Archive | October, 2019

Looking Back at 2010s Films: ‘Twas the Night of the Krampus (Short Film) (2015)

29 Oct

By Tanner Smith

If you recall my “Stuck” post, I mentioned that one of the “Stuck” director’s classmates (still anonymous) confided in me that he was jealous because he felt his undergrad thesis film was far better than his own. Well…this time, I myself am that classmate.

The year I wrote and directed my own undergrad thesis film at the University of Central Arkansas, I was jealous of another undergrad film from one of my classmates. The writer/director was Donavon Thompson. The film: “‘Twas the Night of the Krampus.”

My film, “Sassy & the Private Eye,” was a fun, goofy action-comedy about a private detective helping a Sasquatch clear his name of murder. Thompson’s film, “‘Twas the Night of the Krampus,” was a fun, goofy action-comedy about a badass Santa Claus fighting the demonic Krampus. We had respect for each other’s visions, we often showed our work to each other because we wanted to know how the other was doing, and both of our finished films screened at the 2015 Little Rock Film Festival. But even so, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that “‘Twas the Night of the Krampus” was better in just about every way.

Thompson’s film had better writing (and funnier one-liners). It took more advantage of its premise (right down to the holiday-appropriate costumes, production design, and props, such as a white pistol with red stripes like a candy cane–oh, and a candy-cane sword as well!). It had more heart to it, with the story of overcoming grief and loss at its surprisingly emotional center.

My film had unnecessary profanities, a hackneyed character arc about respect, a pitiful excuse for a “mystery,” and “shock” humor that I simply wasn’t able to pull off in writing or in execution. (Don’t believe me? Watch it here. If you like it, that’s fine. I personally don’t like it.)

“‘Twas the Night of the Krampus,” even watching it now, is still a good deal of fun–from the opening loving homage to “Lethal Weapon” to the kickass battle with kick-ass Santa (Johnnie Brannon) and his (robotic-)right-hand elf (Matt Mitchell) versus the villainous Krampus (Xavier Udochi) to the closing-credits rendition of “Please Come Home for Christmas” that I can’t deny warms my heart.

But as was the case with “Stuck,” I now have to find something to pick on about the film, just to show I’m playing as fair as can be. It’s too easy to pick on continuity errors, such as a clock that tells different times in between cuts–as a student filmmaker, I can identify. So, I guess I’ll simply have to mock the unimaginative design of the Krampus. They shoot him in shadow to make him appear more menacing, but it still looks like they draped an actor in black and put a long black wig on him. And also, there’s the Krampus’ defeat…I get that there was so much Thompson and his crew could do, but still…this is hard for me, guys, you have to understand.

Also, here’s a side-note: Sam (Kandice Miller), one of Santa’s elf assistants, originally had a bigger role in early drafts of the script. Due to severe cuts demanded by our film professor, Sam’s role is simply reduced to…the “you should take a look at this” cliche. She tries to have some semblance of character in the “master-control” scene, but Santa persists in interrupting her before she can begin her sentences…thus, I have this joke I often said aloud when reviewing the rough cuts in class: “Shut up, Sam! How dare you try to have a role in this film?”……..Shut up, past-Tanner–you wrote a script about a Sasquatch and a private eye, and you couldn’t even make that funny.

Oh, and imagine our surprise when we learned there would be a “Krampus” feature film to released later that year, in time for Christmas.

“‘Twas the Night of the Krampus” is an entertaining short, and I’m glad Thompson was able to pull it off.

To conclude this piece, I share my one contribution to the film. During pre-production, Thompson told cinematographer Nikki Emerson that he wanted the film to have a “Lethal Weapon” sort of vibe, visually. So I lent her my collection of “Lethal Weapon” DVDs, since I was hanging out with her at the time.

The amusing, rousing, fun short film about saving Christmas is available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FX0zFpA1xbs

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Whisperers (Short Film) (2015)

29 Oct

Untitled.png

By Tanner Smith

Yes, I’m looking at another short film for my Looking Back at 2010s Films, and it’s another one produced by the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) film program. Why? Because I’ve seen a lot of them in my time at UCA and I’m hella nostalgic. So why not?

