Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Exploding Girl That Simmers

The film:
The Exploding Girl (2009)

The under-the-radar-factor:
The first starring role for actress/screenwriter Zoe Kazan of Ruby Sparks fame, the Oscilloscope release was screened on the Sundance Channel but has otherwise had little exposure. North American box office receipts didn't come close to hitting six figures.

The review:

A young woman who can't clue in that one relationship is ending while another could be had is the subject of Bradley Rust Gray's film which, in spite of it's title, moves in a very slow and quiet manner throughout. 

Kazan (granddaughter of Elia) portrays Ivy, a college girl who heads back to NYC to stay with her mom for the summer. One wonders why - the parent is so busy teaching dance classes and socializing that she rarely has a moment for her daughter. Fortunately, Ivy does have the company of old friend Al (Mark Rendall) who has accompanied her back, only to discover that his room at home has been rented out. Having stayed over at Ivy's before, it's not an inconvenience for them to have him crash out on their couch. Al provides a partner to share lunches, play cards, attend parties and regard baby pigeons with... and it would be obvious to anyone - except Ivy - that he's sporting a crush on her. It would also be apparent to the rest of the planet that Ivy's long distance college boy friend - taciturn when he does bother to return calls, which is not often - is moving towards ending their relationship. Once he finally delivers the official news to her, the numbed Ivy has a particularly difficult time getting focus back in her life. An epileptic prone to seizures when feeling stressed (part of what the "exploding" in the title refers to, as well her quieter inner turmoil), she has to deal with this oncoming assault on her physical self, as well as the new emotional challenges in front of her.

Some films go really big, others small. The Exploding Girl is not a loud noise of a film, nor one microscopically analyzing details to discover the essence of anything. It tries to examine someone's world on the same scale as life itself. Gray's camera stays at a distance to respect the plight of his characters. The soundtrack is not jammed with aural influences. The pacing is leisurely and there are long periods where nothing eventful occurs. This is not a film which finds an ordinary character in extraordinary circumstances or a towering figure in their own distinct one-of-a-kind existence. This is a film about Ivy, a typical student on summer break who could have been any person you walked past earlier in the day. There's no doubt that this will not appeal to those looking for something more plot driven with more things "going on". In that case, by all means, look elsewhere but...

This is a rewarding experience in many ways, first and foremost because of the performance of the undeniably talented Kazan. The camera is with her for practically every single frame and she makes her character's modest, predictable life absorbing. You believe less that you are witnessing an actor and more that you are watching a real person ready to walk off the screen and sit beside you. The director seems to know that the best thing to do is just get out of her way and let her go. I wasn't as impressed with Kazan in Ruby Sparks (that was more of an issue with her as screenwriter than as an actor) but here, she won me over from the start.

Gray, who I am sure knows he's not out for the Michael Bay crowd, still doesn't try to press his luck with the viewer's patience - clocking in at less than an hour and a half, The Exploding Girl is at just about the right length for it's beautifully shot simple study of a simple situation.

You could say of this film "That's what indie is all about!" One person could respond with "Yes, isn't that awesome?!" and another with "Yes, isn't that the painful truth?!" Maybe they'd both be right but I give this effort a round of applause and thank these folks for letting me spend 8o minutes of Ivy's summer vacation with her. Recommended for those who would like the idea of sitting on a rooftop and watching the pigeons fly by.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Silent House Doesn't Make For A Scary House

The film:
Silent House (2012)

The under-the-radar-factor:
A remake of the 2010 movie La casa muda, this version grossed close to $13 million in the U.S.A., respectable for a production rumored to have been budgeted around $2 million but far from making it a household name.

The review:

Alfred Hitchock's Rope pulled off the illusion of it; Alexander Sokurov actually accomplished it with his historical fantasy Russian Ark. Mike Figgis took it to total extremes with the 2000 movie Timecode. The idea of constructing a feature film storyline using one continual take (or the appearance of one) in real time is arguably best illustrated by the above examples. Silent House, the horror/psychological thriller flick by the Open Water filmmaking couple of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (sharing the director credits here), will not be a quality example of such cited by film historians in the future. While the long-take-that-never-ends artifice is done convincingly enough, it carries a storyline whose strong conclusion does not make up for the tiresome meanderings preceding it.

Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) is helping her father John (Adam Trese) to fix up their vacation property that's going on the market. It's a large, expansive property in the middle of nowhere, but while perfectly set up for creepiness, all looks normal until a young lady professing to know Sarah drops by for a chat. The mystery girl's presence sets off a chain of strange goings-on after her departure.

Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) also shows up to lend a hand but has to leave to obtain help for some maintenance issues the house has. Shortly after, Sarah starts hearing noises; she and the father head upstairs to investigate. The only strange discovery at first are some Polaroid photos dad doesn't want her to see, but soon after separating Sarah hears the proverbial bump in the night, alerting her to John being is danger. In short order she finds all the exits to the house seem to have become locked or sealed. Upon detecting someone else being about, Sarah finds her severely injured parent. Uncle Peter's return doesn't end the mysterious goings on. The rest of the film depicts Sarah's attempts to avoid detection from whoever is there and finding an escape route, while the audience is finally exposed to the answers that bring sense to what has literally been madness.

This looks like a fairly traditional scary house flick for the first hour (which drags) but then starts doing an abrupt turn, which obviously can't be discussed here. The ending has a big payoff on some heavyweight issues. It reaches higher than most in the horror genre - or at least it makes its aims more obvious and less subtle than most - and some credit is deserved there. However, many will also feel misled by the previous goings-on suggesting dangers that weren't, as it turns out, really present (not that they were that frightening to begin with). Kentis and Lau roll the dice that the conclusion will make up for the uneven activities before it. Maybe they should play with better dice and blow harder.

As far as the continual one-take bit is concerned (the cinematography carrying it is excellent and atmospheric), there are strengths and weaknesses to the approach. While the viewer at times feels as trapped as Sarah, there are those aforementioned tedious moments where we can't help but wonder "isn't there something more interesting going on somewhere else?"

Olsen more than proved her acting chops in her breakout role in Martha Marcy May Marlene and it's a good thing she's on board this project - without her layered performance this thriller without many thrills would be even more tedious than is the case. The one-take gimmick means the viewer is forced to follow the main character throughout and a lesser actress would have made the journey a wearier one. She doesn't come across as your typical scream-queen, as her thinking-person victim makes for some intrigue - her dad and uncle are less interesting than paint drying - but ultimately Olsen's talents are wasted here.

In the end, Silent House is an experiment which doesn't turn out successfully enough to recommend it to anyone other than those who comb through the horror genre regardless. And while it's interesting to see her experiment with roles, one hopes a talent like Elizabeth Olsen's can become more selective. She's too good to lose to mediocre material like this too often.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Briefly - My Flesh and Blood

This 2003 documentary follows a year in the life of the Susan Tom's family - a group including 11 adopted children with varying physical and emotional challenges, some very serious. As the film starts in the fall at Halloween and moves through to the following summer, the majority of screen time is spent on Joe, suffering from cystic fibrosis and a number of other factors leading to his ill temperament; Margaret, the oldest one around with no physical issues but displaying stress from the responsibilities assigned to her; Susan herself, a woman with low self esteem in regards to her appearance but with an unwavering determination to help those children rejected by their birth parents.

Undeniably, there are profound and moving moments in this film - you are looking at children without legs, burn victims and one youngster, Anthony, who's skin is literally falling off his body. And to say that Susan Tom comes through as a trooper who assumes responsibilities others would not is a hefty understatement. The film has won a slew of prizes (including an Audience Award at Sundance) and flies off the charts on the Tomato Meter at 90%. And yet...

