TCFF 2014 Day 3 Reviews: These Hopeless Savages, 3 Nights in the Desert, The Well and House of Manson

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The festivities continues at Twin Cities Film Fest! Weekends are always super busy at the Showplace ICON Theatres at the West End, but even more so with all the hustle and bustle of the TCFF crowds. A bunch of Midwest Premieres took place last night, featuring Q&A following films such as These Hopeless Savages, Old Fashioned, BFFs, The Well, and a huge cast & crew in attendance for the first of two sold out screening of House of Manson.


The second screening of House of Manson on Monday night at 9:30pm is already SOLD OUT … but, no fret, TCFF will have a RUSH LINE available for every “sold out” screening. We typically are able to accommodate anyone waiting in line. So, before you decide not to come, please do consider the Rush Line! The Rush Line is located across from the TCFF Offices on the Main Level of the Shops at West End, right below the theater lobby.


Now here are the reviews from Day 3…

These Hopeless Savages

Similar to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013), These Hopeless Savages is a road movie doubling as a relationship drama. In this case, the focus is on Shawn (co-director/co-producer/co-writer/star Sean Christopher Lewis) and Greg (co-writer/star Matt Delapina), childhood friends who have lost touch over the years. Shawn believes he’s won $50,000, which he can claim by traveling from New York to Iowa, and he wants Greg’s help. Though Greg doubts the money’s authenticity, he agrees, for personal reasons, and the two embark in Shawn’s sedan. These Hopeless Savages documents their cross-country journey, along which they encounter several eccentric characters.

In so doing, the film is often funny, particularly in scene’s including Greg’s girlfriend, Nicki (Mackenzi Meehan). Meehan’s deadpan delivery and her chemistry with Delapina are both striking, indeed so much so that she is the film’s greatest merit. Which is saying something, because the cast is universally strong. The picture’s visual style is impressive, as well; directors Kaitlyn Busbee and Lewis use minimalist camera movements and wide image frames to create a realistic tone, one which helps push forward the plot.

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Unfortunately, These Hopeless Savages stumbles at various points. First, we never understand why Shawn believes the $50,000 actually exists. Unlike Nebraska’s Woody, Shawn’s mental faculties are not deteriorating, so what gives him such confidence? It helps that Lewis and Delapina, as writers, hint, at various points, that the money isn’t Shawn’s actual motivation, but the idea is undercooked and then contradicted when the protagonists reach their destination. Moreover, neither of these characters change. They start emotionally damaged, and they end that way. They start with particular character flaws, and they end with the same. Their stories feel unfinished, even in a picture less about individuals than relationships.

For all of that, These Hopeless Savages has enough humor, good acting and quality directing to make it immersive and entertaining. It is far from great, but it is also far from bad.   

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The Well

Though too predictable and too faithful to genre, The Well, is filled with enchanting cinematography and even more atmospheric intensity. The picture, which is written by Jacob Forman and director Thomas S. Hammock, depicts an apocalyptic world fatally short on water. Living in this world is Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson, excellent), who struggles to rebuild an airplane while simultaneously caring for her ill childhood friend, Dean (Booboo Stewart, even better than Richardson) and a youth named Alby (Max Charles, underused), whom she’s found living alone. She must also fend off many rivals, some of them in search of water, and some of them employees of a nefarious company.

In part because of the actor playing her, Kendal makes a compelling protagonist, but she is not the most interesting character here. That is the primary villain, Carson (played empathetically by Jon Gries), who is layered by love for his daughter, Brooke (Nicole Fox) and remorse. When Carson and Kendal finally speak to each other, it is a riveting scene, indeed, one that rewards the viewer with fascinating dialogue between two multi-dimensional characters.

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Hammock’s visuals are just as rewarding, as is his ability to create tension, both through audio and image frames. At times, The Well’s obviously low budget hurts the picture, especially when Hammock uses CGI to create blood or fire, but mostly the director overcomes financial limitations.

A handful of exposition-heavy scenes between Carson and Brooke prove bigger flaws. As does Brooke’s characterization. She is so underdeveloped as to be almost senseless. Finally, during what should be the film’s most impacting moments, Kendal successfully hides from her enemies, but only because Carson doesn’t follow previous patterns of behavior. In another should-be-impacting sequence Kendal behaves differently than she has before. These moments border on character breaking, and thereby disengage the viewer, at least for a time.

Still, The Well succeeds far more than it fails. It deserves a recommendation.

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Check out FlixChatter’s exclusive interview w/ Haley Lu Richardson as she discussed getting her part in her feature film debut, and the challenges of filming The Well.


3 Nights in the Desert 

A middling drama about old friends/bandmates reuniting after several years without contact, 3 Nights in the Desert neither impresses nor offends. It simply exists.

Tax attorney Barry (Vincent Piazza) and musician Anna (Amber Tamblyn) travel to the California desert, where their defunct band’s former guitarist, Travis (Wes Bentley), now lives. Ostensibly the three are fulfilling a long-ago promise to collectively celebrate their thirtieth birthdays, but Travis has a manipulative motive, Anna has personal issues never fully explained, and Barry doesn’t want to admit he pines for the past, even while he also rages at it.

