Friday, 19 December 2014

Dark City Is One Silly Town

The film:
Dark City (theatrical release in 1998 - this is a review of the 2008 Director's Cut)

The under-the-radar factor:
Box office receipts were fairly soft for this New Line Cinema effort on its theatrical run. Safe to say not a lot of eyeballs have laid eyes on this DC version. (It apparently features an absence of narration and a few scenes moved around.)

The review:

And you think you have trouble remembering things...

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub with blood spilling from a puncture in his forehead. Nearby is the body of a dead prostitute. What's up with that? - John has no idea. He has no recollection of how he got to this apartment, or, for that matter, any other memory. He doesn't even realize his name is John Murdoch until he finds the appropriate i.d. Soon enough he is informed that he is suppose to be married to a lounge singer named Emma (Jennifer Connelly), that he is the prime suspect in a string of murders involving other call girls which Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) is looking into, and that he is being chased by some really weird looking characters who look like relatives of Nosferatu (They're called "The Strangers"...ooh, scary, huh kids?). The one person who appears to be really capable of helping John - or betraying him - is the geeky shrink Daniel P. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) who supplies him with some information, but is obviously also holding back on a lot of other very important details. And then there are the constant references to Shell Beach - a place everyone has heard about but no one seems to remember how to get to.

Murdoch is eventually able to piece this much together... 1) the metropolis he's in stays in darkness and never sees daylight, 2) the inhabitants of this artificial excuse of a city regularly go through a process where they fall asleep and then identities are switched with new memories planted in their heads (this is called "tuning" - one day you're a down-and-outer - the next you're a filthy rich aristocrat) and, most importantly, 3) Murdoch seems to possess the same supernatural powers that the evil ones pursuing him have.

Dark City had a lot going for it at the time of it's theatrical release. Director/Co-Writer Alex Proyas was coming off his rather mesmerizing Brandon Lee vehicle The Crow. A pretty well known dude named Roger Ebert stepped up as a major cheerleader for the flick. The times seemed right with the table being set for other movies with similar visual panache like The Matrix. So...?

One of the major problems with this film is the porn-type approach to its art direction/cinematography  - one stunning visual "money shot" after another eventually becomes boring and then irritating. The movie seems to exist more for the excuse to blast as many spectacular images as it can, instead of being there to tell a coherent and involving story on the topics of identity and the like. And in case you didn't see the landscape of the city being profoundly changed the first time, happens over and over again... and then some. Dark City comes across as a collection of outakes that even Terry Gilliam thought were too much and ended up in a never ending loop, ad nauseum. In the spirit of making sure everything in this production is ridiculously overdone, the so-called battle scenes between the characters have the kind of hyper qualities Vince McMahon would be proud of.

It also doesn't help that Sewell is in a bit over his head and doesn't really have the range needed for his role, that Sutherland's grade-B Peter Lorre bits aren't always up to snuff, and that Hurt spends much of the time apparently trying to stay awake. Connelly is there as lovely set dressing and not much more.

As far as visually excessive cinematic experiences go, the neo-noir sci-fi Dark City isn't nearly as bad a film as Juan Solanas' wretched Upside Down ...but that's like saying the six dollar bottle of wine was better than the four dollar one. With movies, as with wino, save your pennies for the good stuff. It ain't here.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Briefly - Familiar

Being led to believe by a voice in his head that life has passed him by, a middle-aged family man poses a danger to others and then to himself in writer-director Richard Powell's 2012 short film Familiar.

Robert Nolan
John Dodd (Robert Nolan) seems to be guided by an inner monologue convincing him that better times are just around the corner. His daughter (Cathryn Hostick) will soon be off to college, leading to the sinister narrator within John's frame to concoct an escape plan to take the fellow away from his wife Charlotte (Astrida Auza). Problem is, the lady of the house drops the bombshell that she is with child.

John is prompted by the sinister sermons going on between his ears to resort to some chemical weapons in the battle against Charlotte, first in terms of addressing her pregnant state and then by taking things even further. The one thing the evil side doesn't count on, however, is the "real" John beginning to question his own actions and stage an insurgence against that power which is trying to command him. It's at this point where the film truly does a flip from psychological thriller to body horror. If you've had a longing for the early works of Cronenberg, you'll be somewhat taken down memory lane by what's in here.

