Archive | October, 2014

The Purge (2013)

27 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

You can spew as much B.S. about it as you want (because that’s all I’m going to think of it as: B.S.), but there is no way I’m going to believe that The Purge should, could, or would be a real law, let alone “work.” That is the main problem with the film, “The Purge.” It’s a really dumb idea to begin with. It goes like this—in order to keep America in great shape and the crime rate at an all-time low, the “New Founding Fathers” (uh-huh) bring forth a social policy that every March 22 for 12 hours, criminal law is put on hold. This is known as The Purge. People can do whatever they want (or as they put it, “release the inner beast”), even murder, without fear of legal consequences. Some go out and let out pent-up anger they’ve held inside for a whole year, while others can hole up safely inside their homes.

Apparently, this law was created so people could let out all their inner anger for one night if they go by the honors system not to commit any crimes the rest of the year, thus bringing crime down and making America a more peaceful place. Do I even have to point out how ridiculous this sounds? It shouldn’t be much to complain about, since it’s only the setup for a laughable home-invasion thriller; but the characters keep repeating over and over why The Purge exists and why “it works” (and not once are mental scarring brought up in the slightest), and it’s very poorly handled. Even the social commentary (in that the rich attempts to cleanse the world of the poor) is weak. This results in “The Purge” turning out to be a pretentious, deplorable thriller that takes itself way too seriously.

The film takes place on March 22, 2022, and right there, you can tell how hard writer/director James DeMonaco is trying to warn his audience that The Purge could exist and it’s the direction America is going. Anyway, we get a couple introductory captions that explain that unemployment is down 1% and crime is abolished, thanks to The Purge. Our main characters are James and Mary Sandin (played by Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey), suburbanites who have made a living thanks to James’ successful security company, which has helped turn all neighborhood homes in fortresses to protect neighbors during The Purge (and the passive-aggressive neighbors resent them for this…for some reason never really explained). Of course, their house has a security system as well, and so they prepare to wait calmly during The Purge with their teenage kids, Charlie (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kane). But when Charlie notices a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) desperately roaming the neighborhood and screaming for help, he decides to let him in for shelter. (Why did James tell his son the code to disarm the barricades?) James doesn’t trust the stranger, but it turns out the whole family has something more to fear. A group of teenagers wearing masks have been chasing the man down and the creepy Polite Leader (Rhys Wakefield) asks that the family release him or else they’ll break through the barricade and kill them.

From what I can gather, these kids are rich and delight in killing poor people during The Purge. And apparently, they want this particular poor person because he got away just as they were about to lynch him. Why they don’t just let him go and look for someone else to kill is anyone’s guess, since they don’t think to take advantage of The Purge, so it’s just a weak excuse to make “The Purge” into a home-invasion flick, which itself isn’t very successful. The homeless man doesn’t have enough moments to be declared a character, but more of a tool to allow James to question morals and ethics. So therefore, it’s hard to be scared by him when he doesn’t pose a threat, and it’s hard to care because James’ morals and ethics are hardly developed anyway. There’s too much behavior and not much rationality so that we’re questioning what’s really at stake while at the same time, we’re being asked to celebrate the deaths of the home invaders as they ultimately force their way in and delight in torturing their would-be victims just so there can be enough time for someone to come in and save them. But then, in the final few minutes, we’re led to believe that the best way to end the mayhem is peacefully. A worthy compromise, but it’s a bit hypocritical.

Ethan Hawke at least looks dedicated in his role, playing a man who’s being pushed over the edge (at least, I think that’s what’s happening). Lena Headey, on the other hand, looks like she’d rather be somewhere else, as she doesn’t seem invested in her character. The young actors, Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane, are fine. Meanwhile, there’s the performance of Rhys Wakefield as the creepy leader of the invaders. I don’t know if he knew what he was acting in was laughably bad, but he can hardly keep a straight face while delivering hammy, supposedly-foreboding speeches. He is the most enjoyable part of the film.

