Film Review: Arkansas (dir by Clark Duke)

Oh, Arkansas.

As far as states go, Arkansas usually doesn’t get much respect.  In a country where much of the culture is dominated by city-dwelling secular liberals, Arkansas is a state the remains stubbornly rural, religious, and conservative.  If your grandparents were a state, they’d probably look a lot like Arkansas.  Arkansas is viewed as being old-fashioned and when it does make the news, it’s usually not for anything that anyone in the state particularly wants to brag about.  Democrats will always view Arkansas as being the home of Mike Huckabee.  Republicans will never forgive the state for springing the Clintons on the rest of the nation.  (Interestingly enough, Mike Huckabee and Bill Clinton both grew up in the same tiny town.)  Little Rock has gangs and government corruption.  Hot Springs has gamblers looking to hide out from the mob.  Fouke has the Boggy Creek Monster while Ft. Smith is best-known for having once been home to the hanging judge, Isaac Parker.  You get the idea.  When it comes to the way that the rest of the country views the state, it often seems as if poor Arkansas just can’t catch a break.

With all that in mind, I have to say that I really love Arkansas.  My paternal grandparents lived in Arkansas and I’ve still got relatives all over the state.  Arkansas was one of the many states where my family lived while I was growing up.  (The others were — deep breath — Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Louisiana.)  We would stay in Arkansas for months at a time, depending on how well my mom and dad were getting along at the time.  It’s an unpretentious state, one that’s full of friendly, no-nonsense people and beautiful countryside.  I have a lot of good memories of Arkansas.  It’s always in the back of my mind that, wherever I’m living, I can always just go back to Arkansas and spend the rest of my life living in a small town with my cousins.  Of course, I’d probably end up miserable over the lack of movie theaters.  Whenever I’m living in the city, I find myself yearning for the simplicity and decency of the country.  Whenever I’m in the country, I find myself missing the excitement of the city.

The Natural State (as Arkansas is officially nicknamed) is not only the setting for some of my most cherished memories.  It’s also the setting for a film called, appropriately enough, Arkansas.  The directorial debut of actor Clark Duke, Arkansas tells the story of four very different men.  Kyle Ribb (Liam Hemsworth) is quiet and rather stoic.  Swin Horn (Clark Duke) is talkative, eccentric, and perhaps a bit too cocky for his own good.  They both work at a national park, where their boss is a veteran ranger named Bright (John Malkovich).  Of course, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to notice that neither Kyle nor Ribb really seem to do much work at the park.  And, for that matter, Bright certainly does own a big and impressive house for someone who has spent the majority of his life as a ranger….

Kyle, Swin, and Bright are actually drug dealers.  They transport drugs all over the southern half of the United States.  Kyle and Swin are supervised by Bright.  Bright, meanwhile, reports to the mysterious Frog.  Kyle and Swin have never actually met Frog and there are rumors that he might not even exist.  Of course, the film has already revealed to us that Frog (played by Vince Vaughn) does exist and is a local pawnshop owner.

Kyle narrates the film, informing us that the difference between Southern organized crime and Northern organized crime is that, in the South, it’s not all that organized.  As Kyle explains it, the infamous Dixie Mafia is not so much an organization as it’s just a collection of undisciplined lowlifes who have no real integrity or loyalty to anyone else.  When you become a drug dealer in the South, you’re a drug dealer for life.  There’s no going back if you change your mind.  You start out at the bottom of the ladder and, whenever someone above you if either murdered or imprisoned, you get your chance to move up.  No one is ever sure who is working for who or who can be trusted.  Every order from the boss is examined and re-examined as the two dealers try to figure out whether or not they’ve won the trust of the mysterious Frog.

Unfortunately for Kyle and Swin, a misunderstanding leads to violence and several deaths.  With no way to directly communicate with Frog to let him know what exactly happened, Kyle and Swin know that their lives could be in danger.  The film follows Kyle and Swin as they prepare for their ultimate meeting with Frog while, at the same time, detailing in flashback how Frog himself eventually came to his position of power.  Throughout the entire film, we watch as history repeats itself.  As Kyle said, once you’re a drug dealer, you’re a drug dealer for life.

Arkansas is a surprisingly low-key film.  Kyle, Swin, Bright, and Frog all manage to be both very laid back and very aggressive at the same time.  (Anyone who has spent anytime with a large group of rednecks will understand what I’m talking about.)  As a director, Clark Duke is as interested in capturing the rhythms of every day life in Arkansas as he is in orchestrating the inevitable violence that results from all of the film’s betrayals and mistakes and some of the best scenes in the film just feature Kyle and Swin talking about nothing in particular while driving down the interstate.  The film’s mix of cheerful goofiness and existential horror will be familiar to anyone who has ever gotten lost on the way to Hot Springs.

Liam Hemsworth and Clark Duke are sympathetic in the lead roles, though Hemsworth’s Southern accent does slip a few times.  Swin meets a woman (Eden Brolin) in a grocery store and their subsequent romance manages to be both creepy and touching at the same time.  John Malkovich is, as usual, wonderfully eccentric.  That said, the film is pretty much dominated by Vince Vaughn, who plays Frog as being both dangerously ruthless and also as someone who understands that his eventual downfall is inevitable.  Frog came to power by betraying his boss and, as played by Vaughn, Frog is very much aware that he’s destined to eventually be betrayed as well.  Frog has made peace with both his place in the world and the reality of his situation and, in many ways, that makes him an even more dangerous character than he would be otherwise.  He has nothing to lose and he knows it.

Obviously, I liked Arkansas, both the state and the movie.  It’s an well-done work of Southern pulp.

2016 in Review: The Best of Lifetime

Today, I continue my look back at the year 2016 with the best of Lifetime!  Below, you’ll find my nominations for the best Lifetime films and performances of 2016!  Winners are starred and listed in bold!


Best Picture
Bad Sister, produced by Robert Ballo, Timothy O. Johnson, Rukmani Jones, Ken Sanders
The Cheerleader Murders, produced by Sharon Bordas, Arthur Edmonds III, Hannah Pillemer, Fernando Szew, Jennifer Westin
Girl in the Box, produced by Stephen Kemp, Charles Tremayne, Thomas Vencelides
Inspired to Kill, produced by Johnson Chan, Michael Fiefer, Douglas Howell, Stephanie Rennie, Vincet Reppert, Nathan Schwab, Tammana Shah, Shawn Tira
Manson’s Lost Girls, produced by Nancy Bennett, Kyle A. Clark, Lawrence Ducceschi, Joan Harrison, Jonathan Koch, Stephen Kronish, Steven Michaels, Lina Wong
Mommy’s Little Girl, produced by Tom Berry, Steve Boisvert, Neil Bregman, Cinthia Burke, Christine Conradt, Curtis Crawford, Pierre David, Donald M. Osborne, Andrew E. Pecs
*A Mother’s Escape, produced by Sharon Bordas, Lori Bell Leahy, Michael Leahy, Kristofer McNeeley, Fernando Szew
My Sweet Audrina, produced by Dan Angel, David Calvert-Jones, Harvey Kahn, Kane Lee, Tom Mazza, Mike Rohl, Jane Startz
The Night Stalker, produced by Matthew R. Brady, Patrick G. Ingram, Michel Rangel, Alisa Tager
The Wrong Car, produced by Mark Donadio, Miriam Marcus, Molly Martin, Michael O’Neil

Best Director
Doug Campbell for Bad Sister
Megan Griffiths for The Night Stalker
*Blair Hayes for A Mother’s Escape
David Jackson for The Cheerleader Murders
Leslie Libman for Manson’s Lost Girls
Mike Rohl for My Sweet Audrina

Best Actress
*Tara Buck in A Mother’s Escape
India Eisley in My Sweet Audrina
MacKenzie Mauzy in Manson’s Lost Girls
Alyshia Ochse in Bad Sister
Karissa Lee Staples in Inspired To Kill
Addison Timlin in Girl in the Box

Best Actor
Zane Holtz in Girl in the Box
Lou Diamond Phillips in The Night Stalker
*Eric Roberts in Stalked By My Doctor: The Return
Antonio Sabato, Jr in Inspired To Kill
Jason-Shane Scott in The Wrong Roommate
Jeff Ward in Manson’s Lost Girls

Best Supporting Actress
*Toni Atkins in My Sweet Audrina
Eden Brolin in Manson’s Lost Girls
Zoe De Grande Maison in Pregnant at 17
Beth Grant in A Mother’s Escape
Ryan Newman in Bad Sister
Zelda Williams in Girl in the Box

Best Supporting Actor
Blake Berris in Wrong Swipe
Rogan Christopher in Pregnant at 17
*Rhett Kidd in The Wrong Car
Christian Madsen in Manson’s Lost Girls
William McNamara in The Wrong Roommate
James Tupper in My Sweet Audrina

Best Screenplay
Bad Sister, Barbara Kymlicka
*The Cheerleader Murders, Matt Young
Girl in the Box, Stephen Kemp
Mommy’s Little Girl, Christine Conradt
A Mother’s Escape, Mike Bencivenga, Blair Hayes, Kristofer McNeeley
My Sweet Audrina, Scarlett Lacey

Best Cinematography
The Cheerleader Murders, Denis Maloney
Mommy’s Little Girl, Bill St. John
*A Mother’s Escape, Samuel Calvin
My Sweet Audrina, James Liston
The Night Stalker, Quyen Tran
The Wrong Car, Terrence Hayes

Best Costuming
Girl in the Box, Barb Cardoso, Tania Pedro
Manson’s Lost Girls, Dorothy Amos
*My Sweet Audrina, Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh
The Night Stalker, Rebecca Luke
The Red Dress, Sophie Pace
Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart, Mary McLeod

Best Editing
The Cheerleader Murders, Eric Potter
Girl in the Box, Julian Hart
Manson’s Lost Girls, Josh Hegard
*A Mother’s Escape, Travis Graalman
My Sweet Audrina, Charles Robichaud
The Night Stalker, Celia Beasley

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Girl in the Box, Claudia Breckenridge, Jen Fisher, Oriana Rossi, Alex Rotundo, Collette Tolen
Killing Mommy, Cinthia Burke, Christie Capustinsky, Kevin Crawley, Kirsten Fairfield, Margaret Harding-Crawley, Corey J. Stone
*Manson’s Lost Girls, Jenni Brown Greenberg, Randi Mavestrand, Kelly Muldoon, Natalie Thimm
A Mother’s Escape, Jenny Hausam, Toni Mario
My Sweet Audrina, Alannah Bilodeau
Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart, Tara Hadden-Watts, Alexandra Holmes

Best Original Score
911 Nightmare, David Findlay
*The Cheerleader Murders, Cladue Foisy
Inspired To Kill, Brandon Jarrett
A Mother’s Escape, Todd Haberman
My Sweet Audrina, Graeme Coleman
The Wrong Car, Ed Grenga

Best Production Design
Bad Sister, Lia Burton, Danielle Lee
Girl in the Box, Andrew Berry, Jere Sallee
*Manson’s Lost Girls, Cynthia E. Hill, Linda Spheeris
A Mother’s Escape, Zackary Steven Graham
My Sweet Audrina, Tink, Janessa Hitsman
Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart, James Robbins, Courtney Stockstad, Amanda Christmas

Best Sound
*Center Stage: On Pointe
The Cheerleader Murders
Honeymoon from Hell
I Have Your Children
Inspired to Kill
Toni Braxton: Unreak My Heart

Best Visual Effects
Final Destiny
House of Darkness
The Inherited
Little Girl’s Secret
The Watcher

Congratulations to all the nominees and thank you for keeping us entertained in 2016!

Want to see my picks for the best of Lifetime in 2015?  Click here!

And if you want to see my picks from 2014, click here!

Tomorrow, I’ll continue my look back at 2016 with the 16 worst films of the year!

Previous Entries In The Best of 2016:

  1. TFG’s 2016 Comics Year In Review : Top Tens, Worsts, And Everything In Between
  2. Anime of the Year: 2016
  3. 25 Best, Worst, and Gems I Saw In 2016
  4. 2016 in Review: The Best of SyFy

Lifetime Movie Review: Manson’s Lost Girls (dir by Leslie Libman)


I know way too much about the crimes of Charles Manson.

I realized that, earlier tonight, as I watched the latest Lifetime original film, Manson’s Lost Girls.  It was one of the better films that I’ve recently seen on Lifetime and it was certainly superior to NBC’s Aquarius, the TV show that tried to turn Manson into some sort of sexy anti-hero.  (Memo to NBC:  Walter White was a great anti-hero.  Charles Manson was just a grubby little serial killer.)  Manson’s Lost Girls was well-acted and it did a fairly good job of portraying the 60s without falling back on too many of the usual clichés (at no point was White Rabbit heard on the soundtrack), and it also did a pretty good job of portraying how certain lost people can be brainwashed by one cunning sociopath.

Yet, with all that in mind, I found myself watching the film and thinking, Where is Bruce Davis?  Where’s Clem Grogan?  What about Catherine Share, whose parents were both members of the resistance during the Nazi occupation of Germany just for their daughter to end up a brainwashed member of Manson’s Family?”  For whatever reason, the Family portrayed in Manson’s Lost Girls was considerably smaller than the real-life Family and seriously, how disturbing is that?  I mean, the 10-member cult in Mason’s Lost Girls was bad enough but, in real life, there were even more of them!  How disturbing is that!?  But, in retrospect, it’s even more disturbing that I knew enough about the Family to know that Bruce Davis, Clem Grogan, and Catherine Share were all missing from the film.

(Actually, I just looked at the credits on the imdb and I saw that Diana Irvine is credited as playing Catherine.  So, perhaps Catherine Share was included as a character and I just didn’t notice.)