“The Whisperers” was Jason Miller’s UCA graduate thesis film, and it’s a very well-made 17-minute horror movie that emphasizes that familiar precaution we all heard as children: “be careful what you wish for.”

And here I warn you–SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT!!!

In my original review of this short film, almost five years ago, I expressed genuine interest in discussing the film’s ending. But the film hadn’t even been accepted into the 2015 Little Rock Film Festival yet, and I had just seen it as its premiere-screening at UCA, and so I could hardly analyze it. Now that it’s had its festival run and is now available on YouTube, here I go…

The story is about a pre-teenage boy, Nathan (Hayes Polk), who has to look after his obnoxious little brother, Zachary (Chance Creden), one night while their parents are out. Nathan and Zachary bicker constantly, and Nathan wants nothing more than for Zachary to just stay out of his life–a relatable sibling dynamic. So we have two little boys who are alone in a rural farmhouse at night…and there’s someone (or something) outside…whispering…

Who are the “whisperers?” What are they whispering? Well, at first, it’s too indistinct to tell, but later it becomes clear that these mysterious dark-shrouded figures (with sharp claws and rapid-moving lips) are in fact whispering (repeatedly) Nathan’s exact words for wishes of living a life without Zachary. (“I wish I was an only child,” “You are the worst brother ever,” etc.) Zachary doesn’t seem to hear them–only Nathan does. And as the whisperers come inside the house and Nathan hides himself and Zachary underneath the bed, Zachary is snatched by the whisperers, who disappear along with him! Nathan conquers a fear (set up an earlier throwaway line of dialogue) to use the family ATV to try and chase them, but he ends up running into his parents. “Where’s Zachary?” an injured Nathan asks his parents. They don’t know who Zachary is. As it turns out, the whisperers granted Nathan’s wish–Zachary had never been born and there’s no proof of his existence whatsoever.

End of story? No. This is what I really wanted to talk about before. The film concludes with an epilogue in which Nathan, now grown up (played by Mark Cluvane), revisits his parents at the old house. He goes to the room that used to be Zachary’s, which is now a study. He’s still not over what happened all those years ago, and you can safely assume that he’s never been able to let the memories fade away. This sad point is further emphasized when he retrieves from his pocket the only memento probably saved from that time: a Pog which Zachary gave to him in exchange for the confiscated Sega player the boys were fighting over earlier.  We then hear more whispers…this time, they’re of Zachary’s dialogue: “Why don’t you want to play with me?” They continue as Nathan looks mournfully at the toy faded by the time and the bedroom that was and never would be again… The End.

If the film had just ended with young Nathan’s realization that his brother is gone, it probably would have been powerful enough–a nice, chilling, effective moral lesson along the same lines as ’90s kid-horror shows such as “Are You Afraid of the Dark” and “Goosebumps.” (Fittingly enough, “The Whisperers” is set in the ’90s, hence the Pog.) But adding this extra bit at the end is, in my opinion, a stroke of genius. It’s great to see this character having grown up with the consequences of what he’s done as a child.

I mentioned before that “The Whisperers” is a well-made movie, and it is impressive, especially in hindsight. For example, the opening shot of the film pans across framed pictures on a wall–one is of a family, the other is of the two brothers. In the background, we hear the brothers fighting. As it gets physical, the picture is bumped off the wall. That brilliant example of subtle foreshadowing, especially after watching the film again, reminds me of what a careful and skilled filmmaker Jason Miller is.

He’s also thankfully not very blatant with ’90s references to match the setting. In fact, my favorite scare in the film involves the Clapper. (Does anyone still use the Clapper today? Just curious.)

11096678_10152977429008315_942132813484870391_n.jpg

“The Whisperers” began its festival run at the 2015 Little Rock Film Festival (sadly, that was the last year for LRFF) and received the award for Best Arkansas Film. It was fun to revisit the film again, and just in time for Halloween.

Check out the film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFAhE9dJSvY

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Overlord (2018)

29 Oct

overlord-poster-2.jpg

By Tanner Smith

“Overlord” is part wartime drama, part horror flick, part B-monster-movie, and overall entertaining and thrilling as hell–a terrific, energetic, tension-fueled thrill ride that you either accept or you don’t. I accepted every tense, crazy moment of it and had a real good time in the process.

