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At the crux of the plot is the same dilemma as in Steven Spielberg’s heavy-handed and polemic Saving Private Ryan: Do you show mercy to your enemies? Little’s film doesn’t treat that question in a perfunctory manner, on either end of the spectrum… though, naturally, it just isn’t possible to read this as a “shoot the bastards” tract.
What happens when a headstrong rumrunner crash-lands in the Arctic Barrens? In 2003’s The Snow Walker, this question has to be answered in the context of post-World War II technology, not with the luxury of GPS beacons and satellite phones. So when Charlie Halliday drops the last spare radio tube in his crashed single-prop, and it breaks, the answer is… a whole lot of survival training.
From Jimmy to Michael Bay, Freiburger Impresses
When I reviewed Mark Freiburger’s debut film Dog Days of Summer less than four years ago, I described it as having “the period spookiness of Something Wicked This Way Comes” with “macabre touches hinting of Tennessee Williams… and the lighter moments of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me.” That’s pretty serious praise for an indie “faith market” film. Since then, Freiburger has worked on three other feature films—as screenwriter on The List and The Trial, both directed by Gary Wheeler, and as director on the straight-to-DVD release Jimmy. Upon the release of the film to DVD last week, I exchanged some emails with Freiburger.
Try This One
You know the drill. Frank Connor has just been released from prison, and has nowhere to go. In the absence of other ideas, he drifts back into the neighborhood and friendships that landed him in jail in the first place. Before long, he’s being pressured into doing “one last job” to clear the “debt” he owes to the goon he “let down” by getting caught. What’s Frank gonna do? There are so few options that only one is really plausible… and we can see the train wreck coming some sixty or seventy minutes away. Still, Pappy executes the story with style and grace. You probably won’t get emotionally involved in Frank’s tale, but you probably will enjoy the slow-burn ride.
Think You’ve Had a Bad Day?
When Jake arises to his shared-apartment corporate-drone world on his birthday, he’s expecting great things. Why? Because his horoscope has told him to. I won’t spoil things for you by going into detail, but let’s just say that Jake does a less than stellar job of interpreting the Delphic oracle that horoscopes tend to be. And when things go spectacularly awry, Jake jets out of town on a mission to debunk astrology. Pro-astro reviewers have noted that 5 Star Day really isn’t about the ways in which the stars influence our lives, or about defending or attacking a particular system of belief. And they’re right. So if you’re looking for a good savage critique of astrology (and I’m not really sure why anyone would be) this isn’t your film.
Great Characters, Good Heart
Dan Reed, the embattled mayor of a small Alaska town, finds his leadership questioned as another Christmas approaches, when who should come back to town but his old high school nemesis Mitch Bright? And what could be worse than finding out that ol’ Mitch is now an atheist activist angling for Dan’s job as mayor… using the constitutionality of town-sponsored Christmas celebrations as a wedge with voters? For personal reasons alone, Dan would love to knock Mitch’s teeth out, and the added religious and political challenges grate heavily on Dan’s already strained nerves. The story itself—which, I must say, very very responsibly deals with the politics (and faith) of the season—is exceedingly well rendered; but the characters really bring it to life.
Darkly Subtle Humor
The film is set during precisely the season and year that I also made a visit to the same part of Romania. I saw the same post-Soviet cultural confusion and malaise that gripped the country, the same ironic desperation in the eyes of dirt-poor and shell-shocked citizens who had little and expected less. And there was a certain dark humor to it all. Yes, bribes were still in—but nobody really felt like much was at stake. Things just got slower if you resisted, that’s all. Clerks at four-star hotels the quality of a Motel 6 could just shrug off the inconsistency; after all, where else were you going to find hot and cold running water, and your own private WC? It’s gallows humor of a sort.
Surprisingly, It Works
The Lamp has a lot going against it. First is a vague title that really doesn’t clue us into what the film is about. Second, the storyline includes not just one but two examples of what my colleague Maurice Broaddus refers to as “The Magic Negro”—mystical black folks who are required by a script to step in and save white folks. Finally, is there any doubt what will happen with the storyline involving Josh? Naw. But there’s a lot going for this film, too, which captivated me in spite of its shortcomings. Best, Trost’s script—in all the ways that really matter—doesn’t really go where you expect it to. Let’s just say you’ve never seen a genie story resolved the way that this one is.
Make Of It What You Will
The technical qualities of the film are pretty uneven, ranging from inventive and intriguing to choppy and annoying. But the central performances of Kevin Maggard and Luke Weaver as Eli and his chief tormentor are very appealing. They bring an offbeat and youthful energy to the story that always keeps in involving. Most of the performances in the minor roles, however, are pretty rough. Still, director Benjamin Stark manages to keep a decent rein on the proceedings, and the film feels like it achieves the vast majority of what the production team intended. It’s smart, slightly obtuse in an arty sort of way, and remarkably restrained and mature for an indie thriller.
How Do We Get From Here to Hereafter?
The Presenceis a film that really nails what a good ghost story should do. Yes, it works at a metaphorical level—as Sorvino’s writer gets a chance to work through her “inner demons”—and takes seriously the notion of the metaphysical world. But it also takes that extra step, taking very, very seriously the idea that the metaphysical world has both a bearing on the here and now and, literally, the hereafter. It’s a stirring vision of mercy and redemption. If you’re looking for intelligent, well-crafted, thoughtful filmmaking in the form of a ghost story, invest in The Presence. You won’t regret it, unless you suffer extensively from either clinical or culturally-induced ADD.
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