Archive | May, 2014

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.

Rich Hill (2014)

17 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Rich Hill,” a Sundance-Grand-Prize-winning documentary about three disadvantaged Missouri teenagers, is one of the finest films I’ve seen this year. It’s only midway through the year of 2014, as I recently saw this film at the Little Rock Film Festival, and so I expect some films will come along later to be even more impressive. But this film is simply the best I’ve seen so far this year; any film I see in the next couple weeks, or even in the next month, is going to be given the difficult task of topping this film. If it did, it’d be great, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon; I love this film that much.

I’ve seen films try and truly capture what it’s like to live in the South, especially for a kid. Some of them have been successful; others have proven embarrassing; but this one, being a documentary, shows the real deal in a hard but sensitive journey into the lives of three teenage boys who live in Rich Hill, Missouri.

Produced and directed by Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, “Rich Hill” follows and observes its three subjects, Andrew, Harley, and Appachey, as they go about their daily lives. Sometimes the camera will be like a fly on the wall, showing events in a cinematic fashion, while other times the kids will have fun with the fact that they’re being documented for a film, and sometimes talk to the lens. But while they will make jokes to the camera at times, they will have the courage to express themselves with dark secrets from the past when they feel comfortable enough, so that you know how things have been for them in the past. And when the camera is simply observing, you see even more of what they go through.

Appachey is a portly, unpleasant 12-year-old who comes from a broken home, often acts out when he’s angry, and lives with his multiple siblings and widowed mother, who is tough, bright, and often irritated by her son’s behavior (though it is a relief to find later, in a touching moment where he awaits a juvenile court hearing, that she does love her son). It’s clear in scenes where he wanders off alone and does things like break puddle ice that this kid doesn’t care about much in this world—not school, not home, nothing. He likes to think he’s old enough to know what he wants to be like, as he smokes a cigarette and mouths off to people. But it’s apparent that he won’t live out his limited dreams, such as “moving to China” to be an art teacher and “get to draw dragons all day,” as he keeps getting into trouble.

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15-year-old Harley is the most disturbing and yet the most interesting of the three subjects. He hasn’t had a normal childhood and won’t get a chance at one before adulthood, but he has a good sense of humor and is good-natured, though he is doing poorly in school. He lives with his grandmother after his mother has been incarcerated for attempting to kill his stepfather. Later, we discover what drove that to happen and worst of all, why the mother is imprisoned and the stepfather is not. Harley talks to his mother on the phone once a week and they still remind each other they love and think about each other.

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14-year-old Andrew is more optimistic and one to adapt to his surroundings. He has two things to remember in life—one is, “We’re not trash; we’re good people”; the other is, “God is busy with everyone else” while he believes that God’s plan for his family will come into motion eventually. He and his family move around a lot because his handyman father, who is also a Hank Williams Sr. tribute artist, can’t keep a steady job and often keeps the family in a state of isolation. Andrew knows more about how it all works, as he has grown quickly into manhood, while he also wants to continue to be his mother’s baby boy. Even when it seems he might be a little ticked as the family moves from house to house, he still keeps an optimistic point of view because he still relies on his Christian faith.

These are real teenagers with real problems. It’s how they deal with it that speaks volumes about what the future can hold in store for them, whether they like it or not. In that sense, especially in the case of Appachey, it’s kind of sad and tragic that after he’ll have spent some time in juvenile hall, he may still resort to what brought him there in the first place. We might be catching glimpses of these three kids before they become the violent, addicted Southerners that small Southern towns are often typecast by. And it’s all real; it’s all being documented. That’s why I hope that they choose the right paths in life down the road—I hope Andrew still keeps the faith; I hope Harley can be reunited with his mother; I hope Appachey is reformed. Do you know what I would like? I would like a sequel to this documentary, some time later (like Michael Apted’s “7-Up” series) so we can see how these kids turn out.

Even if you don’t live in the South, you can notice some familiarities from when you were that age—struggling with class grades, making friends, thinking about the future, and so on. What makes them different from most teenagers is their lifestyles. Sometimes, Harley’s grandmother can’t afford energy drinks and can’t always rely on food stamps. Andrew’s family doesn’t have gas for heating water, let alone a good home. Appachey’s home is too crowded, too messy, and too unstable. They’re all used to it by now and they just learn to survive whatever comes.

Sometimes there is room for fun, such as when Harley and his friends go out for Halloween and one beautifully-photographed sequence in which Andrew and his family and friends shoot off fireworks and light sparklers on the 4th of July. And sometimes there is possibility that the American Dream is hidden within this realm of shakiness. That makes the whole film melancholy and yet somewhat hopeful at the same time.

