Monday, 23 July 2018

LIVING WITH THE DEAD (2015)

Emily Jackson and Benjamin Frankenberg


So the story goes like this ... She guzzles booze, hankers for hallucinogenics, and gets into a Lolita phase of one-nighters. These "good times" only end when she pops enough sleeping pills to take her to within a step of death's door. Eighteen-year-old Max McLean (Emily Jackson) hasn't been able to live in her skin since the suicide of boyfriend Adam (Benjamin Frankenberg). Her status-conscious folks brag about their girl going to Yale, while displaying thinly veiled relief in anticipation of the troubled one being out of their hair in the near future. Max decides to set her own schedule for leaving the nest, sneaking out in the middle of night, in spite of the efforts of her brother Gabriel (Chris Bellant), the only family member in genuine anguish over her state when he isn't being her harshest critic. A train trip with a destination chosen at random finds her in a township with a library ... not that she lacks for reading material; her suitcase is stuffed with the same books Adam used to mull over, penned by famous writers who had taken their own lives. Enter a chap named Ish (Craig McDonald-Kelly), a quirky local snapping Polaroid pictures of Max that annoy her to no end. Her unwanted follower does provide one bit of practical help, that being a place to crash - Max finds herself slumming on a library couch, having hid with Ish till closing hours. From there a relationship develops as the couple frolics through the woods, bantering philosophical musings when Ish isn't urging Max to climb trees as a sort of inner strengthening exercise. Alas, it gradually comes out that the lad has his own issues to deal with: a long-gone mom and an alcoholic father that has made Ish a pariah in the community. Throughout all of this Max continues to experience visions of Adam, with the tête-à-têtes the tuxedo clad spirit initiates not exactly being of the supportive kind.




Living with the Dead presents itself as a kind of existentialist sandwich; large parts of the meaty middle section find the two protagonists in a realm of their own in the woods where they can reflect, disconnecting with the outside world while pondering its metaphysical and spiritual makeup, as well as their own. The surrounding passages are the white bread territory with the characters involved with less abstract situations. The philosophical jargon that seems apropos in the out-in-nature settings comes across as cringe-worthy elsewhere, particularly when recited by Jackson, as if she was reading off a teleprompter supplying lines from brainyquote.com. This doesn't help the fact that the actress has some struggles in the early part of the film, coming across as too blank to suggest the torment the character is suppose to be going through. Getting past the twenty-minute mark one starts to yawn and wonders if there is going to be a payoff.

Fortunately, things improve as the narrative unfolds, particularity after the introduction of Ish. A theater prof I knew always said acting is really reacting; that holds true here as Jackson's performance improves substantially at the point McDonald-Kelly comes on the scene. Playing off her engaging co-star helps Jackson to peel off the layers surrounding Max while one becomes increasingly interested in the mysteries surrounding the backstory of Ish.

As noted, Jackson delivers a performance that improves with screen time and McDonald-Kelly is spot-on as the straw that stirs the drink of the storyline.  As naked as these two performances end up as the real emotional core of the film belongs to a short but memorable turn by Thomas Poarch as Ish's alcoholic dad. Rather than portraying the character as a stereotypical drunken lout, Poarch evokes sympathy and heartbreak as he muses on a life he found to be overwhelming. Unexpected and beautifully done.

The film is Christine Vartoughian's first foray into feature territory and for the most part it marks an impressive debut. I would have liked to have seen less cutting on dialogue and for the words spoken to sound more like they were coming from real human beings, but these unfortunate failings are not fatal. One may still be left at the end with a little head scratching as to why Adam did what he did but the film struck me as being more about effect rather than cause anyway. Vartoughian shows genuine promise and it should be interesting to see what follows in her career. The overall production values are impressive for a film at this budget category.

A timely tale told in a sensitive manner, Living with the Dead is, overall, worth the time spent to regard it.

Hugs go to this film because of ...

- generally good acting.

- a promising feature directorial debut.

- earnest exploration of a timely topic.


(Full disclosure: Producer Rebekah Nelson requested a review and provided a screener link to the film.)

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

LOWLIFE (2017)

Let's see...we have the Lucha Libre guy, a masked wrestler burdened by not having lived up to the legacy of his predecessors and who goes through blackouts, after which the carnage he's fostered become evident. He's a pretty good fella at heart - he just has this habit of going along with human trafficking, forced prostitution and the black market for organ transplants. Then there's the motel owner, a recovering junkie, who gave up her daughter - the same daughter who's married to the wrestler and is herself addicted to heroin. Call me stupid but I'm guessing that's not suppose to be in the playbook for someone who is several months pregnant. That same motel owner is hoping that the child she ditched will be munificent enough to consider donating a kidney for her long-forgotten daddy, AKA the motel's owner alcoholic husband, the same guy who frankly doesn't give a fuck whether he lives or dies. There's also the odd couple: the middle-of-the-road looking accountant who stayed above water by having sold out his now out-of-prison buddy, who makes for a strange bookend - he would be the one with the swastika tattooed to his face. But all these folks with their various bad habits and deficiencies are nothing compared to the really bad guy: Teddy, whose restaurant is just a cover for the body organs and prostitution biz he has going with the aid of an ICE agent. Each of these highly interesting characters are introduced through segments that create a non-linear, circuitous narrative, complete with titles for each of the chapters, provoking obvious comparisons to the early works of Tarantino.



