Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Exit 727 - Three Young Men In Search Of...?

The Film:
Exit 727 (2012)

The under-the-radar-factor:
A low budget...in this case micro-budget...independent crime caper effort, supposedly based on a true tale. The main avenue of exposure and distribution seems to have been through the DVD/VOD route.

The review:

Things are not exactly going swimmingly for Michael (Jereme Badger), battling drug addiction, or his friend Ben (Anthony Ashmore), going through, amongst other issues, family guilt trips over his lifestyle. The duo head off to Florida to catch up to Michael's bro Dominic (Eric Ortiz, who also wrote and directed this production). A crappy construction job predictably does not work out but a rather high strung fellow worker helps to get the ball rolling on an idea towards a more prosperous path - staging a bank heist. The other three feel their plight is desperate enough to take the chance but only under their own planning. The idea develops to the point where the caper becomes a kidnapping, leading to an explosive conclusion.

One has to commend Ortiz and his colleagues for not aiming low with the limited means they had. Exit 727 is an earnest attempt at putting out a serious piece of work and far from the exploitation offering others may have tried in order to "break in". It's no big surprise that the micro-budget doesn't allow for some executions that would have helped develop the movie but there are other shortcomings that hinder the film regardless.

While the last half hour actually packs some emotional wallop, the problem is the viewer has to sit through the first 30 minutes or so, which features some uneven acting, tinny sound recording and underdeveloped connections. The characters go around telling us what problems they have or which people they can't get along with, rather than truly taking the viewer through their experiences. Clearly it's a script in need of a few more drafts. The mostly hand-held videotography is sometimes interrupted by multiple split-screens that look like they belong in another film. The result is a visual signature that at times resembles Ira Sach's film The Delta, with a street version of Michael Figgis' Hotel trying to sneak in. The oil and vinegar of realism and flash do not meld convincingly here.

Exit 727 is far from being a terrible film. The pacing is okay and, at just over an hour in running time, it doesn't try to overstay a welcome. And Badger's performance as the well meaning junkie gives the film a heart and soul it needs. At times he bears a passing resemblance in appearance and style to Mark Wahlberg and is the cast member I would keep an eye on.

Exit 727 may not be the most noteworthy feature debut but Ortiz, as a filmmaker, shouldn't be discouraged from going back for more after learning from this first effort. Still...

I say this film tastes - HALF-BAKED.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Wallowing In The Muck With Johnny Depp Isn't Fun But...

The Film:
The Libertine (2004)

The under-the-radar factor:
In the midst of Johnny Depp's commercial triumphs with the Pirates series and remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory came this film, given a limited release by The Weinstein Company. According to IMDB, the film has grossed less than $5 million dollars in the United States. The movie received a subdued, non-spotlight premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. This production was previously mentioned in a post concerning neglected offerings of A-list stars.

The review:

"You will not like me..."

Don't say you were not warned by the words spoken at the beginning by the second Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot (Depp).

Of course, after this post (and if you have been one of the few who have actually seen the movie), you may not like this reviewer very much...

... but "fyi" to all others, the fact is I rather wallowed in The Libertine. And the wallowing may not necessarily have been fun but it was an experience... and I'm glad I took part.

Set in 17th century London after Charles II (John Malkovich) has returned to the throne, Wilmot finds himself briefly banished to the countryside for misbehavior. The undeniably talented but extremely cynical poet has a way of trying everyone's patience, including that of his wife Elizabeth (Rosamund Pike). The King, however, has never really been so much angry as disappointed in Rochester and summons him back to write a play to impress the visiting French ambassador. In between proceeding with the production, fornicating with prostitutes, and driving his liver to an early grave through drink, Wilmot takes on a pet project. The young Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), an actress who he has seen jeered off the stage, reluctantly agrees to be mentored by this writer who is both taken with her looks and impressed by her character.

Barry, who eventually becomes his mistress, sees her career take off just as Rochester's plummets. He ridicules Charles with a production featuring long wooden dildos and flees into hiding. Wilmot's health fails as syphilis ravages his body, taking away his dexterity and, eventually, his nose (I kid you not). After an unexpected intersession for the King, the poet meets his inevitable fate.

A lot has been said (pejoratively) about the "murky" cinematography in the film but after seeing a number of period pieces with a pristine glow that said to me "nah....I don't think they had it that good!", I found it refreshing to see the gloomier (and probably more realistic) visual portrayal of London in that era - mud, roaming rats and all.