And I like that the film’s producers/directors chose their three subjects carefully by choosing a nice kid, a not-so-nice kid, and another kid in between the other two. And neither of these kids are portrayed as bad kids, like Andrew says in the beginning (“We’re not trash; we’re good people”); they just have their misfortunes and bad moments. The documentary does a great job at presenting these kids in a rural setting.

I’ve seen films that try to feature real life in the South, but “Rich Hill” is as real as it gets. You don’t find scenes quite like the ones in this film in other films. It’s authentic, it’s crafty, it’s riveting, it has characters as compelling as any fictional movie character, and it’s one of the best films of the year. I can’t recommend “Rich Hill” enough.

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Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls (Short Film)

17 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Something I notice now in Mark Thiedeman’s films (particularly his shorts; I haven’t seen his feature “Last Summer” yet) is not merely how artsy and practically story-free they are, but how similar they are in theme and trademark. They all take place in the South; Christian elements are present; the main character is usually a homosexual male; and what I notice with his latest short, “Sacred Heart, Holy Souls,” is the assumption that the character’s homosexuality is possibly a burden when it comes to his Christian faith. That’s a fascinating concept, and while it was assumed in his slow-paced, artsy projects before, it’s actually discussed in “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls,” as Thiedeman tries a narrative story arc for once and allows his characters to talk about what they’re going through.

This can be either very schmaltzy or very effective, depending on the dialogue. Thanks to sharp writing by Thiedeman, it fits into the latter category. He shows a departure from his earlier films that really works.

That’s not to say none of his trademarks are absent in this one. They are there; they’re just not as blatant in this narrative. Though there is one exception, it makes for a clever gimmick. Often, the film shows pictures of Biblical elements that introduce a new story in this episodic piece (for example: a picture of “David & Goliath” is shown before a boxing match between two characters).

“Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls” takes place at an all-boys Catholic boarding school, where a nervous boy, Max (Harrison Tanner Dean), attends. Max has been at the school for about a month now and doesn’t fit in with the other boys, who, particularly bully Kirby (Schafer Bourne), like to torment him. The usual places Max experiences torture is Sex-Ed and Gym class—Sex Ed, because the other boys like to make jokes about anatomy and sometimes call on Max to get a rise out of him; gym, because he keeps having certain feelings towards his classmates and is (possibly) afraid he might act on them. The only one at the school who knows that Max is unquestionably gay is a friendly nun, Sister Dolores (Karen Q. Clark), who understands what Max is going through and tries to help him through it. But Max knows he cannot tell anyone else at the school nor can he act upon his feelings. He does believe in God (“I’m not ready to be an atheist,” he says at one point), and he knows that he is gay, but he doesn’t see it as a choice as much as a curse.

In a Catholic school where all the boys make sexual jokes at one another and the priest produces punishment in old-fashioned ways, Max is in a predicament. The priest punishes students who smoke by smoking cigars with trash barrels over their heads, and even demands that two students who quarrel in the hallway must box each other in front of the whole school for humiliation on the weaker one’s part. Imagine what he would do if he found out Max was gay. These are some pretty complex issues presented in “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls,” and thankfully, they’re all portrayed in a convincing way. I bought Max’s plight and felt for him throughout the film. The conversations he has with the nun and his only friend & roommate sound like genuine conversations; Theideman not only has an eye for visual style, but he also has an ear for convincing dialogue. This is a very well-written script. Even when the story descends into a Big Match cliché, with a boxing match between Max and Kirby near the end of the film, he doesn’t go for the easy way out nor does he forget the importance of the situation at hand. After the match, it ends on a satisfactory note that says little but projects much.

The credibility not only goes to the writing but arguably more importantly, to the acting. Great acting is an important asset to this film. Harrison Tanner Dean doesn’t have a false note in his performance; C. Tucker Steinmetz is both funny and menacing as the old-fashioned priest who delights in humiliating students; Quinn Gasaway is excellent in the role of Andy, Max’s wiseass (straight) roommate/confidant, and delivers some funny one-liners as well; Karen Q. Clark presents genuine sweetness as the one who feels for Max; and Schafer Bourne is a credible jerk.

You just don’t see issues like this addressed this well in a teen feature film (though I would say “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is still very close, to be fair), and so I was pleasantly surprised to see how successful Mark Thiedeman is at switching gears in his own work to make this short film (which runs about 40 minutes in length). He has crafted a well-made, well-acted, well-written drama that shows what he can do when he steps outside his comfort zone. This is one of the best short films of 2014.