Familiar does have notable strengths going for it. While shot on an obviously low budget, the production values are pretty strong (with one unfortunate exception - see below). The storyline is intriguing and the pacing appropriate. The switch of the John character from unlikable menace to sympathetic victim comes about smoothly and believably. There are some genuinely creepy gore moments that deliver an impact towards the end of the flick. And, ultimately, the film belongs to Robert Nolan, who continues to display amazing gifts worthy of greater attention.

Criticisms? One is the running time - shorts have an important place on a cinematic landscape that is obviously biased towards features, but at 24 minutes this tale just seems too abrupt and more like a demo real for a longer, even richer examination. And while "the demon within" special effect at the end is genuinely cool and awesome, some of the earlier body manipulations have too much of a Halloween-via-dollar store quality to them to be taken with anything close to seriousness.

Defiantly worth checking out, Familiar serves as another example of how powerful an actor Nolan is and also prompts excitement as to where Powell and his Fatal Pictures producing partner Zach Green are headed next.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Willow Creek Runs Dry

The film
Willow Creek (2014)

The under-the-radar factor:
The films of director Bobcat Goldthwait, while often critically acclaimed (or at least highly recognized for their audacity), have never done huge box office or found a mainstream audience. This film had a limited run on the theatrical circuit before its early fall DVD release.

The review:

Back on October 20, 1967, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin were said to have shot some footage around Bluff Creek, California showing what appeared to be the infamous "Bigfoot" (aka "Yeti"). Some say it was a dude in a monkey suit but that hasn't stopped many from being obsessed by the topic. That fixated attitude leads a couple into trouble in Goldthwait's break from black comedies and into the faux found footage horror genre.

Budding documentarian Jim (Bryce Johnson) has dragged his girlfriend Kelly (Goldthwait stalwart Alexie Gilmore) along for a trip to Willow Creek and the site where Patterson and Gimlin had shot their famous/infamous footage. He is set on taking a camping trip to the exact area where Bigfoot was alleged to have been spotted; she supports her man but sports a high degree of cynicism in the subject matter at hand. Local townsfolk and people who are said to be in the know about the subject and its reverberations are interviewed - some take the legend more seriously than others but the whole area is basically a dollar store version of a Bigfoot theme park. In between chats with the natives the couple try to have some fun and take in the sights. (They seem to care for each other but it's also obvious their relationship may not be on as strong a ground as Jim would like.) Just as they prepare to embark on the real investigation in the woods, they receive warnings - one low-keyed and the other definitely not - to take the Yeti legend seriously and go back to where they came. Predictably, Jim is undaunted and convinces his gal pal to proceed.

Describing the goings-on beyond this point would be traversing into far too much potential spoiler territory...see you after the trailer.

It seems with these faux found footage efforts that two crucial factors weigh heavily in the chance for a production to sink or swim in connecting with its audience. The first concern involves the matter of suspension of disbelief being severely challenged as to whether one will buy into a camera being turned on or left running at certain times. Even the most successful movies in the genre have at least one moment where the viewer reaction would be close to "yeah...right, lol" over the red light beaming away. The second component crucially needed for the semblance of cinema vérité illusion is that the performers don't appear to be actors acting but rather come across as unpolished everyday blokes going through natural motions.

Willow Creek has issues on both accounts. Some of the personal matters that the couple feel need discussing while driving seem like strange material to be recorded. They already know the equipment works, so why all the blabbering for the camera? A no-cost form of therapy? There are also the proverbial "I better run for my life...but damn if I'm not going to shoot this for the world to see" moments that will again send some eyeballs rolling.

As well, too many of the cast members fail to leave behind their thespian signatures for the world to see. A few actual (and obvious) non-actors are along for the ride but some of the professionals can't convey the same naturalness. The way people use language in real life - both the verbal and body kind - isn't the same as the way actors deliver the goods in mainstream fictional cinema. Actual folks run over each other's dialogue and interrupt each other; they also don't happen to pivot and pose to be perfectly framed by a camera that's supposedly recording them on the fly. Too many of these kinds of moments emerge in this film to go unnoticed.

Some films have you continually checking your timepiece to see if the movie will ever end; Willow Creek has you paying attention to the moments left to wonder if there is ever going to be a real payoff arriving. The elongated "tent scene" provides a few shutters, but while the concept of "what you hear can be more important than what you see" is an appealing tactic in theory, the execution here just doesn't produce enough oomph.

