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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.

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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.

LRFF2015 Review: “Made In Arkansas” Shorts Block 3

20 May

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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Undefeated

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Nathan Willis’ 20-minute film, “Undefeated,” is one of my favorite Arkansas shorts in the entire festival. It’s a documentary with a clear portrait of a man who lost a lot but also gained a lot. It’s a documentary also done well as a dramatic narrative—we see a real person becoming a dramatic character, following his life like everyone’s life as a drama, in a way. The man is Terrance “Tank” Dumas. He’s an undefeated heavyweight boxer who used to be a New Orleans gang leader and drug dealer before he lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Since then, he’s been training to fight, while also cleaning up his act as he works and cares for his family. The hardest part for him is finding worthy opponents who won’t back down and leave him with hard work gone to waste. “Undefeated” is a wonderful documentary that shows Dumas’ struggles both in and out of the ring. It’s an extraordinary film I can’t wait to see again sometime. I heard director Willis spent months documenting Dumas’ triumphs and failures. Firstly, I admire his dedication. Secondly, I’m sure he has enough for a feature-length documentary that I’d be interested in seeing. I didn’t know who Terrance “Tank” Dumas was before I saw this film; I’m glad to be introduced to him this way.

Little-Brother

Little Brother

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Uh…pardon me a moment.

Okay, I’m back. Sorry, I saw Eric White’s 5-minute short, “Little Brother,” twice now, and I’m still trying to comprehend what I saw. I think it’s good…ish. It’s certainly not a happy short to watch; it’s a deranged, messed-up, odd (did I just use three synonyms in a row?) film that left me with my mouth open…and oddly fascinated. Completed with a mixture of 2D & 3D animation with handdrawn characters (oh and it’s also in black-and-white), “Little Brother” is…weird. But I mean that in the best possible way. It takes sibling jealousy a bit too far, as a boy is annoyed by his baby brother who gets the most attention and hardly ever stops crying…so he tries to…get rid of him. Yep. Dark and unusual, “Little Brother” isn’t quite what I expected from the director of Homefront and the oil-spill documentary “An Uncertain Bill of Health” (both of which were LRFF2014 selections), but it is as effective as it is disturbing. That’s enough for a recommendation in my book…er, blog. Okay, I need another moment…

Okay, moving on! What’s the next one?

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Spoonin’ the Devil

Smith’s Verdict: ***

“Spoonin’ the Devil” is an awkward title, but the film, which is UCA graduate Michael Carpenter’s 20-minute thesis film, is actually an engaging, well-acted drama about saying goodbye to a lost one and moving forward. It stars the always-appealing Arkansas actress Natalie Canerday (best known for her motherly roles in Sling Blade and October Sky) as a middle-aged woman, named Victoria, who heads off on a road trip to her late husband’s final resting place, while dropping spoonfuls of his ashes along the way. Her car isn’t in great condition and her niece, Samantha (Kayla Esmond), doesn’t think she can get there on her own (nor does she, or we, understand exactly what Victoria has in mind), so she decides to drive her. Along the way, Victoria reveals truths about why she’s really taking this trip while also stating some positives about being alone despite mourning for her husband (kind of a way of self-healing). They also meet a nice traveler named James, played by Keith Hudson, and they go to an empty bar together, where, in a wonderful scene, Victoria fulfills a lifelong dream of singing live. My only problem with the film is that the character of James, despite a nice performance from Hudson, seems superfluous; he doesn’t add much other than a role of a goofy, good-natured side character who comes and goes. But the film is more about the lead character of Victoria, who is compelling, empathetic, and wonderfully portrayed by Natalie Canerday in a marvelous performance; it’s difficult to dislike her in the slightest. Also terrific is Kayla Esmond as the niece, Samantha, who questions her aunt’s judgments and thoughts but still attempts to keep an open mind and is willing to understand. Something else to praise is Carpenter’s script, which is littered with realistic dialogue. Add a moving final scene in which Victoria ultimately says goodbye to her husband at his resting place and “Spoonin’ the Devil” is a winning short film.

 

Meredith

Smith’s Verdict: ***

The full review can be found here.

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The Town Where Nobody Lives

No Verdict rating

BRIEF SUMMARY: An older couple who has fallen out of love find their way to a mysterious town. That forces them to confront their true emotions, and therefore, each other.”

