Friday, 29 November 2013

Roulette - Is This Indie Gun Loaded?

The film:
Roulette (2012)

The under-the-radar-factor:
This low budget independent production has played at a few of the lesser known festivals where it has won some awards. There has been a DVD/Blu-ray launch with the participation of indie distributor R Squared Films.

The review:

Actually, before the review, a question...

In the film world, what exactly do we mean by "indie"?

It's something I've been asking myself. I started this blog last spring with hopes of unearthing films that had been released but remained relatively unknown. Ones that the movie-going public had a chance to see but didn't really bother with. Movies (the worthwhile ones and, yes, that's a very subjective value) that critics and other bloggers ignored or couldn't champion loudly enough, if anyone else cared to listen. The so-called under-the-radar-flicks, ranging from Hollywood studio productions from decades past to more recent genre releases from different shores done on different economies of scale.

Over time, some independent filmmakers (back to that definition shortly) approached and asked if I would review their new releases. Subsequently, I made it clear to others that I was available for evaluating similar projects.

The more I'm exposed to those American films that are old or new but always outside of the major studio system, the more I am confronted by the question of what is an "indie".

Regarding Geoff King's website was a help in this thought process, particularly because he offers his own ideas towards defining the term. It makes for an interesting read and, as King points out, "The distinction between indie and Hollywood is sometimes quite clear-cut, but not always."

It's a subject which requires more analysis in a future post but in helping to frame a discussion regarding the Erik Kristopher Myers feature debut Roulette, I find the most pertinent comments made by King in his piece deal with the notions of form and content.

Indeed, some so-called indie movies are made in an attempt to redefine the aesthetics of filmmaking, while others attempt to spotlight subject matter that would be considered unusual, possibly groundbreaking. This doesn't mean these films are necessarily better or worthier - just different from other "indies".

The Myers film does not highlight cinematic form/content anomalies. It utilizes conventional approaches (non-linear storytelling has become so routine that it no longer counts as thinking outside of the box). It should be appraised in the same way any feature fiction film would be, with...ok...some obvious exceptions that come from being a very low budget production. But that, in turn, doesn't mean it's meant to be evaluated as being the shadow of a Hollywood-type release either - one earnest independent is worth more than several synthetic studio flicks.

OK, enough blabbering...I'm suppose to deliver a review.

Three suicidal people seem to have broken away from the lager support group they were attending and have retired to the abode of Dean Jensen (Mike Baldwin), where drinking whiskey calls up the nerve to play Russian Roulette. As the taking of chances continues in the present, flashbacks convey the story of how each of these characters has arrived at such desperate circumstances.

Dean is shown as being a once healthy landscaper who began to lose motor functions through an undetectable condition, racking up the bills and straining his married life. The devoutly religious "Sunshine" Howard (aka Sunny, played by Ali Lukowski) survived her mother's attempt to have her aborted, helping to explain her past attitude towards the pro-choice movement. Those beliefs would conflict with the decisions made later in her life, particularly in the aftermath of getting involved with a man and herself becoming pregnant. Richard Kessler (Will Haza) has had his own issues; passed over for a promotion, his already wobbly marriage spiraled further downward as his drinking problem accelerated.

So these three people gather together in the present to taunt each other, drink whiskey like it's soda pop and take a chance on which chamber the bullet resides in as they take their turns in the deadliest of games. But before a final resolution takes place, these individuals learn they have more in common than they could have possibly imagined.

(The folks at Four-Fingered Films want you to know that the trailer may not be suitable for all.)

The strength of the film is in the clever scenario laid out by Myers. His script weaves through the structure of the tale very well, revealing just the right amount of information needed at any particular time. You sense interesting things ahead and look forward to seeing how the saga plays out. Some of his dialogue does run off the page and occasionally hints at fromage but, for the most part, the screenplay provides a solid foundation. The plot is a believable and intelligent one. In a low budget production, this is the filmic element that often stands the best chance of rising to the top and it does here.

Production values are respectable, considering this budget bracket. Along with DOP Jamie Bender, Myers achieves as professional looking a project as circumstances allow. The digital visuals, while a bit insipid at times, usually achieves the atmospherics warranted. I will say that director/editor Myers occasionally lets down writer Myers. Too often the cuts are lazily made on dialogue and at times towards the conclusion the film doesn't come up for air enough, running off the rails the same way Christopher Nolan allowed the films of the Dark Knight trilogy to sometimes get away from him (just to prove that it happens to even the biggest of names working with the largest of budgets). Overall, the Roulette journey seems a tad long and could use some tightening. 

The real Achilles Heel of the movie is the acting, which not only becomes uneven between different performers but sometimes even in what is delivered by an individual actor from one end of the tale to the other. Baldwin fares well, staying believable throughout and delivering on his big scene towards the end. Lukowski, at her best in her confrontations with her two drinking/roulette buddies, is least convincing in her uptight religious phase. Haza has his successful moments but at times his hyper-active delivery is painful to watch. This is the area where one would least expect to see cream rising to the top in low budget indie land and, unfortunately, Roulette doesn't provide enough surprises in that space.

As for the conclusion that has been much ballyhooed in the production's publicity material, it will depend on individual viewer reactions. Some may gasp, others will roll their eyes. I found myself doing a bit more of the latter, thinking the freight train had rolled through a little too aggressively. Others may disagree and find the ending and the way it was carried out most appropriate. I will say I may have been more impressed with the movie after sleeping on it. As uneven a film Roulette can be in places to watch, it's still pretty cool to reflect on.

This is an ambitious production done with the resources that it had and while not succeeding in a way to endorse it over some other narrative films available, I'd still recommend this flawed result over many of the lazy and soulless drivel put out by those hogging the multiplex. More than anything I am excited by what the screenwriter might come up with next. Roulette is an interesting story carrying other elements that can't always keep up but Myers defiantly shows the potential of having a solid cinematic future.

(...and any ideas on the definition(s) of "indie" are appreciated.)