As a director's first-time feature Ryan Prows shows he is more than adapt at providing an accomplished long-form offering. The film looks crisp, with excellent visuals; in fact, all the production values are top notch. Lowlife juggles heavy drama and black comedy with aplomb. The cast brings on strong and absorbing performances. From an action standpoint there's never a truly dull moment...

...but, at the same time, that doesn't mean patience doesn't wane. Effective circuitous narrative strikes me as being a balancing act between filling in blanks and offering up the unexpected. When it became obvious that there would be backtracks to reveal more of the story and character info, I was finding Lowlife was working against its desired energy level and would have liked to have seen it push on, rather than rehash so much. Others will disagree but I found this was one film where a more linear handling of the story would have helped. And as far as Tarantino fans go, some will feel Prows has delivered a worthy homage...others may find this to be a too warmed-over approach with shades of paint-by-numbers, which would put them in my camp. Lowlife has its merits, is far from a waste of time, and deserves to find an audience, but as a film that so obviously wants to leave a mark, it ranks as more of a passing entry.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

IN PRAISE OF THE OUTRÉ: NOVEMBER and IT TAKES FROM WITHIN

November


Fans of traditional linear narrative (AKA spoon-fed) offerings will not be clamoring to see the films in the spotlight here. Those who like to have a little cinematic fresh air in their viewing diets are encouraged to read on...

It's difficult to create accomplished celluloid curvées of the vulgar and the beautiful, the monstrous and the magical - Rainer Sarnet's November is one of the more successful films I have seen achieve such in some time. (One may use The Ballad of Narayama as a litmus test for what I have just referred to.) The production, rooted in 19th century Estonia by way of a novel by Andrus Kiviräjk, does have a narrative spine running through it involving the mission of young Liina (Rea Lest) trying to distract her heartthrob Hans (Jörgen Liik) away from his yearnings for an appealing but troubled baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis). Of course Liina's dad is more than willing to pawn his girl off to one of the older local slobs. That's about as conventional as things get here - while this scenario plays out all kinds of quirky happenings befall the rest of the village folk: the dead returning for saunas and a bite to eat on All Souls Day; the masses worshiping Jesus while making soul-swap deals with Satan (who can occasionally be fooled for awhile when the cards are played right); a regularly occurring plague taking on the persona of various animals. The strangest of the strange involves the presence of the Kratts, the dead souls of peasants who become embodied in whatever is lying around - wood and bones are a popular combo. In the meantime you have the stark contrast of the starving villagers (for them stealing is a way of life) and their wealthy German baron, who may or may not be as clued out as he looks.





At times November seems to have too much going on...and at other junctures not enough. What holds the experience together is the breathtaking black-and-white cinematography (kudos to Mart Taniel) that draws one in like a magnet to this gothickly bizarre yet dream-like world. When things get truly dark in spirit, they become truly dark on screen, only to then change tone and light up in beautiful poetic imagery. The strong ensemble cast that seems like they were born to take on each of their roles helps to make November a work that the art house crowd should appreciate.


It Takes from Within



Even more cryptic and shot with far fewer resources, Lee Eubank's It Takes from Within also features mesmerizing b&w imagery (Jason Crow takes no back seat to other cinematographers here) but equally captivating is the soundtrack; a brilliant pastiche of music, voices, and other sounds that keep spinning the film into layers beyond what is being shown. The film definitely starts in head-scratching fashion with a dapper younger man and an equally well-dressed woman finding themselves in the silent company of an older couple lying in bed with yet another duo crawling on the ground. It could be the same pairing in different stages of their lives but, as other parts of the film insist, such conclusions are up to the audience. The only narrative certainty is that the main protagonists (unnamed, as are all of the characters) are in a small town to attend someone's funeral. An argument in their no-frills hotel  room becomes the root of their taking separate directions, with the woman stumbling over a dead body, and encountering a rather excitable old woman before heading to a cafe where a pick-up eventually plays out. Her original mate goes through masturbatory fantasies, sitting in cars where he spouts poetic utterances to no one in particular, and acquiring flowers which eventually burst into flames. Not exactly a Cameron Diaz type of flick...




The acting ranges from appropriately stilted to aptly ludicrous, depending on the character and the mood Eubank attempts to establish. The narrative (if you want to call it that) sails between scenes that don't seem to want to make literal interpretations available but nonetheless connect to provide a dreamish experience that has you wondering who it reminds you the most of in terms of cinematic signatures: Bergman? Goddard? Lynch? Mentioning those three names will appeal to those who find such filmic forays worth one's time, and while I won't put Eubank's effort here into quite that class, I did find it to be a worthy addition to the avant-garde set.