Clearly being marketed as a found footage horror movie, Willow Creek shortchanges on the scare aspect. Some may appreciate the amount of time dedicated to exploring the couple's relationship but these eyeballs found that to be a tedious experience.

They say a change is as good as a rest. I look forward to Goldthwait returning to his black comedic strengths after what seems to have been an unneeded cinematic detour.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Tesis Doesn't Go To The Head Of The Class

The Film:
Tesis -AKA Thesis (1996)

The under-the-radar factor:
Chilean-Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar has gone on to direct attention grabbers such as big-budget Hollywood fare (The Other), as well as Oscar winner The Sea Inside (Best Foreign Language Film). Not as widely seen through most of North America is this, his feature film debut.

The review:

We all start somewhere and in the career of Amenábar, his feature film lift-off was with this Spanish language thriller set in the world of academia.

Angela (Ana Torrent) is writing a thesis about the effects that violence in media command over its audience. The professor overseeing her work agrees to look into the contents of the university video library to locate any particularly appropriate nasty stuff for her to do research on. In the meantime, she has somehow become aware that a rather hygienically challenged porn/horror geek of a student named Chema (Fele Martinez) has gore to spare in his collection. He reluctantly agrees to give her a view of his own vile wares, which he of course enjoys and she can barely stand to watch. But she does...sometimes covering her face...but peeking between her fingers until she says she can't watch anymore...but does again. Like in the poster to the left. See, I wasn't lying.

It turns out that her professor not only has admittance privileges to the school's official VHS library but also knows of a hidden passageway to a secret room where other tapes are held. The asthmatic teacher grabs a hold of one to view in a screening room where the contents of the video apparently proves to be a little too much for him to handle. Angela finds him dead; she's shocked but also seemingly intrigued, wondering if he was provoked into death by what he was regarding. She not only doesn't report her mentor's passing but also makes off with the material in question.

Angela shares her discovery with Chema, who quickly gets the picture of what he's observing. It not only turns out to be an authentic snuff video but one where the victim is a former student named Vanessa who mysteriously disappeared a few years before. Further investigation concludes that the grizzly production had to have been shot on a particular Hi-8 camera ... like the one being lugged around by the obscenely handsome campus hunk Bosco (Eduardo Noreiga). While trying to determine if the dude with the smoldering eyes is a murderer (Chema is certain; Angela not so much), the replacement professor looking after the mentoring of the thesis brings a new round of twists and turns into the proceedings. Between dealing with her conflicting feelings over Bosco, the handsome devil's girlfriend that he may or may not have broke off with, a troublesome sister who may be the next victim, and the lingering suspicions over the new prof (and perhaps even Chema) ...let's just say Angela finds things to be mighty confusing. And increasingly dangerous for herself...

I know I'm in the minority but I found The Sea Inside to be an overrated soap opera, cajoling to middlebrow cinematic sensibilities...or worse. Sadly, Tesis strikes me as being very much the same in spirit, if not genre.

No denying that this is a strongly cast film - the three leads are all up to giving this effort a go - but being well-suited doesn't matter much when one is not well-supported. While the production values are professional, the overall presentation is pretty conventional, including the cutting-on-dialogue routine one usually sees with more pedestrian projects. The twists and turns the script introduces start off as intriguing, progress to confusing. and, ultimately, graduate to exhaustively irritating, particularly after one's initial suspicion of each character's role in the tale turns out to have been pretty accurate in the end. Angela often comes across as being a doofus, such as telegraphing her obvious panic around Bosco (her first attempt to flee his presence results in a ridiculously presented chase-down-the-halls scene), among other brain-spasm moments. For a so-called thriller, the results are not all that suspenseful.

And the film's seemingly grand statement, that we live in a hypocritical society that denouces violence in media while also willfully lapping it up - that's about as big and original a revelation as exposing that professional wrestling matches are fixed. The fact we have moral contradictions is news? Motorists are disgusted with themselves for rubber-necking at the scenes of accidents but continue to do so. People are appalled that Jennifer Lawrence's nudes were leaked onto the internet - and then search endlessly for a peek. We really know ourselves more than Amenábar gives credit for and no ground-breaking territory is being exposed here.