And the acting in the film is top notch. Depp is engaging throughout. Just as the movie seems ready to slip into neutral (and it does come close to that a few times), Johnny does or says something to pull the viewer back in. It's the kind of role that allows him to slice the ham pretty thick and he takes delightful advantage of that. Morton provides a powerful foil to his desires and her character stands up strongly (although her transformation into an accomplished actress is somewhat less convincing). Pike displays a patience as his wife that comes across as noble without being a sap.

The film provides a fascinating look at this train wreck of a main character and I recommend it as an interesting (if not necessarily comfortable) adventure. The Earl is right when he says you will not like him but his free-fall makes for a hell ride that will not put you to sleep. Director Laurence Dunmore and writer Stephen Jeffreys (the script is based on his stage play) construct a story that takes all kinds of chances and, while not always successful, makes for a robust tale. Interesting that this is the one and only feature that the music video and ad director has attempted. Based on this work, I wish Dunmore would throw himself back into the cinematic fire.

I say this film tastes - DELICIOUSLY DECADENT.

Friday, 18 October 2013

This Profile Of A Killer Is A Self-Appointed Act

"Violence, whether spiritual or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful. The less identity, the more violence." - Marshall McLuhan.

I was thinking of that quote from the master of mass communication studies after viewing Profile of a Killer (2012), a particularly admirable far-from-Hollywood indie production that looks as technically solid as most of the fare coming out of L.A. First time feature director Caspian Tredwell-Owen serves notice with this project that he is someone to keep an eye on.

Retired FBI profiler Saul Aitken would rather put his feet up in his warm Florida home and read some of the many books he has written but agrees to answer the call of a friend in wintery Minnesota. Someone eventually dubbed the H-61 Killer is leaving skeletons around the state and Saul has the reputation of one who can figure out what makes such a criminal mind tick. Turns out that the killer is a teenager named David who would like to have these answers himself. David kidnaps Saul and reveals to his prisoner his plans regarding future victims - plans which the youngster himself doesn't really understand but has nonetheless plotted out meticulously. It's clear that this is not some out-of-control snot nose punk but as intelligent a dude as the profiler is in many ways. David basically forces his captive to help determine his next moves. For all his years profiling, Saul seems particularity challenged in trying to get a bead on this unique character before him. The murderer works fast and efficiently, frustrating the task force led by special agent Rachel Cade. She may not have initially liked Saul's presence stepping on her toes in the investigation but the victim list starts to add names too close to home (literally) for her comfort and it becomes obvious that unless captured, David will include Saul among the deceased.

Considering the body count and the gruesome images that abound, the emotional level in Profile of a Killer is at times as cold as the Minnesota scenery and some of the dialogue (particularly belonging to Gabriele Angieri in the role of Saul) seems a bit clumsy and not entirely convincing. Still, the pluses of this low budget production far outweigh any shortcomings.

The cast is solid, particularly Joey Pollari as David - displaying the right balance of cockiness offset by unease in his own skin - and Emily Fradenburgh as Rachel. In a film where the dialogue sometimes runs away a bit, her eyes and body language convey more than words, with her providing a commanding presence throughout.

Visually, the film exceeds expectations for work done on this budgetary level. Tredwell-Owen is in full command, providing high quality looks to every scene. The pacing, while it could be slightly tightened in spots, is mostly appropriate. While dealing with a conventional topic you might expect for a tv movie-of-the-week, the storyline has enough unique aspects to provide elements of surprise at the right moments.

Profile of a Killer is a film that would be worth catching regardless; given that it was done through such micro-means, it deserves a little extra attention to show that it's the work that goes in, not the bucks, that produces riches on the screen.

I say this film tastes - CHILLING.

Friday, 11 October 2013

They Must Eat...But Must We Watch?

A while back I was poking around the $5 bin at the Walmart up the street and came across a five pack of movies from the husband/wife team of Todd and Tommy Brunswick. He directed the infamous Biker Zombies from Detroit, which I had already heard was a time-waster extraordinaire by people who I thought would normally have more tolerance for such material (but I'll probably have a look one day). Another offering which I decided to go ahead and watch was Lurking Terror, Tommy's first directorial spin (she seems to have taken over the job of calling for "action" in the family ever since). It was no classic and I can't recommend it, although the pacing was good and it seemed the cast, while hardly Shakespearean, really seemed to be enjoying themselves, making the experience less brutal on my end.

Next up for my viewing pleasure (I hoped) was They Must Eat, which Tommy helmed in 2006.