Two Step (2015)

16 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

(Originally reviewed in May 2014 for the Little Rock Film Festival)

“Two Step” is an unconventional thriller that I must give my highest compliment about out of the way quickly: I couldn’t predict from one point to the next what was going to happen. The way events occur in this dark, violent, gruesome film, I would have expected anything to happen. As a result, the film kept me on edge from the disturbing start to the violent settings to the bitter end. This is one hell of a film.

It’s hard to pick where exactly to begin with this film, so let’s just start with the story. The first half of the film introduces us to its two main characters separately—college dropout James (Skyy Moore) and career criminal Webb (James Landry Hebert). James comes to a small Texas town to visit his grandmother, only to be there as she passes away. He’s left with everything she has, including the house and his late parents’ money. He moves into the house and gets to know part of the town, as well as strike up a friendship with kindly middle-aged neighbor Dot (Beth Broderick), who is also a ballerina and dance instructor. Meanwhile, Webb is released from prison after eight months and goes to see his girlfriend Amy (Ashley Rae Spillers). But she isn’t particularly pleased to see him, since he broke her nose before he was locked up. She leaves with his money (in an account they both share), and Webb’s trouble begins again once Duane (Jason Douglas), the local crime boss, pays him a visit and expects him to pay a heavy debt in two weeks. Otherwise, he’ll have to leave town.

For a long while, it seems like two separate stories being told (Webb turning back to crime and James being shown the local bar scene). We’re wondering when they’ll intersect and how. Almost halfway through is when things start to get intriguing, as James uncovers one of Webb’s cons to fool elderly people into putting money into Webb’s account. James learns that Webb has tried to con his grandmother and decides to bust him somehow. But the situation turns ugly very quickly…

Period. That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. I knew close to nothing about this movie when I first watched it, and trust me—not knowing what’s going to happen makes it more special. Let’s just say that…Oh wait, I’m sorry, I’m rewriting my review of the Coen Brothers’ shocking thriller “Blood Simple.” Back to “Two Step”… Actually, no. That’s it with the story for now. Like I said earlier, I couldn’t predict what was going to happen in the latter half of the film, and I would like each of its audience members to feel the same way I felt when they see it.

The first half of “Two Step” does a great job in developing its characters with the right amount of time and situations for them to develop themselves into fully-realized characters. When the blood hits the fan eventually, it matters particularly if you care about who is in jeopardy, what is at stake, and what these people have to face. You get a good feel for these characters before things start to get grisly—James is an outsider trying to find his place in a new town; Webb is a live wire with a taste for violence and torture, and Duane constantly threatening him isn’t making things any easier; and Dot is a kind woman who also possesses a lively spirit and an acid tongue.

You know a little bit about Webb’s past and even see him do a horrific deed (such as break a man’s arm as he reaches for his money at an ATM), and so it leaves a good amount of suspense as we wait to see what will happen when he eventually meets up with either James or Dot. When he does, that’s when writer-director Alex R. Johnson, making his feature debut, delivers the punches (no pun intended). By taking the time to get to this point, the abrupt shocks of violence seem all the more surprising. There’s one particular random act of violence that did something for me that hasn’t happened for me in a thriller in a long time: it made me jump out of my seat and shout a hard exclamation at the same time.

All of the actors perform excellent work. Hebert and Moore effectively portray opposing ends of a grim situation. Hebert, in particular, has the juiciest role as the violent criminal who can be vulnerable at times when he doesn’t quite know how to handle a situation he put himself into. With the right balance of charisma and horridness, Hebert is great in this role. Beth Broderick, while playing her character as kindly and tender, is mostly on hand for much-needed comic relief and makes a very good impression here. Jason Douglas adds a dose of one-liners into the mix with his villainous character and creates an effective comic bad-guy.

Also, “Two Step” is a very good-looking film with great cinematography. Even a few things as standard as a dead body, a person tied to a chair, and a dull knife are attention-grabbing in the framework of the story and situations. It also delivers a great dose of Texas atmosphere. You feel like you are there in this environment as you’re watching it.

The story structure is fantastic, as you learn more and more as the film continues. Johnson manages to make scenes more meaningful by revisiting certain undercurrents introduced before (such as the interaction between Webb and Duane) and creating effective payoffs.

The characters’ relationships are convincing, and so we buy why certain events happen when it comes to where they fit into them. It makes the horrific and very intense second half all the more credible as well as shocking, chilling, and well-executed. I apologize for not saying more about the thriller aspect of this film, but I will say this: This film is not for the squeamish; there are only a few brutal acts of violence, and so Johnson makes the most of his limitations.

