trials, as well as the possibility the defendants were in fact innocent. They were three teenage boys who dressed in black, listened to heavy metal, and research the Wicca religion, and so the townspeople and the police linked the boys to the grisly murders of three little boys, claiming they performed devil-worshipping sacrificial rituals. They were found guilty and spent 18 years in prison. It was one of the most documented and publicized crime stories in our history, and we all know about it thanks to the news, sponsors representing the three prisoners and demanding their freedom, and the “Paradise Lost” documentaries.

And there was even a documentary released in 2012 (“West of Memphis”) that had the advantage of telling the whole story in hindsight. What we know is that these three kids were punished for crimes they didn’t commit and lost 18 years of their lives in prison. What we don’t know is who killed those three little boys.

Everything we know about the West Memphis Three is in “Devil’s Knot,” which tells a fictionalized version of the original 1993-1994 trials of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelley Jr. There is nothing new to be said here. We’ve seen this all before, we all know how it goes, and there is no new true insight to be found in this pointless film.

The strange thing is, I would have given the film a slight pass if it wanted to tell about how the victims’ families try to go about their day after their little children were taken away from them. Egoyan can capture this well (again, see “Sweet Hereafter” for example), and he does have a few scenes that focus on the mother of one of the murdered boys, Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), and her husband, Terry Hobbs (Alessandro Nivola). But they’re so few and cast aside for scenes involving a private investigator, Ron Lax (Colin Firth), trying to put some pieces together. And just when you think Egoyan and the film’s writers, Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, are going to try and come up with new insights for these characters, they’re cast aside for everything we’ve seen before. The smartass behavior of Damien Echols. Jessie Miskelley’s recanted confession. The ranting of John Mark Byers (Kevin Durand), the adoptive father of one of the victims. The false witnesses. The dumb police. The modern-day Salem Witch Trials parallels. The tedious police interrogations. Been there, done that. I’m not saying new theories as to who would’ve murdered Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch, and Michael Moore would’ve been necessarily acceptable; I’m just saying that, in my opinion, there is no reason this film should exist since it’s telling us what we already know.

The actors do their best to play familiar characters (er, people). Reese Witherspoon acquits herself nicely as a grieving mother, though her main role is to look on with grief and then concern; the actors playing the three suspects (James Hamrick as Damien, Seth Meriwether as Jason, Kristopher Higgins as Jessie) are just right for the roles; Mirelle Enos is fine as the mother of a little boy who testifies with a possibly false story; and Dane DeHaan does a nice job as Chris Morgan, another possible suspect. But Colin Firth is wasted in the role of the private investigator; he has nothing to work with here, even when the film tries to give him a superfluous back story with an ex-wife living in the town.

The courtroom scenes offer no surprises; elements we’ve heard about are introduced and then dropped, such as a man covered in blood and mud; and again, we’ve been through this before. And then at the end, when the film decides to wrap itself up quickly, it gives us text upon text upon text reminding us what happened since the suspects were found guilty.

Mainly, what it comes down to is no matter how hard any filmmaker could try, a fictional retelling of the West Memphis Three story cannot give us anything more compelling than what we already know. If you want to see a film that goes into great detail and depth about this story, the answer is obvious: watch the documentary “West of Memphis” instead.

Perfect Machine: Homefront (Short Film)

20 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Originally, Eric White’s short film, “Homefront,” was part of a series of Vimeo videos that served as vignettes that show in more detail the background of the world within Jarrod Beck’s University of Central Arkansas graduate thesis film project, “Perfect Machine.” “Perfect Machine” is a science-fiction story that takes place in a dystopian future where all citizens are forced against their will to comply to the new system of government for a perfect society. Two vignettes show what happens to noncompliants. Another vignette showed how people are matched together. White’s vignette, titled “Homefront,” takes a more dramatic approach, showing two characters on the run from the ominous Administration.

Now, “Homefront” is a stand-alone two-minute short and has recently screened at the Little Rock Film Festival. How does it stand as its own thing? For what it is with its very short running time, and the way it’s shot and edited, “Homefront” is pretty damn strong. Luckily, you don’t have to know about what happens to those who don’t comply to this system; here, it’s hinted with one powerful line, “Is it better to be dead or to not know you’re alive?”

