Movie Review – Hank Boyd is Dead

Most of the films I review fall into one of two categories: films that I backed on Kickstarter (or a similar crowdfunding site), or smaller budget independent films that you are unlikely to have heard of if you’re not already a fan (some of the Scorpio Films Releasing gems come to mind there).

In the case of “Hank Boyd is Dead,” we’re looking at the latter category. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t heard about it either, until I entered and won a free signed DVD of the film. The plot description sounded interesting; otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered entering. (Okay, in all honesty I probably would have entered anyway, because I am a sucker for signed DVDs).

I am happy to report that I was quite entertained by this film. The plot synopsis is general and could go in many directions: “A young woman hired to cater the post-funeral gathering for accused killer Hank Boyd discovers his crimes and death may not be what they seem.” Because Writer and Director Sean Melia takes this story through a number of twists, I don’t want to reveal too much. But I can go into more detail than that synopsis does.

Sarah Walsh (played by Stephanie Frame) is new on the job, working for a local catering company. They’ve been hired to cater at the home of matriarch Beverly Boyd (Carole Montferdini). Her son Hank was accused of murder, and subsequently hung himself in his prison cell. The catering is for any guests who come to visit after his funeral. As no real turnout it expected, and there is problem with another catering job, Sarah is left alone to handle the job while her boss leaves to work across town.

Sarah is soon introduced to the rest of the family: David (David Christopher Wells), who is Hank’s older brother and a police detective; and Aubrey (Liv Roth), his flaky younger sister. She also bumps into Ray Moon (Michael Hogan), David’s partner and a former schoolmate of hers, who is keeping any unwelcome visitors away from the home. And from that point, the slow spiral begins.

One review I read on IMDB called “Hank Boyd is Dead” a spoof of detective films. I didn’t get that impression at all. From my perspective it was more of a character study into a very strange family, and an attempt to imagine what type of family could produce a deranged killer. Stefanie Frame holds things together very well as protagonist Sarah, but for me the star was David Wells. His seamless shifting from one attitude to another as he walks from room to room was creepy but not overacted. As a matter of fact, as the spiral of the story goes wider and wider, the cast manages to avoid any over-the-top cliché performances. I was momentarily worried about the character of Aubrey but – like the rest of the characters – she had more depth than initially revealed. I have a bias in favor of films that give us more of a character than is absolutely necessary, and Sean Melia seems to agree with that in the way each persona is fleshed out (both in back story and simple conversation).

With low budget independent films, if you have a good script and a strong cast, the other two major stumbling blocks are always sight and sound. Too often lack of funds results in a poorly shot film, or one with insufficient editing, or (my biggest pet peeve) an inaudible dialogue track. “Hank Boyd is Dead” has none of those problems. The plot doesn’t require anything beyond its modest set, and both the sound and the cinematography are well done. The changes in shot distance and angle help build suspense when that is needed, but cuts are smooth enough not to distract from the story itself. For a less-experienced Director that can be a very delicate balance, but Melia handles it well.

If you enjoy character-driven independent films that don’t shy away from taking some chances, “Hank Boyd is Dead” is well worth your time.

 

It’s Their House; I’m Just a Guest FREE Sale August 19th to August 23rd

From August 19th to August 23rd, “It’s Their House; I’m Just a Guest” will be available for free in it’s Kindle version from Amazon.  You don’t need to own a Kindle reader to utilize a Kindle book; Amazon offers downloads of free Kindle apps and readers.

 

https://www.amazon.com/Its-Their-House-Just-Guest-ebook/dp/B00NSBHHUY/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1471538505&sr=8-1#nav-subnav

Film Review – Nocturne

Aside from found footage and perhaps zombies, the horror film plot that has been overdone more than any other is the “carelessness with the Ouija Board” one. Some films have even combined these (although I don’t think I’ve seen a found footage zombie movie with a Ouija Board…yet). They’re a particular favorite of smaller-budget films. But that doesn’t mean a film where people mess with the paranormal has to be a retread of every other one you’ve ever seen. And if you’re like me, you are still willing to give a film with this overdone plot device a chance. After all, it might be something different, or simply be done well.

 

I’m happy to report the new film Nocturne (directed by Stephen Shimek and written by Shimek along with Katy Baldwin and Kristi Shimek) strives to bring some depth and intelligence to this realm, and it succeeds quite well.

 

The set-up is pretty standard if you look at it from a distance. Isaac (Darian Willardson) and Vi (Melanie Stone) are throwing a graduation party. Unfortunately, another party in the same town with a live DJ draws almost all the attention, so only four friends show up: Maren (Hailey Nebeker), Liam (Colton Tran), and Gabe (Jake Stormoen), along with Jo (Clare Niederpruem) who wasn’t expected but “had to get out of the house for a while.” They eat some cake and drink some beers, while Gabe tries to dazzle everyone with his philosophical discussions about religion and superstition (along with his skill at card tricks).