Just look at the premise and tell me if it might be your cup of tea: on the eve of D-Day, a few American soldiers are trapped behind enemy lines and discover secret Nazi experiments. What do they find? Well…Nazi zombies.

Yeah, why not?

It’s like a big-budget b-movie with the right combination of energy and clever filmmaking, and for as over-the-top as it gets (especially towards the final act, when all hell inevitably breaks loose), that’s just part of the fun.

The film opens with a bang as the soldiers are dropped into a French village, where Nazis have a radio tower in a church, which our heroes are sent to destroy. The plane crash and parachuting escape themselves are so intense that it reminded me of two Spielberg moments: the brutal Normandy sequence in “Saving Private Ryan” and the paratrooper’s jump in “Bridge of Spies.” Can you imagine jumping out of a falling plane fired upon by the enemy, and making the jump with all the fire, explosions, gunfire, and debris all around you as you try to parachute and land safely?

The paratrooper we follow is Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo, “Fences”). He joins up with a few others–Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), who takes command; Private Tibbet (John Magaro), our welcomed, trashmouthed comic-relief; and Private Chase (Iain De Caestecker), a photographer. They encounter a young French woman, Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who helps them and hides them in the attic of her mother’s house, as they figure out how to continue their mission of blowing up the tower.

Admittedly, the characters are rather underdeveloped, but they’re all played by appealing actors, particularly a sense of innocence given by a likable Jovan Adepo and a commanding presence from the leadership of Wyatt Russell, plus a good mix of obnoxiousness and charisma from a Brooklyn-accented John Magaro–his annoyed interaction with Chloe’s kid brother, who just wants someone to play baseball with, is priceless. But “Overlord” isn’t about character as much as it is about story. What helps is an incredible amount of buildup. We’re already told that the Nazis have some very grisly goings-on in the church, as a French civilian threatens Chloe that “they’ll take [her] to the church” if she’s caught outside past curfew. We also learn that Chloe’s aunt, confined to her bedroom, is ill due to her own experience in the church. We know something is up here, and the mystery makes for intriguing buildup, even if we do know the payoff. The plot thickens as Boyce sneaks inside the church and makes a few odd, twisted discoveries of his own…

This leads to a payoff of pure insane entertainment, as our good old boys go up against the dirty Nazis…some of which are invincible beyond belief, thanks to the experiments.

Much of it is very grisly (and gives the film a deserved R-rating), and much of it, I was surprised to learn, is done with practical effects. There are more practical effects than CGI effects, so that the actors involved can react accordingly. Thus, the audience can react as they do if they’re in the moment as well. There’s a moment involving a broken neck of a reanimated corpse…and that’s all I’ll say about that except that I appreciate the old-school trickery that was used for the effect.

Fans of Bad Robot (the company that produced the film) were disappointed that “Overlord” was not a new “Cloverfield” sequel. I personally didn’t care for that. I was just glad to get the fun movie that I got.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Super Dark Times (2017)

26 Oct

tumblr_o0ngblW4Rb1rwvbbio1_1280-1024x409

By Tanner Smith

Fun fact: I met this film’s director, Kevin Phillips, once (at the Fantastic Cinema & Craft Beer Festival in Little Rock in the summer of 2017). Nice guy.

“Super Dark Times” is a slow-burn thriller that escalates into bloody violence, sheer terror, and complete loss of innocence…and even during all that escalating, things are already “super dark!”

Don’t believe me? It opens with two cops killing a dying deer that made its way through a window at school, as one of our main characters watches in awe…that’s only a hint of the bloodshed that’s to come!

Things get worse when four boys, alone in an open field, play around with a sword…you probably already know what happens there.

When I watch scenes like that (and a scene from “Boyhood” in which kids play with saw blades), I tense up because I’m afraid something might happen. (Sometimes, I’m right–the film wouldn’t be called “Super Dark Times” if things didn’t get…”super dark,” thanks to scenes like that.) It makes me think back to when I was a kid growing up in the country and thank God that the stupid things my friends and I did back then didn’t get us hurt and/or killed!