With a two-minute running time, the film is edited like a trailer (though the two characters, played by Johnnie Brannon and Kirby Gocke, don’t appear in the finished “Perfect Machine” film). It’s a story told through music, visuals, and narration, as a couple, living on their own in a secluded forest for some time, consider their future together. We see shots of them living off the land and staying in a cabin intercut with a couple closeups of an approaching militant force’s arsenal. Through it all, we hear Brannon’s voice as he talks about how limited his and Gocke’s choices are in the future. Near the end, we see Brannon and Gocke in the cabin, as he delivers that aforementioned pivotal line of dialogue, as they sit next to two glasses of water with drips of red liquid (presumably poison) dropped into them. What will become of them if they stay, go, or get captured by the Administration? The short ends with a great final shot that allows its audience to think about what lay ahead in their own futures if they don’t control them.

It also caused me to think about it if it was a teaser trailer. If it was, I would be excited to see its finished film. I’d be interested in knowing more about this couple and how they live away from this aggressive society; I would expect a good, gripping story. And maybe that’s the biggest problem with “Homefront.” To me, as a vignette for an upcoming 20-30 minute film (which will have different characters/actors and probably a different situation with elements introduced in other vignettes), it’s too good. Get Eric White and his crew (which includes Beck as cinematographer) to create a longer piece (10-20 minutes, at least) with the premise, and…wait, we already have Beck’s “Perfect Machine” for that (which White is the cinematographer for), minus Brannon and Gocke (though Brannon is working as the film’s casting director and 2nd assistant director).

“Perfect Machine” may turn out to be as good, or maybe it will be better. But that’s not the subject of this review. If I’m going to review “Homefront” as a film, I say it’s effective on its own. It’s well-photographed; it’s well-acted; the music serves it well; it moved me; and it got me to imagine possible outcomes for the characters, as well as look forward to seeing similar elements in the final version, “Perfect Machine.”

NOTE: I was going to link the short at the bottom of the page, but it was removed from Vimeo for the festival. When it comes back online, I’ll attach it.

Citizen Noir (Short Film)

19 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Some people say classic film noir is easy to parody, but to me, that’s like saying comedy is easy to write. That being said, I found Michael Ferrara’s 10-minute short film “Citizen Noir,” which is a noir film parody, to be well-written and very funny. This is a strange, offbeat short comedy with originality within the usual elements of what it’s parodying…for the most part. Instead of parodying the complexities of the stories within noir films, “Citizen Noir” decides to make fun of the obligatory basics of the usual formula. Yes, the film is in black-and-white (with color only at the beginning and end, as the B&W represent a flashback). Yes, there’s a whodunit. Yes, there’s a solemn hero/narrator. Yes, there’s a mysterious run of characters who are practically forced to wear black and act suspicious. But the narrator is purposefully comedic-deadpan, the characters are delightfully odd, the whodunit is quite unusual as we’re informed from the start, and the B&W…well, that just makes the film look better.

“Citizen Noir” begins as Mark Crane (Alex Huey, who delivers a great comic-deadpan personality), a downtrodden private eye, is given his next case to follow. What is it? A little girl’s (Kwynn McEntire) cat, Mayor McMeow, has been murdered and Crane has to find out who did it. (And yes, the little girl, when she goes to see Crane about the case, is dressed in black.) As he investigates, he encounters a series of weird characters, including an attractive, sultry artist (Sabrina Runge), a strange man (George Zumwalt) obsessed with small animals, and a wannabe gangster (Matt Martens) whose private hideout is his own personal toilet stall (take a guess as to how Crane is able to get answers from him).

“Citizen Noir” is strange but in a good, funny way. The characters are suitably weird for us to laugh at them and the lines of dialogue are even more hilarious. The best lines come during the voiceover narrations as Crane analyzes things in his own way. I won’t give away any of the best lines, but my favorite line came as a response to a certain 12-letter word.

I don’t really know what else to say about “Citizen Noir.” It’s just very funny, befittingly offbeat, fun to watch, and also smarter than I may have made it out to be. I can see that writer-director Ferrara went all out for this short film and thought about the story as well as the jokes, and so he tried to make it as original and weird as possible (again, while keeping certain film-noir standards). As a result, he’s crafted a well-made, well-thought-out, funny short.

