Tuesday, December 08, 2015

A quick glance at the films of Kevin Willmott (after you've watched CHI-RAQ and want more...)

This looks to be the breakout year for filmmaker Kevin Willmott - after 6 feature films made in KS and gaining some critical recognition, he'll be getting some mainstream attention due to the release of Spike Lee's CHI-RAQ, which was originally pitched years earlier and fell to the side, until Lee resurrected the script and it was retooled to reflect the Chicago setting.

CHI-RAQ Trailer from 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks on Vimeo.

 With the movie out this past weekend (although in only ONE theater in the KC Metro area -- and then in a suburban multiplex to which I can only add - REALLY?) and posed to be a successful pioneer in Amazon Studios' experiment, it can only help in bringing awareness to the rest of Kevin's work as writer/director.


Probably Willmott's best known film to audiences - it had major distribution by IFC Films (which meant it did play in arthouse theaters in major cities), was 'presented' by Spike Lee who signed on as Executive Producer, although he had no direct involvement during the production of the film... which didn't matter at all to internet trolls and online racists.

Also, the subject matter of the film hasn't dated at all, as witness the bruhaha over the confederate flag earlier this year. One note regarding satire - sometimes people don't get it, as the Dalton School in NYC proved last year; and why Lee goes to such lengths as to leading off his film BAMBOOZLED with a definition of the term, and making sure Chi-raq is understood as satire. As the saying goes, "Sometimes ya gotta laugh - otherwise I'd be screaming."

Another Willmott satire on the way is DESTINATION: PLANET NEGRO!

Destination Planet Negro Official Trailer from Candy Factory Films on Vimeo.

The humor is slightly broader - it's also a genre parody of the sci-fi films of the 50's, but the underlying serious commentary on the state of race relations in the contemporary U.S.A. ensures the film still has a stinging slap even as one is in the throes of laughter. DPN has been playing in festivals for the past year and 1/2 and is scheduled soon for release from Candy Factory Films.

His most recent film is JAYHAWKERS:

Jayhawkers Trailer from Through A Glass Productions on Vimeo.

Set in the mid-50's, it centers on the time period when KU Basketball coach Phog Allen recruited a young Wilt Chamberlain to play basketball for the university and its aftereffects in integrating Lawrence, KS and KU. Shot in black and white and in a docudrama style, JAYHAWKERS isn't merely a biopic - Wilt Chamberlain is the core element, but there's other things going on - bigotry and the attempts to overcome it; celebrity and it's usefulness to suspend bigotry but how it ultimately becomes a trap; and lots and lots of jazz. Former KU basketball player Justin Wesley is phenomenal as Wilt Chamberlain; Kip Niven, Jay Karnes, Blake Robbins and EMPIRE's Trai Byers round out the main roles. There's no main distributor for the film yet, but you can order a DVD and/or Blu-Ray directly from the filmmakers.

If you liked these, and are inclined to do some digging, the rest of Willmott's CV is pretty good as well...

THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN, written by Thomas Carmody, takes place at the beginning 20th Century, as the Western Frontier has, for the most part, been 'tamed', mainly by subjugating many of the Native Americans who resided there. One of the ways of accomplishing this was by taking the children of Native Americans and forcibly relocating them to boarding schools to be 'civilized'. TOGI is the story of one of these children, rechristened 'Charlie', who escapes one such school to reunite with his parents, only to be pursued by a bounty hunter, also a Native-American.

Indian makes great use of the Kansas landscapes, as well as good performances from Wes Studi and newcomer Winter Fox Frank, and J. Kenneth Campbell and nice character bits from supporting actors, some who could be called Willmott's Ensemble Group - you'll see them from film to film.
TOGI was featured on the Encore Networks for a few years, then disappeared. There was a DVD release, but again, you need to purchase it from the filmmakers.

THE BATTLE FOR BUNKER HILL was the followup film after C.S.A., but is probably the hardest film to locate, due to poor distribution and a title change that, if one Googles it, will bring up at least several thousand OTHER films with a similar title, only about the Revolutionary War battle. Set in Bunker Hill, KS, the film is about Peter Salem, the stranger who comes to town to settle some personal business, when an occurrence takes place that isolates the town from the rest of the world. As everyone attempts to make some kind of sense out of events, paranoia and suspicion grow and lines are drawn. Starring James McDaniel and the late Saeed Jaffrey, as well as actors Kevin Geer, Laura Kirk, Scott Allegrucci and Blake Robbins, Bunker Hill was intended as a post 9-11 allegory filtered through a 'Twilight Zone'-type premise; most of its thunder was appropriated by the television series JERICHO which was also made at the same time. It appears to have disappeared from its streaming platforms for the time being, and no home video distribution - although DVDs were available for time directly from the filmmakers. If you're interested enough to order some of the other films, you might inquire about BUNKER HILL...