I shall not review Al Topich’s 20-minute supernatural-psychological thriller, “The Town Where Nobody Lives,” because I was actually part of production as BTS Videographer. If I reviewed it, it’d be a biased opinion. But since I believe it earns some kind of response in this post, I reached out to a few people (Arkansas actors & filmmakers who weren’t involved in the production process) personally. This is what they said about the film:

Johnnie Brannon (director, Stranger Than Paradise)—“I loved the mood of the film. The acting was top-notch, the production design was great. I loved that the film made me think—is this heaven or hell? And if so…for who? I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about it.”

Pammi Fabert (actress, Rites)—“I thought it was beautifully shot. I loved the location and the acting was on point!”

Jordan Mears (director, Vampire-Killing Prostitute)—“I like it. It’s very bleak and ‘Twilight Zone-y.’ […] The story is fun, but there are a lot of unexplained things that irk me. Some of it is too vague. And I think that is what Al [Topich] might have been going for; very David Lynch. […] The film has some strong observations that it makes about relationships and what it takes to make them work and why some eventually crumble. And it’s done in a very sci-fi, arthouse way. It’s fun.”

Krystal Berry (script supervisor, Vampire-Killing Prostitute)—“I really enjoyed the film! Wonderful execution in storytelling. For me, films tend to exaggerate domestic issues to the point where acting comes across as hokey or unrealistic, but I didn’t feel that way in ‘The Town Where Nobody Lives.’ Karen [Clark] and Duane [Jackson’s] performances are very natural and not at all forced, which helped me build a connection to the characters and their plight. The story itself was relatable—relationships fall apart, sometimes at a painfully slow pace. It unfolded in this strange, dreamy (or nightmarish) way, that I thought was very entertaining. Easily one of my favorite films made in Arkansas this year.”

Rachel Van (actress, Monotony Broken) & Ben Gibson (actor, The Pop N’ Lock)—“The concept is simple on the surface but strong in its execution. The town can almost be considered a character itself, transforming at a moment’s notice to prompt [the characters] to face their issues head-on and preventing them from leaving until they each accept the truth that’s been in front of them all along. The fantastical elements the town displays are not necessarily explained, but they do not have to be. The story is so well-constructed that the viewer doesn’t question what’s happening or why, because we know what the town is trying to achieve. Along with Jackson and Clark, Kayla Esmond rounds out a talented, well-chosen cast as the Girl in the Bar. Each actor plays his or her part perfectly, and looks great doing it, as the cinematography is stunning and always sets the mood with purpose. The only weak spot is the climactic dialogue between Richard and Elizabeth near the end of the film, which feels slightly forced and unnatural. That, along with a couple of minor ADR issues, took me out of the moment in an otherwise seamless film. ‘The Town Where Nobody Lives’ is a very enjoyable film. From the location, to the lighting, down to the costumes, it illustrates what can be accomplished through the collaborative efforts of a strong cast and even stronger crew.”

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

Join me later for Block 4!

LRFF2015 Review: “Made In Arkansas” Shorts Block 2

19 May

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

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MatchMaker

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

The full review of Robin Sparks’ “MatchMaker” can be found here.

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Hush

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Kenn Woodard’s 20-minute film, “Hush,” is a strange, fascinating thriller-drama that is both hard to watch and fun to watch at the same time. It takes place in a small Southern town and begins with a news report of the arrival of a new Sheriff, Elkins (Billy Chase Goforth) before we are introduced to a couple (Warren McCullough and Cassie Self) in a remote rural area, as they reluctantly take in McCullough’s ne’er-do-well brother (Houston Nutt III). But that night, these two elements come together in surprising, dangerous ways. And unfortunately, that’s about all I can say about “Hush,” lest I give something away (a recurring problem I notice in reviewing some of these shorts, if not most of them). I will say that the film is brutal and effectively so, and the tone and spirit sucked me into a world gone mad. It feels like an efficiently exaggerated tale of how only the position of power (such as in politics) matters when greed is on the line. And I will also say this: the ending, in my opinion, is nothing short of brilliant. With a hint of commentary, an arresting look, an eerie calm, a despicable bad guy, and a good deal of violence, “Hush” is not a short I’ll forget anytime soon. And I certainly won’t forget the image of Elkins staring down an equally horrific trophy; that’s a brilliant shot. Shout-out to cinematographer Blake Elder.)

