Film review: My Date with Adam

August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: November 2013; Written & Directed by: Dennis Schebetta; With: Tressa Glover, Brian Morvant, Julianne Avolio, Dennis Schebetta

My Date With Adam is the darling story of Sarah (Tressa Glover), a wedding planner whose camel’s back depends on the success of her upcoming date with Adam (Brian Morvant), a computer science PhD candidate she met online. In the interest of keeping this review spoiler-free, I will say that Adam is so much more than a man. Unfortunately for Sarah, a good ol’ man is all she really wants. Her bestie Julie (Julianne Avolio) provides the requisite (and charming) snarky commentary while Sarah navigates a sticky wicket of a situation.

MDWA is, at its heart, an homage to ‘80s rom-coms, full of romantic gestures, a female protagonist who is always a bridesmaid…, a little bit of suspension of disbelief, and a super-catchy soundtrack. It references Say Anything on three separate occasions, and features a sidekick who is thisclose to having a few too many and crooning her own version of Joe Lies, such is her put-on disdain for the rougher gender.

Glover is low-key and lovely as Sarah, but she’s clearly got a handy and spot-on knack for comic timing. Her explosions and expletive-tossing are well-measured and hilarious. Avolio is the perfect associate, cleanly responding to Glover’s cues and developing an honest character in the process. Morvant is adorable as Adam / Philip (See the film to witness the reveal of the dual role!). His physicality is perfect here, stiff and uncomfortable as is appropriate and relaxed and earnest later as he woos Sarah.

This movie is, visually, laid out just like a good, solid, happy romantic comedy. The brights are bright, the floofs are floofy, and, due to Sarah’s and Julie’s jobs in the wedding business, most scenes are festooned with white fluff and tiaras, cakes, garland, and champagne flutes. It’s a seamless counterpoint to Sarah’s intense desire to find Prince Charming by her self-set deadline, and a perfect way to set this little gem.

All the elements are in the right places in this film. It’s truly just good fun.

-Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: Deliver Us From Evil

August 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Narrative Short; Written & Directed by: Robert McDermott; With: Bill Dablow, Craig Roath, Scott Awalt, Christopher Johnson

Deliver Us From Evil is a tense, nervy, little movie with a straightforward narrative set against a sparse backdrop of dull air and paltry bits of melting snow. Sam (Christopher Johnson) and Jimmy (Scott Awalt) pick up jumpy stranger (Craig Roath) on the side of a Midwestern two-lane. They take him to their Uncle Frank’s (Bill Dablow) home just down the road to pick up some tools in order to fix his broken down van. They realize quickly that he’s not what he seems. Let the games begin.

Interestingly enough, DUFE is also, honestly, a little bit of a love story. The bits and pieces of Midwestern life, a Midwestern winter, are everywhere. Uncle Frank lives in a farmhouse, full of wood trim, with ample square footage, and small rooms. He listens to a police scanner and serves up Spam casserole, corn, and white bread for lunch. He’s firm in his polite behavior, requiring a meal before vehicle repair and insisting that Jeff, the stranger, say “grace” before their meal. When Sam mentions a handicap identification tag on Jeff’s van, asking if he’s “biopolar or something,” Uncle Frank shakes his head and gives Sam an admonishing look. It’s perfect, and not a clever cliché. It’s absolute Midwestern reality, and it, along with the landscape, dry and lonely in the winter months (with the understanding that it will thrive soon enough) are a lovely testament to the setting.

Technically, the movie is long on creativity. Films frequently parallel their plot’s moments with technical elements that draw attention and to allow for a more layered narrative, sort of like highlighter. This film’s highlighter is in its camera work. DUFE’s narrative tension allows for almost manic, sickening camera movements. Upon achieving goals, finding keys, feeling satisfaction, the camera relaxes and the movements are fluid and paced. It’s a really nice approach and it doesn’t beat the viewer over the head. It certainly occasionally elicits a bit of anxiety, though, which is perfect here.

The music in the movie is a frantic hum, a combination of strings and keys that build to a sort of tense, fevered place before revealing and releasing the pressure with an alarming thud of sound. It’s a well-used element that, along with the camera’s unease make for a really restless delivery.