Tesis provides nothing original in either content or presentation. I do have a few more Amenábar flicks to catch up on - I hope he doesn't end up joining David O. Russell in my "strange why people make a big deal about this filmmaker" club.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Briefly - Le Fear II: Le Sequel

After creating a movie about a particularly bad filmmaker making particularly bad films in the 2010 production Le Fear, writer-director (and sometimes actor) Jason Croot brings back the character of Carlos Revalos for Le Fear II: Le Sequel, a low budget comedy/mocumentary/movie-within-a-movie effort to be released in 2015.

Carlos (Kyri Saphiris) falls for a pitch from his executive producer and ends up putting a substantial sum of his own money into the horror film they will be making. Revalos is a kind of reverse Ed Wood - he too makes crap but at least he knows when things are going wrong and will come out like shit. The flick he's working on turns out to be quite the international effort; the producer on set (actually, there isn't a set as promised...only a van) turns out to be a Nollywood import with a bargain-basement attitude. Mixed in with Brit, French and, eventually, Japanese talent, the production hardly has world harmony going for it. The special effects person provides offerings that are anything but special; the make-up person goes into heat and wants to have sex with just about anyone she comes in contact with; the French actress gets fed up with the chaos and is replaced by an oriental substitute who really can't speak English, and so on...

At one point a frustrated Carlos thinks out loud that he might just take the material he has and at least get a short out of it. Some watching Le Fear II: Le Sequel may think that would have been a good option for Croot's feature. The film has a talented cast trying to handle what appears to be an entirely ad-libbed effort but the same kind of scenes are played out endlessly. "ACTION!"... (something goes wrong) ..."CUT!" ... (curse) ... (argue) ... (despair) ... (rinse) ... (repeat) ... get the picture? The fact the characters come across as too predictable and stereotypical also doesn't help.

Le Fear II: Le Sequel will hold some entertainment value for those of us who have been on film productions of various scales who know only too well that what can go wrong will. And there is a certain build of interest that comes from wondering how the Carlos character will try to overcome all the obstacles. But for many viewers, the entertainment value of this effort will not be regarded as impressive. And certain folks could be uncomfortable with the way the Nollywood contingent are portrayed.

Still, if nothing else, Croot is determined. He already has plans for additional Le Fear/Revalos sequel efforts. Perhaps that perseverance will pay off if it meets up with a little more originality and inspiration.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Jerry, We Hardly Knew Thee...Or Your Friends

The Film::
Jerry (2014)

The under-the-radar factor
First production by the fledgling DreamStreet Movies production company is a micro-budget comedy/drama/romance effort peddled via streaming and downloading options available at their website.

The review:

If there was ever a group of individuals who seemed to have a destiny to be fulfilled by one day making indie feature films, it's the gang at DreamStreet. The Rock clan - that would be Alexander, Melody, and Daniel - teamed up with Brandon Ballard, Max Fox, and Josh Tichauer to form a company with that goal in mind. Backed up by the accomplishments of its various members in short narrative, documentary, instructional, and corporate projects, as well as film studies and acting classes, DreamStreet members also honed the versatility to wear many hats in the production of their first feature. Melody Rock, Max Fox, and Alexander Rock are credited as co-directors, each helming sequences while the other two would assume various other production duties as needed.

Jerry (Daniel Rock) makes the long drive into suburban Vegas to house-sit for a friend and take a summer break from his law studies, for which he has another year to go. A job as a night clerk at a legal firm opens up, where he gets to spend evenings with the ultimate misanthropic curmudgeon Richmond (Alex Rock), a character the out-of-towner doesn't mind badgering. Otherwise, things are mundane in Jerry's waking hours until he finds an eleven year old kid lying outside of the house that's being looked after. This loner loser Steven (Steven Mihranian) insists that he's fallen and injured his leg - weaseling his way into the house, he then begins to intrude into other aspects of Jerry's life. The kid's insistence that a game of catch in the park is just what the exhausted law student wants leads to what seems to be a chance encounter with a young woman walking her leashed cat (seriously). While it's obvious that Jerry finds Rachel (Katie Frey) attractive, it's up to Steven to break the ice, pushing the two potential lovebirds together and insisting his new "friend" obtain the female's number...which the kid eventually ends up dialing on behalf of his older colleague.