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Briefly - The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Based on the novel by John Boyne, this 2008 production set in World War II finds a privileged and naive eight year old German boy named Bruno moving from Berlin to the countryside as his commandant father is transferred to supervise a prison camp. Bored with the estate and without friends, Bruno sneaks away to check out the "farm" he can see through the woods. Coming upon the fenced area and noticing a boy named Shmuel on the other side, the German (very) slowly comes to know that the child and others wearing "pajamas" are Jews, considered non-persons by most of Bruno's family. The German lad has a particularly hard time  understanding the significance of the smell coming from the smoke stacks in the compound. Bruno tries to bring food to his new friend but in a moment of turmoil makes a decision that does not help Shmuel's cause. He tries to make amends by helping his Jewish friend find his missing father, a decision which leads to a tragic conclusion.

The first hour of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is competently done in a well constructed made-for-tv kind of way but also comes across as conventional and predictable. Plausibility is also an issue - the two boys have a ridiculously easy way of getting together when needed. Hearing these "Germans" speaking with pronounced British accents didn't help the suspension of disbelief aspect either. The last half-hour is a kick in the gut and you'd have to be unconscious to not feel its devastating impact - still, much of the film comes across as conveniently contrived. History is filled with atrocities and this movie's best use is probably as an important lesson towards that regard. However, it's ending is probably too disturbing to be seen by the ages it would benefit most and the film overall wouldn't reveal anything not already known to most of the adult crowd. In that sense, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a film without a real audience.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Elevator to the Gallows Has a Mostly Smooth Ascent

The film:
Elevator to the Gallows aka "Ascenseur pour l'échafaud" (1958)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Certainly not an unknown work in the grand scheme of things but with three significant breakthroughs (Louis Malle's debut feature, Jeanne Moreau's "a star is born" moment, and the legendary Miles Davis composing a movie score), it can be argued its significance in the history of cinema has been underestimated (and even if it hasn't, I've been dying to look at this film).

The review:

It was a few years back that my wife and I found ourselves in Montreal at Musée des beau-arts and an exhibition it was running called "We Want Miles" where I first learned how Louis Malle's noirish debut feature came together. The young filmmaker felt his project was lacking something atmospherically and a suggestion was made that he meet Davis to discuss doing the soundtrack. The rest, as they say, is history, as Miles and his fellow musicians (mostly French) improvised the score in one session.  Before we go further into the film itself, why don't we take five (actually, two minutes and thirty eight seconds) to see and hear how Master Miles went through the process.

Florence (Jeanne Moreau) is willing to go along with the plan her brave but not necessarily bright ex-paratrooper lover Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) has for murdering his boss and her husband, the corrupt Simon Carala (Jean Wall). The deed is carried out and made to look like a suicide (yes, we've been down that cinematic road before) but Julien forgets a piece of incriminating evidence that has been left behind at the scene of the crime. Returning to the same office building, he rides up on the elevator just as the power to the building is turned off for the rest of the weekend, trapping him between floors. This sets off a series of developments outside, as a young flower shop attendant Veronique (Yori Bertin) and her legend-in-his-own-mind boyfriend Louis (Georges Poujoly) note Julien's car unoccupied and decide to take it for a joy ride. Out on the road they discover some of the vehicle's contents, including a small spy-type camera and the gun that was used to commit the murder. Meanwhile, Florence has been hanging out waiting for her lover to arrive and catches a glimpse of his car driving by, with the young girl in the passenger seat. Thinking the worst, the dazed Florence begins a zombie-like journey, traversing her way to various cafes and bars to inquire if Julien has been seen.

Elevator to the Gallows
In the meantime out in the countryside, Veronique and Louis have run into a rather eccentric and loud couple from Germany. The tourists convince the youngsters to stay at the same motel and socialize but Louis insists on being known as Julien Tavernier for registration purposes. After some partying, things go very wrong when the French couple try to steal the tourist's car for the next part of their journey. An act of violence ensues and the trail that is left behind leaves the impression to the motel management and the police that the real Julien Tavernier must have committed the crime.

The rest of the film deals with a serendipitous moment involving the elevator back at the office, pathetic suicide attempts, Florence under suspicion of being a prostitute for wandering the city so late at night, and, of course, more of the beautiful Miles Davis soundtrack.

Let's take five again - this is how the film was originally promoted upon it's release in France.

And this contemporary promo - it allows one to soak up more of the film's atmospherics...and that beautiful music...

There's no doubt some eyes will roll at the blunder committed early in the story by Julien - how could he have been dumb enough to leave the rope at the side of the building leading up to Simon's office, even if he was in a panic? The simple answer is that if he doesn't commit the error, you don't have a movie. But Elevator to the Gallows is about a group of people who fool themselves into believing they have more control of their world than they possibly can have by leading the lives they choose. In one corner you have Florence and Julien, with their painstaking details. On the other side, Veronique and Louis naively believe they can initiate, recover, hide, detour and just plain luck out in all the actions they take as they live life on the fly. Both sides are wrong - people are shown to fool themselves too easily, regardless of approach. (Lino Ventura provides a needed breath of fresh air in his role of a cop who's the only character in the film not seeing the world...or himself...through rose colored glasses.) And this isn't the same kind of noir landscape covered in so many previous American films. One remembers the time and place this movie had in regards to cinema in general and to the burgeoning French New Wave in particular, even if Malle was never one of the real Cahiers boys. Anything can happen and does in Elevator to the Gallows - all cinematic bets are off.

The black and white cinematography of Henri Decae is wonderful and there is no doubt that his camera adores Moreau's incredible face. She is a marvel to watch as she conducts her search (actually, these two lovers never do connect in the film, their telephone call right at the beginning being as close as they get) and Paris seems to be made for her as a backdrop - she doesn't wander through it as much as the city revolves around her. Of all the characters, hers is the one that is consumed by love and unselfishness. You smirk and shake your heads at the others - you feel with the character of Florence.

Even with some brain cramp moments - by some of the characters and some of the scenario provided - this film takes you into a noir feast of dandy men, loyal women, a Paris that everyone wants to imagine and a lesson of how people never do learn but never stop trying anyway. The film should probably be appreciated in the same way the characters in the film behave - don't think too much. Just live it.

Elevator to the t'aime!

(My biggest peeve with the flowing, hypnotic Miles Davis soundtrack? - not enough of it.)

I say this film tastes - DÉLICIEUX.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Martha Marcy May Marlene - Can You Ever Really Leave?