At the end of this screening I found myself bothered by three matters. One is that director Johnathan Karsh's approach comes across at times as not only disrespectful (there a few scenes where the kids are more than candid in not wanting to be filmed at the moment) but intrusive to the point of bordering on exploitation. He seems to want the viewer to know his camera is having an effect on the matters at hand. In relation to this, while the children are more than genuine, scenes with some of the adults (like Joe's birth mother and new step father) ended up feeling like they were lifted out of some "reality" tv show. I've been on the other side of the camera in documentary shoots enough to note the way folks come across when they know they are being filmed and it's clear the participants are aware the recording devices are not off in the distance. Karsh also makes it a point to concentrate on the three most overtly dramatic characters of Joe, Margaret and, of course, Susan. Fair enough and understandable, except this seems to come at the expense of short shrifting the storylines of the other wonderful children, some whose lives are almost completely ignored. I know I'm in the minority on this one but while I acknowledge that this film is in many ways an important documentary, it just seems at times like an incomplete and unbalanced one.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Squint Your Eyes And See If You Can Spot A Plot

The film:
Squint Your Eyes (Zmruz oczy) (2002)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Won a FIPRESCI Special Mention at the 2002 Mannheim-Heidelberg Film Festival, several prizes at the 2004 Polish Film Awards and played the Tribeca fest but is relatively unknown to North American audiences.

The review:

After having just watched the relatively plotless Canadian movie One Week, I was looking forward to something more story driven for the next review. I can say unequivocally that Andrzej Jakimowski’s Squint Your Eyes did not fill that void, making the prior screening seem like Chris Nolan's Momento. But that's not to say that the latest film regarded was not a rewarding one.

A former school teacher named Jasiek (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is looking after what's left of a co-op farm in the country side, although his status seems up in the air. Contracts he has with the owner's rep are either physically tattered or left unsigned. The most exciting thing the cerebral chap has going is the controversy surrounding a former student, the ten-year old Mala (Ola Proszynska) insisting on staying with him, much to the outrage of her materialistic parents.

The rest of the film concerns itself with the parents attempt to persuade Jasiek to coax the girl into returning home, the invited and uninvited visitors to the farm, and Jasiek trying to make up his mind about his own future.

Did you watch that trailer and listen to the music? Kind of got you feeling all cozy and relaxed, huh? Feel like a nice cup of tea like the guy is drinking in the film? Feel like slumping down in a comfy chair or couch and contemplating the sky out the window or the paint on the wall in front of you? Then you're in the mood to watch this film. Otherwise, don't claim you weren't warned.

Things don't unspool in the narrative as much as they simply drop in but never did Squint Your Eyes seem contrived or untrue. The film has a mysterious element to it - not a lot is going on but one always wonders what may come next. The cast hits perfect notes in their portrayals of the reflective guardian, the uptight parents and the rebellious girl. The performance the steals the show, however, is from the eagle people keep feeding mice to that finally makes its flight to true freedom with a can attached to its legs - the scene is a memorable one. The breakdown of machinery (including a police car that can't get out of the mud) seems to suggest the relics of the communist era, contrasting with the glossy but empty materialism sported by the likes of Mala's parents. While there is not a lot going on, there's plenty to reflect on during this mystical cinematic voyage. The gorgeous cinematography will entrap everyone but the most resistant to the charms of this tale.

They say war is over if you want it. Squint Your Eyes is a rewarding treasure of a film, if you let it be.

Monday, 9 December 2013

One Week Is Too Long To Describe This Film

The film:
One Week (2008)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Given a release in its native Canada in the spring of 2009, most exposure in other markets has come via DVD.

The review:

The plot's easy to describe, since there's hardly any...or does that make it more difficult? Let's see...

(BTW - Helping to stitch the scenario together is an overseeing narrator who turns out to be voiced by actor Campbell Scott. This gives the movie a quasi-documentary feel throughout.)