What we’re supposed to learn from “The Purge” is that The Purge doesn’t work after all. Since it’s so obvious that The Purge could never happen (seriously, I would believe the futuristic society’s rules in “Divergent” before I believe this logic), there’s nothing to be afraid of or think about after the film is over. So just looking at it as a horror film, it still doesn’t succeed. It’s just a collection of horror-movie clichés within a half-assed political message. But apparently, it was so successful at the box-office that it warranted a sequel. Hopefully, writer/director James DeMonaco decides to do something more with an already-flawed premise and has learned something from making this film. Has he? Well, I’ll get to that later…

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The Man in the Trunk

24 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Man in the Trunk” premiered at the Offshoot Film Festival in Fayetteville, Arkansas this past weekend. This is an early review.

This is the third time this year that I’m doing this in a review. After reviewing Ti West’s “The Sacrament” and Alex Johnson’s “Two Step,” two unpredictable thrillers I couldn’t say much about (lest I give away surprises, taking away the suspense they had to offer), from earlier this year, here comes Marc Hampson’s “The Man in the Trunk,” another terrific thriller of which I can only talk about the setup and not much else. I hate to do this again, but you’ll probably thank me later.

The film, directed by Hampson and co-written by Aaron Fairley, reminded me of a more modern Hitchcockian way of storytelling, as it gives a setup, raises tension from there, and then delivers a plot-twist midway through, creating even more tension as the film continues. The setup goes like this: it’s Christmastime, and Andrew Tucker (Ace Marrero) is looking forward to a romantic night with his wife. But their foreplay is interrupted by an old friend, Steven Winter (very well-played by Erik Bogh), whom Andrew hasn’t seen in years. They catch up and have a couple smiles and laughs before Steven reveals he came to ask Andrew for help. Steven is a nervous, awkward type, so Andrew finds it difficult to say no to a cry for help, even though Steven won’t say right away what the situation is.

Going by the title, you can probably get some idea of Steven’s situation. I won’t give it away here, though that’s not the film’s biggest reveal. Midway through the film, something unexpected happens in the story, and from there, the film turns into a forceful thriller. It does so in such an effective way, by giving us a nice, long, quiet moment (done in one great continuous shot) before something horrific happens. Normally in thrillers and horror films, that’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché that worked so well in “The Man in the Trunk” because at that point (which is about 30 minutes in), I couldn’t begin to predict how the rest of the film would play out; thus I didn’t predict that shocking story turn and it took me by surprise. And from that point on (again, without revealing anything), all hell breaks loose, lives are at stake, and it’s a race to safety. It’s complicated, but that’s one of the reasons why “The Man in the Trunk” works. It’s a scary, unpredictable, suspenseful film that kept me guessing as well as unnerved. Other things that work for the film are the cinematography and the acting, which give the film a more realistic feel, making its settings and problems even more unsettling.

Something I probably could’ve done without is the epilogue. Without giving it away, it provides answers (albeit vague ones) to certain questions that may have been best left to the imagination. While I give Hampson and Fairley credit for not having everything spelled out for the audience by providing a detailed back-story (such as the therapist’s reasoning in “Psycho”), it was a little disappointing for a film that avoided taking the easy way out (again, without giving it away). However, I will let it slide because the film still kept its tone with this resolution.

Even so, “The Man in the Trunk” is a tense, effective independent thriller that I hope gets enough attention in its festival run for distribution, because I really think it’s that good. I’m sorry I couldn’t say much about it, but as I said before, you’ll probably thank me later. And I must admit: the night I saw this film at the Offshoot Film Festival, as I was about to leave for home, I checked the backseat to make sure no one was waiting to stab me when I got in my car. That’s how much the film worked for me.

The Guard Responds (Short Film)

16 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In late April 2014 came a major tornado outbreak in the central and southern United States. Seven of the outbreak’s tornadoes were deadly, causing 35 fatalities. One such tornado cut an 80-mile path of destruction in Arkansas, hitting the towns of Vilonia and Mayflower the hardest, causing extreme damage. Many people lost everything. Many homes were flattened. And about 16 people were confirmed dead. More than five months have passed and there are people who were affected deeply by the storm, still trying to move on.

The six-minute documentary “The Guard Responds” tells about how the Arkansas National Guard was called on to assist local authorities with traffic safety, search-and-rescue, and medical evacuation in those areas hit by the tornado. But some members of the Guard were also affected by the storm. Some lost their businesses and homes, and one (airman Daniel Wassom) lost his life.