Sanford (played by John Anton) is a twitchy geek who has just been ushered out of the home of his fickle girlfriend Maria. He lands on the doorstep of his equally odd uncle Alistair, portrayed by ( ...trivia question for 20 points.....who is Tommy Brunswick's dad? Answer:) Rudy Hatfield. Seems that poor Alistair has been stuck with the job of feeding human flesh to a bunch of ghouls nestled in the back of his rural property (his favorite is named "Kojak") but now the old man collapses and dies, leaving his nephew to take over the butchering activities. Without blinking (or thinking?), Sanford takes up the cause but is less intimidated by the ghouls than his uncle was and sets about to train the creatures to carry out his wishes.

Away from home, Sanford defiantly does not rule anything. His crummy job for a corrupt operation places him in the line of fire for the insults delivered by the boss's son. But as time rolls on, Sanford figures out more ways to use the ghouls to exact the revenge needed against his enemies...until, of course, things kind of backfire.

They Must Eat is an "almost" film. It's almost amusing enough, but not really. It is almost ghoulish enough but never achieves the squirm-iness factor needed. The acting, especially from the animated Anton, is almost acceptable...but still too clumsy. The special effects make-up isn't special enough. The narrative, absurd as it is, doesn't really turn one off but isn't that absorbing either. In short, the film is almost entertaining but...

As I mentioned, this 5 pack of Brunswick & Brunswick films cost me $5. After watching two I don't feel ripped off yet but I have three more films to go before I regret not having used those funds to grab a pint of a cold frosty one. We'll see.

I say this film tastes - HALF-BAKED.

Eliza's Horoscope Could Have Told A Better Fortune

The English Canadian film industry has always struggled to achieve the quality, acclaim, and box office success that has been enjoyed by the French language offerings from the province of Quebec. Regard the landscape back in the 60's and early 70's: while the francophone region's artists scored global success with efforts like Mon oncle Antoine, Kamouraska, J.A. Martin photographe (winning Monique Mercure the best actress nod at Cannes), Les ordres, and others, their English counterparts saw similar achievements fewer and farther between (A Married Couple, Goin' Down The Road, and Nobody Waved Good-bye being notable exceptions).

Even English directors making films in Quebec couldn't quite get the same genie out of the bottle as the indigenous movie clan. A case in point was the 1975 release Eliza's Hororscope (which actually finished production years before), whose main claim to fame has been as the first starring vehicle for Tommy Lee Jones (going under the moniker of "Tom" in those days). How director Gordon Sheppard recruited the American actor and other details makes for a fascinating tale, for the production flirted with the direct or indirect participation of the likes of Hugh Hefner, Robbie Robertson of The Band, Genevieve Bujold, Martin Scorsese, Oscar winning actress Lila Kedrova of Zorba fame, and another unknown actor of the day named Al Pacino.

Just entering her adult years but still with an innocence that is both sweet and unsettling, Eliza (Elizabeth Moorman) arrives from rural Quebec to a less than prosperous section of Montreal to visit a Chinese astrologer living in a rundown flop house. The girl is convinced there will soon be a man in her life who will provide her with both material comforts and a child. The astrologer agrees that within a certain number of days she will indeed hook up with an Aries who will be the handsome man of Eliza's dreams, although the Chinese woman is clearly working under a different definition of "rich" to describe his qualities.

Eliza is invited to stay in the astrologer's building, where she shares a room with the earthy but still devout Catholic Lila (Kedrova). Later she meets the rugged Indian lad Tommy Lee (Jones...yes you get it...the director decided the actors would use their own first names. BTW, Jones is himself part Comanche.) Tommy takes a liking to pretty young Eliza but doesn't allow himself to be sidetracked from his hobby project - helping to blow up a commercial bridge as a protest against the exploitative nature the White Man has against the aboriginal population. For her part, Eliza likes hanging with him but is usually running off to strange locales in the city to meet up with even stranger people in hopes of finding her true love, oblivious to the fact Tommy is the man the astrologer was referring to.

Sheppard decides to follow Tommy's plight with a straightforward, no-nonsense touch, whereas Eliza's encounters are presented with surrealistic and dreamy (often nightmarish) presentations. (Sheppard insisted that pirated copies of his film have undesired jump-cuts arsing from a flaw in transferring from film-to-video but, regardless, much of the movie was intended as a voyage into the bizarro world of Eliza.)

Eliza's Horoscope is an admirable failure. Some will appreciate the admirable part and others will be too put off by the failure. Sheppard meant to touch upon surrealist and poetic elements a-la Bergman but ends up with something that more closely resembles Ken Russell on an iffy day. Some will quickly get irritated by what they would deem as a pretentious approach taken by Sheppard (who died in 2006 and never made another feature). I personally thought that while the movie has unusual elements in the narrative, they did not strike me as particularly inspired or organic attachments to the story. However, the film keeps a good pace and has some visual panache in spite of its low budget. As a historical entry, cinephiles may want to check out the powerful performance by Jones, who does indeed show all the makings of stardom in his role.

