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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

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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.)

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“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: Stuck (Short Film) (2014)

11 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, who says every film I talk about here has to be feature-length? Not me–it’s my series; I’ll do what I want with it! With that said, I’m going to highlight some short films as well, starting with John Hockaday’s award-winning short film “Stuck.”

“Stuck” is a 20-minute short about Spence (Scott McEntire), a door-to-door salesman for glue (yes, GLUE!) whose life is changed when his man-child brother, named Bob (Jay Clark), moves in with his family.

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“Stuck” was Hockaday’s undergraduate thesis film for the film program at the University of Central Arkansas. It was filmed in February 2014, and when it was finished, it screened at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival in May. The film was nominated for three awards Best Arkansas Film, Best Actor in an Arkansas Film (Jay Clark), and Best Arkansas Director. Hockaday took home the directing award.

I couldn’t have been happier for him, for three reasons. For one, I was also a UCA film student at the time and a year before I would make my own undergrad thesis film. I would often sit it on the film classes to catch up on the progresses of the films being made at the time, i.e. watch rough cuts to see which ones had the most potential.

(Excuse me while I take a moment to shudder my own usage of the word “potential,” a word often spoken to me in film-school. I have an utter disdain for the term now. But you get what I mean.)

Anyway, “Stuck” was a film that I could tell would become something special. And it wasn’t just me–one of Hockaday’s classmates (who shall remain anonymous, even five-and-a-half years later) told me in confidence that he was jealous of Hockaday’s film. (And the classmate’s film was pretty good too.)

For another reason, Hockaday was a very good friend of mine. I used to hang out with him on campus, we’d often chill at his apartment, my nickname for him was “Hockadude,” and we had a mutual love for movies and the art of filmmaking. It was amazing to see my dear friend win the Director award at LRFF, and I knew he was walking on air at the time.

And last but not least, “Stuck” is a very good film. It has a lot of heart to it, it’s very well-made, and it just comes off as the type of feel-good movie that audiences generally feel the need for every now and then.

Now let’s address a certain elephant in the room I brought upon myself in this post. You could argue that because of our friendship, I’m obligated to like whatever film he made for his thesis. Well, he was honest with me after I showed him some of my work at the time, so I had to return the favor. I could have given “Stuck” my highest rating of 4 stars out of 4 when I originally reviewed it. I didn’t–I gave it 3 1/2, which was close enough…because there were a few little nitpicks I had with the film.

And I might as well address them now:

-The character of Spence’s wife (played by Julie Atkins) is barely a character at all, she’s so underwritten.

-Why does Spence’s son (Peter Grant) have two beds (one of which is occupied by Bob when he moves in)? Is there another child we didn’t see in the film? Did he or his parents think it would be fitting to have twin beds? A little nitpick, but it always bothered me.

-As clever as the “stuck” metaphor is, I’m not sure there are a lot of ways to make GLUE funny.

-In the fabulous opening musical number, Spence turns to the camera to express his bitterness in an angry way. In the original cut of the film, Spence maintained his forced giddiness while singing the same lyrics–under the film professor’s advisement, Hockaday brought actor Scott McEntire back to re-record the lyrics in an angrier tone…and I don’t think it’s nearly as funny.

There. I’ve shared the few things I don’t like about “Stuck.” Now I can talk about how awesome the rest of the film is.

And I’ll just power through it:

The opening song is delightful, with impeccable lyrical timing/content (that is, except for the fourth-wall breaking, which could’ve been funnier the other way–that’s the last time I mention that). I also like that there are two different versions of the song, with an acoustic reprise playing during the end credits. The acting is very solid; particularly, Clark is a ball of energy that is impossible to dislike. Jarrod Paul Beck’s cinematography is top-notch. (I’ve seen many UCA-produced films lensed by this guy, and I’ve worked with him many times as well–he always knew what he was doing.) It’s very funny (particularly with the payoff to the introduction of Spence & Bob’s parents’ ashes…even now, I can’t believe Hockaday actually went there). The editing is excellent. I love this line: “WHAT IN THE GREAT STATE OF ARKANSAS IS GOING ON HERE?!” And I love the energy that Hockaday put into the making of this film, from pre-production to post.

You can check out the film on YouTube and see if you agree: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blgWI_jBR8g

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NOTE: Hockaday has since worked behind-the-scenes for studio films such as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (post-production assistant), “10 Cloverfield Lane” (assistant visual effects coordinator), and “Star Trek Beyond,” among others.

