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Suanne Strider Presents: Michael Ewing’s Last Night

POINT-NO POINT

From the “Mississippi Narrative” category at this year’s Thirteenth Annual Oxford Film Festival comes a film that just blows me away—as the saying goes. In Last Night, director, producer and lead actor Michael Ewing effectively presents an intelligent, thought-provoking, funny, suspenseful, innovative and thoroughly entertaining short film—with a complicated plot presented in a complicated manner—all of it fitting into a runtime of less than fifteen minutes.

“We are happy because we’re singing a song

we are soooooo happy…because we’re singing a song…”

(from left) Greg Earnest, Matthew Graves and Michael Ewing
(from left) Greg Earnest, Matthew Graves and Michael Ewing

The scene opens at a spookily-empty, darkly-lit Lamar Lounge in Oxford, Mississippi. The focus—a table of three drunken men singing a drinking song in exaggerated fashion. The three are having a lively and animated discussion in which they relay the story of how their eleven-year friendship came to a horrible end—but it hasn’t even happened yet. On this very night begins a series of events that will be the ruin of all three of these men. Michael Ewing’s character “Theo” will have a one-night-stand with the waitress who is serving them that fateful night — “Pia” — played by Melissa Loria. Theo is engaged to be married. Theo’s fiancé will find out. “Karl” (played by Matthew Graves) will eventually use this as an excuse to sleep with Theo’s fiancé, and a domino effect is created—ending in the death of one of them (I will stop telling the story here, because the unfolding of the mystery of how all of this happens and to whom is thrilling, so I do not want to ruin it for you).

The point-of-view from which this story is told is traditionally called “first person omniscient reflective tense” (yeah, I know…you hated English class, but stick with me here), in which the characters are fully aware of their past, present and future, and are reflecting upon the future in the present as if it were the past (whew, that’s a brain-bender). Writing from this point-of-view could easily go wrong in the process of bringing it from paper to film, but under Michael Ewing’s direction, the complex and lengthy plot is effectively conveyed and easily understood. This technique adds a spooky element to the film, and creates a rising suspense that endears you to the characters and almost makes you feel as if you are a participant in their story.

Matthew Graves, Melissa Loria and Michael Ewing
Matthew Graves, Melissa Loria and Michael Ewing

Dennis DiClaudio, the writer of Last Night, displays a talent that is on the level of Quentin Tarantino. The complex and difficult-to-produce method of presentation used in this movie could easily go unnoticed because the writing of the dialogue is so good, pulled to completion with the outstanding performances by all four actors. The “first person omniscient retrospective” tense is a method typically seen only in books; and when it is used, it is usually only seen either from the perspective of a dead person (providing the omniscient nature) or from a narrator who is relaying a story in which they know every detail. To bring this method to film, and in a group situation, is brilliant and extremely hard to do.

To further prove how great this film is, it was made in less than five hours with no crew, using only several stationary cameras placed in strategic places around the room—set up and turned on to continuously roll until the performance was done. In this way the film is a lot like a live theatrical performance. I asked Michael Ewing what it was like attempting this innovative method of filmmaking, and he had this to say about the seemingly extremely difficult strategy:

“There were… some very long takes and so, when we flubbed lines, we would typically just back up a few lines and keep going. Obviously, a lot of this had to do with time constraints, but these choices also gave Matthew [Graves] more flexibility when editing. I cannot say enough how critical Matthew was to this process; his eye on set and his editing skills are what makes Last Night as strong as it is.”

The editing is fantastic. Take into consideration that the story being told actually spans a stretch of about five years, along with the astonishingly short time span in which the film was shot and the unconventional way in which it was shot; and you start wanting to call the people who made this film a “god—–d genius”—the way Forrest Gump’s drill sergeant called him one.