I mean, we always felt like we knew what we were doing, and nothing terrible ever happened. But sometimes, I wonder, what if… ah, forget it, we were careful and things were fine. (But even so, I’m never letting my kids play with weapons.)

“Super Dark Times” is a film about a group of kids who think they’re invincible and nothing can go wrong…until EVERYTHING goes wrong. The youngest kid wants to ignore it all and move on with his life. One kid is too busy trying to accept the responsibility of making sure not everything goes to hell that he keeps having to turn down the advances of his own crush! And then, the other kid…

You know what? In my long ramblings this past month, I’ve talked about spoilers and what I think they mean in analysis (with the exception of “The VVitch”), but this time, I’m just going to say check it out and see what you make of it. It’s currently streaming on Netflix–if you have an account (and can stomach the material I already mentioned here), give it a watch!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Gerald’s Game (2017)

26 Oct

geralds-game-2017

By Tanner Smith

“Gerald’s Game” gets better each time I see it, and I can’t believe I complained about the ending when I first saw it, because this film NEEDED it! It needed the right amount of positivity & resolution after spending an hour-and-a-half in someone’s personal hell. (And it only lasted eight minutes, which is good for something that was originally about 50 pages in the original novel!) It made the film all the more special.

“Gerald’s Game” is based on a Stephen King novel whose story is told from a character who spends most of the time trapped in bed, handcuffed to the posts. How do you make a movie like that? Or, at least, how do you keep it interesting? The same way you make an interesting movie about a character trapped in a canyon (“127 Hours”) or a coffin (“Buried”)–you get a great actor and an even better director. This film’s star: Carla Gugino, in her best role to date. This film’s director: Mike…freaking…Flanagan!

I was already a fan of Flanagan’s by the time “Gerald’s Game” was released on Netflix, after seeing “Oculus,” “Hush,” and “Ouija: Origin of Evil.” So, I had a feeling “Gerald’s Game” would be really good. What he created in adapting King’s novel was something special: the kind of film that practically demands be watched more than once so that more things can be developed and explored when the audience is given the knowledge of where it’s going and where it’s been. The best kind of film, particularly the best kind of horror film, is the one that keeps you coming back for more.

Flanagan’s next film is another King adaptation: “Doctor Sleep.” I can’t wait to see how that one turns out.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Let Me In (2010)

26 Oct

360_letmein_review_0930.jpg

By Tanner Smith

“Let the Right One In”…”Let Me In”…which one of these films do I prefer?

I don’t know.

Which one is better? A part of me wants to say “Let the Right One In” for how effective it is in its simplicity, but…I don’t know!

It’s that rare instance in which I like one film and its remake equally.

Actually, it’s more than that–I LOVE both of these movies!

The story is the same in each movie. A bullied lonely boy makes friends with a strange new girl living next door in his apartment building, and he doesn’t know until late in the friendship that she’s a vampire. So now, the boy has to decide whether or not he’ll let her into his life. (And vampires can’t come into your home without being invited…METAPHOR!)

The story is the same, but the movies aren’t the same. They’re both done differently, with different styles of filmmaking and even different ideas for the similar characters. And they’re both done beautifully!

“Let the Right One In” is a Swedish import that served as an “arthouse” vampire film. The beauty in the film comes from the simplicity–for example, nearly every scene is done in one take; in these scenes, we feel the emotional weight in the dramatic scenes and the intense rising fear of the horrific scenes. The friendship between the two 12-year-old main characters (well, one of them is actually 12; the other has been 12 for a very long time) feels just as genuinely sweet as it feels dangerous. You feel the plights of both of these people, and you realize that together, they can either be bad for each other or the best thing each other could ask for.

“Let the Right One In” is as beautiful as it is chilling, because it’s really *about something.* It has more on its mind than, say, brooding and admiring each other from afar. (Did I mention this released around the same time as “Twilight?” Did I need to?) It’s about two lost souls who find each other and face an uncertain future together.

Wait, “Let the Right One In” came out in 2008, and this is part of the Looking Back at 2010s Films, so I should talk about “Let Me In” (released in 2010).