School teacher Ben Tyler (Joshua Jackson) learns he has an aggressive cancer that's already hit stage IV and needs treatment pronto. He's not thinking of calling off his nuptial vows but fiance Samantha Pierce (Liane Balaban) is more concerned with Ben delaying his therapy to seek out one last adventure. Serendipitously coming across someone looking to sell his motorcycle, Ben is on the chopper and heading west before you can say "Trans-Canada Highway". He stays in touch with Sam but keeps putting off his return to Toronto, one day after another. He sees the sights of each province's roadside wonders (world's biggest nickel coin over here, world's biggest hockey stick over there), meets a couple of befriending women and reflects a lot...and then reflects some more. With fewer days in front of him, most of his questions are nonetheless about his past - one bereft of achievements and filled with excuses and detours. For the most part, Ben has pushed aside some dreams and is finally living life before it actually ends. This has big time implications for his relationship with Samantha, which does get put to the ultimate test before he finally returns home and eventually manages to pull off a long delayed creative goal

Considering it's a film about a person who's dying, One Week is hardly depressing , nor is it particularly invigorating (or, for that matter, convincing about how ill Ben is suppose to be). Then again, it's not Hollywood overdone either. Some would say that makes it Canadian right down to the bone. And to a great extent the real star of the film is the country itself, shown for all it's lush beauty and oh-so nice inhabitants...and visitors. (When Ben hits his final part of the journey and is about to go surfing in the Pacific, a German couple remarks that he lives in one of the most beautiful countries in the world - his modest, non-rotomontade response is appropriately Canadian). The film goes from Tim Horton roll-up-the-rims to a cameo by Gord Downie of that national-treasure-of-a-rock-group The Tragically Hip to the Stanley Cup itself showing up in a hockey rink. Narrator Scott also delivers a steady stream of Great White North facts and figures. There are a plethora of moments that will have Canadian viewers saying "beauty, eh?!"...and others exclaiming "WTF was that all about?!" One Week is not a film about Canadians - it's a film FOR Canadians. I don't know what Americans consider to be the quintessential movie to watch on the Fourth of July but this flick should be mandatory viewing on July 1st for anyone living above the 49th parallel.

So what does this movie hold for non-Canucks? The beauty of the scenery can be appreciated by all and is allowed to be absorbed in appropriate doses. Actually, the pacing of the film on a whole is quite good, with characters and experiences encountered by Ben going on for no longer than is needed. Jackson's sleep-walking type performance suits his character well....which is not to say his character is what suits the story well. While one can understand the guy being in a tizz over dying, the aimlessness of his journey and indulges he allows himself start coming across as being somewhat selfish. Balaban's Samantha is a bit pushy but ultimately sympathetic - after Ben decides dying is an excuse for some indiscretions, you end up feeling more sorry for the loyal trooper she is than the shallower flake he turns out to be.

One Week is not an unpleasant film - it's actually "nice" in the way much of the world finds Canadians "nice", if (rightly or wrongly) not particularly memorable.

Some people regard going to church every Sunday as a duty. Perhaps it's a duty that all Canadians watch One Week...preferably on July 1st. The rest of you, while you may enjoy this calm, light (some would say slight) ride of a movie, are off the hook.

Friday, 6 December 2013

American Bomber Hits Most Of It's Targets

The film:
American Bomber (2013)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Low budget independent production is being released on VOD and DVD by IndiePix Films. The movie has picked up a few awards at a couple of lesser known  festivals.

The review:

A dishonorably discharged veteran agrees to become an American suicide bomber but romance and FBI surveillance may change everything in Eric Trenkamp's feature debut American Bomber.

The life of John Hidell (Michael C. Freeland) is recounted in mock documentary fashion in the early portion of the film. Accounts from his mother and others who knew him conflict; some seeing him as a good egg, others describing ill temper and violent behavior. Abuse seems to have been an element in his life borne outside and inside the home. It's made clear that John reacted badly to the news of the death of his half brother, leading to an internment in which he was exposed to the thinking of the persuasive Barry Aaron Speiler (portrayed in a enthralling manner by Kenny Wade Marshall).

Upon his release, John discovers employment doesn't come easily for a disgraced solider who will undergo background checks. Distant from the remaining family he has, he commits to the ideas of Speiler, a pseudo-brother teacher that has filled the void John feels. Hidell heads on a one-way trip to NYC with a wad of cash and a backpack full of explosives, determined to enjoy what he can in the last few days of his life. His big city contact puts him up for accommodation in the same building as an attractive bartender named Amy (Rebekah Nelson), who bums cigarettes and charms the troubled vet.  With her days as free as his, they spend afternoons together and become closer. As the scheduled time to take action comes nearer, John can't help but feel the possibility of a future with Amy, while also suspecting that he has already been detected by law enforcement officials. His conflicting feelings leads to a violent act that solidifies his status as a fugitive, jeopardizes what he has with his new woman and narrows the choices left to him.