Ninth Street (1999) ~ Trailer by FilmGorillas

Finally, there's the first film - NINTH STREET - which Willmott co-directed with Tim Rebman and which was based on his play about growing up in Junction City, KS. As with most first films, it's a bit rough around the edges - it doesn't completely transcend its stage origins - but its virtues, like performances from Kaycee Moore (KILLER OF SHEEP, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST), Queen Bey, Isaac Hayes (!) and Martin Sheen in what amounts to an extended cameo, outweigh its flaws.
Worth looking for a copy, which isn't as hard as it may appear to be.

There's quite a bit to discover; with lots of discussion about the need for diverse voices in film, Willmott has been one of the few who have been fortunate enough to be able to produce a continuing body of work, mainly outside of the Hollywood system - all of his films have been made in Kansas and with independent financing, making him one of the important independent Black filmmakers in the past decade.

Obviously, my objectivity will come into question, since I've been fortunate enough to be part of the production crew working with since BUNKER HILL... now coming up on a decade since principal shooting. I think the facts - 6 features over the past 20 years (actually 7 counting THE ASSOCIATION, coming in 2016), with various subjects, in various genres - speak for themselves.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

What I Did After My Summer Vacation This Fall...

After finishing up the shoot in Portland, and a quick trip up to Seattle, it was time to head back East...

Bonus points for those who get the reference in the following...

and home for a week before heading out for the next project - GOODLAND.

A crime thriller set in Goodland, KS, expect to hear more about the film in 2017 - there's really not very much out there yet, except for the Kickstarter campaign promo - and don't expect much to be given away here.

More to come on GOODLAND as it makes its way through post-production.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation...

I hit the road...

to Portland, OR, for a month long shoot - the upcoming adaptation of SOMETHING LIKE SUMMER.

Portland was GREAT!!

And so was Seattle...

Saw some old friends...

and made some new ones!


Line Producer...


1st A.C.


Art Director...

Key Grip...

 Costume Designer...

Set Electrician...
 Set Costumer...

And the many others whose pics I didn't get and/or don't have room to put up.

More about SOMETHING LIKE SUMMER in the next year, when the film finishes post-production and gets closer to festival screenings/release.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Lo-budget, hi-concept sci-fi - FREQUENCIES, COHERENCE

We're 1/4 a ways already into the New Year, with the Summer Movie Season about to get underway and already having had one big sci-fi spectacle - JUPITER ASCENDING - take a big pratfall during the Season of Dogs that is the movie season at the beginning of the year. JUPITER had money and talent behind it, lots of visual flair to make the fanboys pee their pants, and a script/story that didn't match the spectacle meant to prop it up. So it tanked - hard - and once again, the death knell for big budget sci-fi starts to toll.

What is it about big ideas that studio-backed science-fiction simply cannot get? We're years past the whole 'sci-fi is for kids' mindset that made Irwin Allen a fortune in the 60's, but Stanley Kubrick appears to be the only filmmaker to successfully work on that level. Christopher Nolan certainly gives it a grand effort (INCEPTION and INTERSTELLAR; and I'll even count Wally Pfister's Nolan-clonish TRANSCENDENCE), but just cannot stick the landing satisfactorily. Everyone else is chasing a franchise or doing requels of things that should be better left alone.

Whereas on the smaller level, sci-fi appears to get a fairer shake; there's as much cheese found as the usual studio product, but you'll also find the rare gem amongst the turds - movies like PRIMER, SLEEP DEALER, EUROPA REPORT, to name a very few. 2014 had two films of note that garnered great word of mouth on the film festival circuit and which are now available via VOD or physical media.

Now showing on the Showtime cable networks, Darren Paul Fisher's FREQUENCIES (AKA OXV: THE MANUAL) was a festival darling for most of 2013/14, gathering good reviews from critics and audiences alike. Set in an alternate world/time which is not quite here and not quite now; it's a universe where human beings have what is called 'frequency' - if one has a high frequency, then one would be considered 'lucky' - things will always go right for that person. If one has a low frequency, then everything will work against that person.

In this world, a person with ultra-high frequency would never meet a person with ultra-low frequency - but in a school, classmates Marie and Zak, high and low, are able to do that for exactly one minute before their environment attempts to correct that flaw in nature. For years, both continue the experiment until school is finished and they both go their separate ways. A little later, Zak and Marie run into each other again and Zak claims to be able to change his frequency. That claim and its results will eventually lead to events that change Everything...