“Two Step” is such a good film. How effective a thriller was it? I’ll be honest; after I’ve seen it and left the theater, I had to walk several blocks in North Little Rock to get to my car, and I was afraid someone was going to come along and strike me. The film premiered at SXSW and recently screened at the Little Rock Film Festival. If and when it gets a theatrical release, check it out and see if it has that same effect on you afterwards.

To Kill a Man (2014)

16 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The Chilean film “To Kill a Man” is one of the most rare of revenge films: a type that is morally uncertain. This film, based on a true story, sets up a conflict that drives its protagonist to kill the antagonist and then the resolution causes the protagonist, and the audience for that matter, to wonder what has been resolved. On the one hand, some people are safe again. On the other hand, the protagonist is left wondering what vengeance solved, and with his usually emotionally-insecure inner life even worse than before. By trying to change things for the better, the worse has risen as an effect.

That’s not a mark against the film, necessarily. In my opinion, it leaves a stronger impact and causes you to think about what you’ve seen after you leave the theater.

The film, written and directed by Alejandro Fernandez Almendras, sets up the conflict as we’re introduced to our main character named Jorge (Daniel Candia). Jorge is a caretaker at a nature reserve and lives with his wife, Marta (Alejandra Yanez), and two children. He’s also somewhat emotionally timid. He can’t stand up for himself and tries to avoid confrontation. When he encounters a gang of thugs from the projects, the gang picks up on this right away and decides to mock and humiliate him before actually mugging him. His teenage son is anxious to stand up to the leader of the thugs, Kalule (Daniel Antivilo), since Jorge won’t, and sneaks out in the middle of the night. By the time Jorge catches up with him, Kalule shoots the son and is sent to prison for 18 months.

Two years later, Jorge is not living with the family anymore, as Marta has kicked him out of the house for not standing up for himself in the first place, thus putting their son in that situation. Kalule is released from prison and seeking revenge. He harasses the family with threatening phone calls and vandalism on their property. He even sexually assaults Jorge’s young daughter. Jorge and Marta try to get Kalule arrested for terrorizing the family but are unsuccessful. That leaves Jorge with the choice to man up and decide to take the matter into his own hands.

“To Kill a Man” uses long, interrupting tracking shots and static shots to give a documentary-like/voyeuristic feel. It’s both disturbing and fascinating to watch events unfold; and as the inevitable creeps around the corner, it gave me tension waiting to see how it would play out. The two most memorable scenes occur halfway through the film, as Jorge sets out on his crusade. One is a tracking shot involving a car alarm as a lure. The other is a long-running static shot where more is heard rather than seen.

It’s easy to see what’s coming; even the title renders it expected. But what makes “To Kill a Man” more memorable is what happens afterwards. The pride that Jorge expected from performing his deed is instead replaced with guilt and more apprehension. He can’t even bring himself to tell his family not to worry about Kalule coming after them anymore. This turns the film not only into a well-crafted revenge tale but also an effective character study. Jorge is an outcast and will remain so for the rest of the life. There’s not a clear answer as to how long he’s been the way he is or how it originated; there are just subtle emotions from his family that state they’ve put up with it for so long.

That Jorge spends most of his time in an empty forest is symbolic in the isolation that he feels. There’s also a scene in which he tries to tell a vagrant to move from the forest, as part of his job, but then he returns to chase him away with a shotgun. I could be reading too much into this, but I took it as a way of saying that Jorge prefers to be alone and possibly doesn’t want change in his life after all.

Something else that can represent this is the camerawork that leaves plenty of headroom for the character. This originally annoyed me (and I even felt like I wanted to grab the camera and tilt it down a little bit), but shortly after my friend saw the film, he had a comment that changed my view for the better—that the headroom was further emphasizing Jorge’s seclusion from everyone and everything. Looking back with that in mind, I let it pass.

Even if we’re not sure exactly what to take from “To Kill a Man,” from a moral stance, it’s hard to deny the sheer power it delivers with the way it presents a dilemma, a possible resolution, and how a flawed protagonist can act and feel throughout such an ominous situation. It’s a dark, compelling film that I won’t forget anytime soon.

A Matter of Honor (Short Film)

14 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

David Bogard’s short film “A Matter of Honor” is a war drama that premiered in the Little Rock Film Festival. And how odd is it that it screens in the same festival as another made-in-Arkansas war drama, Taylor Dan Lucas’ “Watch the Rhine?” Both shorts are exercises in setting, acting, and writing, and they don’t rely on cheap gimmicks to make their audiences feel something they couldn’t already. They’re both small films that rely on something more—the performances, the location, and the script. They’re both very strong pieces of work.