There’s not a poor performance here, but it’s Dablow who makes the most of the time allotted. His Frank is developed, a capable man with a moral code and ballsy behavior which serve him well. He’s also carrying on with a pack of cigarettes in a way that’s totally lacking in speculation.

Not only did I enjoy this movie, but I appreciated it, and I think you will too. Enjoy!

-Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: Makeover

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Narrative Short; Written & Directed by: Don Percy; With: Tom Travers, Charlie Ranger, Kristen Condon, Rita Crispin

Horrie Bedwell is alone. His dog Buster and beloved wife Maggie are gone. And his lady-scoring car keys are collecting cobwebs on a shelf. Enter Elsie, a personal ad-placer with a dog named Bacon, who Horrie suspects will revitalize him. As long as she doesn’t ever find out how old and rusty he really is.

Makeover details the charming and adorable tale of Horrie’s preparation for, and enjoyment of, their first date.

Makeover took second place at the 2013 Tropfest, the twenty one-year-old largest short film festival in the world, and rightly so. This film is darling, a little disgusting, and, ultimately, extraordinarily entertaining.

Technically, it’s a perfect counterpoint to its narrative, a visual parallel to the goings-on. During the first minutes, Horrie sits in his dusty, grimy home, talking to his dead wife and thumbing through the magazine which contains the personal ads. His home is a wreck and the film is filtered through his home’s grit, while miniscule rays of sunshine sift their way through (one can only imagine) cracks around his windows and holes in the framework. The grubbiness is maintained while Horrie files, rips, pins, paints, and vacuums himself into oblivion to prepare for his date. Once he’s out the door, though, be-wigged and bedazzled, oh, how the club music does play. Horrie’s world looks like it’s just discovered Technicolor. The pink of Elsie’s cardigan and the orange of their shared sundae cup nearly shine. They run on the beach and the sky is perfection, a clever and adorable visual representation of their newfound love.

But Elsie has a secret too, and Charlie Ranger and Kristen Condon, as the made-up Horrie and Elsie, are a delight as they reveal it. This is a lovely, little film and it made me smile through every cutesy (and occasionally revolting) second.

-Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: Beautiful Jim

August 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Documentary; Written & Directed by: Rex Jones; With: Jimbeau Hinson, Brenda Fielder

Beautiful Jim is the product of the Southern Documentary Project, a partner institute of The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Rex Jones, a permanent staff member of the Project has chosen singer / songwriter Jimbeau Hinson as the subject of an almost-hour-long documentary representative of a story of “the most storied place.” While that is absolutely accurate, as Jimbeau is a true Southern treasure (and he has a helluva story to tell), I’d argue that his story is representative of so many things, not the least of which is a subject that receives far too little attention these days and the pure, unadulterated fearlessness it takes someone to emotionally and physically battle a terminal illness.

Jimbeau is a product of Newton, Mississippi, and is, as the doc description states, “the first openly bisexual singer/songwriter in country music.” He has been HIV-positive for over 30 years and has almost succumbed to AIDS twice. He has been married to his wife for 33 years, and has written some of the more recognizable songs in country music, as well as having worked exclusively for the Oak Ridge Boys at the height of their career.

The film is a snippet, a slice-of-life. More specifically, it’s Jimbeau’s life and, while he’s able to give a pretty concise backstory in the 53 minutes allotted, the film also features his town, his comfy home, his beautiful, stalwart wife, and, most importantly, his music.

The film opens and closes on Jimbeau, himself, singing his heart out, eyes bright, smile wide, and voice clear. Jimbeau’s music is a character in this film. We see it all the time in the cleverest of rocked-out celluloid, in the most developed of biopics, but it’s so personal here. Jimbeau is allowed to speak candidly about how music was his true gift, the one thing he felt he had to offer the world, and while AIDS threatened his life, it also threatened the future of his gift, which may have been just as important.