The film:
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Following its premiere at the 2011 Sundance fest the movie was given a limited release in North America later in the year. It's achieved U.S. box office receipts of approx. $3 million.

The review:

There have been other films which cover the topic of someone trying to escape cults or being rescued from them. Two efforts that came out at about the same time were the James Wood vehicle Split Image directed by Ted Kotcheff, as well as the Canadian production Ticket to Heaven, featuring a young Kim Cattrall. As I recall, both those films featured cult members numbering in the dozens if not hundreds, loud yelling, constant singing and chanting, bodies being knocked around, and stakes involving life and death matters.

Sean Durkin's film Martha Marcy May Marlene uses a much subtler means of expressing it's story. Huge cult compounds are replaced by a small farm setting still being put together by hand. Chanting at the top of one's lungs gives way to male "family members" taking turns at the acoustic guitar, strumming soft ballads. Aggressive physical behaviors amongst many are (mostly) cast aside for the psychological trappings dealt with by one individual. If Split Image and Ticket to Heaven were The Ten Commandments and Greatest Story Ever Told of cult-topic movies, Martha Marcy May Marlene, even with the abuse depicted in it, is The Diary of a Country Priest-type offering.

After a two year stay at a farm hosting a small community of followers, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) beats a hasty retreat through the woods into the world outside. She's discovered in a restaurant by one of the cult members who seems to give her a pass and allow her to continue on her course of independence. A phone call to her estranged but guilt-racked sister results in her being picked up and brought into a new household by the lake some three hours away where adaptation issues quickly take hold.

Older sis Lucy (Sarah Paulson) finds her sibling's story about leaving some mystery boyfriend in the Catskills plausible; new hubby Ted (Hugh Dancy) seems less sure. But both spouses develop more questions about Martha's emotional and psychological state as her behavior patterns emerge; thinking nothing of skinny dipping in the cottage lake in broad daylight with families around; walking into Lucy and Ted's bedroom while they are having sex, just so she can curl up at the foot of their bed, etc.

The film's narrative bounces back and forth between present and past, where Martha was dubbed Marcy May by the cult's head honcho Patrick (portrayed by the solid as usual John Hawkes). The backstory reveals the subservience (including sexual abuse, both by Patrick and then the other men in the group) that Marcy May endured. As time went on Patrick relied on her as a "teacher and a leader" - until a home invasion conducted by the group members went tragically wrong, representing her true falling out with her brethren. Back in the present, Martha becomes increasingly more paranoid, convinced the cult is around and ready to reclaim her. It also doesn't help that the communal "the-more-you-own-the-more-you-are-owned" view she still has increasingly clashes with Ted's materialistic attitude, with Lucy caught in the middle.  A severe meltdown at a soiree held by the couple convinces them that Martha's problems must be dealt with by professionals but the film ends with uncertainty as to which direction the young woman is headed for.

Durkin, Olsen (the youngest of the well known sisters) and the film itself have been nominated for several awards and took the prize for best director at Sundance and various breakout nods for the lead actress. The accolades are deserved, as the cast and crew have delivered a film that may look and feel soft and quiet in many ways but is far from soothing and gentle.

As impressive as the movie is in various categories, this is Olsen's flick from start to finish. She excels in a performance where her character comes across as both oppressed but, at the same time, a little creepy. Her mostly hushed behavior makes for a powerful impact in the scenes where she does come unglued. That attractive face may often seem blank but you can't help but wonder what is going on behind it. It becomes more obvious as the film continues that Martha doesn't trust anyone, including herself. Her story has enough missing pieces to keep one compelled to watch further, while also wondering how far gone she really is and where her borders between reality, memory and illusion really sit.

The film isn't perfect - the stereotypical and predictable behavior of big sister and her hubby burden their scenes. There is a little too much concentration on what makes them tick (yawn) and not enough examination of the appeal the cult had to Martha after her mother died and her aunt helped raise her. Durkin rather lazily says to the viewer "Ah, she found this pseudo-family attractive...take our word for it".  The pacing is also a little too unnecessarily slack in some parts. However, the whole question of identity is one that haunts all of us at times...or leads us into delusional states. To watch someone battle with the issue to the extent that Martha does in this psychological thriller makes for gripping viewing overall.

I say this film tastes - THOUGHTFUL.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Loved Ones: I'm Going To The Torture Prom, Daddy!

The film:
The Loved Ones (2009)

The under-the-radar factor:
This Australian production won the People's Choice Award in the Midnight Madness section of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and then commenced a trek onto other events on the fest circuit. Nonetheless, upon regular theatrical release, it didn't do very well regarding commercial business domestically or in the international movie arena.

The review:

Pay attention kids...this is how it's done!

I've said it before and I'll say it again - too many horror movies are made by people who are horror fans and not real filmmakers (particularly true of those productions lower down in the budgetary scales)...or by paycheck directors who lack the real expertise and/or spirit to effectively bring out the potential in the genre.

Side note: this fact is sometimes lost on the best of us. I remember one of my York University classes with Robin Wood - the same man who wrote the American Nightmare essays and ran a similarly titled set of screenings one year at the Toronto film fest. Robin informed us that the slasher horror pic he had caught the night before (name escapes me) had a "surprising lack of redeeming value" to it. We students pointed out to this respected cinematic scrutineer that more than likely that was because, in the horror genre, they often make intentional pieces of shit! (Robin was a great intellect but also a stubborn guy who read meaning into all kinds of things - you couldn't tell him that, sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. Anyway...)

Even if you think you are not into graphic horror torture porn oriented flics, that may be because you haven't seen the Sean Byrne offering The Loved Ones. I recommend you do.

Brent (Xavier Samuel) is still grieving over the death of his father in a car accident in which the son was driving. Still, he's a teenager with raging male hormones and does have a diversion most boys his age would kill for - the loving Holly (Victoria Thaine), offering quickie sex in her car while really longing for a deeper relationship with him. She is of course the only logical choice to be his escort to the big school dance but that's not the way Lola Stone sees it. This outsider (played with gusto by Robin McLeavy) doesn't accept Brent's rejection of her invitation to be his prom queen.

While Lola may be an outcast at school, her father (John Brumpton) sees to it that his "princess" gets whatever her heart desires. Before he knows it, Brent has been kidnapped and brought back to not-so-stately Stone Manor, where the pseudo-prom plays out to the horrifying hilt!