I'm halfway on this one. Do I recommend it? For adventurous filmgoers I would probably say yes...but even for them, don't say you weren't warned.

I say this film tastes - TOO BUSY.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

And There Were Two Women...


If you're going to make a documentary on abortion, you could be pretty certain of two things:

It will be controversial and, simultaneously...ironically...

...it will be largely ignored.

Such was the case with Tony Kaye's black and white 2006 offering Lake Of Fire, a film I first saw at the Toronto International Film Festival and one which I decided to return to recently. In spite of great critical success, the film basically found no audience upon it's limited release.

It's also easy enough to figure out the landscape of such a film and the issues/topics that would emerge:

Secularism, religion, fundamentalism, women's rights, Biblical doctrine, birth control, adoption, tolerance, intolerance, snobbery, fanaticism, sex education, abstinence, feminism, traditional roles, alternative lifestyles, liberalism, conservatism, clinics, bombings...and folks on both sides becoming very passionate.

When it comes time to ask if a film like this was "good", what in effect being asked is:

-was the documentary informative and...

-was it balanced and fair in it's presentation of both sides?

On the first matter, I would say that much of the ground covered is familiar to most  - Roe v. Wade, after all, made history. The faith-based arguments are well known. So are the ones from the pro-choice side. We have all heard numbers as to the frequency of abortions that take place, actions that some would regard as murder. We have all heard about the attacks on clinics, the personnel who work in them, and the number of doctors performing the procedure who were killed, which some would regard as justified. We have all heard of the arguments regarding lower income women being forced into back alleys, while the well-off will always have the means to safely procure the procedure when desired, regardless of what the law would say. We have all heard about the case being made for adoption as an alternative, as well as for birth control as a way to prevent unwanted pregnancies. To a great extent the film supplies these familiar points in abundance. Most of the arguments are presented by predictable sources (including many "name" commentators, like Noam Chomsky and Pat Buchanan) but there are some surprises: Nat Hentoff, the atheist civil libertarian whose views generally fall on the left side of the political spectrum, is heard describing his reasons for being pro-life. On the other hand, a spokesperson introduces the viewer to an organization known as Catholics For Choice. There are no lack of opinions to be expressed as the film, while visually stunning, is very much a talking heads experience (to a fault, as much of this two and a half hour long movie seems unnecessarily repetitive, with several points and similar situations given more than one airing).

As far as balance goes, many have suggested that Kaye has been as fair as possible in allowing both sides their expression. Some pro-lifers seem to feel otherwise, suggesting that the more radical religious fundamentalist spokespeople do not represent the civil and articulate positions that they say are out there for their cause. Others argue that is just the way most of the pro-lifers comes across, with fire and brimstone speeches assuring the other side that they are doomed to burn in hell, in a "lake of fire". But there could be a case made that some will view the pro-choice spokespeople as representing the intellectual elite looking down their noses at the other faction. Interesting that most of the prominent voices in the film on either side of the issue belong to men.

For all of it's chattiness, there are two visually powerful sequences, both involving abortions being performed, that many would find disturbing. So...be warned.

But more than anything else, after the back and forth yelling, after witnessing the actual procedures...the thing I will always remember and be mesmerized by is watching and listening to two women.

One is Norma McCorvey..."Jane Roe" herself,  first describing her status as an unmarried pregnant woman and the turmoil that resulted from the proceedings from her stand (including a suicide attempt), then her subsequent conversion to the pro-life organization Operation Rescue. The other is a woman near the film's conclusion who is followed as she goes through the various steps leading up to the abortion she has decided she must have. Regardless of what one thinks of the decisions they have made, in one direction or another, the emotional whirlwind these two take the viewer through is staggering and gut-wrenching.

Kaye spent nearly two decades putting this film together and it's an admirable effort in many ways. With the second viewing the long running time was a little more bothersome and I didn't need the sweeping strings of the musical score to come in as often as they did. Still, it's worthwhile for the experience it is -a project that probably won't change the opinions of those strongly dedicated to their cause on either side but, for the rest, open minds would benefit by hearing both camps. Regardless, it serves as an astounding record of what the abortion debate has been like. (It will be interesting to see how the new film After Tiller, focusing on the subject of late-term abortions, is received.)

I say this film tastes - POWERFUL.