All three actors do well with what they’re given, especially Tamblyn, who makes an underdeveloped character feel almost real. Unfortunately, writer Adam Chanzit and director Gabriel Cowan don’t give them much. First, the characters are sketches, not multi-dimensional figures. Second, the plot is boilerplate, offering a standard love-triangle, and equally standard reflection on idealism versus pragmatism. Some forced symbolism and a repeated metaphor (a supposedly mystical cave) don’t help either.

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Yet, 3 Nights in the Desert isn’t bad. Sure the opening voice over explains relationship dynamics Chanzit and Cowan would have been wise to show us, and sure nothing here surprises or enlightens, but the actors still capture attention, the occasional music is quite good, and the picture’s pacing (a run time just over eighty minutes) is crisp enough to ensure the narrative never grows stale. Plus, the director and his crew skillfully photograph some gorgeous California scenery.

In the end, do I recommend 3 Nights in the Desert? Not really. But it needn’t be avoided either.

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House of Manson 

House of Manson is a film that chronicles the life of Charles Manson and focuses in on the events leading up to and including the Sharon Tate murders of 1969. Unlike other Charles Manson biopics that focus in on the sex or the over the top nature of the Tate murder, this one focuses in Charles Manson’s influence and connection with his followers, the Manson family as they call themselves.

Charles Manson is portrayed by Minnesota born actor Ryan Kiser, who returns for the second year in a row to Twin Cities Film Fest. Last year Kiser co-starred in the horror film Truth or Dare and this year he brings the fest the world premiere of House of Manson. Kiser approached the character in a very serious tone and does a fantastic job conveying the crazy yet brilliant way Charles Manson was able to draw followers into his cult.

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Devanny Pinn co-stars as one of Manson’s followers Susan Atkins and gives a chilling performance as her screen presence is freaky. Pinn truly becomes Atkins on screen as the facial reactions make you think this women is completely off her rocker and has no moral compass at all.  An overall amazing performance by Pinn.

This film does suffer from some technical flaws as the sound isn’t completely smoothed and could use some more attention by a sound mixer. The filmmakers even admitted in a Q&A following the world premiere that some of the sound transitions were going to need to be looked at. The film also has a saturated look that doesn’t look completely intentional. The image doesn’t pop off the screen as some movies do that have a more crisp and sharp look to it.

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Overall, the film is a great portrayal of the events surrounding the infamous Charles Manson. It doesn’t get too crude or violent as previous films about the same subject matter, it takes the source material as it is and conveys the story in a very tasteful matter. With a great cast and direction by Brandon Slagle, House of Manson is definitely worth checking out when it later finds distribution.

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Stay tuned for reviews from Day 4!


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Individual tickets are on sale now at twincitiesfilmfest.org


Have you seen any of these films? What did you think?

TCFF 2014 Day 2 Reviews: Father-Like Son, The Last Time You Had Fun, V/H/S: Viral

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Day 3 is nearly gone and I just finally got a chance to put something together for the blog! It’s quite a whirlwind day for me today. I had a prior commitment in the AM in St. Cloud but we somehow made it back in time for the Actors Panel, one of the educational panels that I always look forward to every year. This year we’ve got three awesome guests whose films are playing tonight: Sean Maher (BFFs), Haley Lu Richardson (The Well) and Ryan Kiser (House of Manson). The panel was moderated by actress Marisa Coughlan (Super Troopers, Space Station 76). It was quite an insightful event as you learn how they got into show business, and the high/low of being an actor, etc.


And here are the reviews from Day 2…

Father-Like Son

Let’s just say the script in “Father-Like Son” doesn’t beat around the bushes. Written by and starring Mac Alsfeld and Andrew Megison and featuring Alsfeld in his directorial debut, it tells the story of Clark, a 24 year old wannabe writer living at home with his widowed mother and her new husband Dan, who happens to be Clark’s age but nonetheless aspires to be a father figure to Clark.

The first line in the movie is Dan popping into Clark’s room “Hey there dude, you got any condoms I can borrow? Your mother claims to have had a hysterectomy but I don’t buy all that science fiction bull.” And the movie goes downhill from there, resulting in an endless stream of immature, unfunny jokes.

(About 20 minutes into this movie I started thinking, “This is like The Hangover. Except not funny.”) Another scene involves Dan, a self-proclaimed “inventor,” showing off his latest creation – the Okey Dookey, a poop-shaped plastic toy you can hide a key in.

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A subplot involves Clark getting a job in a used bookstore, where we meet fellow employee Emily (Molly Canarro) and Peaches (Peaches Davis), the little old lady who owns the place. Emily’s feisty retorts playing off Peaches’s sweet charm were a breath of fresh air. The movie attempts to turn maudlin toward the end with Clark struggling to come to terms with his father’s death but it was hard to care at that point after a mind numbing parade of juvenile man jokes. (To get back at Dan, one of Clark’s friends suggests that he cut up his dog and leave body parts all over the house.)

It is shows like this that remind me of what critics sometimes say if they really don’t want people to waste their time: I watch these movies so you don’t have to. I understand that I am not the target audience for this kind of show but in my opinion I would suggest you pick another movie to enjoy at the Twin Cities Film Fest.