One of the things that really impressed me is how layered The Loved Ones becomes as it proceeds. The more disturbing moments are going to be difficult for some to sit through but Byrne often displays the Hitchcockian touch of making you squirm and laugh, almost at the same time. A sub-plot involving Brent's pal Jamie trying to score with the school's hot goth Mia (Jessica McNamee) provides comic relief when needed; at the same time it's obvious all is not well with her character and eventually it becomes clear how that fits into the circumstances of the rest of the film. Suffering rears it's head in other ways as well. Brent may be using sex with Holly as an anesthetic for the pain he feels about his father's death but the markings on his body before Lola even gets her hands on him reveals the personal torture he is already under.

The acting is top notch, especially from the sicko Stone family side. McLeavy and Brumpton do a great job at making synchronous sinister sneers for the camera; at the same time they make it clear how they've allowed themselves to be so pathetically isolated. We may not sympathize with them but we understand the world they've tried to put together for each other. It's amazing to see Lola go from her fairly typical teenage girl pink bedroom to the hell pit outside that door. What also makes the film work is the fact that she is actually a very physically cute young lady, which sends the movie into the realm of a teenage romance story that has gone bonkers.

The film's production values, while on an indie scale, are exceptionally good. And the film has been well received by those few who have seen it, with the Tomato Meter flying off the charts. So why didn't The Loved Ones make a bigger splash at the box office in this age of Saw-gore success? Is it that people aren't as scary and creepy when they speak with Aussie accents? Am I getting closer to the truth when I'm speculating that it may be because this time out it's a female inflicting the physical pain on (as we discover) a number of males?

Perhaps the film flirts with the sensationalistic a few times but that's pretty much par for the course in this territory; on balance I have no major criticisms here. If you never thought you would be interested in seeing a torture-fest of a film but might be willing to try one, pick a selection where the talent rises to the top the way it does in The Loved Ones. (Mr. Byrne, another film? Soon? Please?)

I say this film tastes - DEVILISH.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Upside Down is too Topsy-Turvy

The film:
Upside Down (2012)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Limited release in North America in the spring of 2013 resulted in box office peanuts.

The review:

Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

No doubt there's things that can be done now in the cinematic sphere that would have been unheard of a few scant years ago. CGI allows us to create new worlds in the fullest sense, and that possibility is taken to the extreme (and here, I mean that pejoratively) in the Juan Solanas fantasy-romance Upside Down.

Describing this film is going to take some patience on both our parts, but here goes...

Two worlds exist in a synchronized orbit, one on top of the other, with gravitational fields pulling in opposite directions. The inhabitants of both planets speak English, use our types of technologies and pretty much resemble our Earth in most ways. Their upper world, however, is where the big cheese types call the shots; people live in beautiful homes in lovely neighborhoods and work under the best of conditions. These people cannot "rise down" to the lower world, a bleak, dirty environment which has been thoroughly exploited by the planet above. These cellar-dwellers ring out marginal existences and gravity doesn't allow them to "fall up" to the oppressor world. People from either sphere are not suppose to have anything to do with each other but two smitten kids named Adam and Eden (yeah, you read that right) have managed to climb mountain peaks on both globes that allow them to physically connect - until the day that interplanetary border troops discover their dangerous liaisons.  The ensuing commotion sees upper-world Eden injured to the extent that she suffers amnesia.

Fast forward ten years where Adam (Jim Sturgess) notices a tv program in which adult Eden (Kirsten Dunst) appears. She is working for Transworld, the gigantic corporation whose humungous tower connects both planets but with workers segregated above and below the main floor. Adam, using a anti-aging recipe based on something he learned from his aunt, convinces Transworld to employ him as he attempts to get close enough to Eden to try to jar her memory.

Best you have a gander at the trailer to fill in the blanks...

Visually, as you can see from the clip, Upside Down astounds...but you could have been given a convincing look at this fantasy world in an entertaining ten minute short.  Instead, we're asked to sit through an additional ninety minutes of what Solanas has to offer and frankly I feel like I took a cinematic bullet for you guys so you don't have to watch this dredge. A wonderful concept, stillborn from the start.

Right off the bat, you can't help but ask certain questions - why no back story at all as to how these worlds developed as they did? Why is everyone in the lower world so passive and not willing to stand up to their oppressors in the least? Are all the the folks in the upper world totally heartless? But in spite of the one-dimensionality of the story telling throughout, I still held hope that Upside Down would at least offer a feel-good romantic diversion worthy of some recommendation...

...but that's when the last ten minutes of the film showed up. And that's when the plot moved from silly to ludicrous.  With no semi-rational means available to tie things up, every lazy and ridiculous explanation is dropped in from the sky for the sake of concluding this mess.

Likeable performances from Sturgess, Dunst and veteran Timothy Spall (whose teeth help offset the empty beauty of the upper world) are as wasted as the incredible visual panache surrounding them. I'm a sap for a half-decent romance so it tells you something when I say this film almost doesn't deserve being reviewed, let alone watched. A Canadian-French co-production, this is the opposite of some music videos where the vid sucks but the song is hot - here, it's a travesty that there wasn't even a half-baked story line to insert in such visual splendor. Upside Down has a delicious looking shell around it but, filling-wise,...

I say this film tastes - EMPTY.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Mini-Review: Troma Take-off Needs Trimming

The film:
Young Blood: Evil Intentions (2012)

The under-the-radar factor:
Brothers Mat and Myron Smith directed, wrote, produced and edited this micro-budget "horror-comedy" effort largely filmed around Martinsville-Henry County. It's been screened in a few towns, the Fright Night Festival in Louisville and the DVD is being self-marketed through the production's website.

The review:

Young Blood: Evil Intentions would look like a Troma pictures release even if it wasn't for the presence of the legendary Lloyd Kaufman himself in the film's cast. Like so many of those flics, YB:EI looks like it was shot on the seat of it's pants by whatever means possible; at the same time the production was able to call on locals by the hundreds to participate as extras. Very Tromaish.

