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Under the Sun (Short Film)

7 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Sad as it is, we still need more movies serving as anti-prejudice parables because there are still many groups of people in today’s society that are victimized and often attacked by other groups of people who have their own idea of “normal.”

Take the 28-minute short film “Under the Sun.” What is the conflict? Well, it’s an unspecified time in the future–you can tell because it’s set in a bleak city that looks like sunset all day every day, people don’t often dress in color, and there are glitchy florescent advertisements on wall screens. No wonder people are miserable…oh, and there’s also a breakthrough in medical science that allow people to undergo surgeries that result in cybernetic augmentations (while their human minds remain intact).

Dem derrty rerberts dernt berlerng wit’ uss nerrmal ferrks! Subtitled: “Them dirty robots don’t belong with us normal folks!” That’s over-the-top hater speak for “I do not particularly care for those with that kind of alteration.”

“Under the Sun,” written and directed by Kansas City’s Samuel Tady, conveys this idea very effectively, with good commentary and skillful filmmaking. (For a short sci-fi film made on the cheap, the production values are pretty impressive.) We do see this kind of thing happening today, with violent hate groups and casual bystanders (you know, the kind that “support” a cause without actually doing anything), and this film comments on the complicated issues of all sides through a science-fiction parallel–one in which the remaining humans who haven’t been augmented look upon the half-cybernetic individuals as a threat to society and thus treat them like second-class citizens.

Solymar Romero plays Meadow, a woman with a replacement robotic arm. Her journey gains interest in an audience because she feels halfway between human and cybernetic. When she sees a cybernetic person being attacked by a hate group, she turns away. When she sees the story of his attack on the news, as the victim’s cousin Dominic (Alfredo Mercado) expresses his disdain for how the situation is being handled, she starts to listen. After meeting a new augmented friend, Zetta (Valeri Bates), and having her eyes opened wider by everything happening around her, she learns there’s a time when something has to be done about current wrongdoings.

The film is surprisingly rich with character. (I shouldn’t say “surprisingly,” but I’ve seen many sci-fi stories where characters are more of a side thing to the environments they inhabit.) I’ve already mentioned Meadow, Dominic, and Zetta, all of whom are interesting protagonists to follow. But there’s also the group of anti-cyborg demonstrators, led by Daina (Meredith Lindsey) and Nick (Samuel Kelly), who take a new recruit: James (Zachary Weaver). We don’t know where their hatred of cyborgs comes from, but I can’t pass them off as one-dimensional violent bully types because there are sadly more people like this in the real world (again adding to the film’s social commentary, whether the augmentations stand for race, disability, sex, or whatever). Of the trio, James’ story is predictable but still well-handled due to a solid performance from Weaver–when he sees the extent of what these people do in order to spread their anti-cyborg message, he starts to question his morals/ethics. He’s an angry college-aged kid trying to find a place in this world, so he’s at that point where he needs to figure out what to do. Predictable, yes, but it works.

There’s also a character who represents the type we know all too well: the well-meaning but socially-unfocused type of person who will voice their support without actually taking the time and effort to do something for a certain group or cause. (Instead, they use semi-sincere statements such as “I have a friend who’s [such-and-such]” or whatever makes them look good.) That character is played by Meadow’s all-human friend Stella (Debbie Diesel). Her interaction with Dominic, whom she saw on TV news, is the most priceless moment in the film.

Stella also has a brilliant payoff at the end, in which all key characters (Meadow, Zetta, Dominic, James, Daina, Nick, Stella) are fatefully brought together to partake in a climax in which there is a clear winner and loser…or is there?

“There’s thousands like us,” one of the villains states, regarding the anti-cyborg demonstration. True, but A) who exactly is “us”? And B) There are more of the rest of us than one would like to think. It’s just a matter of who stands up first (or next). I think that message is at the core of “Under the Sun,” and I recommend the film for its well-meaning, imaginative, and powerful storytelling.

Check out the film on YouTube.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls (Short Film)

17 Jul

By Tanner Smith

I remember over six years ago, this 40-minute short film closed out one of the Arkansas-short showcases at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival. When the end-credits rolled, the audience went wild with loud applause and even louder cheering for over 30 seconds.

I was among the audience members making that noise. I saw many exceptional short films in that festival, but there was something about this one that truly stood out. When it won the award for Best Arkansas Film at the end of the festival, I knew it felt…right.