With no conflict of interest re: remuneration (and as a fan of such films), I provide you with some links to check out two intriguing works that the more cinematically courageous should spend some time examining. I'm glad I did.

The folks who made November want you to know their film goes into release in New York on February 23rd, followed by an opening in Los Angeles on March 2nd.

The people at First Run Features have made It Takes from Within available for purchase.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Desolation (2017)

Things don't stay smoochy for too long...

A anguished young woman sets herself on fire - certainly a way to get the audience's attention at the roll out of a film...and that's how David Moscow's Desolation begins.

Shortly after, we meet the character of chick-magnet thespian Jay Cutter - great name for a studish actor - played by Brock Kelly (which is also a great name for a studish actor...hmm). He arrives from Hollywood to film scenes in a smallish town in New York state where he catches sight of another young lady with issues named Katie, played with a quiet pill-popping nervousness by Dominik García-Lorido. In what initially comes across as an all-too-convenient blink of an eye, Jay seems to decide that Katie is the love-at-first-sight gal in his life and whisks her back to La-La land and the rather outré apartment building he lives in: one with a violent history, random numbers assigned to units, and a priest on the floor above them named Father Bill (Raymond J. Barry...or was that William S. Burroughs reincarnated with a collar around his neck? This is not meant as a putdown - Barry's performance was the highlight of the film for yours truly). An acting gig comes up and Jay shuffles out of town, leaving Katie in a building where the lights keep going out, lettering on walls and ceilings keep appearing and disappearing, hooded figures break into her apartment (who turn out to be less a problem than the police who come to investigate)...oh, and a little girl named Grace who keeps showing up out of the blue. Father Bill, not the most relaxing presence to be around during the boyfriend's absence, questions Katie about her obviously frail mental state.

So, is this all in Katie's head? Is there some supernatural shit going on? Or...




Here's my very subjective take...

The first half of Desolation was supposed to make me feel uncomfortable and it did - but not in a way the filmmakers intended. I found the matters that unfolded to be more tedious than tense. The events that led up to the second leg of the film seemed too contrived, the dialogue flat and too on-the-nose, the acting (Barry aside) nothing to write home about. I got the sense there was a build up to something else and perhaps what seemed nonsensical would not seem so clumsy later but I wanted to get this (necessary) part of the experience over with the same way I would want the effects of a bowl prep liquid taken the day before a colonoscopy to be over with.  BUT WAIT! - screenwriters Craig Walendziak and Matthew McCarty sure had a twist up their sleeves alright; quite a twist, producing a sharp genre turn and providing (at least what were supposed to be) clever explanations for what seemed unlikely in the first part of this filmic voyage. It did help to boost my interest in what was going on, particularly in regards to caring for/rooting with the main character as she tried to survive her ordeal and not become her own worst enemy along the way.

Still, for me, it wasn't enough; the suspension of disbelief aspect just wasn't there. There were still too many details (can't elaborate, as then we're in spoiler territory) that had my eyes rolling. García-Lorido tried hard but didn't really deliver - for me - the consistent power the performance required. The ending really went into overdrive in a way that made my eyes roll some more. And while the production values are impressive, the far too conspicuous soundtrack, meant to help foster creepiness, became annoying in the way it continually called attention to itself.

I'm sure others would find this film more up their alley. I will say Moscow shows enough flashes to suggest he has real potential as a feature director. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with in the future.

Monday, 15 January 2018

THE ROAD MOVIE (2016)

Personally, I do not drive. Long story. Good reasons.

And while I thoroughly enjoyed the wild ride Dimitrii Kalashnikov's found footage doc The Road Movie took me on, there was no incentive in it for me to call up a driving instructor and get behind the wheel anytime soon - rather, I felt relieved about witnessing the mayhem that carried on for 70-minutes in the comfort of my modest screening room and not on the road behind the wheel.

The film is a collection of various clips posted on YouTube of what drivers in Russia came across. Dashcams have apparently become buzz items there and there is no end to the collection of what motorists have encountered - not just on the road but in the skies above them, as well as buildings, forests and hills surrounding them as they pass by.

Don't want to go into heavy duty spoiler territory here - let's let the trailer give you a taste of what to expect...




As you can see there's no end to the mayhem, and while some may think that the end effect is similar to watching a feature length porn film where things get pretty dull after the first twenty-minutes of genitalia plumbing, the interest factor here stays throughout. One is never quite sure of what is going to leap onto the road, fly out of the sky and happen in the auto du moment itself. I'm tagging this film as a documentary, although you can readily regard it as a cinema-vérité black comedy.

I'd rather that a few of the clip's had carried on a bit with maybe some others shortened but, overall, The Road Movie is a fun packed thrill ride I'm glad I spent the time on. Entertaining and worthwhile ... and my vocabulary of Russian cuss words has expanded considerably.