Archive | April, 2015

The Whisperers (Short Film)

5 Apr


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

Jason Miller’s “The Whisperers” is a UCA-produced short film I’d very much like to do a “spoiler review” for (like with UCA shorts “Hitchhiker” and “Greed”) just so I can analyze the ending and explain why I think it works so well. But that wouldn’t be fair at this point in time, since its festival run has hardly begun yet (I saw it at a premiere screening). In a year or so, when “The Whisperers” is published online, I’ll come back, write another review, link the film, and talk about the very things I can’t talk about here. This is a spoiler-free review that goes into the quality of the film overall.

Something wicked this way comes, and when it does, you hear it whisper. “The Whisperers” is a 20-minute horror-suspense film that’s more or less in the spirit of an old episode of ‘90s family-horror TV shows such as “Goosebumps” and “Are You Afraid of the Dark,” among others (and its running time is about the same duration of one episode). Having watched those shows a lot as a kid, I rarely recall any of them that “scared” me. “The Whisperers,” on the other hand, despite its familiar setup and being technically family-friendly, actually managed to get under my skin. It works as well as any good horror film in that it has a neat sense of buildup, atmosphere, and mystery.

The film takes place sometime in the mid-90s, around Halloween, as a pair of squabbling brothers—11-year-old Nathan (Hayes Polk) and 8-year-old Zachary (Chance Caeden)—are left home alone at night in a rural country home. Zachary wants to play with Nathan, but Nathan just wants to be left alone and sees Zachary as a nuisance. But things start to get creepy when Nathan hears faint, garbled whispers coming from outside, and he realizes he and Zachary are not alone…

What’s out there? What does it want? What does it whisper? As the film continues, the whispers become a little clearer and it’s very unnerving to find out what they mean. It all leads to a payoff that (again, without giving too much away) is both disturbing and haunting. The film’s epilogue ends on a poignant note that makes the film more of a cautionary tale about sibling rivalry than what the rest of the film may have led you to believe. But if you watch it again, you’ll see that it’s been building up to not just the scares but to the message. It’s subtle, but it’s there. This is a horror film that is about something.

There are some good, effective creepy moments, some of which make good use of the film’s ’90s-culture references; my favorite scare involves the Clapper. And there is a good deal of suspense aided by moody cinematography and efficient sound design. Sometimes, the ambience of crickets chirping outside or a horror movie playing on TV inside is enough to get the job done, but other times, when Eli Bennett’s chilling music score comes in, are effective as well. If I have a problem with the film, it’s that while it has a good amount of unsettling moments, I imagined certain ways they could’ve made two or three other shots scarier.

Hayes Polk gives a good, natural performance as a pre-teenage boy who suffers the usual problems most kids that age do, especially those who have younger siblings; he sees his kid brother as an annoyance and just wants to be left alone with his thoughts, which seem to revolve around a girl he likes. As Zachary, Chance Caeden is not a very polished actor, but he is enthusiastic, and there are instances when he’s successful at being the source of Nathan’s irritation, particularly when he’s running around the house and pretending to be a superhero (he wears a cape and calls himself “Zach Attack”).

I wish I could say more about the ending because it truly is terrific in the way it brings it all around and makes “The Whisperers” not just a horror story but something more moving and profound. The saying, “Be careful what you wish for,” is the best way to describe it; it’s very well-done.

The film’s writer-director, Jason Miller, previously co-directed the collaborative short film, “Blood Brothers,” and he shows in both these films that he is fully capable of balancing ordinary setups with complex dramatic issues. I’m sure I’ll admire even more of his work in the future.

NOTE: The film is available on demand at

Furious Seven (2015)

4 Apr


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

“Furious Seven” is the seventh entry in the highly successful series of “The Fast and the Furious” films that basically represent the equivalent of what they feature much of: street racing. Both street racing and these films are made up of speed, adrenaline, and a divergent lack of intelligence. “Furious Seven” is mostly on that level. But this time around, there’s a sense of poignancy surrounding the film’s fun measure, and it has to do with the untimely death of star Paul Walker. Walker died midway through filming and because we’re aware of that, that kind of takes away from the fun whenever he’s on screen.

If you can get past that (which isn’t easy, seeing as how the fourth wall is nearly broken when it brings up this matter near the end), this seventh entry in a film series that is all about stunts, effects, energy, and quick editing is…pretty much the same thing. It’s a relentless series of exciting action sequences that don’t generate any real tension because everyone in the audience knows that everything will turn out okay. But they look great and provide us with a great deal of trailer-fodder. My favorite scene involves Vin Diesel’s Dom and his allies (Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, and Ludacris) parachuting out of the back of a plane…with cars. It’s tremendously insane and fun to watch, and it’s followed by a similarly insane moment as Walker attempts to flee from the back of a truck that is about to hurdle off a cliff.

Does the story even matter? Does it matter that Jason Stathum’s character is a Special Ops assassin out to avenge his brother’s death by killing Diesel and company, thus making it your typical hunter-vs-hunted tale? And does it even matter that Kurt Russell joins the cast as a government agent who enjoys watching these guys work? Does it matter that there’s a mercenary played by Djimon Hounsou using surveillance technology to track them down? Nope. Not at all. It’s just an excuse to give us awesome action scenes; nothing more, nothing less. I feel that it tries to be a James Bond movie (complete with a beautiful woman, played by Nathalie Emmanuel, who knows a thing or two about computer hacking), but when you have as much high-speed energy as this, you don’t care much about anything else.

Give the filmmakers some credit for attempts at character building, such as when Walker’s character, Brian O’Connor, is struggling to choose between the adrenaline-junkie life he’d gotten used to or a quiet, responsible family life he’s getting used to. But other moments such as Rodriguez’s amnesiac character trying to regain her memories as Diesel’s wife aren’t as successful.

The film ends with a tribute to Paul Walker, which thankfully isn’t done with merely a “For Paul” dedication but with a montage of shots of him from earlier in the series. It also has a nice reflective moment that works with the message I think was trying to get across all along: it’s all about family. I won’t say any more about it, but it’s actually a well-done moment.

I’m giving the film a mixed review but admittedly with some affection. I did enjoy it, and I would probably see it again on DVD or on demand to see those glorious action scenes again. Bottom line here is that it either works for you or it doesn’t. If you like energized, adrenaline-fueled set pieces, this is the movie for you. Just expect a little bit of pathos near the end.