From July 23rd through July 27th the Kindle version of “It’s Their House; I’m Just a Guest” will be FREE for download. If you’d like to grab a copy please do so. If you enjoy it, a review at Amazon or B&N or Goodreads (or all 3) is appreciated.
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.
The Kindle version of “It’s Their House, I’m Just a Guest” is now FREE through Feb. 2. Please spread the word!
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.
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.
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.
Kindle Sale now through June 13th, only 99 cents. “It’s Their House; I’m Just a Guest”
Big News! Kindle super discount coming up. From June 6th to June 13th you’ll be able to buy the Kindle version of “It’s Their House; I’m Just a Guest” for 99 cents on Amazon, or L0.99 on amazon.uk. Spread the word…please? Also love it if some of you invited friends to like this page…..Anyway, here’s the link to the book itself.
One of the most formidable obstacles for me when I am writing about the past (or simply thinking about the past) is putting me in the same position I was then. It is too easy to take my current self and drop that level of experience, that mindset, that knowledge into past events. Of course this helps explain why I have such trouble forgiving myself for things that – at the time – were the best decisions I knew to make. It takes a lot of focus and a lot of consideration to adjust for what I didn’t know back then, what I hadn’t learned, and what wasn’t common knowledge.
I remember when Mara first told me she had been sexually abused by her paternal grandfather. It was New Year’s Eve, or more correctly it was in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, only a month or so after we’d started going out. I’d been invited to spend the evening with her family and their friends in a celebration, and despite my misgivings it turned out to be a pretty good time. There was champagne punch, which was weaker than the alcohol I was used to consuming at age 15 but still enjoyable. There were party games, including “pass the orange” which I’d first seen in Charade; that’s still one of my favorite movies. There was a game of Trivial Pursuit where our team won, in part because Mara’s father thought James Bond preferred his martini’s stirred and not shaken. There was also a game of Password which Mara and I won outright. We did get a lot of funny looks and some half-joking accusations of cheating when I said “Florida” and she knew to respond “ashtray” but it made sense to us and that was all that mattered.
I walked home from the party, and called Mara a little after settling in as she had asked me to. We laughed about some of the evening’s excitement on the phone, and then she told me she had something she needed to tell me. “I was molested by my grandfather, from when I was an infant until at least when I was twelve years old.” And I told her I was sorry. That was it.
It is difficult for people to understand that neither of us knew anything about the long-term effects of sexual abuse back then. Society seems to choose one secret issue at a time and expose it to the masses through movies, news specials, Judy Blume books and after school specials. Alcoholism was already a known commodity by then. When we were just reaching puberty drugs were getting their day; movies like “Not My Kid” focused on the problems with pills, marijuana and harder stuff. And eating disorders were just making the rounds. We’d just learned the difference between anorexia and bulimia, and a few of the supposed reasons behind them. But sexual abuse, which today is talked about like it happens all the time (and it does), was still a dirty little secret. Nobody talked about, nobody admitted it, and most of all nobody knew the long-term effects. So when Mara told me, for her it was more about sharing a shameful secret that I might consider made her gross or disgusting. And for me it was just an explanation that fit into some of her family dynamics. But for both of us, the fact that she had been sexually abused – even for so many years – was almost the same as her telling me about a car accident she had been in. It was something bad that happened. There was no real significance in the present, except that she didn’t want to be around her grandfather.
I know it isn’t my fault, and I know we were both ignorant of the truth, but I still haven’t forgiven myself for how wrong we were about the impact it would have – and already was having – on her life.
So much of the problem was just bad timing, and unfortunate circumstances. Mara was my first girlfriend, my High School sweetheart. She was the first person I had sex with, and the first woman I fell in love with. I had no basis of comparison to see how odd some of her behavior really was. It wasn’t like I could compare Mara to my mother; although at that age I didn’t know the specifics of an alcoholic schizophrenic I knew enough to realize my mother was a mess. I didn’t have a “normal” female role model to use as a guide. As time passed and Mara grew depressed, acted crazy, slept with anybody who showed an interest in her, had blackouts where she couldn’t remember anything, or seemed to become an entirely different person for hours at a time I just thought that’s how most women were. Or at least that’s how Mara was, and so I’d have to accept her that way. It wasn’t a question of why she did what she did. That was just her.