Jones’ camerawork here is clean and this movie is technically very tidy. While Jimbeau discusses his high school and the typical teenage years there, full of angst and resentment, the camera neatly pans its way across his high school auditorium. While Jimbeau speaks solemnly about the rise of AIDS and his time with the Oak Ridge Boys, the sequence of photos and news articles is positively ship-shape. I read online that Jones shot a majority of the film himself using a GoPro (a small mount-anywhere camera) which explains a fantastic shot of Jimbeau’s pill box lid opening revealing the varied bottles within. I never once thought about the filmmaking or the camera work while watching this film which is exactly as it should be. Jimbeau is the real focus of the film, not the technicality. That said, there’s an art to an uncluttered experience, to understanding how to show it all beautifully without showing it all off beautifully and Jones nails it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Jimbeau’s energy and charisma. This film could have been poorly executed and it would likely still shine under the tutelage of Jimbeau’s glittering personality. Toward the end of the film, Jimbeau mentions a friend of his who once said, “In order to be a great songwriter, you need to be a great person” because, as Jimbeau had previously mentioned, songs must be a mirror to the audience. It is clear that Jimbeau’s songwriting chops are based squarely on this principle. This movie is fascinating and wholly entertaining. It would be a shame to miss it.

– Leah Gehlsen Morlan

Templeton Rye – from Landlocked to Denmark

August 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

One of the interesting documentary films being screened during the 8th annual Landlocked Film Festival is Whisky Cookers. As a matter of fact, it is having its World Premiere with the filmmaker Dan Manatt in attendance. The film tells the story of how a small Iowa town, Templeton in Carroll County, survived the Great Depression. In the 1930s the town had around 400 inhabitants and its main industry was production of bootleg rye whiskey. They used three railroad cars of sugar a month to produce the whiskey.

With the repeal of Prohibition, the population of Templeton dwindled to around 300, but with the start of legitimate production of Templeton Rye in the 1970s, based on one of the originally used recipes, the town’s population is increasing.

The whiskey is distributed in most of the USA, and when my husband and I travel overseas we bring it, legitimately at one bottle each, as gifts to friends. It is appreciated in Denmark, where our friends have composed a special Templeton Rye toast:

AH, ALL OF IOWA, DOWN THE HATCH.

(Hele Iowa i et slurp, courtesy of Villy and Annelise, Copenhagen)

-Birgit

Whiskey Cookers: The Amazing Story of the Templeton, Iowa Bootleggers, will screen at Landlocked on Saturday, August 23, 2014, in the Englert Theatre at 5:30 p.m.

As High as the Sky

August 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Released: 2012; Written and Directed by: Nikki Braendlin; With: Caroline Fogarty, Bonnie McNeil, Laurel Porter, Dee Wallace, Jenny O’Hara, Lainee Gram

As High as the Sky is a heartwarming tale about estranged sisters, one of whom which suffers from a nasty case of OCD, while the other is a nomadic single mother.  Josephine (Bonnie McNeil) shows up on Margaret’s Cali doorstep one day, her daughter Hannah (Laurel Porter) in tow, and a big smile on her friendly face.  Margaret (Caroline Fogarty), a professional party-planner, responds to the surprise visit by straightening the hell out of her pillows.  And smiling awkwardly.  As the narrative grows in complexity, so do the relationships, making this a truly enjoyable emotional celluloid ride. 

McNeil and Fogarty have great chemistry.  Fogarty is given a really meaty sandwich of a role to chew on here and she does a lot with it.  It could be hard not to allow these roles to become too precious, but both McNeil and Fogarty succeed admirably in fighting that and this movie only benefits from it.  Porter is a delight as Josephine’s daughter.  She strikes a lovely balance between overly mature prepubescent and krazy kid.

Technically this movie is cleanly shot, in a fantastic parallel to Margaret’s affliction.  All the camera work is even, sharp, and focused.  Fogarty is as riveting physically as she is emotionally, moving deliberately, even bringing her water tumbler to her mouth with purpose.  She folds and stretches her limbs with an objective in mind.  It’s truly fascinating to watch.

This bittersweet movie tells a fragile story about familial relationships and needs.  It’s a really strong narrative and, while it seems delicate in its presentation, like its actresses and the strength of their performances, it packs a wallop. 

— Leah Gehlsen Morlan

My Sister’s Quinceanera

August 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Written and Directed by: Aaron Douglas Johnston; With: Silas Garcia, Elizabeth Agapito, Becky Garcia, Samantha Garcia, Tanner McCulley, Nicole Streat, Josefina Garcia

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My Sister’s Quinceanera falls together like summer vacation.  The days sort of float by, full of heat and fountains, fighting with siblings, homemade lunches, and beautifully wasted time.  Oldest brother Silas spends his days corralling his younger brothers and sisters, washing cars, and wooing Nicole, the sweet girl he’s had his eye on.  He’s also trying to make amends with trying to make a decision to leave both his family and his hometown for something just a little bit more thrilling.