Anavey and Anastasia are hardly in the happiest of homes. Their mom Olivia has hooked up with a drip of a boyfriend in the persona of the rude and crude Dale. Anavey decides to include her sweet but timid sister into a course of revenge not only towards her own fractured home but against all adults. The older sibling fancies herself a vampire and sets about the actions to recruit reluctant Anastasia into the fold, setting off a plan to create an army of children to murder the local adult population.

The film does deliver some smirks towards the middle, usually created by the sidebar characters that drop in - Kaufman as the over-excited news anchor; the redneck and rude Sheriff Bacon; the Rev. Jerry Jackson who mobilizes the adults against the demonic children in town (might have been a good idea to include more of his character). And the gore-score does rise up to some impactful degree as the story goes on.

But the schlock fun-factor is injured by two issues. One is pacing. A few scenes are actually too abrupt but several others go beyond what's necessary or comfortable. The 100 minute running time, overall, has a bloat problem. A more serious hitch is that the dysfunctional family that dominates the first thirty-plus minutes and significant screen time at the end is just not that interesting. Zoe Cox is cute and sympathetic as the reluctant vampire recruit Anastasia but the other three actors are really not that engaging. Once Kaufman and the other animated characters show up you wish that more of their ilk could have paid a visit. Perhaps the Brothers Smith will tighten and enliven with their next project, Invasion of the Killer Cicadas.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Freeway Takes You On A Wild Ride

The film:
Freeway (1996)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Described as a modern take on the old Red Riding Hood tale, this production was apparently first destined for HBO. The film grossed peanuts at the theatrical box office, although it has since acquired a passionate cult following. Reese Witherspoon's career was not yet in full star mode, while Kiefer Sutherland was experiencing a downward direction in status before his 24 resurgence.

The review:

You've probably had someone stand before you and in their appearance, actions, or even by just coming out and stating it, make the claim of being a "rebel".

And of course you had a difficult time trying not to laugh.

John or Jane Doe Rebel may fancy themselves as a non-conformist, a dissident, a protester or agitator in a lot of ways but, looking at the big picture, you can still peg them for all their verbal or bodily bravado as someone who talks the talk better than they walk the walk. But sometimes that person isn't so much ''rebellious" but rather just simply "impolite".

Sure, Matthew Bright's black comedy Freeway, with it's B-movie frankness set in mainstream trappings may be less rebellious than it thinks. But since being impolite in films seeking mass distribution and featuring recognizable names is really a very rare occurrence, loutishness may indeed qualify as cinematic mutiny. Freeway is a film that doesn't care what you think of it, doesn't regard what the rules are suppose to be and couldn't care less about polite sensibilities. That's what makes it feel fresh, invigorating and wicked...

...and, if you don't mind having those polite sensibilities assaulted...wildly entertaining.

Young Vanessa Lutz (Witherspoon) can barely read but has amazing survival instincts. After hooker mom (Amanda Plummer) and creep step-dad (Michael T. Weiss) are incarcerated, Vanessa gives the foster parent authorities the slip and heads out on a quest to rendezvous upstate with a granny she's never met. The car she stole breaks down on the freeway and the guy to the rescue is a nerdy youth counselor named Bob (Sutherland), who happens to be the I-5 Murderer who has been killing and then raping young prostitutes in the area. After appearing supportive and getting her to open up about her past, Bob reveals his true nature but isn't aware Vanessa is packing heat given to her by her (now dead) fiance. She shoots the perv full of holes but it turns out he doesn't die.

Eventually taken into custody, Vanessa's arresting officers at first dismiss her claims that the now disfigured Bob is the killer they've been after. With his proper but dimwitted wife (Brooke Shields...yeah, her!) at his side, Bob sees his assailant put into a juvenile detention center, where she quickly establishes herself as the queen of the cell block. The film plays out to an inevitable conclusion but produces many surprises along the way which are best not mentioned here.

Did that trailer give you a real idea of what the film is like?  Of course not. This was one hard baby to market as it really crosses into a number of realms while refusing to settle into any expectations.  Easy to admire but hard to sell.

Forget about Witherspoon coasting as of late and return to her pre-Election era when it was obvious what the movie world was starting to see in her. To say she owns this flic is an understatement. The really impressive thing about her dominant performance is how true it seems to ring from the first scene through to the last. This is truly the definition of a "wow" accomplishment. Sutherland is both suave and slimy when required to be, turning in a strong sicko role to be remembered by.

As far as the movie around them is concerned, it's "impolite" nature makes it unpredictable and spirited, although the chaos reigns a little too supreme towards the end, featuring a showdown scenario that has a few too many conveniences in place. However, while the subject matter is often undeniably dark and ugly, the spirit of the film allows the viewer to observe and even enjoy the madness. One wonders if this is closer to what executive producer Oliver Stone really had in mind for his own Natural Born Killers. Because it feels both socially impolite AND cinematically rebellious....

I say this film tastes - WILD.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Attack Of The Herbals Is An Agreeable Assault

The Film:
Attack of the Herbals (2011)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Horror-comedy....actually, make that comedy-horror flic...that has had limited exhibition. A bare bones production - the principal photography supposedly only took place on weekends, with the cast returning to day jobs during the week as director David Ryan Keith did his editing.

The review:

When one is writing up a critique of a film, the individual is going through a few different kinds of reviews in their head...and in the case of a low budget independent feature, three different kinds.

On the one hand is the evaluation of a work being done under limited resources, the "well, if only they had been able to do this" take on a project that was probably lucky to see the light of day at all. At the same time...

There is the review that has to be posted for the world at large that doesn't give a rat's ass what the budget was, what the obstacles were, and what could have been or should have been. The public has a bit of cash in their hands and are wondering if the bottom line verdict is that they should bother spending some coin for a purchase or rental of a film that will take up a few hours of their lives.

And then there's the other review going on; the "this is a worthwhile film to watch...IF you happen to be in this particular frame of mind/mood" observation.

So let's make it clear - Attack of the Herbals, for what it is and the way it was made, represents an okay enough time-waster IF viewers are in the mood for silly, goofy fun.

Got it?

Jackson MacGregor (Calum Booth) returns to the sleepy Scottish village of Lobster Cove to a less-than-warm welcome. Most of the natives still equate the lad with all the negative actions taken by local heel Bennett Campbell (Liam Matheson) who has been buying up and redeveloping their quaint locale. One more target remains in the sinister Bennett's crosshairs - the postal station owned by Jackson's grandparents.