I also remember the day Mara first learned that so much of who she was, and so much of the things she felt and the way she thought and the things she was driven to do, were a result of the sexual abuse she had endured. We were living together, and Mara had suffered her first complete breakdown. It was bad enough for her to go to the mental hospital and stay for a month or more. They put her in the eating disorder ward because she had gained a lot of weight in the past few years, and because she regularly found herself binging on food. She didn’t’ purge, but they still classified her as a bulimic; today I think she would have been diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder but that wasn’t a choice then. The hospital wasn’t doing her a lot of good; they usually don’t. The Doctors spent very little time with each patient, and what time they did spend was taken up trying to decide on a pharmaceutical course of treatment. There were group therapy sessions where most of the discussions were about how the anorexic girls were sneaking laxative tea into the ward. There were also “family” sessions which were the same as the group sessions but included family members. Those were just about as useless as the others; half the parents or relatives would be angry about why their children or spouses weren’t getting better, and the other half would make enabling excuses for the patients’ actions…something like “I read about a condition where people get depressed from a lack of sunlight. I think that’s why she tried to slit her wrists again.”
Mara had talked in small groups about her life, and mentioned the sexual abuse. One nurse suggested that while she was in the hospital it might be a good time to tell her father about what HIS father had done to her. (Mara’s mother had already been told about the abuse at some point, although she would later deny this). As a preliminary step towards that discussion, they had me buy her a book on sexual abuse. I don’t remember exactly which one it was; it might have been “Healing the Shame That Binds You” or that may have just been one Mara read numerous times in later years. But whichever book it was, I bought it for her, and she read it one night after visiting hours were over. And when she was done reading it, she started screaming, ripped the book to pieces, throwing things around her assigned bed, and spent the next 24 hours in the “quiet room.”
A lot of people couldn’t understand why Mara reacted the way she did. But it made perfect sense to me. For so long she had blamed herself for the things she had been doing, and wondered what she had done wrong to make her so confused and so depressed and such a total wreck. Why her? Why these feelings, these reactions, and these problems? And now, suddenly, she picked up a book about sexual abuse and her LIFE was on every page. Everything she knew about herself, everything she couldn’t understand, everything about herself that she hated and made her wish she was dead was right there, page by page. HE had done this to her. She was broken, twisted, snapped, stretched, polluted, bleeding and bruised at age 21 because of things that had been done to her a decade earlier by someone she had loved and had trusted.
And now, in one evening of reading, she had learned just a part of the price she had paid for what he had done. And it was too much for her to handle. Mara boiled over, melted, and exploded all at once in the nuclear fission of being exposed to that much unwelcome knowledge so quickly, and in such an unfiltered fashion.
Things could never be the same again after that night. I suppose she had to know if she was going to get better. But knowing didn’t mean she would get better.
If you are familiar with the work of Writer and Director Gorman Bechard, it may be from his early dark comedies like Psychos in Love and Friends (with Benefits). Or perhaps the moody You Are Alone (which was based in part on his novel Ninth Square). More recently Bechard has made a name for himself in music-focused documentaries, notably Color Me Obsessed: A Film About the Replacements and the upcoming Who is Lydia Loveless?
With that kind of track record, A Dog Named Gucci may seem to be quite a departure. But it only takes a few minutes of the film to realize this is a subject he understands and cares deeply about. And it takes a special craftsman to tackle the topic of animal cruelty, and more specifically the struggle to enact tougher laws against it, without simply going the easy route of tear-jerking horrors and melodramatic soundtrack music.