The titular quinceanera belongs to Silas’ sister, Elizabeth.  His mother, Becky, painstakingly plans the event for the entire summer and it coaxes the movie to a moment of excitement (and decision, for Silas) among otherwise thick, lazy, Iowa summer days.

MSQ is set in Muscatine, Iowa, and features non-actors against a backdrop of small-town grocery stores, flat concrete fountains, Tastee Freeze’s, and homemade skateboard ramps.  In a really familiar and intimate move, Johnston creates a well-defined sense of place, scouring the streets of Muscatine for displays of functional reality graced with personal accessory: a stuffed monkey hanging from a tree in someone’s yard, a parade of children exiting someone’s house, leaving a scuffed door and a cluttered counter in their wake.  We may not be sure where Silas will end up by movie’s end, but we have no doubt where he’s come from.  

The group of non-actors in this film are beautifully representative of the picture Johnston has developed.  Silas Garcia is, not to put too fine a point on it, perfect.  His Silas is conflicted, provoked, and simultaneously frustrated by his family and guilt-ridden at the thought of leaving them.  His relationship with his sister, Samantha, is full of pure ambivalence. 

Halfway through the movie, in a moment of youthful spontaneity, Silas asks Nicole out.  He teaches her to bowl and they watch children skateboard while awkwardly holding hands.  When he finally kisses her, it’s ache-worthy, graceless and eager with shaking hands and mismatched rhythm.  When he tells Samantha about it later, it’s chuckle-worthy, sweet and fully representative of the conversations siblings share when there’s no one else to share them with, and when they’d rather not share them with anyone else.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I loved this movie.  It’s a fantastic visual work and the performances are so familiar, you’ll swear you know these lives.   It was a true joy to watch, and I think you might just love it too.

— Leah Gehlsen Morlan

Reverse Runner

August 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Written by: Lachlan Ryan, Jarrod Theodore, and Dan Cannon; Directed by: Lachlan Ryan and Jarrod Theodore; With: Dan Cannon, Rosco Brauer, Julian Shaw, Bianca Linton, Helen Bongers, Daryl Cannon

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Like all good sports movies, Reverse Runner begins with a dreamer and his dream.  Kid Campbell (Dan Cannon) has wanted to be an award-winning reverse runner (folks, it’s exactly like it sounds; you run backward) since he saw the legendary John Jones win his fifth reverse running title when Kid was, well, just a kid.  Kid’s been working hard and putting in long hours with his trainer, Leroy (Rosco Brauer) in order to bring home the same title himself as a young adult.  His only obstacles are his father’s (Daryl Cannon) refusal to believe in the legitimacy of his dream, an accidental rule-breaking snafu in the qualifying race, a feud with current title-holder, mousy, vapid Steven James (Julian Shaw), and feelings for a girl (Bianca Linton) so intense they cause him to regularly forget the his task-at-hand.

I will readily admit that, although I am fond of saying that Australian cinema has quite the hold on me, this particular film did not bring the expected brand of humor to the table.  I was expecting pure quirk.  What I got was pure goof.  While a bit surprising, it was executed brilliantly.  RR is a darling slip of a movie, complete with some hilarious (and well-timed) predictable training montages.  Cannon and Brauer have wonderful chemistry and Julian Shaw is delightfully irritating.  Bianca Linton is perfect here as the soft-spoken, clever, true prize.

The only real suffering here is the movie’s attempt to throw every conceivable sports movie cliché into one big Rocky Balboa-sized pot.  Admittedly, this is a sports movie parody, so it’s amusing as all get-out to watch this film “wrap up,” but I did find it a little confusing from time-to-time.

There are a couple of really clever scenes in this movie, not the least of which is a first-date conversation between Cannon and Linton over a romantic dinner.  While scenes like this present some “mixing” within the genre, I did really enjoy it and wished for more like it.

At its heart, RR is a fun film.  It’s warm-hearted and I invite you to wholly embrace the goof.