Russell Wallace (Steve Worsley), the one person in the village who likes Jackson, has just noticed a large wooden crate that has washed up on shore. As revealed at the beginning, the container holds the contents of a Nazi experiment that went way too wrong. Still, Russell and Jackson discover the herbs that have made their way to Lobster Cove taste delicious when done as a tea and that sets the wheels in motion - the two men will sell the substance to the villagers in an effort to keep the post office afloat. The plan works beyond expectations - the villagers (and even Bennett) not only can't get enough of the tea, they start acting peculiar when deprived of it - loud, violent and, eventually, murderous.

Watch the's tea time!

For a film supposedly made on a shoe string, Attack of the Herbals isn't a bad looking production at all. A lot of time seems to have gone into the composition of shots and the editing is crisp and efficient. The Scottish coast is scenic and there's enough visual panache to convince you the folks behind the camera know what they're doing.

The level of acting may not be of awards caliber but it's hardly an embarrassment either. Particularly good are Worsley as Russell, the friendly, simple guy who gives off the needed positive karma when things are dire, and Richard Currie as "The Roadrunner", the washed-up athlete confined to a wheelchair who exudes total cockiness and despair at different ends of his story line. Booth, who's a little too stiff with his delivery, and co-screenwriter Matheson, who can't produce any variety in his sneer veneer, don't fare as well.

As a horror movie, the "ick" factor really isn't around, as the scenes of violence come across as comical (if production values suffered a letdown, it was in the fake blood department). But as a comedy there are enough cute guffaws and even the odd laugh-out-loud moment, especially the one involving Roadrunner in a "thrilling" chase scene - between himself in a wheelchair and a plumpish attacker on a scooter.  It's actually pretty funny.

Some folks (not just the distributors) have not helped things by comparing this worthy effort to the likes of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, since there is no comparison to those A-list entries. And the film does sputter out in the last few minutes, with the movie not so much ending as simply stopping. Still, as mentioned, this is a more than amiable time-waster if you set yourself up for it. Don't sit forward in your chair - lie back, put your feet up and enjoy it with a big bowl of popcorn and a couple of beers...

...or a nice cup of tea.

I say this film tastes - LIKE BUBBLE GUM.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Yesterday Was A Lie (but today, it's a movie review...)

The Film:
Yesterday Was a Lie (2008)

The under-the-radar-factor:
"Produced on a micro-budget of $200,000 by a non-profit arts foundation" type feature that won several awards at a number of niche and smaller film festivals.

The review:

Warning: I'm coming at you from the right side. Duck!!

Right vs. left hemisphere brain characteristics is something dwelled on at great length in James Kerwin's Yesterday Was a Lie. Personally, I've been thinking there is a conspiracy taking place on our poor planet to produce a number of left-side individuals who are both programmers AND programmed  - that people who think in these linear, analytic terms are easier to manipulate and such "tree" watchers" keep their antennas from emerging and regarding the true realities in the society around them, as opposed to us more sensible "forest" lovers.

(The truth is I'm probably just jealous and ashamed of being severely math challenged and have also heard people question on occasion whether either sides of my cranium are operating at all. By "occasion" I mean from about seven in the morning till eleven at night. Anyway...)

Seriously, there is a considerable amount to digest in Yesterday Was a Lie from both the thinking, analytical direction, as well as the touchy-feely, conceptualizing mode. Before trying to break off into the different streams, let's arrive at a synopsis that can pretty much sum things up for all:

Chase Masterson (left) and Kipleigh Brown
We first meet Detective (or is she a P.I.?) Hoyle (Kipleigh Brown) on the couch of her shrink, going over the details of a dream she has had regarding an elevator ride and a doppelganger from another time period with a warning about choices made and second chances. From here, an off-screen narrator introduces the viewer to some Jungian thoughts regarding "absolute knowledge", the kind that is usually overwhelmed by the conscious mind. Hoyle turns out to be on the search for a notebook associated with a pained genius named Dudas (John Newton), who she has shared more than some theories with. His work - along with some other highbrow concepts, including a liberal dose of T.S. Elliot - help to explain what Hoyle begins to experience; shifts in time and perception, where she is really not sure if she is coming or going and what, for that matter, is real anymore.

Along the way she also encounters a sexy lounge singer (Chase Masterson) who helps introduce Hoyle to some of the alternate ways of viewing things that start coming up; balance is important (like in the making of a good Manhattan cocktail)...sometimes things don't fit smoothly together..."God's chess game"...causality and free will...surrealism and the unconscious mind..."sometimes it's the rough edges that make life interesting"...and so on.

Hoyle starts repeating experiences in different ways and at different times. She seeks out expert opinions and receives information regarding fenestra aeternitatis (Google it), mathematical formulas, and get's a wound from a gun shot (or did she simply faint?). But who was she talking to? At what time? Bottom line - is Hoyle going crazy?

Okay, it's getting complicated, right? So I lied. A film with this many ideas and plot devices running through it is difficult to describe. As far as the real deep analytical aspects are concerned, there are enough folks out there willing to go over them so, by all means, indulge. For what I the trailer first and I'll be right back...

First, a few remarks about the look of the film. Yes, it's obvious it was filmed on a low budget...which is not the same as saying it has a low budget look. Originally shot in color HD and desaturated accordingly, the atmospherics attained by Kerwin and DOP Jason Cochard are often breathtaking. The filmmakers have taken the means they have available and brought it fully under their control, rather than letting their resources control what they could achieve. For a film which often plays with the notion of "dream time", the look is entirely appropriate. I do not exaggerate how impressive the atmospherics are.

As far as the contents of the non-linear storytelling goes, Yesterday Was a Lie does often come across as both pretentious and hokey in the same scene. Some viewers may end up shaking their heads,with others scratching them. Perhaps there are three hours worth of concepts jammed into half the time needed (don't call this movie "padded"...more like "bulging"). But this is an age where dumb-downed product increasingly prevails (and cinema is losing cred to the third golden age of television). This film's cerebral ambitions felt most refreshing, even if more than one viewing is required to grasp everything that's going on...and I'm up for that! I enjoyed the mixture of artifacts of different eras - rotary phones calling modern answering machines; old school typewriters in one scene with snazzy computers in another. Memories competing with per-cognition. The food for thought was more stimulating than exhausting.