 

Pretty soon he convinces the others to use the a deck of cards and a wine glass to set up an impromptu Ouija Board and hold a séance. As you might expect, things don’t go exactly as planned, and Gabe’s position that religion and the paranormal are simply magic tricks is soon put to the test.

 

The first thing that separates Nocturne from lesser films in the same genre is the depth the characters have been given. The history between the six friends (as a group and on a one-on-one basis) is laid out slowly and without any heavy-handedness. And additional personal histories are cleverly dropped now and then. Everybody has their own secrets, their own disappointments, their own plans for the future. Some of the interesting details are important to the rest of the film, and some aren’t…which makes the characters that much better since we learn about them without it necessarily pointing us towards future scenes.

 

The second thing which makes Nocturne a success is the clever plot. This isn’t a tired 90 minutes of “make you jump” clichés; there’s real intelligence in the writing, and the characters stay true to themselves in their actions. Plus the depth of their development keeps them from being the cut-out generic film cast. But be warned: if you just want to see a bunch of blood and gore and you don’t want to think or pay some attention to a film, Nocturne *is not* for you.

 

Lastly there’s the strength of the performances. All of the actors do a better-than-expected job. Jo and Gabe have the most meat on their plates, but they handle it well. Hailey Nebeker as Maren is the unexpected stand-out. From the first moment she is introduced you forget she is an actress playing a role; she’s Maren. The smooth and seamless natural subtleties show she is really in touch with her character, beyond what is in the script. Plus she gets a few fun moments to show off her craft.

 

Keep an eye out for Nocturne (which I backed in a small way on Kickstarter). It’s worth your time. It’s always a treat when a film I back on Kickstarter exceeds expectations, and Nocturne far surpasses what I hoped it would be.

Film Review – Altered Minds

I’ve seen Altered Minds described as a psychological thriller, which is in part accurate. I prefer to think of it more as a psychological mystery. I went to public school with the Writer and Director and Producer Michael Z. Wechsler, so I already had made a mental note to see this film when it was released. A small crowdfunding campaign for additional production costs let me back it and get an early copy of the DVD.

 

The film stars Judd Hirsch as Dr. Nathaniel Shellner, a Nobel Prize-winning psychiatrist now 75 years old and slowly dying from cancer. As his family gathers for his birthday celebration, chaos begins to ensue as youngest son Tommy exhibits a worsening mental instability and paranoid accusations directed at his father. Tommy (Ryan O’Nan), who was adopted by the family as a youngster, is joined at the get-together by fellow adopted children Julie (Jaime Ray Newman) and Harry (C.S. Lee, who many will recognize from his role on the Showtime series Dexter). Also in attendance is the Doctor’s faithful wife Lillian (Caroline Lagerfelt) and eldest child Leonard (Joseph Lyle Taylor) who is the only natural child.

 

As you would expect, one has to tread lightly when reviewing a film like this because of the need to avoid any spoilers. The focus of the celebration quickly moves from Nathaniel to Tommy, and even though his rantings and stories sound fantastic they begin to have an effect on his two adopted siblings as well. As Dr. Shellner’s work has focused on traumatized patients – especially those from war zones or former military personnel – the adopted children have vague memories of their lives before being rescued and brought to the United States. And there is the usual tension between adopted children and the one natural child. Tommy becomes more and more insistent about his claims, and soon it becomes clear there may be more to the family history than meets the eye.

 

Shot on a moderate budget, the home and surrounding winter landscape is quite beautiful and captures the isolation the family is experiencing; there is no world but the family itself at that moment, and the microscope can only be turned within. Ryan O’Nan does a rather good turn as the troubled Tommy. His role is one that could have easily succumbed to overacting but I found he managed to walk the tightrope successfully. To my surprise, the acting I was least impressed with was that of my personal favorite Judd Hirsch and of Caroline Lagerfelt. Granted, both characters are quite reserved in personality, but I never was fully convinced by their moments of strong emotion, whether love or anger or despair. I think Mr. Hirsch played his Dr. Shellner a touch too analytically, and perhaps that reflected onto his wife’s character.

 

Wechsler enjoys some clever misdirection in the plot; at least enough to muddy the waters and allow you to focus more on what is happening and less on trying to guess the answers to all the looming questions. Not everything succeeds fully, but there is enough which works to make Altered Minds enjoyable and entertaining.

 

Overall I think most fans of this genre of film will enjoy Altered Minds, and it is good enough for me to forgive Wechsler for writing a negative review of the Romero/King masterpiece Creepshow back in 8th Grade. Considering how much I love that movie, you should be able to see I give Altered Minds more than a simple passing grade.