Archive | May, 2014

Watch the Rhine (Short Film)

13 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Watch the Rhine” is writer-director Taylor Dan Lucas’ University of Central Arkansas undergraduate thesis film, and it’s considered a smaller project than one might expect to come out from the school’s digital filmmaking program. But “smaller” does not mean it’s any less effective. It’s quite a strong short film, and its minimalism works in its favor. It gives more of a lasting impression because we’re not watching a film as much as living it. The execution is intimate, the actors are extremely convincing, and there’s a great deal of atmosphere throughout.

What I mean by “smaller” is that it’s mostly a two-character piece set in one location, which is unusual, considering it takes place in World War II. But this is not a war epic, and there’s hardly any action to be found here. It’s just a short drama about two soldiers from opposite sides and how they react, and even relate, to each other. That’s it. And you know what? That’s actually pretty good.

“Watch the Rhine” takes place in a forest somewhere in France, 1944. The story begins with Jim (Schafer Bourne), an American soldier, awakening alone in a foxhole. Alone and confused, he frantically hikes through the forest in the hopes of finding his unit. Soon, he comes across Curt (Nick Lewellen), a German soldier/medic. Jim sees that Curt is unarmed and seemingly alone, so, not knowing what to do, he holds him and forces him to trek along with him. As they go further, they come to trust one another and even form a sort of bond.

That’s the main idea that Lucas goes with in this film, and he manages to make the simplicity of this premise quite effective. He’s aided by two very convincing actors in the central roles, the costumes they wear which look authentic, and a great amount of atmosphere, thanks to the film’s directors of photography, River Shelman and Corey Shelman.

Something else that works in the film’s favor is the lack of music score. I got to see the original rough cut of this film months ago, and I heard that Lucas and the film’s producer, J. Cole Lansden, were planning to arrange a score for the finished film. I was concerned because I thought the film would have been stronger without it, because the cut I originally saw was pretty damn solid. And it pleasantly surprised me that there was no score in the end. Honestly, the film doesn’t need it. If the execution and acting is great, then the film doesn’t need music to tell how the audience is supposed to feel. That was a good move on the filmmakers’ part.

If I did have a problem with the film, it’s that I would have liked it to run a little longer. The ending comes a little too quickly, which you could argue shadows abruptness of this type of situation and environment, and I feel there’s a key shot missing. I don’t know; maybe I would have liked to see more of these two together. But that’s just me nitpicking, and this does add to tragedy of this situation/environment. You accept what you can get, and what I got was a very short but nonetheless very powerful drama.

You can watch the film here: https://vimeo.com/92346956

Stuck (Short Film)

13 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Stuck” is a short film with a quite original hook: an offbeat comedy about a door-to-door salesman who sells…glue. That’s right—lots and lots of glue; so much glue that the man’s entire home kitchen leaves very little room for the dining table because of so many boxes of unsold products. “Stuck” is the University of Central Arkansas Digital Filmmaking undergraduate thesis film by John Hockaday, and it’s a delightful, funny short that does more with that premise.

The glue salesman is named Spence (played by Scott McEntire). He’s a bored, repressed, working-class family man with hardly any time for his wife (Julie Atkins) and his young son (Peter Grant) or especially for fun. And he hasn’t seen either his parents or immature man-child of a brother, Bob (P. Jay Clark), in years. It comes as a shock when he receives a phone call from Bob, saying, “Mom and Dad are dead.” How did they die? This is a riot—skydiving! That is hilariously tragic. Anyway, the situation becomes more tragic to Spence because Bob, who has stayed with his parents all his life (“They’ve been asking me to leave for 20 years,” he says at one point), now needs a place to live. (“It’s just I never slept without them!” Bob says.) Spence shudders at the very idea of letting this childish fool into his house, but Bob does move in, befriends his nephew who lets him sleep in his bedroom, and makes himself at home. Spence’s wife and son love the guy, but Spence is of course nearly driven crazy by his antics. Will he ultimately learn the true meaning of family and brotherly love?

Well…the answer to that question is “yes,” of course. It’s the old story of a buffoonish clod that enters the life of an uptight straight man who at first hates him and then slowly but surely comes to love him. But that the story is predictable is not the point here. What’s important with any story, old or new, is how it’s presented. And the way Hockaday, who wrote, directed, and edited the film, presents this story is fresh and very funny, and with a certain love for his characters. Nowhere is that clearer than in a scene near the end where Spence and Bob, in a playground where Bob goes to play, talk about the good and bad qualities about Bob and how Spence may actually learn how to loosen up while also learn the importance of family. Yes, it’s essential, but it’s still touching because at no point do you want these two to hate each other or to take the wrong path in their relationship, especially since (hilariously) tragic circumstances brought them together.

The character of Bob takes a little getting used to, but I guess that’s the point. Bob can be aggressively obnoxious, but his energy and spirit grew on me and I came to like him. Also, I thought P. Jay Clark was flat-out hilarious in the role.

At the same time, you can understand the frustration that Spence goes through when he has to put up with his antics, such as gluing the TV remote to the coffee table, talking his son into skipping school, and so on. One of the pleasures about the film is that it isn’t necessarily one-sided. Even with the ending I could see some people having trouble with (and by the way, I’ll save that for a spoiler-review when the film is online), Hockaday doesn’t mean for one character to be right and the other be wrong.