Origin (Short Film)

18 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Some of the most interesting genre pictures are those that are dramas with quiet elements of fantasy, science-fiction, or horror that help serve the story. Caleb Fanning’s 20-minute short film “Origin” is an example of such films. At the surface is a dramatic love story about loss and starting over, while there is something else to make it unique. In this case, that “something” is the “creation-gone-wrong” element. Everyone knows this particular topic—man plays God, man loses. It manages to fit into this story well.

The story for “Origin” centers around a distressed woman (Mandy Fason) who is ready to grieve the loss of her husband (Wade King) when a doctor (Kenn Woodard) claims he has an experiment that will prolong his life. When the man dies, he is reanimated some time after. He seems like the same person and is hardly fazed that he’s been to death and back; it’s as if he’s come out of a coma. His wife welcomes him back and they pick up where they left off. But as time goes by, there seems to be something a little off about him, as he seems like he doesn’t belong in this world.

One of the most fascinating aspects about “Origin” is how well this story works. This is a husband and wife who try to continue with their lives and their relationship, but because of this unusual experiment, something seems to be missing this time around. It causes the woman to wonder what is the true reliable feature in this world—science or nature? She encounters the doctor again and he tells her some background about the experiment, and how this man was the first successful test. Then she wonders if the whole project was a good idea to begin with, and that maybe she could have let nature take its course if her husband died.

What has the man become? A dream (or rather, nightmare) sequence suggests something grisly. We can assume that he has become something that is one-part the man he was, one-part something else. And maybe the latter part is taking over slowly. The film ends ambiguously, so there isn’t a clear answer as to what has happened with him by the end, or what is going to happen. But it doesn’t seem man will stop playing God anytime soon. If this experiment continues, who knows what will happen?

Mandy Fason and Wade King do great jobs at making us care for this couple. I cared about their characters, feared for them, and by the end of the film, I felt sorry for them. One particularly strong scene is when Fason’s character knows she has to let go of what’s left of her husband and looks at a photograph of the two together, and weeps over it. It’s chilling because we believe the situation and Fason’s tears seem genuine. She’s terrific here, and so is King who has an equally difficult role of the man in question—if his transformation didn’t work, the whole film wouldn’t work.

Even though I wouldn’t have minded a little more clarity about certain ideas in the film, particularly in the final act, I still liked “Origin” for what it implies. And for people out there who search for new ways of changing the world as we know it, just be sure you know what you’re doing.

The Heart Machine (2014)

17 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Long-distance relationships are always risky, no matter what some people may say. They may sound good enough at first for two people who can’t see each other, because talking on the phone, chatting on Skype, and just hearing each other’s voices will seem like enough. But eventually, there will be a point in which one person (or both people) in the relationship will feel the lack of physical intimacy and want to actually be with the other. Zachary Wigon’s “The Heart Machine” presents that concept with a psychological spin, as it brings us a narrative with two people in an online-dating relationship. Surely enough, one of them becomes paranoid.

The two people in the relationship are Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) and Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil). Cody is a fairly average New Yorker with a lot of time on his hands during the day and every night to look forward to. Every night, he chats with his girlfriend, Virginia, via webcam. Cody has fallen in love with Virginia and waits impatiently for the day when he can actually touch her. Cody and Virginia have never actually met in person, as Virginia is in Berlin…or is she? Cody swears he sees her double on a train, but then starts to be convinced that he actually saw her and that she may live somewhere in the city. So he checks her social-network page to find some evidence to prove his theory and decides to subtly interrogate those in the city who might know her.

It turns out he’s right. Virginia lives in Greenwich Village. And not only that—she’s a sleep-around. She picks up guys from Craigslist and a hook-up app called Blendr. But every night, she still chats with Cody and still tries to make him believe that she’s in Berlin and the relationship is still going strong.

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Eventually, the relationship is strained due to the distance between Cody and Virginia, and it only gets worse when Cody becomes more paranoid and convinced that he’s being conned and cheated, while Virginia feels more and more isolated when she realizes what she’s doing.