The film is a blend of older news footage (chronicling the event and the aftermath), new wreckage footage, voiceover narration by LTC Matt Snead (who also produced the film), and interviews from Guard members and civilians. Among the interviewees is former Faulkner County judge Preston Scroggin, who recalls what it like seeing the tornado while driving home. Also among the interviewees is Wassom’s father, Daniel Wassom Sr., who remembers his son as a hero in his eyes—Wassom Jr. died to protect his family while their whole house was destroyed.

“The Guard Responds” is about the aftermath of disaster, but it doesn’t just state the facts so that it becomes more of a reporting-news story than a short documentary—it uses footage, testimony, and masterful editing to tell a story about those who will take time of their lives to help. CSM Steven Veazey, one of the interviewees, puts it best in a truly moving final speech—“They put their lives on hold to help these other lives.” Even if “The Guard Responds” were a TV commercial for the Arkansas National Guard, I would still highly recommend it.

NOTE: “The Guard Responds” was directed and co-written (with Lt. Col. Keith Moore) by no stranger to my Shorts reviews, Sarah Jones. I realize I don’t give her enough credit for editing; she edited her own previous films (“John Wayne’s Bed,” “Turn Right on Madness,” and “An Ode to Angeline”) and also edited other Arkansas-made short films (including previously-reviewed “La Grande Fete”). She edited “The Guard Responds” as well; it’s definitely among her best editing work.

La Grande Fete: The 48-Hour Film Project

12 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“La Grande Fete” is a seven-minute short made by the team Flokati Films for the 2013 Little Rock 48-Hr. Film Project. For those who don’t know how it works, it’s a competition in which filmmaking teams craft a short film in just two days. It begins when each team draws a genre. For Flokati Films, it was “Operetta.” So, they had to write, shoot, edit and compose a short film in only 48 hours!

If I thought I was impressed with the 2012 48-Hr. film “La Petite Mort,” I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Directed by Johnnie Brannon and written by three members of Little Rock’s Red Octopus Theater comedy troupe (Jason Willey, Luke Rowlan, and Sandy Baskin), “La Grande Fete” is a remarkable achievement in what dedicated filmmakers can do in just one weekend.

The story: Debi (Karen Q. Clark) brings her new beau, a shy plumber named Andy (Jay Clark), to meet her friends. Things seem fine until Debi’s charming ex, Blade Diamond (Sam Clark), arrives and convinces her to take him back. Can Andy gain enough confidence to fight for Debi’s love. Will Debi make the right choice in the end? The story itself is as simple and old-fashioned as a typical romantic comedy, but “La Grande Fete” isn’t about story. It’s about one important thing: making people laugh. I’ve seen this short with four different audiences at four different film festivals, and each screening I attended had an uproar of laughter all throughout, from beginning to end. And I was among them. I think “La Grande Fete” is freaking hilarious! Willey, Rowlan, and Baskin create a funny script out of familiar material with funny characters and clever lines of dialogue…or should they be described as “lyrics?” Being an operetta, nothing by the characters is said generally, but musically. Everything these people say is sung loudly. This is where a lot of the comedy comes from, and it really works. Another clever “operetta” move—all of the action takes place inside one location (a house), much like a play or (pfft!) an opera.

“La Grande Fete” is a treasure of a short that made me laugh and smile all throughout, but it’s also skillfully crafted. Director-of-photography Will Scott gives the film a sort-of “you-are-there” quality, making the (intentionally-) awkward moments even more awkward and funny, the editing by Sarah Jones is quick and well-timed (important for a comedy), and I also compliment Sam Clark for not only acting as Blade Diamond (isn’t that a great name?) but also creating the score that accompanies the singing. I can’t forget to compliment the game comic actors giving funny performances; everyone in this short is so funny. Jay Clark, who I loved in John Hockaday’s “Stuck,” is effectively low-key (or as “low-key” as you can be in an operetta) while playing a shy, awkward man looking to earn love and self-respect. Sam Clark is funny in his attempt to be smooth, and the supporting cast members (Jason Willey, Moriah Patterson, Michael Goodbar, Alli Clark, Drew Ellis, and Patti Airoldi) deliver amusing lines (er, verses). But the biggest standout is Karen Q. Clark as Debi. I can’t even begin to describe how humorous, luminous, expressive, and appealing her performance is in this short; it has to be seen to be believed. She’s wonderful here.