There is a flaw that comes rather close to being critical and I'm afraid it's in the casting of Brown in the lead role. Right off the bat, it becomes obvious that she just doesn't come across as what's needed as a hard drinking gumshoe type. In the production's press kit the director is quoted as saying he was thinking of a Bacall-in-Bogart's role vibe for the central character. Well, I'm not saying she'd look more at home with a glass of warm milk than bourbon but Brown is just not up for it. Also, the fact that Masterson and Newton carry their roles very well intensifies the shortcomings regarding the lead's rather lightweight performance.

Still, I very much liked this film. It's sexy, atmospheric, alluring, challenging, and rather original. When I started this blog several months ago my hope was to discover movies like Yesterday Was a Lie. It may be a niche kind of offering that wouldn't fit the tastes of many in the mainstream crowd but it seems to be a project with passion behind it. (I've read somewhere that Masterson got her producer credit for both stepping in as an angel investor at a needed moment, as well as when a line producer took a powder ...and I'm sure no one got rich on this job, or expected to.)

Let General Zod and Superman bounce each other off some more buildings in the increasingly predictable mainstream world for all I care - I'd rather see the offerings that talented, emerging filmmakers like Kerwin have to offer.

I say this film tastes - REFRESHING.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

God Told Me To (give bizzare films a break, but...)

The Film:
God Told Me To (1976) - aka "Demon" (Some television distributors would not schedule the film under it's original name.)

A New World Pictures release that made it's way through the schlock/B-movie market of the time.

The review:

I have to admit my exploration into the cinema of Larry Cohen had been limited to one feature - It's Alive (1974), which the late Robin Wood programmed for his American Cinema class in my second year of film school. I seemed to remember finding that film worthwhile and was looking forward to throwing myself into this other Cohen pic.

Kind of safe to say God Told Me To is like the weather in Toronto - just when you think you've got a handle on it, there it goes and changes unexpectedly. Put away the shorts and get out the long johns. That's pretty much the way this film goes - what you thought you were watching twenty minutes ago doesn't seem to be there later on.

It's not possible to give too elaborate a synopsis on this one, with all of its twists and turns. The film starts with the random shooting of people on the streets of Manhattan. A sniper perched on a water tower is blasting away but not showing any emotion during the slaughter. Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) manages to communicate with the individual, who tells him "God told me to" shoot the innocents below. Nicholas notices these strange random acts increasing and with the same, calm explanation from each killer..."God told me to".

All of these religious connotations weigh heavily on the devout Nicholas - well, he is devout in being a God-fearing man who sneeks away to mass when he isn't coming home to the bed of his babe girlfriend (Deborah Raffin). The gal-pal would like to know when Peter is going to have the balls to divorce his wife Martha (Sandy Dennis); trouble is, Pete and Martha actually get along fine when together and, being Catholic, he has no inclination to change his relationship(s) from where things stand.

As his investigation continues it becomes evident that the person inspiring the murderous actions in the populace is a mysterious character named Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch who, when we finally meet him, has a very "interesting" appearance). The film shifts from crime drama to supernatural horror tale to sci-fi with ruminations on religion and personal identity...oh, and a different virgin birth on a Christmas Day...yeah, things get complicated.

There is nothing wrong with the acting in the film - in fact, the performances are far superior compared to usual B-movie fare. Lo Bianco is entirely convincing in portraying his frustrations with the investigation and, later, the anxiety he feels over questions concerning his own identity. I remember him in a fly-under-the-radar flic he did with Karen Black called Separate Ways where he was once again the pole that held up the cinematic tent. One day I'm going to write up a post on the most underrated actors and he'll be in it. A guy who has appeared in some paycheck type films but has never to my knowledge delivered a paycheck performance, he keeps this hectic storyline tied together.

Both Raffin and Dennis are nothing short of excellent in the execution of their roles. Sylvia Sidney shows up later and delivers a small but important spin on the tale very well. This is beyond the level of thespianism I expect to see in most New World Picture releases. But in some ways that's a problem. The four aforementioned actors are so good that they look out of place amongst the shaky camerawork, cheap FX and slapdash look of the film.

The balance between keeping things interesting and exasperating is increasingly challenged as the tale goes on into every which direction. Corporate manipulation, social unrest and even the true identities of Jesus/God come into question, with a little pre X-files speculation about how alien beings may really be running the show coming into the mix. Hello?...what's going on?...where am I?...what's happening now?

All of this is interesting and worthwhile stuff but it's one thing to come up with the ideas and another to execute them. Cohen's film is not suffering from a dearth of concepts. Apparently he hasn't heard that less is often more. 

God Told Me To is not a write-off but it requires a lot of patience. Many of the issues it deals with - especially following religious orthodoxies without question and the manipulations in and of our society in general- are welcome explorations. It's because they are important that I wish they were examined in a more considerate manner. Just because your doing a B-film dealing with A-issues doesn't excuse sloppiness and clumsy approaches. Involving your audience is one thing but this reviewer felt like he went through an hour and a half workout from a fitness instructor who kept changing my exercise program unannounced. Phew!

Cohen certainly has his fans and I know many have really gotten into this flic but...

I say this film tastes - SLOPPY.

(If you do decide to give this a viewing, look for Andy Kaufman in a cop-turned-murderer bit role.)

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The Playback Singer Makes Sweet Music

The Film:
The Playback Singer (2013)

The under-the-radar factor:
The movie represents a first theatrical feature effort for director Suju Vijayan (you get to know more about her in this audio interview). "...financed by individual investors as well as sweat equity", this independent production relied on a Kickstarter campaign to see it through post-production and a launch onto the film festival circuit.

The review:

Anyone familiar with this blog knows it tends to take a backward look at films that have already been in release. I have, however, agreed to look at recently completed indie efforts just now trying to find those first eyeballs.