Online dating has been touched upon before but not quite like this. Wigon, who wrote and directed the film, sees this long-distance relationship in a lenient way, not judging the relationship while having a bit of doubt about how it will turn out. He’s presenting the relationship between his characters as a cautionary subject, and we, as an audience, can simply observe and notice the pain and difficulties of such. And I’m glad he used webcam dating to present the topic, so we can see both sides of a long-distance conversation (though mostly we see Virginia talking through the screen of Cody’s laptop to Cody). I mean, let’s face it—would “The Heart Machine” be as strong if these two were just Facebook friends or email buddies and just messaging each other back and forth? Granted, that would be more frustrating for one, waiting for a response from the other. But it would be hard to show that on a film and make it interesting. (Though, if a skilled filmmaker wants to try, I’m interested.) in the scenes involving the video chats, you get a sense of the affection between the two characters and even feel the intimacy through the medium.

John Gallagher Jr. has proven in films like “Short Term 12” that he’s a capable, likable actor. In a starring role, he holds his own quite nicely, capturing Cody’s paranoia and loneliness effectively without a single false note. Even when Cody does a few things that would render him unlikable, such as sneak his way into a guy’s apartment to look at his phone for evidence that he knows Virginia (even when he suspects he doesn’t really know her), Gallagher manages to at least make us understand why he does it.

Kate Lyn Sheil has the film’s most complicated role, as a woman who constantly puts herself in unhappy situations when she fails to acknowledge the possibility of a good thing between her and her boyfriend. That quality makes her character quite unlikable, but it also makes her more real in the way she’s flawed. Though honestly, because of this, it’s a little hard to feel for her near the end of the film, when we’re supposed to buy how hurt she is when she realizes her mistakes. But I’ll let it slide because as I said, she’s flawed, which makes her more realistic.

“The Heart Machine” is an effective untraditional romance, though by no means is it condoning online dating or long-distance relationships. It ends on a note that would even make those who are involved in such a relationship think twice before continuing on. if a film like this can make a reaction like that, I’d say it’s worth checking out.

13 Pieces of the Universe (Short Film)

17 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“13 Pieces of the Universe” is an Arkansas-made short film that follows a trait I’ve seen in a few other films at the Little Rock Film Festival, where it premiered—quiet. I admire a film, even a short, that has the nerve to be quiet every now and then so that we can take in the atmosphere and situations that are present. I’ve seen it in “Sidearoadia,” “Watch the Rhine,” and especially the feature documentary “Rich Hill”; this is pretty strong material as well.

Written and directed by Tara Sheffer, “13 Pieces of the Universe” tells the coming-of-age of a 16-year-old girl named Sara (Emily Cotton) in the Arkansas delta. The title is based on a poem that Sara remembers, which is Jamey Jones’ “Elsewhere in the Universe,” which states that there are pieces of the universe within each of us. Indeed, within Sara’s coming-of-age story, we can get about 13 individual occurrences in this 20-minute film that create senses of themes that stay true to the story structure, such as uncertainty, choice, stability, emotion, the little things in life, and so on. It’s told in a story that shows Sara in different situations such as canoeing with her friend, seeing a boy in town, unknowingly abandoning her friend for a while, dealing with her parents’ divorce, and so on, until a tragedy occurs.

This is a beautifully-made film that doesn’t have a lot of dialogue and only has a few conversations between characters, and relies on visuals to further suck its audience in by letting us breathe in what it’s getting across to us. There’s a lot of great atmosphere in this film, as the South is shown in a way that can either be seen as a wonderful thing or as a haunting memory, depending on the conditions. And I think the reason I liked this short so much was that it managed to speak volumes by saying very little and showing something as artful as, say, a burning forest as Sara watches from a distance.

In the end, I got a great feel of the film’s landscape, I bought the character’s emotions, and I felt the grief that was left by an unfortunate circumstance at the end of the film. There’s a sense of loss present in this film, not just for something physical but for something psychological as well. It’s mostly told through visual storytelling and by the end, it requires you to think about what it means not only in this girl’s life but also in your own life. After seeing it, I asked myself questions such as what are the little things I enjoy in my own life and do I take them for granted; whom can I rely on; what made me the person I am today; and so on. That it can bring out such a reaction from me convinced me that this short film worked wonderfully, and I recommend it sincerely.