Oh, I should also mention Brian Chambers as well, since he has some of the biggest laughs as a one-man running gag, but… You know what? I’m sorry, but a review for “La Grande Fete” simply won’t do. You have background information, you have a Smith’s Verdict rating (the highest one, I might add), and now…

NOTE: You have the film. (Vimeo link: https://vimeo.com/101564615)

2ND NOTE: While watching this, be on the lookout for three important things: a plumber character named Andy Benoit, a horn for a prop, and the line of dialogue, “Tell me the truth!” Those were the three requirements for all 2013 48-Hour films. I won’t dare give away how they work in a horn in this film.

3RD NOTE: “La Grande Fete” received three awards at the 48-Hr 2013 Awards Ceremony: Best Music, Best Actress, and Best Film.

The Sowers (Short Film)

10 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Sowers” is a short film that…frankly, I started out hating, but later found myself loving. I saw it twice. The first time, I disliked a good portion of the characters within the first 5 out of the film’s running time of 15 minutes. While I was admiring the film’s look and artistry for the rest of the running time, it wasn’t until the ending that I realized I was supposed to dislike said-characters. When the film was over, I was thinking more about what I just saw and what it all meant. Then I watched the film a second time and found myself looking at it another way (most likely the way it was originally intended to be).

Filmed in Mulberry, Arkansas, the film opens disturbingly with an image of an elderly man lying on the ground in pain, with a bloody, mangled hand. We’re then taken back to what led to this horrific accident as we meet the man, simply known as Papaw (Arnold D. Feller). His stubborn, bitter daughter, Sissy (Kathy Forbes), sometimes cares for him and can hardly tolerate him anymore. It’s clear that he’s not entirely senile as everyone else in his family thinks—he’s just stubborn as well and has his own way of doing things, even if it’s enough to make Sissy angry (even to the point of bringing up a tragedy to his face—“You killed Mama and you’re gonna kill me too!” she snaps at one point). He also has two grandsons (Warren Bryce and Jason Thompson); one is conceited, the other just lazy, and both just want some of Papaw’s fortune he’s been saving that he has stashed in jars hidden in a drawer.

It’s clear to us that neither Sissy nor the grandsons care for Papaw much and are most likely waiting for him to die so they can take his money. But midway through the short, it’s also clear to us that Papaw doesn’t see these people as “family” in one brief but brilliant cut that shows us exactly what they look like to him. The only ones who seem as close to being family as he’d like are a friendly stranger (well-played by Kenn Woodard) and his young son. The stranger helps him to mow the lawn.

While you don’t see enough of the family to know what they’re like outside of being greedy and selfish, the ways that these people behave and act are at least realistic. What makes this certain aspect of a dysfunctional family most remarkable is that it isn’t leading up to a rekindling. Far from it. The film ends with a payoff that is pretty much an “up-yours,” if you’ll excuse me, to Sissy and those damned grandsons. Without giving it away, it’s just what I think “The Sowers” needed and I don’t think any other ending would’ve saved the film like this one did.

“The Sowers” was directed by Juli Jackson, who also helmed the Arkansas-made festival-favorite feature “45 RPM,” and I’m convinced she’s one of the best directors based in Arkansas. She gets natural performances out of her actors, knows how to balance comedy and drama effectively, and gives her films a look & feel all her own. Credit must also go to Amber Lindley, who wrote the script; Bryan Stafford, who shot the film (he also shot “45 RPM” as well); Russ & Les Galusha, who edited the film and also provided makeup for certain pivotal shots; Amos Cochran, who composed a haunting score; and Mike Poe, who did art direction. They have crafted a film that made me cynical at the beginning, pleasantly surprised at the end, and, after another viewing, made me appreciate it as a whole.

NOTE: The film can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/63156927