Antoine and Colette (Short Film)

18 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One of my favorite films is Francois Truffaut’s 1959 masterpiece, “The 400 Blows,” about a troubled kid named Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, who would appear in more Truffaut films to follow). Even though I knew Truffaut made four follow-ups to the film, showing the boy grow into adulthood, I wasn’t in a huge hurry to seek them out because the ending to “The 400 Blows” practically demanded I decide for myself what the future held for this poor boy who had already ticked off his parents, committed petty crime, and ran away from juvenile hall.

But you can’t blame me for being curious. It’d be like only watching the first entry in Michael Apted’s “7-Up” documentary series and not knowing in the slightest how much Suzy had changed. So, I checked out “Antoine and Colette,” a 29-minute short film Truffaut made just a few years after “The 400 Blows.”

It’s nice to know Antoine is trying to better himself. Now 18 and living a life of (mostly-) solitude,  he supports himself by manufacturing LPs at the Philips factory in Paris. He still has an artistic, poetic edge to himself that was introduced in “The 400 Blows”—he still goes to the movies and he listens to opera and classical music. (He also spends time with Rene, a friend from “The 400 Blows.” We get a flashback to remind us of their friendship.) And Leaud still nails the part wonderfully; it’s like he and Truffaut shared a deep connection in how the character should develop. (I especially like an opening scene in which he wakes up one morning and reaches on his nightstand for a hardly disposed cigarette to smoke.)

One night at a musical concert, Antoine spots Colette (Marie-France Pisier), a slightly-older, beautiful woman, with whom he falls in love. They share a nice friendship, and Antoine is adored by Colette’s parents (who seem much better to be around than Antoine’s own parents, with whom he doesn’t seem to communicate anymore). He even moves into a place across from Colette and her family, to literally get closer to the woman he loves. But does she love him? Like most young loves, it’s hard to tell when emotions are clearly expressed to one another. He can’t take this mind game anymore and lets her know how she feels, and…well, the ending is true, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking.

Now that Antoine is older and independent (and alive), he can start going through the emotions that all young adult men face, such as unrequited love. And because the character is so charming, and Truffaut obviously had an affection for him (and people have speculated that Antoine is Truffaut’s alter-ego), I can’t help but hope for the best while also want to let him know somehow that things are going to be OK and it happens to us all.

After this short came three feature films that continued to keep up with Antoine’s life: “Stolen Kisses,” “Bed and Board,” and “Love on the Run.” I may check those out too…maybe.

The Gotham Knights Event – Part One – All That’s Left (Short Film)

14 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s been years since I reviewed a short film…here goes.

We’ve seen many incarnations of Batman the Dark Knight of DC Comics, from silly & campy to dark & complex. Then we get a chance to see fans (who are also micro-budget filmmakers) do their own take on it, creating a nonprofit fan-made web series called “Gotham Knights.”

Available on YouTube*, “Gotham Knights,” created by CK Helms and Timothy Drennan, is a slickly made, enjoyable series of short films centered around characters based on the DC Comics characters—Bruce Wayne (Batman), Dick Grayson (Robin), the Joker, the Red Hood, and more. Picking up where the series’ 4 previous shorts left off, we have Part One of a new story, titled “The Gotham Knights Event.” Batman has been missing for a couple of years, Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson are trying to live normal lives while struggling with grief, and the Joker has returned to Gotham. Those are the basic essentials for the story so far. Part One, titled “All That’s Left,” is merely a setup for something bigger to come. There isn’t much I can say about it, except to say whether or not it had me interested enough to want to see the rest of the oncoming series. And did it?

Thankfully, the answer is “Yes.” I enjoyed “All That’s Left,” though the element I enjoyed in particular was the actor playing the Joker: the film’s director himself, Timothy Drennan. When he’s first introduced here, there’s a quick moment in which he murders a henchman midway through playing friendly towards him—in that moment alone, Drennan captured the spirit of the Joker and carried it through the rest of the film. (I replayed that part repeatedly, I thought it was so funny.) Wherever the story goes from this point, I’m willing to follow.

Much of the film involves Dick (Ryan Mullins) and Barbara (Sarah Ring) as they discuss where they are in their own lives and how they can work together for the future. It’s not particularly interesting, but it’s only Part One; maybe it’ll get better. (Though, further considering the ending “All That’s Left” goes with, I can almost guarantee it will be more interesting, whether I know what happens or not.)