The last indie fiction film I had reviewed prior to this one was Roulette, often displaying the opposite strengths and weaknesses of American Bomber. While that film came charging out of the gate and immediately demanded attention, Bomber takes it's time in setting up it's story and involving it's audience. While Roulette displayed fully developed characters, the real nuts and bolts behind the thinking and feelings of Hidell are never fully explored in Trenkamp's film.

On the other side of the coin, while it was clear Roulette had some technical competence, it also displayed unevenness in the level of acting, as well as some occasionally insipid digital imagery. American Bomber quickly shows a production value level substantially up from most films at this budgetary level with it's sharp cinematography and crisp editing. Also importantly, the acting skills become more impressive with the introduction of each character. While Freeland only achieves a status of being "ok" in the lead role, Nelson really commands the screen whenever she appears and Marshall has some impressive moments, especially delivering a mind-blowing "God is a farmer" monologue towards the end of the film.

There are other strengths as well; among them, a soundtrack that legitimately enhances the mood of scenes, rather than trying to force the viewer into what they should be feeling. The sound recording and editing is also done at a consistently high quality level. And the examination of the surveillance state the U.S. finds itself in post 9/11 times brings out the best and the worst of that culture; the fact John is spotted as quickly as he is upon arrival in the greater New York area could be seen as both reassuring, as well as unsettling...or creepy.

While the first half of American Bomber shuffles along without any sense of urgency, the last 45 minutes of the film becomes highly involving and makes the total effort worthwhile. I also like the fact the conclusion played out in a straightforward manner and left contrivances for other filmmakers who try to substitute being clever for being intelligent. While not perfect (even I'm not that), American Bomber has a lot going for it and I feel confident in recommending it to audiences looking for a solid indie offering. Also keep you eyes open for Rebekah Nelson in the future ... coming across here as charming, sexy and intelligent, she has real potential.


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Briefly - Tekkonkinkreet

Everyone wants to claim Treasure Town is theirs in the 2006 anime Tekkonkinkreet, directed by visual effects artist and American expat Michael Arias. The two street kids named Black (the brooding one) and White (the effervescent sidekick) consider it their turf and get defensive when old style Yakuza gangsters led by Mr. Suzuki ("The Rat") regain some of their old swagger. It turns out the real problem is Mr. Snake, utilizing spacey assassins who can fly to clear away the obstacles of their real estate development plans. Black and White stand in the way of the glorified Disneylands the developers have in mind and become the prime targets. With White injured and separated from him, Black regresses into an illusory and hypnotic life that has real world implications in a showdown with the true forces of evil.

The animation in the film is very good, at times bordering on spectacular, and always atmospheric. The characterizations also have elements going for it, as the relationship between the two boys is rather touching. It was also nice to see some of the characters realizing they had more in common with those they saw as enemies than they realized. But the story is torpedoed by contrivances that are just far too convenient - plot twists are introduced out of nowhere with little plausibility. The last 20 minutes and the introduction of the Minotaur device associated with Black is where the whole thing really runs off the rails. Tekkonkinkreet has things going for it and is far from being a bad anime - it just isn't special enough to recommend it over worthier entries in the genre.

Monday, 2 December 2013

When The Price of Sex Has Nothing To Do With Sex

The film:
The Price of Sex (2011)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Aside from DVD sales, it seems that the greatest exposure for this film has been through its showing at a number of festivals and being aired on The Documentary Channel.

The review:

I remember someone defining capitalism as the practice that gives you the right to sell...or be sold.

It's mildly reassuring that for the number of times that there has been an attempt in our Western society to glamorize prostitution there have also been efforts to call out the realities behind those facades. What is taking place under our noses here is bad enough; what has happened overseas is equally if not more brutal and has been captured in photojournalist-turned-filmmaker Mimi Chakarova's harrowing documentary The Price of Sex. I remember hearing in the film that the U.N. estimates that nearly a million and a half women have been coerced into sexual a conservative guess. From what you witness in this film, that equates to roughly a million and a half pained voices, screaming screams that few hear.