FREQUENCIES is very clever, smart lo-key science-fiction that also plays as a clever romantic comedy - the world building is very well done, eschewing gadgetry and concentrating on the people and relationships.

Special-edition discs (Blu and DVD) are available directly from the filmmaker, although the Blu-Rays seem to go quickly, being non-region; the DVD is non-region, but PAL, so one should have an all-region player, if getting the DVD. It's packed with features including a commentary, behind the scenes feature, outtakes and deleted scene, cast auditions and director Q&A. Probably expect an R1 release in both formats later in the year.

FREQUENCIES - TRAILER from Darren Paul Fisher on Vimeo.

Also a festival darling for 2013/14 is James Ward Byrkit's ensemble drama COHERENCE, which also got rave reviews from critics and audiences who saw it. What starts off as a dirnner party among friends turns into something quite else due to the presence of a comet passing by the Earth. That's probably all you should know going into the movie; most of the fun is from the various turns that the story takes and the less you know beforehand, the better.

This is Byrkit's first feature, though he's no novice - he's contributed to the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series and credited with the story for RANGO, among other work on that film. He does an excellent job with his cast, which includes Nicholas Brendan (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, CRIMINAL MINDS) and Elizabeth Gracen (HIGHLANDER: THE RAVEN).

Oscilloscope Pictures releases the movie on DVD (no R1 Blu-Ray as of yet), with an informative commentary with Byrkit and making of featurette - and this is one picture that you will be watching multiple times.

Here's an interview with Byrkit I did for 366 Weird Movies.

Sunday, March 01, 2015


This session - DRUM, the sequel to MANDINGO... as the ad copy stated, "MANDINGO lit the fuse... DRUM is the Explosion!"
 MANDINGO was a hit for Paramount, if not for the critics at the time, so the next book in the Falconhurst series was chosen as the followup, with some of the same elements in play - Norman Wexler, who did the screenplay for MANDINGO also adapted DRUM; Ken Norton was again tapped for the title role - however, Richard Fleischer didn't come back for the sequel.
 However, this time around, due to the reception of MANDINGO, some were a bit gun shy. Burt Kennedy, who was the original director, was fired and replaced with Steve Carver (LONE WOLF MCQUADE, BIG BAD MAMA), and Wexler's script was rewritten - a prologue sequence that was to be the first third of the film essentially ended up being a five-minute montage at the start of the film - Paramount dumped the film, which was picked up by United Artists for release and producer Dino DeLaurentiis took his name off of the film to avoid the shitstorm that followed MANDINGO and probably this film.
 Sure enough, DRUM did make money, but the critics hated it as much as they did MANDINGO.
Of course, here at Guilty Of Being... WHITE, we're more concerned with emotional truth - and MANDINGO having 'the stink of truth' wrapped in trashy pulp, DRUM also can be seen as having that stink of truth, but wrapped up in even trashier package.
 The film proper starts 15 years after the events in MANDINGO - Ken Norton, again, plays the title character, who's raised to fight as entertainment for other slave owners. At one of these fights with Hammond Maxwell (played by Perry King in MANDINGO and now by Warren Oates) attending, Drum fights another slave, Blaise (Yaphet Kotto), whom he later befriends.
 One of these owners, Bernard DeMaringy (camped up by John Colicos, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA), has a fixation on Drum, who rejects his advances, causing DeMaringy to swear revenge.
 Drum and Blaise are both eventually sold to Hammond, who has a daughter, Sophie (Rainbeaux "Cheryl" Smith) whose interest in the help pretty much sticks to the basics...
  Meanwhile, Hammond hasn't gotten past his habit of sleeping with the black help, like Drum's girlfriend Regine (Pamela "Pam" Grier), which his white fiance, Augusta (Fiona Lewis) doesn't appreciate.
Trying to stay out of Sophie's clutches and not end up dead proves to be pretty hard for both Drum and Blaise, who though a misunderstanding end up being punished by Hammond by being hung upside down naked and paddled (a punishment also administered in MANDINGO). And via a lie, Blaise is threatened with castration.
 Everything comes to a head during an evening when Hammond hosts a dinner party, DeMaringy also attending on the same night a bounty hunter with runaway slaves in his charge asks for shelter. Quicker than you can say 'Nat Turner', the prisoners lead a revolution, and things end in blood, gunplay, rape and fire.
As trashy as MANDINGO is, it is pretty unflinching portraying the evil of the ordinariness of slavery even when the soapiness gets deep. DRUM wallows in the trashiness of the storyline, even upping the ante in terms of its predecessor.

VERDICT: GUILTY. You'll really start hating white people a quarter into this.

DRUM was recently released on Blu-Ray and DVD, with a commentary by director Carver.