Matthew Graves (left) and Michael Ewing (right)
Matthew Graves (left) and Michael Ewing (right)

There is practically no action in this film at all—physically speaking. No one leaves the table. The waitress comes and goes a couple of times. But the real action lies in the fast-paced, excitedly delivered dialogue that is as tight as a tick and sticks to the plot—never digressing, deviating or losing the momentum of the story. It actually gains momentum exponentially as it progresses according to crescendos that stun and astound you, seeming to come out of nowhere because of the actors’ delivery— jolly, liquor-soaked and in a conversational tone. This tone deceptively tricks you into expecting a story that matches the character’s joyful and casual demeanor. The acting by Greg Earnest (“Gil”), Matthew Graves and Michael Ewing is extremely exceptional, believable and spot-on in their portrayals of the stereotypical frat boy grown-old, unleashed upon the world and continuing to make stereotypical, self-destructive, frat-boy choices.

This film is award-worthy in the areas of writing on the part of Dennis DiClaudio; editing by Matthew Graves; directing by Michael Ewing; production by Earnest, Ewing and Graves; and also for acting by Matthew Graves. Although all four actors do a great job in the film, Graves’ acting stands out as award-worthy–with evidence of this being found in the wordless gestures, facial expressions and moments of reflection that, instead of coming across as awkward silences, effectively convey just as much information about the character as his speaking parts, which are also outstanding.

Michael Ewing came back to Oxford in January of last year from Cleveland, Mississippi—where Ewing started out as the Visiting Guest Director at Delta State University in the Fall 2011. In 2013, he was hired full-time as Instructor of Communication Studies and Theater Arts at Delta State. Ewing expressed to me his love of Delta State and his time there, and in explaining the reasons that he left, Ewing expressed what I myself have come to believe to be true and sadly agree with concerning a series of certain unfortunate events at the University (a couple of my most-favorite teachers from my time as a student there were sent to early retirement or fired because of the decisions that were made and the changes that occurred…people that should NOT have lost their jobs):

“Sadly, there is new administration at Delta State who view the college experience in terms of numbers rather than in terms of education, and our small, yet flourishing, theatre program was summarily cut in November 2014. I have been fortunate for the opportunities that have come my way since leaving DSU, but I miss it terribly. Rarely have I felt like I was so clearly making a difference, both educationally and artistically, and I will forever treasure (the majority of) my DSU experience.”

This Spring, Ewing will be teaching “Acting for the Screen” at the University of Mississippi, as well as teaching a weekly Creative Writing workshop at the Holly Springs Correctional Facility in Holly Springs, Mississippi. This endeavor stems from the wonderful creation of a program from VOX Press called “Prison Writes,” the brainchild of Louis Bourgeois, out of which came the fantastic book In Their Own Words: Writing From Parchman Prison. In this book, Bourgeois presents select stories written by his students from the Creative Writing class he taught to inmates at Parchman Prison during the first year of the class being taught. This class is the first of its kind ever to be taught in the state of Mississippi. The book has garnered national and critical acclaim, and I was lucky enough to be involved as an assistant editor for the book. It is so very exciting to see this program flourish and expand, and we will no doubt have more brilliant artistic contributions to come from this new branch of the program. I am certainly looking forward to it.

Ewing’s past contributions to the Oxford Film Festival include The Show Must Go On (directed by Matthew Graves), “S” for Sally (directed by Melanie Addington), Third Shift (directed by Glenn Payne), Echoes (directed by Greg Earnest), and Killer Kudzu (directed by Meaghin Burke). Ewing played the part of “Nick” in the 2009 Stella Artois Short Film $50K Project Winner The Perfect Time (directed by Jason Klein), and also appeared in Same Same (directed by Dylan Allen)—an Official Selection at the 2012 Northside Film Festival and the 2012 Greenpoint Film Festival.

Last Night is showing during the Oxford Film Festival at the Malco Theater on Friday, February 19 at 1:00 p.m., and on Sunday, February 21 at 10:30 a.m. See you there!


Suanne HottyToddy Picture (1)

Suanne Strider is a writer, editor, photographer, promoter and paralegal from Tallahatchie County, in the Mississippi Delta. She also serves as a booking agent and philanthropist. Suanne lives in Oxford and has three beautiful children–daughter Mimi (the oldest); and Drake and Jess, who are twins (Drake being older by one minute). She may be contacted at suannestrider@gmail.com.

Follow HottyToddy.com on Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat @hottytoddynews. Like its Facebook page: If You Love Oxford and Ole Miss…

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