Seven years in the making, the documentary begins by Chakarova reminiscing about her Bulgarian childhood, while footage shows her as a little girl, playing with chickens (each had a name). She states that while there was poverty under communism, it was the kind that was shared equally (with women paid the same as men) and still allowed people, particularly females, to feel protected. Chakarova and her mother left for the United States in 1990 but she returns 20 years later, showing the ghost town of a community she left behind. While many like herself where able to freely go abroad and forge a better life, others were deceived into a existence of sexual slavery or, as the Bulgarians might say, a journey into the Mouth of the Wolf.

Women who were faceless and nameless for years speak out for the camera. They reveal the first English you learn is to ask "How much?". They explain how as naive teenagers they were assured they were wanted as waitresses in Dubai or as cleaning ladies in Turkey, only to be forced to perform sexual acts on arrival. The women recall how they were sold from one pimp to another and beaten into submission by each. How clients range in age from 12 to 83. How some women service 50 clients a day. How one girl tried to escape and fell three floors to the ground, rendering her a paraplegic but was still forced to continue servicing clients. The brutal details go on.

The post-Berlin Wall conditions in their villages help you understand why some would put their hopes - any hopes - in the world outside. Real jobs are almost extinct, with factory closures everywhere. Restaurants and other socially oriented buildings that once brimmed with life look like they have been bombed out. Many of the old folks who are still left are alcoholics. It's shocking how many of them seem indifferent to the plight of their daughters in foreign lands, with many of the girls stigmatized as prostitutes if they ever manage to return. It's even more shocking to find out many of the traffickers who sent them packing are themselves women.

The people fighting uphill battles against the sex trafficking trade are also heard but make it clear that they face massive police and political corruption in places like Turkey, U.A.E. and Greece. Chakarova takes her hidden video camera through areas like Istanbul's red light district showing the seedy hotels where the girls both live and work to pay off the so-called debts they owe their pimps. Eventually she travels into clubs posing as a prostitute at great risk to her well-being to reveal the underground scene the girls work in. The results of police raids are shown where it is the women, not the pimps, who are arrested. Many are then deported back to their native countries, ironically giving them their freedom - but it doesn't matter, as clients tire of the same faces and want new girls brought in anyway. The circle continues. As one person puts it, prostitution has nothing to do with sex - it has to do with power. Once a woman has been raped repeatedly in this way, she begins to see herself as a businesswoman, only because it's easier and less painful than to regard oneself as a victim. You get the picture and believe me, it's not a pretty one.

What becomes obvious as you watch The Price of Sex is that little can change for the better as long as the cycle of political, judicial and religious hypocrisy is allowed to continue in the areas these women are transported to. That's not to say that Southern Europe and the Middle East are isolated cases - they're just the ones concentrated on here by someone who knew where her childhood friends were sent.

No denying this film is difficult to sit through. The story recited by one of the women had me as close to bursting into tears as I've been in years. Still, the courage and even pride that you hear from some who have emerged from their ordeals is inspiring. They have survived - and yes, they have survived far from whole - to tell their stories; stories the rest of the world has to hear.

While it's true that Chakarova throws herself head-first into the participatory, non-objective mode of documentarian, she deserves nothing but praise for the courage she displays in bringing these matters out in the open. This is not a kind of center stage vanity project that so many filmmakers in the non-fiction field have been guilty of in recent years. Her calm determination is a great anchor that's needed amongst the swirl of tragic recounts given by the other women.   

As I said, there have been several attempts in the Western mindset to glamorize prostitution over time. The Price of Sex is the kind of cold shower needed to be seen by many with such a mindset. It's nice to have films you can escape with but sometimes you need movies to help you see the world for what it is, no matter how ugly it gets. Highly recommended.

(The DVD is available for purchase through the non-profit Women Make Movies organization. Information about the film and the accompanying multimedia series Chakarova has developed can be found at