–Leah Gehlsen Morlan

Genrevolt

August 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Released: 2012; Written and Directed by: Casey Dillard and Glenn Payne; With: Casey Dillard, Glenn Payne, Todd Barnett, Davis Manning

Genrevolt is clever from its title to its toes.  In this nine-minute gem, a couple of lovebirds named Shannon and Ben (Casey Dillard and Glenn Payne) bounce from scene to scene, experiencing a date in a sequence of moments from different genres of film.

They begin, in a fantastic technical parallel to any first date, in a horror movie.  Shannon brings Ben to an abandoned cabin in the woods, and just as things start to heat up, they begin hearing noises in the bushes.  They leave, in order to stay ahead of the machete-wielding maniac who’s coming their way.  Right before they leave, though, they make sure to indicate that they’ve left a group of their friends in order to get down, Shannon removes her impractical shoes, wondering aloud why she wore them into the woods in the first place, and Ben makes mention of a flight of stairs they might use as an escape route.  We then cut to the couple in a scene from a period drama, which gives us every cliché in the Jane Austen-penned book, right down to Ben’s ruffled collar.  As they jump from scene to scene, instead of staying ahead of the maniac they’re staying ahead of the genres, and a realistic and palpable objective is born.

This is a short film and the concept is novel, but the real strength here, outside of the performers’ obvious good senses of humor (and plain good senses) is that they’ve built a true momentum in to the film.  It would be easy to get hung up on keeping things witty and adroit, which might risk leaving the likable couple in one genre for too long.  But the desire to keep moving so that they might actually get to the light (and to the down-getting) at the end of the tunnel is a wonderfully fun way to drive this movie forward.

Dillard and Payne are sweet, and have solid chemistry and timing.  I think their real talent here, though, lies in the conceptualization and writing of this film.  It’s a really cohesive piece, while still allowing for laughter and finger-pointing at the flaws in each genre.  I think we often give shorter films less credit simply because they are shorter, but there’s a true art in knowing when a shorter piece is the most appropriate medium and executing that really well.  So I say, really well-done.

— Leah Gehlsen Morlan

Gwyndor

August 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Written by: Nathalie Antonia and Dixie Perkinson; Directed by: David Crabtree; With: Nathalie Antonia, Dixie Perkinson, Jim Dowd, K.C. Sterling, Jessica Borden, Tara Redfield, Steve Fite, Shawnda Thomas, Vijaya Kumari, and Chad Strawn.

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Contrary to what you may think, Gwyndor is not a magical, mystical character.  There are no wands or dragons or castles in this movie.  Gwyndor is, in fact, Ellie’s (Nathalie Antonia) drunk, estranged father who shows up on her doorstep for her birthday (and for her birthday party, which is occurring just as he appears).  Thus begins the several hundred moments of discomfort through which Ellie must muddle in order to come to a final conclusion regarding her relationship with her dad.

Over the course of the movie, we learn that Gwyndor is crass, charming, brutish, bumbling, and, for better or for worse, Ellie’s relation.  Ellie recounts his past hurtful words and deeds; he gives heartfelt speeches about the brevity of life.  Ellie invites Gwyndor to stay; he delights and then offends her friends.  She gives him water; he is a sot.  The real beauty of Gwyndor is voyeuristic, as it lies in watching him self-destruct with an audience.

The cast is a true ensemble, both in terms of performance and in terms of their narrative purpose.  The guests at Ellie’s party are there to characterize her actual family, the one she’s counted on for everything over the course of her adult life.  They are a colorful (“vibrant”) and varied group whose talents surface as Ellie goes round after round with Gwyndor.

The movie is a slice of real life.  It’s not terribly melodramatic or sensational.  It’s simply about an uncultivated relationship, which means it’s terribly realistic and quietly moving.  Even its humorous moments happen within the scope of the story.  They are neither obviously scripted, nor scripted obviously.

My favorite moment is when Gwyndor lights up his first cigarette in Ellie’s house.  She quietly indicates to him that, “We don’t do smoking inside.”  He responds with an incredulous “Really?” just before pulling two more lengthy drags from the cigarette and putting it out in a full bowl of popcorn.   Ellie is visibly upset by this as it’s a simple, lovely moment representative of all of Gwyndor’s acts in life.  He does something uncouth, he’s asked to cease, and he does, but only after a few extra pulls for good measure.

— Leah Gehlsen Morlan