I was open to the idea of an American remake, though I was a bit uncertain, because “Let the Right One In” was so terrific. When I noticed “Let Me In” was getting positive reviews, that’s when I started getting excited…

And I loved “Let Me In” for the same reasons I loved “Let the Right One In” and yet for different reasons too. It was more mainstream-friendly than “Let the Right One In,” to be sure. But there was still a great deal of atmosphere aided by gorgeous cinematography–I felt like I could reach out and touch the movie, it was that effective; I felt like I was there!

I felt more sorry for the boy in this one, named Owen, and he’s played by a great young actor (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who would go on to act in movies such as “Slow West” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”). The boy in the original film (Oskar) was quite pitiful and you sympathized with him, but you could sense more of a darkness in Owen’s eyes when he was angry and more misery when he gets picked on. When he has to make a choice as to whether or not he can trust the girl (Abby, played by Chloe Grace Moretz), the tears in his eyes made me feel even more for the poor kid!

And whereas “Let the Right One In” put nearly as much focus on the local townspeople who either fall victim to the vampire or become a vampire themselves, “Let Me In” keeps the focus on the protagonists for the most part (with only a prologue involving a police detective played by Elias Koteas serving as a chilling pushover). To me, I felt that was the right choice.

Oh, and the frightening-as-hell swimming-pool scene from the original is represented in the remake as well…let me just say that I lost my appetite because I was so freaked out. (The original is still scarier, again because of its simplicity, but this one got me pretty well too.)

I can’t choose! I love both “Let the Right One In” and “Let Me In” exactly the same. (And I’ve had nine years to think about this!) They’re just…both…my favorite vampire movie. And I can’t see myself bending anytime soon.

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

25 Oct

71010-shia-lebouf-the-peanut-butter-falcon.1200w.tn.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a sweet film—very sweet and funny and likable. Sometimes, it’s a little too sweet to the point of reaching “corny” levels. But darn it, there were too many moments during which I had a smile on my face.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon,” written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, is reminiscent of a Mark Twain story, as two misunderstood outsiders embark on a cross-country journey to find something meaningful in life (and part of that journey takes place on a raft on the open sea). In this case, we have Zak and Tyler, two strangers who join together and become close friends along the way.

Zak is a Down Syndrome patient (and is played by Zack Gottsagen, who himself has Down Syndrome). He has been abandoned by his family and left at an old folks’ home because there’s nowhere else for him to go. He’s obsessed with an old videotape which features a pro wrestler, known as the Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), and he escapes his prison to find him. He has no money, no clothes, and no master plan of his own—he simply wants to find his way down to the Saltwater Redneck’s camp where he can pursue his dream of being a pro wrestler.

Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is a rebellious, troublemaking fisherman who signs his own death warrant when he messes with the wrong people, thus putting himself on the run. Zak stows away on his boat during the getaway, and at first, Tyler doesn’t want anything to do with him. But soon enough, his good heart shows as he just can’t leave this guy alone and promises to take him where he wants to go.

What begins as an interesting partnership turns into a sweet friendship as it becomes clear that Tyler may be the only person Zak has ever encountered who sees what Zak CAN do rather than what his disability limits him to. And as it turns out, Zak isn’t as helpless as he would appear. The scenes with these two together are wonderful—the two actors play brilliantly off each other, the escalation of the friendship feels natural, and they pretty much make the movie as special as critics have made it out to be. (I happily jump aboard that train.)

The smiles on my face didn’t even fade when Zak’s caregiver, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), inevitably finds the two and questions Zak’s safety in Tyler’s company. But even she can’t deny there’s more to Zak than meets the eye as well (particularly in a scene that got the biggest laugh in the theater in which I first saw the film), and she becomes part of this new family. For a character like this, that was a refreshing take.

I will revisit this film time and time again just to revisit the lovely chemistry between these characters.

What didn’t quite work for me was the ending. It’s a little too neat without much of a satisfying payoff, and for a film like this, you need that final moment that will make you want to immediately tell your friends to go see this movie. After seeing it the first time, I merely mustered a “yeah it was good” to my friends.

I’m still giving “The Peanut Butter Falcon” 3 1/2 stars rather than 3 because Gottsagen, LaBeouf, and Johnson make the movie work wonders.