A lot of people spill their guts and work 23 hour days in efforts to have feature films made. I admire that but also realize many of those Indiegogo/Kickstarter projects will never see the light of day and, regrettably, in some cases, shouldn't. It's often difficult to separate the enthusiastic film fan who fancies themselves a filmmaker from those who have a real chance to deliver. I'm not trying to throw cold water on those campaigns that are out there - I'm just referring to the law of averages. Most of those completed, well meaning efforts will, for various reasons, just not "bring it".

The Playback Singer does bring it. The film has started to make some award noise on the fest circuit and deservedly so.

Things are shaky enough for Ray (Ross Partridge, resembling a younger, fitter Matthew Perry) and his wife Priya (Navi Rawat of Numb3rs fame). He quit his job as a teacher and is allegedly getting his act together to design and build backyard jungle gyms around Van Nuys. She brings in the cash they have through grueling work as an immigration lawyer. Just as the monetary tensions mount in their marriage, she receives news that her long estranged father Ashok (Piyush Mishra) is arriving from India, supposedly for a concert tour. And dad arrives with expectations and attitudes that bring out the unease in his daughter and the cheekiness in her hubby.

It turns out the decaying playback singer of Bollywood movies shares Ray's traits of being less than responsible to those who have been around him. The two men immediately display a competitive nature between them but the wind leaves Ashok's sails when it turns out the concert tour has not only been a scam but one that he invested in himself. Although the singer has been a deadbeat excuse of a father (having gone through five wives and eleven engagements), Priya convinces him to stay while she seeks legal options for the recovery of his funds. That leaves plenty of time to see if Ashok can drink as much wine as Ray smokes weed, while they take turns picking on each other's character defects. Things change when Ashok accompanies Ray to one of his potential work assignments and judges how directionless his son-in-law really is. Further complications develop with Ashok's health and some game-changing news regarding an expanded family life awaiting Priya and Ray.

The Playback Singer doesn't attempt to punch above its weight class and that's good. Being a straightforward and simple tale is a major strength. There is a refreshing honest balance to the elements in the film. It's funny enough without going overboard. It's sentimental without being sappy. It examines cultural differences with a critical but respectful eye. The two male leads show the right amount of antagonism and support for each other. No character is an angel but none are loathsome. Some films try to go larger than life and others micro-analyze what is before them. The Playback Singer feels like the same size as life in an earnest way.

The story is hardly original and in some ways Rawat's character is left hanging as the movie centers on the story of male angst and self-loathing. But the pacing feels natural and the production values are solid in a film that proceeds as lyrically as the songs Ashok sings every day in his daughter's garden. The Playback Singer isn't just a feel-good's a "make good" story of people learning to accept the other person for who they are and at the same time realizing it's ultimately better not to excuse themselves.

I say this film tastes - SWEET.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Before Network, there was Ace In The Hole

The Film:
Ace in the Hole (1951)

When one thinks of the cinema of Billy Wilder, several titles jump to the tip of the tongue: The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Stalag 17...

Less well-known (and not as appreciated at the time it was released) was Ace in the Hole. Thanks to Randy Roberts for suggesting it when the question of neglected quality films was raised on the Film Guinea Pig Twitter account.
The review:

In early 1925 cave explorer Floyd Collins found himself trapped in a crawlway in a Kentucky shaft. He died 18 days later before rescuers could reach him but his ordeal created a sensation as newspapers and the still infant media of radio covered his situation around the clock. His was, after all, a "human interest story".

The true story of Collins is on the mind of Wilder's fictional Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) when an opportunity arises that may present the latter's meal ticket out of the boonies of the journalism world. Tatum arrived a year earlier in Albuquerque (a far less interesting version than Walter White's) after being fired by all the big city rags to the north. Chuck, who inhales story telling excitement with the same gusto as when tipping back the bottle, is professionally suffocating in Hicksville. He can pay the bills but he's really waiting for a headline grabbing tale that will reestablish his career. His boss almost mockingly sends him and a photographer to cover a mundane out of town rattlesnake hunt.

Along the way they come across a rural diner/gas station whose owner Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has been caught inside an abandoned mine shaft after a rockslide. Leo's wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) doesn't seem too involved with her hubby's situation until the wheels start turning in Chuck's head. Citing the coverage surrounding the Collins affair, Tatum muscles in and takes over the "rescue" of poor Leo. Despite being initially disliked (for good reason) by all who meet him, Lorraine, the local sheriff, the attending doctor, and the rescue engineer all find self-serving reasons for going along with the reporter's plan. Convinced Minosa can survive for at least a week, they opt for a more time-consuming drilling procedure. The rescue will take days instead of hours, allowing Chuck to stretch out the "human interest story"  he is selling to the wire services. The locale becomes a tourist and media circus in no time and everyone, except poor (and now slowly dying) Leo, rake in the monetary and publicity benefits. But, in the end....well, you know what they say about the best laid plans, right?

Some have suggested that if Ace in the Hole were being remade today, the film would have concluded with Chuck Tatum becoming an astounding success, retailing "news" stories as he saw fit for the political right...or  left...or whatever made a splash. Perhaps the audiences in 1951 just saw this satirical dramedy as being too over the top, too cynical, even for Wilder. Or perhaps things just struck too close to the bone. If art, by some definitions, makes the not-so-obvious into something obvious, Ace in the Hole made the obvious too unending, too multifaceted, too much of a mirror being held up to almost everyone's face. (European sensibilities were struck a little differently - the film won the International Prize at the Venice Film Festival.)

Today, we can just look at this movie and wonder why more of our contemporary filmmakers don't display the true brashness of Wilder (who, btw, was himself a journalist in a previous life). Some directors are  graphic in depicting what people do - Wilder goes beyond the skin's surface in showing the opportunistic and gawking, rubber-necking nature in all of us. 

The fact that a movie with an almost total absence of likeable characters can keep the viewer riveted to the end is a testament to the strength of the execution of the material. Douglas slices the ham thick (as per usual) but is never less than fascinating in a role which leaves you shaking your head at the character's audacity, while in awe of his ringleader skills in running the human circus before your eyes. How he "befriends" the trapped man and still manages to look him in the eye is something to behold. And how he doesn't really have to twist arms to have others come around to his way of thinking is eery but sadly convincing.

Safe to say my enthusiasm for Ace In The Hole has come across here. This film was a wine that may have been opened before it's time but how amazingly (and fittingly) it has aged.

I say this film tastes - EXCITING.