The film was writer/director Mark Thiedeman’s “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls.” And six years later, I still enjoy watching it from time to time.

Harrison Tanner Dean is immensely likable as Max, a conflicted Catholic schoolboy who attends boarding school and is struggling with both his sexuality and his religious beliefs. That inner struggle is what gives the film its key interest–someone coming to terms with who they are in what is already an awkward time for all of us: the teenage years. This character of Max takes us through the film, which is a great collection of moments in this time in his life–confusing moments, comfortable moments, harsh moments, and victorious moments. All of that makes for an effective coming-of-age film, and by the end of this film, we can’t help but feel (or at least hope for) happiness for Max.

Dean is excellent here, and so is Quinn Gasaway as Andy. Andy is the wisecracking rebel on campus who breaks numerous rules and tries to get under the skin of Father Alphonsus (C. Tucker Steinmetz), who punishes students by humiliating them. He becomes Max’s friend and confidant, leading to a wonderful scene late in the film, in which the two sit at a riverside and talk about their beliefs. It’s short, but it’s an open, frank, and understanding discussion that puts us further inside their heads.

And speaking of solid characterization, I also got that out of Father Alphonsus. Upon first viewing, I saw him as a two-dimensional strict archetype, especially since he seems to punish Max simply for being gay. Watching it again, there was a scene that made me think there was more to this guy than meets the eye–a scene in which Andy serves detention time under him and receives a stern lecture about why he’s not going to kick him out of school. Alphonsus uses a parable about a similar type of student as Andy. That scene gave me an idea as to how Alphonsus’ methods are effective…they’re hardly condonable, mind you, but little things like that let you know how he thinks.

The cinematography from David Goodman is fantastic. I learned from one of the film’s extras that it was shot mostly in natural light, which was a smart choice. The effect made me feel like I was there attending this school with Max and Andy and their classmates. It also helps that the acting from all the other boys is spot-on–early in the film, when they’re goofing off together before class is in session, I could have sworn I was watching a documentary.

Also delivering solid work are Karen Q. Clark as a friendly nun who seems to be the only person who understands and cares for Max, Jim Linsley as a sex-ed teacher who has an unusual way of warning students against masturbation, and Schafer Bourne, delivering a Tom Cruise-like cocky charisma as Max’s bully Kirby, whom Max has to fight in front of the whole school (as part of Alphonsus’ ultimate punishment).

But the real standout of “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls” is Mark Thiedeman himself. As writer and director, he shows how he truly cares for his characters, delivers an atmosphere for them to explore, gives them a few laughs and a few troubles, and teaches them (and as a result, us as an audience) that while it’s easy to give in to the bullying that threatens your identity, it’s harder to grow and to embrace who you are right in their faces. You can tell he put his heart and soul into this project. (I haven’t mentioned that he loosely based the film on his own school experiences in real life–I don’t think I needed to.) And more importantly, it feels true.

I can’t recommend “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls” enough. You can check it out here on Vimeo:

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 in 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.

Like Father, Like Son (Short Film)

16 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s a little difficult to classify Donavon Thompson’s 4-minute short, “Like Father, Like Son.” Is it a comedy, a drama, an action film, a thriller, or all of the above? I’m not sure, but I think any film that uses finger-guns as effective weapons is doing something original.

Made as a UCA film-class project before Thompson’s undergraduate thesis film, ‘Twas the Night of the Krampus, “Like Father, Like Son” starts out as a crime thriller, with a cop (played by Thompson) angrily interrogating a suspect of his wife’s kidnapping. He and his partner (Matt Mitchell, the elf from “Krampus”) track down the other kidnappers and prepare to take them down by…extending their thumbs & forefingers and using them as guns; a cute joke.

This is a project I could tell Thompson had a fun time making, and it shows here that he’s a guy who truly loves movies. He pays homage to trademark Tarantino shots and “Lethal Weapon” (which he stated in an interview is his favorite film), among others, and it’s interesting, especially after seeing “Krampus,” to see the ambition that Thompson had as a student filmmaker about a year before putting his skills and movie-buff knowledge to somewhat greater use. I liked “Like Father, Like Son”; it’s fun, it’s quick, and the ending, though almost a little too sweet for the material, is nevertheless effective.