“Gotham Knights” is basically “Batman” with a small budget. There’s definitely passion put into each episode, and that passion continues with “The Gotham Knights Event.” It’s what makes the series interesting and fun to watch, and I’ll be interested to see what comes next, in Part Two…

*The Gotham Knights YouTube channel can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFiLCqpUd-3GlCb4cl4KhtQ

Beyond the Bridge (Short Film)

22 Jan

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In Seth Savoy’s 10-minute short film, “Beyond the Bridge,” set in World War II, a Cajun-American spy (Stephen Brodie) is sent on a raid to steal German maps so the Americans can have a major advantage. But on his way back, he collapses from exhaustion and ends up falling asleep, only to awaken and find his life in peril when he comes across German soldiers. I know the idea of someone collapsing in time of desperation and need for triumph is difficult to swallow (and I thought so too), but if he wasn’t merely a spy, it would’ve been even less understandable—it’s never specified how experienced he is (though, if he’s inexperienced, why send him on the mission to begin with?). But maybe I’m overthinking it, and I’m willing to overlook it, because it’s possible that something like this does happen (or did happen). The film itself is very well-done.

“Beyond the Bridge” is Savoy’s follow-up to an excellent short he co-directed three years ago (“Blood Brothers,” also reviewed by me), and it’s a well-made, effectively complex war drama-thriller. The acting is solid, especially from Tom McLeod who is effectively despicable as a Commandant and an expressive Harley Burks as a conflicted German soldier. The cinematography by Robert Patrick Stern is outstanding, with every shot brilliantly handled. And the film is rich with atmosphere—when the protagonist is in danger, it’s easily believable. While I was watching the film, I quit thinking about the probability of what got him into this predicament and instead imagined myself in his place at the point where he notices trouble signs; thinking about what I would do, how I would handle it, etc. and being unnerved myself in the process. It’s to Savoy’s credit as a solid filmmaker that he made me care and made me wonder. The rest of the film is just as efficiently unsettling.

The film’s running time is only 10 minutes, which is probably how long it needs to be. But honestly, I wouldn’t have minded another 10-15 minutes of this material handled by this crew. “Beyond the Bridge” is unsettling, deep, well-directed, gloriously-shot, well-acted, and not a film I’ll forget anytime soon.

Whiz Quiz (Short Film)

16 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It is almost ridiculously easy to criticize the UCA-produced short film “Whiz Quiz.” It’s vulgar, crude, raunchy, stupid, disgusting, over-the-top, ridiculous, and more. But hey, that’s the film’s purpose. I just pretty much described the film in those numerous adjectives. So what does it matter? Does it work for you? Did it work for me?

I recall seeing “Whiz Quiz” at a screening in Hot Springs. The audience was packed and as far as I could tell, a good majority of it was laughing out loud and exclaiming in fear and disgust (and also delight). But there was still a minority of audience members who were grimacing in a different way. And I recall a story from the film’s lead actor, Tres Wilson, that very evening. He said someone came up to him, asked if he was in the film, leaned forward, and said “Garbage,” in reference to the film.

Needless to say, a film like “Whiz Quiz” is not going to appeal to everybody. That’s because it’s a comedy. Humor is subjective—you either laugh or you don’t. And I’ll admit, after seeing it for the first time, I felt the need to not only take a shower but also gargle some mouthwash. But the second time around, I did laugh more and I wondered if it truly was the purpose of the film to gross people out.

The film is about three perpetually stoned man-children (played by Wilson, Colin Bennett, and Ben Gibson) trying to figure out how to quickly pass a drug test for Wilson’s new job. Let me give you an example of the film’s dirty humor—the boys come to a public school and attempt to collect urine in a bathroom; a janitor (Frank O. Butler) comes in and assumes the boys are there for a custodial job; he locks the door, lets his pants down, and attempts to “initiate” the scared boys, who distract him (while he’s blindfolded) with a dildo and some hand sanitizer (don’t ask). The whole sequence is generally uncomfortable, I’ll admit, but the shots used and the slow pacing (which raises suspense) made me appreciate what the filmmakers, including writer-director Brock Isbell, were trying to get away with and I did laugh as much as I groaned. It’s almost kind of admirable. Another example is when Wilson attempts to detoxify his body and he vomits in the street. One vomit gag is more than enough, but here, it’s dragged out for over a minute. Anyone can be more disgusted than amused at this, but again, anyone could also admire the slow pacing and the way it’s put together, such as when you think he’s stopped and he hasn’t.

The biggest laughs from me each came from Austin Brown as a narcoleptic drug dealer. Let’s just say he falls asleep at the most perfect times in this film.

Now, am I just saying all of this because I’m impressed that a student film like this went the extra mile, in comparison to most UCA-produced shorts I’ve seen? Probably. I will say that it took guts on Isbell’s part to make this film and, in my opinion, to do it right.

But let’s get to the answer that I built up for myself from the start. Did it work for me? I laughed, I cried, I recoiled, I grimaced, and I winced. So yes, it did work for me and I’m giving it a positive review simply for challenging me to consider what exactly I find funny.