I’m not trying to say you won’t cry when you watch this film. If you have any kind of heart, you will. But you will also be inspired to stand up and be counted, to speak out for those who have no voice. And you will have a much better understanding of just how difficult it was to get many of today’s laws in place, and just as importantly you’ll see that laws serve no purpose when time and again prosecutors choose not to pursue cases, or judges let the guilty off with a slap on the wrist because…well, because, after all, it’s just a dog.
Most of the film tells the story of Gucci, who became the face of animal cruelty in 1990’s Alabama (and beyond). As a ten-week old puppy, Gucci was owned by a 15-year old runaway. As “punishment” for refusing to date a local teenager, a group of males took Gucci from this girl, hung him by his neck, doused him with lighter fluid, and set him on fire. Doug James, an Adjunct Professor who was in the process of selling his home up the street, had been standing on his porch awaiting a prospective buyer. Hearing the dog’s cries, he and another neighbor rescued Gucci – still aflame – from under a house, doused him with water to extinguish the fire, and returned him to the girl. But she knew there was nobody she could turn to who could help this poor suffering creature, so she begged Doug to take him and help him, which he did. Gucci was eerily quiet all night, and Doug didn’t expect him to survive to the next morning. But Gucci was a fighter, and he did survive.
With this nightmare begins a multi-year fight to change the laws against animal abuse in Alabama. The prosecutor found he had to charge the thugs with destruction of property (pets being considered nothing more at the time) because the laws were written in such a way that setting fire to a couch carried a heavier punishment than strictly being charged with animal cruelty. Building a large following through the state and the south, Gucci became the face of the movement to change those laws and make animal cruelty a felony in Alabama.
Bechard’s direction style puts all the horrors Gucci and the other dogs he features suffered through right on the table, but is careful to keep the story moving in a forward direction. Instead of 90 minutes of happy endings, focus is constantly redirected at how difficult it is to get laws to change. The “Gucci Bill” as it became known took 6 years before it was finally passed and signed. Along the way exclusions had to be inserted about the right of a landowner to shoot a dog with a BB gun if it is going to the bathroom on his property. The details of how the debates are shaped, and how asinine some of the arguments against it become, will motivate and energize you to be more involved in strengthening the laws of your own state. Other cases are looked at that were used as rallying cries to change laws in North Carolina and Ohio; South Dakota became the 50th – and last – state to make animal cruelty a felony only a few years ago.
And, of course, the fight doesn’t stop there. Bechard never hits the audience over the head with anything, never browbeats. He just spells out the facts, and displays the human emotion and the faces of those who have suffered. Animal abuse is a major problem in this country; it isn’t just kids throwing rocks at stray dogs. Public pressure is the only way to make sure cases are actually prosecuted, and that punishments are handed down by the judges in a serious fashion. One poor dog who gets just a moment on the screen had been blown up by explosives; the punishment in that case was a joke. The interviews with prosecutors and animal control officers are bright lights focused on what people need to do if this problem will be treated more seriously. The public must keep the pressure on local and state politicians, and need to show support for prosecutors when they are trying cases against animal abusers. As one woman says, in a courtroom there is often a group of people sitting behind the defendant…but for the victim, nobody. And these victims cannot speak for themselves.
The credits include the song “One Voice” – featuring stars like Niko Case, Lydia Loveless, Norah Jones, Aimee Mann, Susanna Hoffs, and Queen’s Brian May – which can be purchased through ITunes (the proceeds from the song go entirely to support the cause of animal rights and the fight against animal abuse). And, if you could do me a personal favor, watch the film all the way to the end of the credits, until the screen goes dark.
A Dog Named Gucci is available on DVD from Amazon and can be viewed on demand from multiple sources. There have also been local screenings, sponsored by various animal organizations and rescue groups, so keep your eye out for one of those. I urge you to watch this film, and then tell five other people about it. Buy the DVD as a gift for others if necessary…I did. Spread the word. One person, one voice, CAN make a difference. Doug James proved that, and so did Gucci.