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The Last Time You Had Fun

Story takes place in a single night, mostly in a limo rented by a guy named Will (Demetri Martin), supposedly to celebrate his college buddy Clark’s (Kyle Bornheimer) divorce. These two buddies can’t be more different from each other, even from the way they’re dressed. Will is a preppy lawyer and Clark is a teacher can’t seem to get out of his sweatpants. As we later learned, Clark’s divorce left him for another woman. Because of his friend’s persistence and his young kids’ insistence that he needs to get out of the house once in a while, Clark reluctantly agrees to go, so long as there’s no strip club involved. They ended up at a wine bar, Clark’s pick, and there they run into two sisters. Will dares Clark to pick up those women and he only agrees to do it just so he could go home.

The foursome end up hanging out together in the bar and later share a limo going as aimlessly as they go about their own lives. The two sisters are Alison (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), who appears to be the sensible one, married with a young daughter. She’s always patient to lend an ear to the drama queen of a sister Ida (Eliza Coupe), who’s in the middle of a nasty divorce.

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As the title says, most of the characters can’t seem to remember when was the last time they had fun. The bickering between four dysfunctional adults are comical in their honesty about how they feel about themselves and each other. Everyone’s got issues, one seems more messed up than the other. As the night wears on, more layers of their personality is peeled off as inhibitions slowly diminish. In fact, they go more restless, bolder and crazier, much to the chagrin of the snappy limo driver (Charlyne Yi) who have to put up with their shenanigans. One of the funniest scenes is when they try to get some weed, resulting in the most bizarre scenario of the entire film. Character actor Jimmi Simpson has one of those faces you recognize in a bunch of films/TV series. The sexual experiment scenario is played mostly for laughs but yet it’s not a throwaway scene as it’s in keeping with the adventurous theme of the story.

The film’s tiny budget shows in the production quality, but the honest, funny and engaging dialog and naturalistic performances from the entire cast make up for it. The two male actors fare slightly better IMO, you can’t help but root for them despite their flaws. There are some slow parts and some of the dialog seem clunky to me, but overall I think Mo Perkins‘ sophomore effort is a pretty good one. I like how the script by Hal Haberman plays with our perceptions/prejudices of the characters as they don’t always behave in the way they predict they would.

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V/H/S: Viral

V/H/S: Viral is the third movie in the V/H/S series that was started in 2012. The V/H/S movies are anthology films made with mostly found footage films that are edited to play together with an overarching plot that sort of works at connecting them all to play after each other. The previous two installments (V/H/S and V/H/S 2) were very enjoyable in their concept and new takes on found footage through the use of spy glasses cam and GoPro cams.

This time, the overarching plot that is seen between each short film, entitled “Vicious Circles”, is about a man on chasing his girlfriend who has been kidnapped by an ice cream truck which is also being chased by the police. This short that is broken up over the length of the film is quite good at showing the environment on how the entire city is on alert and watching this police chase.  Of the three V/H/S films this overarching plot is the weakest at not only connecting all the films together, as well as being a driving force throughout the whole film. It was different to show a bigger environment to connect rather than show people just watching the other shorts on VHS tapes as was done in the first two V/H/S movies.

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The first short is called “Dante The Great” and is the first time that breaks the complete found footage form in the V/H/S series as it is more of a mockumentary about a magician who owns a truly magical cloak. If you have been following the V/H/S series, this short can catch you off guard as it is not completely found footage and features interview throughout it while cutting to found footage. This short works really well and is the easiest to follow and was fun take on the mockumentary form.

“Parallel Monsters” is a short that involves alternate dimensions as a man opens a door to an alternate dimension that seems almost the same to ours but slowly as he explores it and switches with his alternate dimensional double, is not as similar as once thought. The characters in this short only speak Spanish which adds a new cultural flair that is done quite well. This short is the most detailed in terms of showing how weird the alternate world is that is being explored of the 3 shorts in V/H/S: Viral, not counting the overarching “Vicious Circles.”

The final short is entitled “Bonestorm” and shows some teenage skateboarders who venture down to Tijuana to film a skating video with a combination of regular video cameras and GoPro cameras. Things get out of hand when the area they are skating attracts some unwanted pagan worshippers.  This short was very action packed and didn’t have any lull points and used the short amount of time to its full potential. The actors gave great performances and the special effects that are needed later in the short are quite impressive.

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Overall, V/H/S: Viral is a good, not great, addition to the V/H/S series. While it still has a smaller distrubution method due to the studio putting it out, Magnet Releasing, which is limited on its resources on getting this movie to the public. Fans who have seen the previous two entries will enjoy this addition to the series. Those who are new to the series might need time adjusting to its scattered nature of being an anthology film that doesn’t transition easily between the stories it is telling.

V/H/S: Viral will be available on Video On Demand on October 23 and in select theaters on November 6.

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Stay tuned for reviews from Day 3 tomorrow!


TCFFtickets

Individual tickets are on sale now at twincitiesfilmfest.org


Have you seen any of these films? What did you think?