It’s not just that Hockaday loves his characters; he also loves film and filmmaking. Watch this film on a technical level, and it’s hard not to enjoy the way it’s shot, the way it’s edited, the overall spirit of it all, etc. I like to think Hockaday had everything pictured in his head the whole time and this came pretty close to his vision. Jarrod Beck, the film’s DP, deserves credit for the film’s look as well.

Now I want to review the first scene of “Stuck,” because it is quite honestly the film’s best part. It’s so wonderfully done that you could argue that maybe the rest of the film doesn’t top it because it’s so great. It’s an introduction that establishes Spence’s job as a door-to-door glue salesman…in musical form. That’s right—it’s a musical sequence that begins the film, as Spence sings the catchy theme song (think the “Super Mario World” theme crossed with Danny Elfman’s “Simpsons” score) about the glue (called Grant’s Glue: The Miracle Glue) to one of his customers (Amber Erdley, who deserves credit for capturing the same kind of reactions that anyone would have to craziness such as this). It’s a fast, funny sequence that had me laughing out loud as Spence frantically goes over what this glue can do for the common household, as outlandish as it all seems, and then slows down to sing about his plight; how he hates his job and his glue; how he must provide for his family; and then speeds back up again to finish the song with an “all sales are final” closer. This scene is hilarious, perfectly-crafted, and even worthy of being watched and studied by film students who would like to craft the same kind of musical-theatre type of scene. Also, the song is pretty good too; credit goes to Hockaday, who wrote it, and Michael Xiques, who created the music for it.

I can think of one other filmmaker who would like to attempt to create this film (albeit a feature film), and that would be Wes Anderson, a filmmaker who delights in, for lack of a better phrase, making the unusual usual. I think he would be proud of this short.

The film can be seen here: http://www.johnhockaday.com/stuck.html

Shattered Glass (2003)

5 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How far does ambition go in the workplace? Or, in the case of “Shattered Glass,” how far does ambition go in journalism? “Shattered Glass” is a film based on true events in the late-‘90s, about a young writer, named Stephen Glass, who strived to get so far in the reporting business that he actually fabricated more than two dozen stories for the New Republic just so he could get ahead. He didn’t just bend the rules; he flat-out made up the facts as he went along and attempted to cover his tracks with elaborate stories and hoaxes. Why did he do it? Maybe he thought he would impress his fellow staff writers if he could write the most riveting stories, so he created stories about a drunken Young Republicans hotel-gathering and a computer hacker’s convention featuring a young hacker who sold computer companies his knowledge to get rid of other hackers, in exchange for anything he wanted.

You could say these stories are too good to be true, and that’s probably what Stephen’s co-workers think. But Stephen has notes for fact-checkers to verify, they love Stephen’s enthusiasm as he talks about his stories, and more importantly, they love him. Even when his wispy, whiny personality seems to annoy people, all he has to do is ask the question, “Are you mad at me?” They can’t stay mad at him.

That’s the way writer-director Billy Ray sees it in “Shattered Glass,” which stars Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass.

Christensen portrays Glass effectively, as a naïve kid who desperately wants to be liked by his peers and co-workers and will even flat-out lie to everybody to gain sympathy, even when he is caught by his editor, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard in an excellent performance), by accident. When is Stephen Glass telling the truth in this film? It’s hard to tell, because he’s a convincing liar. He always plays an innocent. Is he an innocent? There are times near the end, when he creates a sob-story when he knows he’s about to be fired from the New Republic, that it’s so unsettling to watch him like this. But it’s all so fascinating, and Hayden Christensen turns in a solid performance.

One thing we don’t see in this film is how good Glass is as a journalist. You have to wonder from watching this film if he ever wrote a story he didn’t make up himself. If so, why is that? Is it because he kept thinking he could get away with it? That he could continue to fool people? Is he just addicted to lying? What we do know is that when Glass is ultimately caught, he doesn’t see it as a big deal by that point.

This really did happen. Stephen Glass did in fact create these stories. The New Republic published fiction and didn’t even know about it until Internet journalist Adam Penenberg (played by Steve Zahn) checked the facts himself, brought the attention TNR editor Chuck Lane, and exposed the article, causing Lane to fire Glass. It’s almost hard to believe, but sometimes the most impressive stories are the ones that are true. Maybe if Glass looked around some more, he wouldn’t have had to imagine his articles.

“Shattered Glass” is a terrific film that shows the pressures of journalism as well as the questions of limited ambition in such a workplace (Glass’ opening narration about his job is one of the most truthful speeches I’ve heard, especially now that I’ve worked at the University of Central Arkansas newspaper, the Echo, for two semesters now). It’s also very well-acted. I’ve said how good Hayden Christensen is as the title character, but I can’t forget Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane, who’s really the hero of the story. In the beginning of the film, he already has enough to worry about—he’s not popular among his co-workers, and is even less so when he replaces the original editor Michael Kelly, whom everyone loved. He’s not very charismatic, is constantly under pressure with deadlines and all that fun stuff with journalism, and now he has to deal with this “kid” (because, really, that’s what the others see Glass as: a kid), and hope that he’s wrong about his suspicions because he knows that if he fires him, no one will want to listen to his reasons why. Sarsgaard is great here; he does an excellent job at balancing out his ethics and wants. He, along with many other aspects (the script, the execution, the rest of the actors) make “Shattered Glass” definitely worth looking into.