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Dim the Lights

Smith’s Verdict: ***

There’s usually at least one experimental film at every film festival, and Dwight Chalmers’ 10-minute short “Dim the Lights” is the one for LRFF2015. Shot with a Super 8 camera and presumably with hardly any editing whatsoever, “Dim the Lights” is a series of shots of locations that is the equivalent of videography for a nice road trip; it’s like one of those family vacation videos where what you shoot is what you have, with no editing. Minus the family. What we have instead is a feeling of nostalgia as we get numerous images of some of the most forgotten places on Route 66. Surprisingly, it works. It’s almost like a memorial to the Mother Road. Yes, the film can frustrate some by seeming a few minutes too long, but if you get into the spirit of it (like I did), it can turn out to be a nice experience.

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The Pop N’ Lock

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Ohh boy. There’s not much I can say about this one. “The Pop N’ Lock” is Jadon Barnes’ 2-minute short that is computer-animated in the same style as “Lego Movie” with CGI crossed with stop-motion animation…and featuring Lego characters. A Lego couple arrives home after a time of apparently hard partying and drinking, and the man wants to show his girlfriend he still has good dance moves. So he shows them off in comedic over-the-top fashion. That’s pretty much it—just like an awesome YouTube video you want to show your friends. There’s hardly another way to review it. The animation is fabulous, it’s fun to watch, it’s funny…and moving on!

Oh the film is online? Sweet! Check it out!

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Rapture Us

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

It’s a terrific premise: when a devout Christian is mistakenly left behind after the Rapture, he attempts to gain God’s attention by breaking the 10 Commandments. Even though I feel there could’ve been more done with it than what is delivered in Levi Agee’s 20-minute short film, “Rapture Us,” it’s still a very entertaining comedy with enough clever twists to keep it interesting. When you get past the notion that “God made a mistake” (it’s not supposed to be taken seriously), it’s an enjoyable romp.

It begins as a young man (played by Quinn Gasaway, Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls) awakens at night as he is levitated from his bed and stopped by the bedroom ceiling. When he is brought back down to the ground, he finds he is alone, with his family members and neighbors seemingly “raptured” into heaven. Further proof that he is now living in the End Times is the appearance of a new friend: an undead wisecracker (played by writer-director Agee) who appears from under Gasaway’s bed. He has a plan for them both to get God’s attention and be raptured, which is, of course, to break all the 10 Commandments.

A feature film could be crafted from this idea. But as is, “Rapture Us” is definitely worth recommending for its ambition, skill, and talent. It’s well-made, with sharp direction by Agee and striking cinematography by Bryan Stafford (The Dealer’s Tale), and also well-acted. Quinn Gasaway is a likable actor and a good lead here, and Levi Agee, as a performer, is freaking hilarious. I loved him as Bo in Cotton County Boys which played at the festival four years ago, and after meeting him since then and watching his interviews at this year’s festival, Agee himself is pretty much exactly like the characters he plays and that’s fine—no one can play Levi Agee like Levi Agee. And with “Rapture Us,” he also proves to be a good filmmaker.

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The Ask

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

In Ed Lowry’s 5-minute short, “The Ask,” a teenage girl (played by Lowry’s daughter) practicing a speech she plans to present to her parents, leading to the question in point. It’s a very well-edited piece, as her pitch is told to us in order but from different locations at different times, as if she’s been preparing to ask this for a long time. It’s well-handled and also quite funny. My only problem with the film is a slight nitpick: I feel the punchline could’ve been stronger. But it’s cute; I’ll let it slide. I like Ed Lowry’s work as an actor (he also received the Best Arkansas Performance award for his role in David Bogard’s “A Matter of Honor” at last year’s LRFF Awards), but like Levi Agee (and also Kenn Woodard, for that matter, for “Hush”), he also proves to be a capable filmmaker.

Contact

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

“We help people see the world more clearly.” A perfect slogan for the eye doctor if ever I heard one. Alexander Jeffrey’s 10-minute short film, “Contact,” centers on an eye doctor who believes he can not only make people see more clearly with eyeglasses and contact lenses but also literally give them fresh new outlooks on life and the world around them. Can he? He claims he truly can when he meets an old friend from high school, who is nearsighted. The doctor says his old friend could use some contacts, but after a falling-out due to a betrayal, the friend isn’t sure he can trust him. What he learns is something he won’t forget. The way the resolution comes along is very cleverly handled in an unpredictable way. And it also delivers a positive, powerful message of not taking things for granted and considering what you have rather than what you don’t. “Contact” is a well-done short.

Join me later for Block 3!

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!