Archive | May, 2015

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

30 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Reservoir Dogs” was writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough effort. Released in 1992, it introduced what would be known now as his famous trademarks—large amounts of sharp dialogue and violence. It’s also known as a milestone in independent filmmaking and was a major influence in independent cinema. How does it hold up? Greatly. It’s still a riveting thriller. The violence is still bloody (while the heavier acts are offscreen, leaving it to our imagination, which is more horrifying); the dialogue is very fun to listen to, with lines such as “Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite?” and also with constant usage of the “f” word as poetry, like David Mamet’s writing; the characters are still enjoyable despite their horrific deeds and the actors playing them are spot-on; the non-linear way of storytelling (which Tarantino would use to greater effect in his next film, “Pulp Fiction”) works in the film’s favor; and no matter how many times you watch it, whether you know the big plot twists or not, it’s still an exhilarating film that grabs you and doesn’t let you go until it’s over.

The film mostly shows us what crime films are afraid to show us, which has since been copied for years to come (hello, Martin McDonagh)—the humor, the conversations about things that aren’t very important, and even the sloppiness. It’s set up in the opening scene, which shows eight men, led by mob boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) who name them after colors (Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink, and so on), eating breakfast at an L.A. diner before they set off on a big heist. They talk about Madonna discography and the importance of tipping waitresses before they embark on their planned mission. It’s a wonderfully well-written scene that introduces the characters and lets us know we’re in for an unusual but fun ride.

The heist is never actually seen, but the aftermath lets us know quickly that it went horribly wrong, as the cops arrived on scene and started shooting, causing the gangsters to shoot back. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), the cool-headed one, speeds away from the scene with Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), who was shot in the stomach. He takes him to an abandoned warehouse, which is the rendezvous for the whole group, and he comforts him for a while, until the paranoid Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) arrives. He believes the whole thing was a setup, since the police apparently responded too quickly. He and Mr. White try to figure out how to handle the situation, with one of their gang dying on the floor, several others missing, and the psychopathic Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) having killed many civilians during the heist when police came. Mr. Blonde shows up with a little surprise in the trunk of his car…

The casting for this film couldn’t be more perfect. Each one of the actors does a spectacular job, bringing these characters to life. In particular, Michael Madsen is delightfully sadistic and calm; a scene in which he tortures someone for answers is both hard to watch and fun to watch. Harvey Keitel is calm, cool, and collected; Tim Roth is charismatic; and Steve Buscemi is excellent as a distrustful guy trying to make sense of things. Also effective are Lawrence Tierney as the leader, Chris Penn as his hot-headed son, Tarantino himself as Mr. Brown, and Eddie Bunker as Mr. Blue. Tarantino also gives his characters well-established personalities so that they’re not stereotypes but real people who do shocking things and yet show their humanity at certain points.

There’s a big twist revealed midway through the film, but I wouldn’t dare ruin it for those who haven’t seen it. To see it for the first time is not to know anything about the surprisingly well-developed plot. That way, you can enjoy its many twists and turns. But even if you already know it, you shouldn’t let that ruin it. I’ve seen this movie 10 times already, and I never let my knowledge of the central twist spoil it because it makes way for more interesting developments, flashbacks, and fun dialogue. Also, not only is the film wonderfully-written and intelligent, but it’s also fun to watch. It’s visceral, the cinematography is well-handled, and you can see Tarantino’s early influences from directors such as Scorsese and John Woo while adding some style of his own.

Simply put, “Reservoir Dogs” is an unforgettable movie. It’s funny, it’s chilling, it’s fun, it’s energetic, and it’s just all-around great. It’s a film I could watch numerous times for those very reasons. And Quentin Tarantino has only gotten better since then.

LRFF2015 Review: The Hanging of David O. Dodd

30 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Hanging of David O. Dodd” is part historical documentary, part performance art. Originally, it was a two-act play written by Phillip McMath, for the Weekend Theater in Little Rock, about a Confederate sympathizer hoping to save her wounded son and a Union supporter hoping to save a 17-year-old who is sentenced to hang as a spy. Directors Huixia Lu and Will Scott (The Night the Blackbirds Fell) have crafted an ambitious film version that essentially has the same cast as the play’s 2012 Weekend Theater premiere acting out segments from the play (edited chronologically, I believe). These segments are intersected with interviews from the actors themselves as well as writer McMath and others such as college professors sharing the history behind the story.

Some of the scenes are acted out on stage (in a blackbox theater) while others are presented in authentic-looking interior locations (such as the Old State House Museum in Little Rock) and some outdoor locations as well. This way, the film is like a hybrid of film and theater. The acting is consistently theatrical throughout, keeping in tradition with the play. Admittedly at times, I felt like I should be watching a play rather than a film and some parts don’t work well for film, but other times, such as when they’re making the most of their interiors, do. Yes, they’re written and acted for a play, but for the material, it works fine, such as when David O. Dodd (Aron Long), the 17-year-old sentenced to hang, is being debriefed by General Steele (Will Koberg), and a couple scenes involving Confederate sympathizer Medora Pilgrim (Libby Smith), Union supporter Philomena Tottenberg (Deb Lewis), and a maid named Marcella (Tracy Tolbert). But Lu and Scott know they’re making a film and don’t treat it as merely a recorded performance, hence why they chose other locations to set certain scenes, brought in the actors and other people to talk about the history behind the play’s story, and also filmed footage of a memorial 150 years after Dodd’s hanging.

When I got deeper into the film, I didn’t mind that later segments (such as David’s last day in jail and the hanging) took place in the theater. That may have to do with either the broad style of acting working better for the stage or perhaps even Johnnie Brannon, who plays a soldier, talking about his attitude towards acting in a blackbox theater that may have made it easier to accept. But that’s also when I thought, “Maybe I should be watching a play instead…”

It’s difficult to review a film that is both cinematic and stage-originated. I like film and I like theatre, but they’re both different in terms of style and execution. Putting together a hybrid of the two is no easy task and Lu and Scott mostly succeed in doing it, in that I enjoyed it and learned from it as well. Plus, the actors are appealing to watch—in addition to Long, Lewis, Smith, Tolbert, and Brannon, we also have Alan Rackley (John Wayne’s Bed) as a doctor and Jason Willey (A Matter of Honor) and William Moon as two Yankees guarding the border. And also, the play they’re acting out seems like a damn good play, framing it around the drama of a 17-year-old who became a martyr unwillingly, as well as showing plights of other people struggling through the times of the American Civil War. (“Nothing more dramatic than a hanging,” McMath says during an interview early on.) So in that respect, I admired the craftsmanship and recommend “The Hanging of David O. Dodd” for what it is.

How to Dance in Ohio (2015)

28 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“How to Dance in Ohio,” which will air on HBO later this year, is a moving, refreshingly cheerful documentary about autistic teenagers in Columbus, Ohio, as they prepare for their first spring formal. Over the course of 12 weeks, they practice their social skills and dance moves. After having seen “King Jack” and a few other gritty indie films about how depressing life can be for young people, it’s refreshing to see a film about young people that’s actually uplifting. Of course, it would be dishonest not to show how these people and their families deal with their condition, and that’s why they do show it; it’s just not as entirely downbeat as you might expect. There’s no oppression; just positive vibes all throughout. And I don’t mind that.

And for that matter, it’s also refreshing, in this day and age, not to hear any part of the “vaccine” debate.

Now, of course, there might be some people who see this as a bad thing, as the film hardly touches upon what it’s like for these autistic young people participating in society. But for others, such as me, they’ll most likely get a clear understanding nonetheless and empathize with the central subjects because of director Alexandra Shiva’s sheer engagement with them.

“How to Dance in Ohio” focuses on three young women in particular: Marideth (16) who loves looking up facts on her computer; Caroline (19), an outgoing college student who has a boyfriend who goes to the same counseling center as she; and Jessica (22), a baker who lives in a shared home. We see how they live, how they work, etc. as they prepare for the dance with much expected anxiety along the way.

“How to Dance in Ohio” is a well-made, nicely edited, balanced look at autistic teenagers that couldn’t be any better handled in the hands of a narrative filmmaker and a script (no matter how accurate that script might be). It’s also funny in certain spots; there were some nice laughs at a scene in which Marideth discusses the career of Miley Cyrus with her sister. When the big day comes when they all participate in the dance, it goes swimmingly and ends on a positive note that made me smile. I cared about the people I was watching, I thought it was well-made, and I admired how the doc focused more on rich, individual stories than making some sort of social-issue tale. I really liked “How to Dance in Ohio.”

King Jack (2015)

25 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For faithful readers of my blog, it should come as no surprise that I’m a fan of the Coming Of Age Tale. Among my favorite films are War Eagle, Arkansas, Stand by Me, and Tex…and Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls, still the best Made In Arkansas short film I’ve seen. When Coming Of Age Tales are done right, they can capture something special, real, and effective. And for the most part, Felix Thompson’s debut feature, “King Jack,” does capture something unique when it’s not delivering a certain distracting element. But I’ll get to that shortly.

Set in upstate New York, “King Jack” shows a couple days in the life of a 15-year-old kid named Jack (Charlie Plummer) who is heading down a dangerous road in life. He’s attending summer school, his brother’s a violent punk who works at a gas station, and he often gets into trouble; in the film’s opening scene, he’s seen spray painting (arguably) the most offensive word in the English language on the garage door of the house owned by his bully’s family. His bully is an older kid named Shane (Danny Flaherty) who constantly tortures Jack whenever he gets a chance. One day, Jack is left to care for the younger cousin, Ben (Cory Nichols), for a while after his mother has had a recent breakdown. Ben is quiet and shy and hasn’t got a prayer when Shane targets both Jack and Ben, and he and his friends go after them. The bullies manage to nab Ben and torment him in one of many shockingly realistic brutal scenes. Now, Jack must learn a hard lesson in standing up for other people, while Ben also learns to roll up his sleeves at a crucial point.

I must confess: I was ready to give “King Jack” a mixed review right after I saw it at the 2015 Little Rock Film Festival (screened soon after the Tribeca Film Festival, where it received an Audience Award) because so much time was spent with this character of Shane, who I felt was a one-dimensional cardboard-cutout bully not unlike the knife-wielding greaser in Stephen King’s “It.” I felt he was horrendous for no other purpose than…to be horrendous. This isn’t a knock against Danny Flaherty who plays the role well, but I was bored by the role, I wanted him to go away, and when I knew the film was going to be more about Jack’s struggles with his bullying, I was hoping there’d be a reasonable explanation as to why he’s acting this way. I never like bullies in movies unless there’s a reason for their behavior (or unless they’re funny; see Biff in Back to the Future).

But then, I thought more about it during a long drive home. I thought about when I was a kid and I was getting beat up in a schoolyard or humiliated at a dance. Some of the time, I actually provoked my bullies for stupid reasons, some of which had to do with the previous beating. Then I thought about Jack’s introduction in the movie; he’s defacing his bully’s family’s garage! He’s asking for it. And what does he do when he and Ben encounter the bullies? He throws a rock at his head! He put himself and his younger, smaller cousin in peril against a kid who should be picking on someone his own size but clearly won’t. And that’s when I realized this film knows more about young people than I thought. (And I could be wrong, but I think I recall some lines of dialogue that vaguely explain how this began.)

The stuff with the bullies makes “King Jack” feel like a thriller, but the film does take time out to show other adventures for Jack and Ben, such as a truly terrific scene involving truth or dare between the boys and two neighborhood girls and a scene that shows Jack thinking he’s getting lucky with a girl he likes more but in for a dangerous surprise. The film also captures the way most of today’s teenagers talk (though, I have to wonder if kids today still really use the word “doofus,” which I heard twice in the film)—standoffish at some, mockingly to groups of friends, honest to one friend, cussing out everyone they dislike/hate, and so forth. Writer-director Felix Thompson’s dialogue is well-chosen, and cinematographer Brandon Roots shoots it like a documentary, adding realism to the film. I know the shaking camera is a gimmick that has worn out its welcome, but sometimes it’s needed to further the effect. By the time the inevitable climax comes around, in which Jack must face Shane yet again and make an important choice, you feel the film’s intensity. And the violence doesn’t back down either; whenever someone gets punched, you can always feel like it hurts.

At the center of it all is newcomer Charlie Plummer as Jack. Plummer is excellent in the role of a complex kid trying to survive in a cruel world. You can practically feel the emotional baggage he carries with him at all times. Plummer is also successful at showing us an effectively subtle character arc—by the beginning of the film, he’s self-centered, but by the end of the film, he’s standing up for his cousin, well-played by Cory Nichols.

It’s hardly fair to argue against the bully character anymore. But something I will argue against is the purpose of Ben having a mentally unstable mother. That never goes anywhere, and I feel like his character arc of bravery after apprehension could’ve been set up in a simpler way. Another problem I have with the film is the ending. It seemed like it stopped rather than resolved itself. But…perhaps “King Jack” was just meant to portray a day in the life of this kid, his family and his friends, and telling it straightforward (while avoiding allegory or commentary) may have worked in its favor after all. It got me to think, especially about the bully’s behavior, and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

Ah hell, watch me change my rating after I see “King Jack” a second time. And chances are I will.

LRFF2015 Review: “Made In Arkansas” Shorts Block 6

23 May

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Go to the Ball with Me, Jenny

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Cole Borgstadt’s (Pyro) 3-minute comedy, “Go to the Ball with Me, Jenny,” is shot like an amateur YouTube video in which an odd, quirky high-school teenager addresses a girl he likes (named Jenny, of course), asking him to go with him to their school’s Winter Ball, while telling a few things about himself such as his family, his pets, his hobbies, his…never-born twin brother he ate while in uterus (wait, wha…?). We’ve all been there—working up the courage to ask someone to a school dance can be a tricky effort and some of us felt we had to go the extra mile, like the kid in this film. What results is a funny, sweet…You know what? I can’t do it justice with a review. The film is online. Check it out here:

Sassy & the Private Eye

No Verdict rating

“Sassy & the Private Eye” is another short film of mine that was selected to screen at this festival. It’s a comedy, like The Making of ‘Sensitivity Training’, but much different, in that it’s a film-noir parody, it’s not to be taken seriously in the slightest, and it features a certain Sasquatch character from Vampire-Killing Prostitute…named Sassy.

Kristopher Pistole (audience member)—“I really liked ‘Sassy.’ The writing was very strong, really fun premise and your lead was charismatic. If I had any nitpicks, I could tell there were some technical hiccups, like dubbing. But that kind of thing gets better with time and experience.”

I thought Sarah Bailin, who reviewed The Making of Sensitivity Training, would be harsh toward this one, but she actually send me a positive message saying it’s one of my best! “It’s a nice genre mash-up and generally well done,” Bailin said. But she also criticized the slight audio issues the film may have had. “Please tell me it was a style-thing,” she said. I’m sorry, Bailin. It was a mistake.

Here’s a trailer for the film:

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Simple

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Scott McEntire’s 10-minute short action film, “Simple,” is a hard-edged misunderstanding-gone-wrong, with a wry sense of humor that’s more than welcome for the violent material. It begins as mild-mannered Sam (Clayton Bowman) delivers an important package to a crime boss (Tony Gschwend) as a favor to his lazy slacker friend, Jacky (Kelly Griffin, very funny). When Sam finds out too late what was inside the package, he finds himself running and fighting for his life against the boss’ henchmen. What ensues is a series of fistfights, knifefights, narrow escapes, etc. as Sam must survive to make things right. As a straight-up action flick, it’s exciting and well-made. As a dark comedy, it works too, particularly when it cuts to Gschwend as the crime boss and Griffin as screwup Jacky. Also, Clayton Bowman is a likable lead. Though, my main criticism of the film is that it may have benefitted from tighter editing, which is an odd complaint for a 10-minute short. Aside from that, I liked “Simple”; it’s a nice 10-minute thrill ride.

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The Whisperers

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

The full review can be found here. (NOTE: This film went on to win the LRFF award for Best Arkansas Film and is now available on demand: https://www.indiereign.com/v/da5d3 I recommend you check it out.)

Stay a While

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Michael Kelley’s 4-minute short “Stay a While” is as much a music video rather than a short film. I actually had an interesting conversation with a friend about what it works best as: a narrative short or a music video. He said it works much better as a music video, so I told him, “Then it’s a music video.” Either way, it’s still a well-done piece—a good example of editing that show contrast between what was once here and what is now gone, as a young man is happy with his girlfriend but has suddenly lost her and is frantically searching for her. It’s well-done and has a nice payoff.

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Perfect Machine

Smith’s Verdict: ****

And now we’ve come to the final review in the LRFF2015 Made In Arkansas Shorts Block collection: Jarrod Paul Beck’s 25-minute science-fiction drama, “Perfect Machine.” After 3 years in the making, as well as an ambitious funding & marketing campaign (see Homefront and MatchMaker), the final creation works wonderfully.

The film takes place in (supposedly) the near future, as a new government system makes everything “perfect.” All citizens of new, altered civilizations are forced against their will to daily comply with this arrangement, by taking special medication, and those who don’t are forcibly “reprogrammed” to get with the program. It’s a world in which all choice is replaced with obedience, and it’s all controlled by the ominous Administration. Stevens 8936 (Kristof Waltermire) is a citizen who has stopped taking his medication for a couple days is starting to “feel,” which doesn’t bode well, seeing as how it’s against the system. Soon after his latest Administration checkup, Stevens 8936 (everyone is given a number to their name, making it easy for matching; again, see MatchMaker) evades two guards and escapes from the city, along with an unwilling woman, Warner 5964 (Caitlin Covey), into a forbidden, untouched world of nature where they take refuge in a cabin. As Stevens 8936 to the new feeling of freedom within himself, he helps Warner 5964 get adjusted to hers. Upon seeing/feeling the beauty of this environment, they learn there’s more to life than what they were forced to believe. And in each other, they find something deeper.

The background of this society is sketchy, but read/see other futuristic fables such as this and their explanations for their universes will probably make as much sense. I’m actually glad Beck doesn’t give us an answer to the question of how this world came to be. I don’t think his characters know either. Within the first five minutes of the film, writer-director Jarrod Paul Beck establishes this new world before taking his characters, as well as us, on a journey of emotion and self-discovery, which takes up more than half of the film. This is a film that uses a sci-fi gimmick to set up the two central characters, carefully develop a trusting relationship into love, contemplate complex issues such as free will and nonconformity, and results in a heartbreaking resolution but with a final shot that brings a beacon of hope. And it’s so beautifully done. The first five minutes of the film, which show the world in a certain amount of detail, are well-executed, and the visual effects are nice. But surprisingly, it’s everything with the more familiar world, taking up mostly the rest of the film, that I take back from “Perfect Machine.” This whole sequence is moving, insightful, and beautiful. It’s also well-written; there are a few extended dialogue-free sequences, but when the characters do engage in conversation, their words are carefully chosen. It’s also great to look at, with fantastic cinematography by Eric White. Watch this on a big screen, like I did, and you’ll most likely feel like you can reach out and touch this film, especially in the nature shots; you can feel the location. Few films I’ve reviewed in these blocks provided such a pervasive sense of time and place; I wasn’t tempted to go elsewhere, not even the inventive sci-fi world established earlier.

Both Kristof Waltermire and Caitlin Covey do great jobs portraying sympathetic characters trapped in a world they didn’t make and content with one that’s been there for them all along. I cared for these two and hoped for the best. Will they remain here for the better or will the cruel, forceful hand of the Administration bring them back for the worse?

The ending makes the film yet another short film I’d like to write a “spoiler review” for, just so I can talk about the final shot and what it could mean. Without giving it away, it’s ambiguous and people will see it one of two ways: positive or negative. Maybe it’s the emotion that was brought up in the mid-section, but I’m leaning toward the positive.

There’s no other way to put it—I loved “Perfect Machine.” It’s well-made, intelligent and charming. Beck and his crew put a lot of effort into this film. It pays off beautifully.

NOTE: Beck received the LRFF2015 Best Arkansas Director award for this film. I’d say his hard work really paid off.

LRFF2015 Review: “Made In Arkansas” Shorts Block 5

22 May

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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Not Interested

Smith’s Verdict: ****

The full review can be found here.

Southern Pride

Smith’s Verdict: ***

In Nick Lane’s 7-minute short film, “Southern Pride,” an Arkansas gay couple is walking around their suburban neighborhood while their son prepares for a proposal dinner at home. It seems their son is going to propose to his girlfriend. Their conversation soon grows from worrying about how the son will prepare the potato salad to the subject of marriage and whether or not their son is making the right choice. They discuss the pros and cons of marriage when it becomes clear that they’re not merely worried about their son’s proposal but the possibility of getting married themselves. The way it builds up to its surprisingly inevitable payoff is subtle and well-handled, and it digs through the surface of what’s truly bothering these characters. “Southern Pride” is as well-written as it is well-acted.

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The Making of “Sensitivity Training”

No Verdict rating

“The Making of ‘Sensitivity Training’” was a 25-minute documentary I made highlighting humorous moments from the making of a short film (called “Sensitivity Training”) made by the team Flokati Films (which includes Johnnie Brannon, Tony Taylor, and Jason Willey, among others) for the 2014 Little Rock 48-Hour Film Project. So, obviously, I can’t review it. But I did find a couple people who had some things to say about it. Here they are:

Paige Murphy (producer, Vampire-Killing Prostitute)—“It was interesting seeing the 48-Hour Film Project from someone else’s perspective (I did it with a group one year). I liked seeing how the group decided on the story that they did. It made me really want to see the film. I think some parts in the beginning were a little unnecessary and possibly could have been replaced with a couple title cards briefly explaining 48HrFP and what genre the group got. Having said that, I’m familiar with how it works, so maybe it felt natural to someone who isn’t.” Murphy goes on to say, as a note to me, that if I do the same thing for this year’s 48-Hr, I should capture how making a film in 48 hours takes a toll on a group of people. “Getting BTS on the movie itself is really good, but I would have liked to see people sleeping on chairs or rubbing their eyes or whatever they did to cope with the lack of sleep. That’s not a criticism so much as just a random thought on my part. Overall, a good job capturing funny and interesting moments on sets.”

Kristopher Pistole (audience member)—“[…] had great editing. I enjoyed it all the way through. Very tight. I didn’t think it needed the intro at the beginning. I thought the film could have been introduced with just a few lines of text—not bad, just not wholly necessary.”

Sarah Bailin (Wellesley student)—“’The Making of Sensitivity Training,’ is, shockingly, about the making of the 48-hour film festival entry, ‘Sensitivity Training’—or as I’d like to think of it, a weekend in the life of a surprisingly unstressed group of filmmakers considering they have 48 hours to make a masterpiece. It is clear throughout the film that these filmmakers truly love the work that they do, and this featurette is all the more enjoyable because of it. Personally it was an odd experience watching a film about the making of a film I haven’t seen, but it’s to Tanner Smith’s credit as a filmmaker that I never felt as though I were missing anything, and I encourage anyone in a similar situation to me not to let their lack of familiarity with ‘Sensitivity Training’ hold them back from seeing this film. In true Behind The Scenes fashion, Smith’s camera was both unobtrusive and omniscient, providing us with a thorough glimpse into the genesis of ‘Sensitivity Training.’ This is not to say the film was without its flaws, but if any genre can get away with a little self-aggrandizing and a certain amount of inside jokes, it’s a behind the scenes video like this one. Ultimately the goal of any featurette is to document and provide insight into the atmosphere in which a film was created, and to this end, Tanner Smith’s ‘The Making of Sensitivity Training’ was more than adequate.”

Here’s a trailer for the film:

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The PaperBoy

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Thien Ngo’s 7-minute action-comedy “The PaperBoy” is a wild ride—a very funny, skillfully made romp that takes us to a strange universe in which newspaper deliverers engage in all-out war, with two different sides fighting for different meanings of “truth.” “The PaperBoy” is not exactly a satire on news or media or even how the public can interpret it in terms of their own politics; it’s just a brief action-adventure that thrusts two rookie paperboys (Keith Hudson and Tres Wilson) into a life-threatening situation with enemy paperboys who use attack dogs, newspaper cannons, and even newspaper-nunchucks. And that’s just some of this film’s original material, which is just full of original material. My favorite sequence is a half-a-minute montage of training at the Newspaper Academy, where the typical shouting drill instructor gives a speech about “how tough it is out there” and our trainees endure tests such as vicious dogs that will be a nuisance to them on their paper routes. (By the way, dog-lovers should probably not watch this scene.) There are other elements that make this a unique, stylish short, including a brief cameo by Johnnie Brannon as a newspaper-cannon-wielding maniac and a final sight gag that is as hilarious as it is grisly. “The PaperBoy” is tight, fast-paced, and over in just a few minutes. It’s just plain fun.

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‘Twas the Night of the Krampus

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

The full review can be found here.

I Hate Alphaman

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Hunter West’s 8-minute action-comedy “I Hate Alphaman” is a cheesy, fun callback to old-school comic book adaptations. The characters and material are original, but the goofy tone and style are the same, if not totally exaggerated. You know those over-the-top scheming villains who always say they’re ultimately going to stop their adversaries but never do and constantly try again and fail? No one knows that feeling better than Alex Arthur, who doubles as a rather pathetic supervillain who wants to stop a superhero, named Alphaman, for no reason other than…he hates him. Intercut with news footage, we learn how many times Arthur has tried and failed to defeat Alphaman. Each encounter leads to one embarrassing disaster after another (he’s frozen, he’s burned, etc.; this Alphaman possesses so many abilities that I kind of hate him too). That’s pretty much what the film is about; there’s hardly even a story being told here, but rather, a series of events that include news anchor footage, encounter after encounter, and even chats with other pathetic villains, such as a rhymer and a fortuneteller. And that’s fine. It’s fun, amusing, and has a nice visual style that recall the ‘60s campy Batman TV series (though, to say these special effects are better is kind of a no-brainer). My only complaint about the film is that it sort of stops when it should keep going; it ends a little too quickly and I wanted it to continue. But for what it has rather than what it doesn’t, “I Hate Alphaman” is a lot of fun.

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Vampire-Killing Prostitute

No Verdict rating

BRIEF SUMMARY: “Raven is a vampire-slaying prostitute hell-bent on exacting revenge for the death of her father 18 years ago. One night, after killing a vampire, Raven gets a surprise visit from a group of vampire hunters who need her help.”

As I did with The Town Where Nobody Lives, I decided to collect other people’s opinions of Jordan Mears’ 15-minute grindhouse homage, “Vampire-Killing Prostitute.” Because I worked as BTS Videographer for the film, I cannot review it.

Kayla Esmond (actress, Spoonin’ the Devil)—“VKP was equal parts crazy, fun, and horrifying! Brittany Sparkles does just that in her performance as Raven, a, you guess it, Vampire Killing Prostitute. Jordan Mears’ directing was spot-on from beginning to end with an impressive balance of gore and true emotion. Basically, this movie rocked!”

Mathew Thomas Foss (director, Not Interested)—“It was a nonstop thrill ride. Good acting. Great nostalgic writing. More splatter than a slaughterhouse. A Sasquatch playing the piano. It had it all. And comedy for the whole family.”

Cody Harris (director, Rites)—“I think the thing the film had going for it was its use of color and lighting to emphasize the story. I also enjoyed the satirical type of acting that made the film have a comedic relief but not so over the top that it took us out of the story. I think Jordan Mears was pretty clear on what he wanted and it definitely showed.”

Kristopher Pistole (audience member)—“I liked it a lot! Loved the lighting and where Jordan put the camera. The idea of cutting the film off to not show the fight scene was hilarious.”

Donavon Thompson (director, ‘Twas the Night of the Krampus)—“’Vampire-Killing Prostitute’ feels like it was a missing piece of 2007’s ‘Grindhouse’ and Jordan Mears says, ‘Oh! I found it! Here it is!’ It’s a crazy concept involving: vampires, the end of the world, and a Sasquatch named Sassy. Yes, there is a Sasquatch. All these elements come together to deliver a fun film and work wonderfully. The film is full of gore and vulgar jokes, but it is exactly what the genre calls for. If you don’t like that sort of thing, you may be turned off to the film. In short, this film was made by a fan of the genre FOR fans of the genre.”

Al Topich (director, The Town Where Nobody Lives)—“’Vampire-Killing Prostitute’ knows what kind of movie it is. It’s not trying to change the world with any philosophical or symbolic undertones. VKP is Grindhouse. It’s a fun movie meant to entertain, just like other horror and exploitative movies of the genre from the 70s and 80s. It does a fantastic job at replicating the genre, from the blood splattering gore effects all the way down to the highly stylized lighting. Though, I would say that VKP is a notch or two better than the films it tries to emulate. It has an interesting and coherent plot, minus a certain Sasquatch. But its most endearing quality is the fact that it has a strong female lead, which is something that tends to get lost in modern films, especially in shorts. The character of Raven, played by the delightfully badass Brittany Sparkles, has a beautiful character arc that cumulates into a well choreographed final battle between her and her nemesis.”

For the record, my short documentary about the making of the film can be seen here:

LRFF2015 Review: “Made In Arkansas” Shorts Block 4

21 May

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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The Tricycle

Smith’s Verdict: ****

I’ve seen some of Arkansas writer-director David Bogard’s work before; I particularly liked last year’s LRFF selection, A Matter of Honor. I think “The Tricycle” is his best work. It’s a marvelous 6-minute short film that successfully mixes the harsh realism of a quarreling couple with the innocence of a child’s fantasy.

It begins in the home of a 6-year-old girl, named Ava (played by Ava St. Ana), who is drawing some pictures and trying to stay happy while her parents (Quinn Gasaway and Caroline Brooks) are in the midst of an unpleasant argument. This scene is written, shot, and portrayed perfectly. It’s also kind of hard to watch; that’s a credit to the realism the scene creates. What’s more heartbreaking is that when the girl tries to show her father what she drew, he ignores her, causing her to go outside. That was just painful.

After the toughest of family-drama scenarios, the film gives Ava a much-needed escape, as she passes a neighbor’s house and notices an old tricycle left out in front. The tricycle seems to have a mind of its own and it follows the girl along the sidewalk. There’s a truly magical (forgive the pun) faraway shot that shows the girl and the tricycle reluctantly trying to unite together. That shot is as charming as the food-luring scene from “The Black Stallion.” I never thought I would see a tricycle as a living, delightful creature, but that’s the effect the film had on me.

Is the tricycle really magic or just part of the girl’s imagination? The film ends with a certain possibility that it hardly matters whether or not it’s real, but rather, it’s a diversion from the cruel reality she knows too well and into a wonderful place she can always turn to briefly until things get better. That’s generally what kids do—when things in life get so rough, they create in their minds their own worlds to escape into, where things can be better and more fun. That’s what Ava is trying to do. And of course, kids have to come back and still deal with real-life issues, but for the moment, those issues don’t exist. Bogard understands this, and he has created a great short film that I will not forget anytime soon.

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What Was Lost

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Sometimes it takes a really good actor or a really good script (or of course, both) to make what could be an overwrought melodrama something special. And while the script and direction by Romello Williams are sound and successful, what really makes his 25-minute JBU-produced drama, titled “What Was Lost,” stand out is the performance from his main actor, Tres Wilson. I’ve seen Wilson’s work in UCA films such as Thien Ngo’s “The Paperboy” (which I’ll get to later), Adam Crain’s “Henchmen,” and Brock Isbell’s “Whiz Quiz”—he’s a good comic actor, playing with a sincere, straight face during some bizarre settings. In “What Was Lost,” however, he truly shows his range in a remarkable performance as Wayne, a young father who loses everything he holds dear and tries to find a way to move on. Also good is Anthony Waits as his friend, James, who comes to town to be there for him and delivers just what the film needs: comic relief. Will Wayne let James help him? It’s not an easy question to answer, especially for Wayne, who has a lost a lot. And the film doesn’t shy away from his plight. What makes the latter half of “What Was Lost” all the more heartbreaking is the sheer realism that is felt within the former half, which effectively shows Wayne interacting and playing with his young son. Not once do I see Tres Wilson and a little actor playing father and son; I see a father and his son. It’s because I felt so much for these two that I didn’t want to see anything bad happen to either of them. And when something does, I feel bad for Wayne, and that’s how I know the film is working. When film was over, I actually turned to the person next to me, and whispered, “Damn.”

Overgrown

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Bruce Hutchinson’s 3-minute short “Overgrown” is less of a narrative short and more of a visual poem. With the aid of an omnipresent narrator, giving what can be best described as a short story, we’re introduced to a young woman, described as “an otherworldly being named Bindy” (played by Kristy Hutchinson), whose practical home is the woods and who apparently lives off mankind’s hopes and dreams and collecting the ones that are unfulfilled. “Overgrown” could be seen as visual storytelling, except that it’s not just the visuals telling the story. Maybe with the narration, there’s a little more clarity than the film needed to succeed, but the descriptive idea of a manifestation of dreams and wishes is a fascinating one and that angle probably wouldn’t gotten across completely without it. The film is also nice to look at, with the right locations and a top-notch cinematographer (Chris Churchill, who also shot Hutchinson’s previous film, Sidearoadia) to bring it to life.

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Pyro

Smith’s Verdict: ***

I said in one of the reviews above that one of the important steps to recovery is to take grace where it can be found. It can be found in your friends, your family, your hobbies, your work, whatever. For kids, especially teenagers, it’s even more difficult. They search for ways to express themselves and some of those ways can rub people the wrong way, especially when they develop certain habits that can get them hurt. Take Graham, the 17-year-old pyromaniac of Cole Borgstadt’s 10-minute short, “Pyro,” for example. After his parents’ death, there’s nothing he likes better than to light random matches and drop them in the sink, set off fireworks, and enflame whatever he can find. (A line of dialogue indicates he and his late father used to do stuff like that together—or at least, shoot off fireworks together.) That’s his way of expressing himself. He thinks it’s all he has and he doesn’t care for anything else. He’s also trying his older brother’s patience. His brother is more responsible and having to care for both himself and his brother who will most likely set the house on fire, accidentally or not. He’s also trying to lead his own life as not just a surrogate parent. The film opens with his announcement to his brother that he will propose to his girlfriend…with their late mother’s engagement ring. “You’re already taking Dad’s place. You have to take Mom’s ring too?” Graham asks in a scene that is perhaps composed of forced exposition but what can you do in a 10-minute drama? (And at least the characters are addressing what’s bugging them to each other.) The film ends with a selfish, primitive act, which surprisingly doesn’t result in a shouting match but a surprising (refreshingly) calm discussion between the two brothers about the way things are, who they are, who they thought they were, and some probabilities for the future, before ending on an ambiguous note, as well as on a haunting image (haunting because of the character and the symbol). It’s a powerful moment that subtly states that things just happen, people change for better or worse, and it’s important to attempt to accept what you can get and know how to properly use it. As a whole, “Pyro” is a good short film, but that ending is great. The film is very well-crafted with clear direction from Borgstadt, decent acting from Ross Thompson and Zach Stoltz as the brothers, and good cinematography from Emily Field.

Oh, and someone anonymous told me to mention the writer-director Cole Borgstadt was a student at Fayetteville High School when he made this film. I responded to the seemingly condescending comment by saying, “Yes, because apparently, high-school students aren’t capable of making good films, right?” That quickly shut him up.

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The Space Station

Smith’s Verdict: **

Michael Sutterfield’s half-hour sci-fi film “The Space Station” is about a young woman (Amber Erdley) living a somewhat-empty life in the city and seeking excitement elsewhere. And boy, does she find it. After she meets an older man (Stephen Perry) who claims to be an astronaut, he invites her to his “home away from home”: a space station. She says yes, he sedates her, and she awakens in a room where Earth is seen in plain sight outside her window. She and the astronaut are now in outer space and he shows her the pleasures she wouldn’t have known if she hadn’t met him.

This is yet another short film for which I cannot give a proper full review without going into the resolution. It’s also the one LRFF2015 Made In Arkansas short I was least looking forward to reviewing. Because I can’t recommend the film, I shouldn’t care how much I could reveal even with an attached link to the film online. But I still like to think I have at least some critiquing principles, so I’m going to tread lightly while writing about this one. The first 10 minutes of the film are interesting, the next 10 (or less) minutes are intriguing, and the final 10 minutes made me care less and less after a twist is revealed. As soon as that twist came along, I lost hope for the film. I feel like it tried to redeem itself by the end with a message about appreciating what you have and where you are rather than what you don’t have and where you aren’t. There’s a reason I couldn’t accept that message, but to talk about it would be to give away the twist. That’s why I wasn’t looking forward to writing this review.

That’s enough I’ll say about that. It’s a real shame too, because I was really getting into this story. Curious, bewildered Amber Erdley and calm, confident, suave Stephen Perry play their roles well; writer-director Michael Sutterfield establishes situations and characters well; the visual effects are great to look at; the editing is well-done; and Gabe Mayhan’s cinematography is stunning. A lot of effort was put into this short film (apparently, it took five years to complete) and I hate to give a negative review to a film with such a good setup. But once that twist came along, it became tough for me to recommend. And again, that’s all I’ll say about it.

NOTE: I heard this was based on a short story by Bernard Reed. Perhaps the twist translates better on paper and doesn’t work well in this film, but I’m not reviewing the original story the film is based on.