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Filmmaker brings Western shot in Kansas to Liberty Hall

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Wichita-based filmmaker Nicholas Barton formed production company Prestigious Films in 2009, and has since worked on projects for high-profile clients like Walmart, Cargill, and Dell Computers. But he always had an itch to make a feature film. Being a big fan of the classic film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, he started penning a compelling thriller in that vein.

The finished product, "Wichita," which has its Lawrence debut on Tuesday with an exclusive screening at Liberty Hall, has all the markings of a noir-inflected suspense movie, but the setting isn't the usual urban cityscape of the genre.

"When we started taking a set, costume and location inventory we quickly realized that we had the really rare opportunity to make an independent western," Barton says.

Filmed with a cast and crew almost entirely from Kansas, "Wichita" is set in 1882. A mysterious drifter (Jesse France) bent on revenge falls in with a family on the outskirts of Wichita and is soon embroiled in a struggle with an underground crime ring. The beautiful sunsets that mark the area, it turns out, are also home to darker goings-on.

Hollywood doesn't make a lot of westerns anymore, so Barton thought he should take advantage of his uniquely Midwestern locale. The writer/director shot "Wichita" entirely in Kansas, utilizing such locations as Wichita's Old Cowtown Museum, the Flint Hills National Preserve, the Walnut River, and a cattle ranch just east of El Dorado.

"Despite Westerns being the quintessential American genre, logistically they're actually quite difficult to develop. Building sets in the middle of nowhere, relocating cast and crew, horses, wagons all make this a fairly cost-inefficient form," he says. "Only a few budget westerns are made every year, and we felt like we might have a unique angle to market and distribute our film."

This month marks the beginning of a 36-city, six-state tour of "Wichita," and both director and star will be in attendance at Tuesday night's Lawrence screening. By positioning the movie as a "hometown film" of sorts, Barton hopes to build up a fan base and enough press to give "Wichita" some buzz as he submits it to some of the major film festivals. With a couple of companies that specialize in indie westerns already interested before the tour even starts, hopes for landing an international distribution deal are high.

"Ultimately, our initial goals are to recoup our budget and garner new investors for our next project that we'd like to be shooting around the beginning of 2015," Barton says. "It would be really amazing if we can create a spark to draw in more, larger budget films to the area and showcase the large talent pool of cast and crew that already live and work here."

Oculus

The independently produced horror movie "Oculus," which opens in wide release this weekend across the U.S., has all the markings of a Jason Blum-produced movie. Filmed almost entirely in one house on a very low budget with two almost-name actors (Katee Sackhoff from TV's "Battlestar Galactica" and Rory Cochrane from "Dazed and Confused"), it adheres to the high-concept micro-budget ethos that has built Blum's reputation in Hollywood. He has turned an enormous profit on similar films in the "Paranormal Activity" series, "Insidious: Chapter 2" and "The Purge."

Mike Flanagan is the co-writer and director of "Oculus," which was developed from his own 2006 short film. By design, it's a psychological thriller masquerading as a haunted house movie, and Flanagan wisely avoids cheap jump scares in favor of letting the dread develop naturally.

Karen Gillan, a Scottish actress mainly known for her role on "Doctor Who," plays Kaylie, a twentysomething antiques dealer who has finally come into possession of a mirror with supposed supernatural powers. Her younger brother Tim (played by Brenton Thwaites) is recently released from a mental hospital, and she convinces him to spend the night with the cursed mirror in the house where their parents (Sackhoff and Cochrane) were murdered. Tim has finally come to grips that his own delusions were the real cause of their childhood tragedy, but his sister clearly hasn't.

What's brilliant about the screenplay is that Kaylie introduces the "rules" of the mirror's power right away, as well as her own carefully constructed plan to thwart the mirror and exact revenge. The film then flashes back and forth to the present-day plot while strategically filling in the backstory of that awful night 11 years ago. It's an effective technique not just because it draws numerous parallels between stories, but because it constantly calls into question the sanity of all four characters.

Flanagan gets great mileage out of the fallible perspectives of Tim and Kaylie, putting the audience in their shoes as much as possible. How much of the narrative can we trust if the person conveying it has a possible mental illness? Remove the supernatural threat and you have a film that preys on the sometimes scary dynamic of any dysfunctional family. Leave it in and you have a genuinely creepy ghost story that spotlights some nightmarish scenarios without resorting to gore.

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