LRFF2015 Review: “Made In Arkansas” Shorts Block 1

18 May

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Last week, the 2015 Little Rock Film Festival was underway and I attended six Made In Arkansas shorts blocks, for short films made in Arkansas (of course). Usually after the festival, I’ll write individual reviews for a select few. But this year, I decided to review all of them. And because a good deal of them are so short that they don’t give me enough material to work with unless I analyze each film as a whole (thus spoiling the entire film), I decided to write posts of each block, as I write short reviews describing what I thought of each short. The catch? I cannot review my own two short films (yes, I had two in the festival; I’ll point those out in later posts), nor can I review two shorts I worked on (even if it was documenting behind-the-scenes; it’s still being part of production). With that said, let’s start off with Block 1!

 Loser

Loser

Smith’s Verdict: ***

When I first saw one of the two central teenage characters in Andrew Lisle’s 8-minute short film, “Loser,” wearing a brown paper bag over his head (with two eye-holes and a smiley-face drawn on it), I thought it’d be one of those quirky indie comedy-dramas that do strange things for no reason other than to be “quirky,” with little to no development. And while it is a strange sight for one typical high-school boy to have a conversation with a boy with a bag over his head, I let it slide as the film went on. This is a bullied kid looking for ways to express himself, like almost every high-schooler. Yes, it’s a ridiculous sight, but I understood it as a trait that isn’t as uncommon as one might think. Director Andrew Lisle was in high school when he made this short (Har-ber High School to be exact); he gets the emotions of these kids down and thankfully understands the effects of not just bullying but also vengeance. This is something that has been addressed before, but it’s just as effective. And I think this may have to with Lisle’s limited resources and not trying to exaggerate anything (strange, given the bag), but its small scale adds on to it. “Loser” is an impressive short.

 

Forsaken

Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

“Forsaken” is a half-hour film written and directed by recent John Brown University graduate Krisha Mason. It’s about a young woman, named Janessa, who is suffering a tragic loss and trying to move on. And thanks to a controlling mother who is less helpful than she thinks she is, Janessa feels even more miserable. She meets a young man in her apartment building. With his help, she can keep her hope alive. There are sure signs of talent at work here. Mason’s direction is solid, I admire her for trying to tackle a difficult subject such as coping with loss, and the film looks nice, thanks to striking cinematography by Lauren Addington. But the script needed work in order for the film to be truly effective for me. While there were some strong scenes, such as a conversation between Janessa (well-played by Victoria Fox) and her friend, Tanner (Derek Duncan), and a moment in which she breaks down in a church, others, especially those involving Janessa’s appalling mother, feel artificial and forced. The film also brings forth a new plot twist that descends the film more melodramatic than it should be and what’s worse is that it seems all too convenient for the dramatic payoff. “Forsaken” isn’t a bad short film, but it could’ve been better.

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Monotony Broken

Smith’s Verdict: ****

J.C. Cocker’s 5-minute short “Monotony Broken” is about a young woman who is depressed at this point in her life and has a blissful fling with a stranger she meets in a laundromat. There isn’t a lot I can say about it without discussing the film in its entirety, which wouldn’t be fair unless the film was online (which it currently isn’t). So, for now, I’ll say that this is a beautiful short that works as art as well as film. There isn’t any dialogue said/heard in any of the five minutes of running time; it’s just simply mood. Thanks to Cocker’s direction, Matt Bates’ gloomy cinematography, and outstanding acting from Rachel Van Hampton as the woman and Kristof Waltermire as the stranger she meets, “Monotony Broken” is quite astounding.

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Stranger Than Paradise

Smith’s Verdict: ****

The full review can be found here. Excerpt: “[…] a beautiful film, proving that you can tell a moving story with just one minute of running time.”

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Rites

Smith’s Verdict: ***

At its surface, UCA student Cody Harris’ 15-minute film, “Rites,” is about a teenage girl who notices her father’s strange evening behavior and makes a shocking discovery. But at its core…

It’s hard to write a full review of “Rites” without analyzing the ending (or at least, attempting to analyze the ending) because it delivers a shocking revelation that goes into the question (I believe) the film was asking itself, which is, “Does anyone have a right to impose their will on anyone due to their religious beliefs?” How far does that go? Thinking more about the ending, which I won’t give away here, it’s a very chilling thought that raises quite a few questions and makes you ponder what it was really about. The more I thought about it, the more disturbing the whole film seemed.

When the film is posted online, I’ll publish a new, analytical review of the film with spoilers and the attached film. But for now, I’ll say that it is an effective, powerful short; probably more powerful than the “Verdict” makes it out to be. The setup is a little clumsy in its execution, but the acting from Kimberlyn Fiits, Tom Kagy, Johnnie Brannon, and Pammi Fabert is consistently good, the cinematography by Jake Lurvey is well-done, and the film’s ultimate payoff is unsettling and thought-provoking.

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The Dealer’s Tale

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Justin Nickels’ 15-minute film, “The Dealer’s Tale,” is a modern retelling of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale,” which was about men searching for Death before they are led to treasure by a mysterious old man who claims to know where he is. They stay with it, as things go wrong. It’s one of the great moral tales in literature. In “The Dealer’s Tale,” quite possibly one of the best short films in Arkansas, two hit men, Miller (Jason Thompson) and Reeve (Jason Willey) are searching for Death after performing a new hit, encounter a mysterious little boy (Taj Van Tassel, effectively low-key) who witnesses them dumping the body, and the boy leads them to a hidden treasure (in this case, cocaine) which the men decide to guard for a while until, of course, something goes horribly wrong as tension amongst the men gets the better of them. The settings of both the story and this short film are different, but the structure, spirit and tone are the same. They both display how greed is “the root of all evil” and can turn supposed-friends against each other.

“The Dealer’s Tale” starts off amusing with Tarantino-esque dialogue exchanges between the two men driving down city streets, grisly hints as to their deeds, the introduction of this strange, innocent child walking through quiet alleyways and under bridges, and then the inevitable betrayal leading to an incredible final act. The last few minutes of “The Dealer’s Tale” is quiet and haunting and so well-done that I’ll never forget it. Without giving it away (though, really, it’s an old story), it captures the feeling of contemplation not just with words but with mood in ways that some films can’t or won’t take the risk at attempting. Justin Nickels is a hell of a filmmaker.

Now I’ll take a moment to discuss the acting from the two principal actors. Jason Thompson (who was excellent in the Arkansas feature “45 RPM” and shorts such as “Antiquities”) and Jason Willey (funny and sincere in shorts such as “Diamond John” and “Stranger Than Paradise”) are perfect together. With Thompson’s hotheadedness and Willey’s more reserved manner, these two make a great, efficient comic duo. They worked together in Nickels’ previous short, “Strangers” (screened at last year’s LRFF), and shared a hilarious scene together in “Antiquities” (albeit portraying very different personalities in that one); they’re fun to watch together. They exhibit appealing chemistry and their timing is spot-on. By themselves, they’re good too, particularly Thompson who is part of the reason the final act works so well.

“The Dealer’s Tale” is very well-made, well-acted, and gloriously-shot (by Bryan Stafford of “45 RPM” and the previously-reviewed “The Sowers”). I look forward to seeing Justin Nickels’ next project (and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish Thompson and Willey teamed up again).

Join me later for Block 2!

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