I’ve already reviewed “Watch the Rhine,” so if you want my further thoughts on that, check out this link: https://smithsverdict.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/watch-the-rhine-short-film/

While “Watch the Rhine” took place during World War II, “A Matter of Honor” occurs on the night of June 2, 1864, during the American Civil War. Three Confederate soldiers (Ed Lowry, Tom Kagy, and Elliot Gilmartin) are sitting around a campfire in the middle of a forest talking about what they should expect in the future during the war. The youngest one (Gilmartin) is fighting for vengeance after a Union soldier killed his father, while the two older soldiers don’t feel like they know what they’re fighting for anymore. After one (Lowry) leaves the other two, a young Union soldier (Jason Willey) comes along to arrange a trade of scarce goods, such as coffee and tobacco. The two Confederates agree to it, and they enjoy a moment of friendly banter with the soldier. But when a gruff Confederate officer (Scott McEntire) comes across them, the situation takes a serious turn and leads to a deadly encounter. The only solution they can think of in the moment tests their honor.

“A Matter of Honor,” which runs for 19 minutes, is a powerful short. The reasons for this are many: For starters, the actors are all solid as they exhibit the true emotions of what their characters are going through. It’s a dialogue-heavy short; the conversations these people have are perceptive and convincing without being too heavy about the themes and conflicts. The flow of each talk is convincingly handled, even when the soldiers from each side meet and talk around the fire; their banter about how they’re going to handle battling on opposite sides the next day is not only insightful but also humorous, which is a refreshing move. The character arcs, while we’ve seen them before, are well-done and suitable for the material. The film, shot on RED, looks good, and the cinematography is great. I like that it’s held in one outdoor location (like “Watch the Rhine”). The costumes look convincing. And when the Confederate officer comes to resist the Union soldier’s appearance, I felt the suspense; I must confess even though I probably knew the resolution, I didn’t know how this scene would play out.

There’s much to like about “A Matter of Honor.” And when all is said and done, if you can get into the talks, the characters, and the conflicts, then you can get into how the film plays itself out after the climactic encounter. You have five soldiers, different in many ways but similar in one in that they fight for honor, in the middle of a war and of a scenario that isn’t seen in most war films. It’s effective and very well-handled.

There’s one thing I didn’t like about “A Matter of Honor.” Without giving it away, it features characters practically taking turns during a grisly act. The way it’s handled, you’d think it was a “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” performance. But it’s not very long and the film bounces back with its complexities afterwards. That’s one flaw in an otherwise well-executed short war drama.

Sidearoadia (Short Film)

14 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Sidearoadia” is a short film by University of Central Arkansas Digital Filmmaking professor Bruce Hutchinson, and it’s a deeply moving tale of two different people coming together as they accept life by dealing with death.

Teenaged Rose (Hannah Culwell) has just lost her older sister, Dawn (Kristy Barrington), and doesn’t know how to deal with it. In comes David (Warren McCullough), Dawn’s boyfriend, who attempts to comfort her. Rose is more into outdoor hobbies and mythical legends, and doesn’t like to talk about something as tragic as her sister’s death. So when David first approaches her, she tells him not to even mention it. Instead, he decides to get to know her better, as he watches her with small animals (such as a rabbit), listens to her talk about mythical creatures (such as “selkies”), and so on. Rose and David spend more time together, as their conversations turn to the subject of Dawn and how her death has affected their lives deeply.

Where do I begin with this film (which runs for about 15 minutes)? Just about everything in this film is done just right. The screenplay is great, with dialogue as insightful and natural as reality (I love the conversations these two have together). The acting and characterizations are excellent; Hannah Culwell and Warren McCullough are great together, exhibit convincing chemistry, and portray realistic characters with a few quirks, particularly with Rose. The film looks great, thanks to top-notch cinematography; this is a beautiful-looking film that brings the Southern outdoors to life. And the film, for all its great dialogue, even knows when to be quiet. There’s a scene in which the two characters sit together in a field, and, for some type of ritual Rose knows more about, they use only notepads and short messages to communicate. It’s a touching scene that says more about what the characters are going through.

That “Sidearoadia” is not predictable is rare and it really works. There’s hardly a story being told here; it’s just the friendship between two people who need comfort, consultation, and assurance, and find all three in each other. It’s interesting and very effective. And I can’t tell you how glad I was when the relationship between Rose and David didn’t go in the direction I was expecting it to. In any other film, they probably would have been romantically involved.

I can’t think of anything I dislike about “Sidearoadia,” except for perhaps the final line of dialogue that feels somewhat random and seems a little off in mood and tone. But if that’s the biggest problem with this short, I have little to complain about. I love this short film.

The film can be seen here: