Local Films at VTIFF: Soul Keeper, The Dragon Wall, Circus Dreams | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Local Films at VTIFF: Soul Keeper, The Dragon Wall, Circus Dreams

Movie Reviews


Published October 26, 2011 at 10:43 a.m.

HELL HOST Schnabel tends to, and torments, his captive in “Soul Keeper.”
  • HELL HOST Schnabel tends to, and torments, his captive in “Soul Keeper.”

Sequins! Stunts! Derring-do! Things that go bump in the night extremely loudly! No, I’m not playing carnival barker for The Three Musketeers or Paranormal Activity 3 — just describing three accomplished local films that screened last weekend at the Vermont International Film Festival.

Carl has hit rock bottom. He goes for a booze-fueled joyride in the Northeast Kingdom, hits a tree and wakes up in Purgatory. Or is that dude in the white robes, who urges Carl to repent, really just a psychopath?

Based on a Joseph Citro story, Middlebury director Tim Joy’s half-hour film “Soul Keeper” unfolds like a “Twilight Zone” episode. While the plot is minimal, Joy and his crew pull out all the resources of light, set design, music and editing to convey Carl’s fraying sanity as he starts to wonder whether he has, in fact, entered a Dantean afterlife. They’re aided by strong performances from Andrew Butterfield as Carl and Paul Schnabel as his deceptively soft-spoken captor.

The film’s final twist is so abrupt it loses some of its impact, but, overall, “Soul Keeper” is an impressive production that looks and sounds as good as any recent TV horror anthology. (Stunts? Aerial shots? It has ’em.) The script never delves deeply into its issues of faith and guilt, but the film delivers a chilly blast of cerebral terror anyway. It screens again on Sunday, October 30, at 2:30 p.m. at the Palace 9 Cinemas in South Burlington.

A quest fantasy with an outdoor setting and a cast of four kids. Most low-budget filmmakers who tried to combine those unwieldy elements would get, to put it bluntly, a mess. But Mark Freeman and Brandon St. Cyr, both of Lamoille County, made it work in their 27-minute film “The Dragon Wall.”

That’s partly because director of photography Christian Clark — who’s made local ads for Mount Mansfield Media — gives vibrant detail to the autumn woodland setting. And it’s partly because Freeman and St. Cyr have the sense to ground their fantasy in the real scenario of kids using imagination to create adventure in their own backyard. The filmmakers may not have million-dollar effects, but they do have a light touch that’s lacking in too many recent Hollywood family films.

Speaking of wonders that happen in our own backyards — they can be easy to take for granted. In Vermont, one of those wonders is the youth troupe Circus Smirkus, which tours New England each summer from its Greensboro base.

When filmmaker Signe Taylor brought her kids to a Smirkus show in Massachusetts, she was amazed by the joy of the young troupers — a stark contrast with the high schoolers she’d been teaching, she said at a VTIFF Q&A. In 2006, Taylor — who has since moved to Norwich, Vt. — went on the road with Smirkus and a camera crew. The result is Circus Dreams, a feature-length documentary that weaves the kids’ stories into a surprisingly dramatic narrative.

The film’s narrator is Joy Powers, a high schooler who auditions for Smirkus as a “girl clown” — still a rare phenomenon. As Joy strives to prove that females can be funny, we meet other new troupers, including a theater geek hoping to find his people under the big top; and a 13-year-old chasing her circus dream all the way from Hawaii.

Taylor had access to auditions, performances, backstage adolescent shenanigans and the adult directors’ bouts of anxiety about weathering the recession. Her teen subjects clearly trusted her, and their personalities give Circus Dreams its charm. After sweating through a show on a 100-degree afternoon with the graceful, Spandex-clad aerialists, you’ll never take Smirkus for granted again.