When I was 16, I took a sociology class in high school.  One of the class assignments was to do a report on a subculture.  I did my report on vampires and the less said about that the better.  However, the hot and troubled guy who sat in front of me did his report on the Manson Family.  As a part of his report, he handed out a little booklet that had pictures of all the Family members in it.  I can remember looking through those pictures and thinking that Charles Manson looked scary and that Tex Watson was kind of hot, in a rebellious son of an evangelical preacher sort of way.  (Tex Watson spent a semester at North Texas State University.  Four decades later, I went to NTSU — or UNT as its now called.  Around the campus, you can find pictures of famous former students like Joe Don Baker, Peter Weller, Pat Boone, and Roy Orbison.  For obvious reasons, you will never find a picture of Charles “Tex” Watson.)  But, as I listened to the details of Manson’s crimes and his belief that the Beatles were sending him secret messages and that those messages justified murder, I found myself wondering how any of the fresh-faced people in those pictures could have possibly believed a word that Manson said.  It just seemed so weird and …. stupid.

(By the end of the presentation, Tex Watson no longer looked hot.)

And I have to admit that I was a bit intrigued by it all.  It wasn’t that I had any sympathy for those murderers.  But I found myself wondering how they could have done what they did.  I wondered how so many different people from different background could come together and all buy into the same stupid bullshit.  Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was struggling to understand the very nature of evil.  To most people, it was easy enough to say that Manson and his followers were evil but I wanted to know how they had become evil.  I wanted to understand why and, though I may not have wanted to admit it, I wanted to make sure that I never woke up to discover that I had made the same mistake of surrendering my free will to a some nut just because he was able to look at me and tell that I had issues with my father.

By telling the story of Linda Kasabian (played quite well by MacKenzie Mauzy), Manson’s Lost Girls attempts to answer that question.  Linda was a young mother who, after her drug dealing husband deserted her, found herself living on the Spahn Movie Ranch with Manson and the Family.  Linda spent a month with Manson.  At first, she felt as if she had a found a new home and a new family but soon, things started to unravel.  In hopes of bringing about a race war (and also looking for vengeance over his own failure to become a rock star), Manson ordered his followers to commit murder.  Linda witnessed the tragic and brutal murder of actress Sharon Tate and her friends.  After the murders, Linda fled the Family and she would later serve as the prosecution’s star witness in Manson’s murder trial.

Manson’s Lost Girls is told almost totally from Linda’s point of view.  It’s through her that we are introduced to Manson and his Family.  The film doesn’t quite succeed in giving us a definitive answer as to how Manson could get people to kill for him but, then again, there may not be a definitive answer.  Fortunately, Manson’s Lost Girls does provide hints.  In her narration, Linda emphasizes that Manson kept everyone perpetually wasted.  But, even more importantly, the film highlights that, for these brainwashed future murderers, the Family truly was a family.  They were lost.  They were rejected by conventional society.  And when they met Manson, they were given a chance to belong.  The film suggests that need to belong and to be a part of something greater than what they had left all the members of the Family vulnerable to Charlie’s manipulations.

Manson was played by Jeff Ward, who did a pretty good job in the role.  Wisely, the film didn’t overplay Manson’s charisma or attempt to turn him into some sort of supervillain.  (In short, it didn’t make the same mistake as Aquarius.)  Instead, it portrayed him as what he probably was — a grubby hustler with a massive chip on his shoulder.  As played by Ward, Manson is less a messiah and more an extremely lucky con artist.  Manson’s Lost Girls deserves credit for portraying Manson without a hint of glamour.

The film suggests that Manson’s rampage was largely motivated by his bitterness over not being able to get a record contract.  As I watched, I found myself what would have happened if Manson had gotten that contract.  Would he now be remembered as one of those obscure musicians from the 60s and 70s whose later career was made up of performing at fairs and cheap clubs?  Or, if he had found success, would he have eventually ended up as a mentor on an early episode of American Idol?

Far more importantly, I found myself wondering what the future would have held for his most famous victim, Sharon Tate?  Sharon gave a such good performance in Valley of the Dolls, one that suggested she was capable of a lot more than she had been given credit for.  Would she have continued to grow and develop as an actress?  And what of her unborn son?  If not for Manson and his followers, Paul Polanski would now be 46 years old.

Manson’s Lost Girls does not linger on the murders.  They largely happen off-screen and, for that, I’m thankful.  But, at the same time, it never shies away from the real-life tragedy of Manson’s crimes.  And, even if the film did not have all the answers, it did remind us why the questions must be asked.  In the end, Manson’s Lost Girls reminds us of what evil can come from surrendering our independence and our free will.

It’s a film that reminds us that no matter how lost we may be, we must always be careful about those who claim to have found us.  Instead of waiting for others to find us, we must find ourselves.