In spite of himself, Jerry does arrange to meet up with Rachel, starting with simple frolics in the park involving the learning of bicycle turn signals and then leading to the hiking up of mountainsides that she does far more effortlessly than her less than enthusiastic date. Slowly, romance does bloom; perhaps not as aggressively - or physically - as Steven wonders it could. But before a next possible step in the Jerry-Rachel universe can transpire, he's hit with the realization that summer is ending and the scheduled return to his law classes are imminent. Rachel is left to ponder her own options as Steven and even curmudgeonly Richmond implore Jerry to take some decisive steps.

Overall, this film should be regarded as an achievement by the people who put it together. Still, there's a fine line to straddle between being delightfully simple and disappointingly slight. Jerry has some trouble staying on the desired side of that divide. On the one hand, the production shows the right indie attitude of saying any attention deficit issues Hollywood seems to feel have affected movie going audiences should be ignored - the film takes its own sweet and mostly enjoyable time to deliver the tale of this fledgling romance. At the same instance, the richness of Ballard's standout cinematography on the screen isn't matched by depth of characterizations in the script. While one can accept Steven's presence as more or less representing the voices in Jerry's head telling him what he should be saying to himself, the mysterious kid's unusual command over the adults around him stretches suspension of disbelief to the limits. Rachel is also a pretty blank canvas - while played with charm and appeal by Frey (who's a daytime social worker making her screen debut - bravo!), her character seems to exist in too obvious a void when it comes to background and desires. She simply seems to be there for the story's sake, as opposed to be being a fully fleshed out presence. It also doesn't help that the low budget production's lack of extras and crowd scenes makes the results a little less cinematic in feel and more like a series of scenes from a stage play. At times, Jerry seems like a predictable series of puzzle pieces waiting to be too conveniently snapped into place.

Arguably the major irritant of the film revolves around the nature of the title character. Daniel Rock puts in a worthy effort with the material provided but Jerry seems too much of a wuss around Steven and as uncaring of Rachel's feelings as the kid accuses him of being. In spite of not living the most exciting of lives, the story's lead still has things pretty good and comes across as being a little too much of a "poor-little-spoiled-guy" to make one root for him...or even think that he really deserves the possibilities that have been offered.

Yes, these are weaknesses in the parts that make up Jerry but the actual sum still comes across as being pretty good. The cast of first-time feature performers are highly likeable regardless of any script shortcomings and definitely show some nice chemistry when interacting. The practice of sappy Hollywood efforts to lay a sugar-coated musical score to nudge viewer sentiments has been mercifully ignored here. The rest of the production values match the impressive Cannon 7D camera work and the film greatly reeks (in a good way) of the dedication that the DreamStreet team has put into the endeavor. Unlike some other filmmakers who look like they would be spinning their wheels with a follow-up production, one senses the group assembled here has learned much and has plenty more to offer in the future. No career changes are to be suggested...only encouragement. A comedy and a sci-fi flick are said to be in the DS pipeline - based on the potential seen in this effort, these are films to look forward to.

It may be true that Jerry is a film that's just good enough to make one wish it was a little better but it's still a strong first effort from this troop and is far from a waste of time to regard.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Let It Go...And Listen To Your Friends!

The film:
Let It Go (2014)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Micro-budget production has had a few theatrical screenings but is mostly making the rounds with VOD distribution via Cinema Zero. As of this writing, a 15 minute preview of the feature is available. 

The review:

Many years ago my first real girlfriend had decided we could/should no longer carry on a relationship. In my heart of hearts I knew we were kaput as a couple but another part couldn't accept that. I had a determination to win her back that lasted for a couple of weeks but was never acted upon through any attempts on my part. In other words, I saved myself a lot of embarrassment over what I later realized was indeed a much needed parting of the ways.

I wish I could have commiserated with Jeremy, the character played by Andrew Leland Rogers in director Tom Wilton's black and white micro-budget effort Let It Go. But of course, if I had suggested he should follow what I did...or didn't do...we might not have had this film, right?

How does that story go about the best laid plans? It just so happens the day that Jeremy has picked to propose to his live-in gal-pal Steph (Gillian Visco) is the same one she's lined up to call off their relationship. He's just shared his dreams with his old friend Frankie (Maria McIndoo, who also co-wrote the screenplay), while Steph has revealed her break-up plans to her buddy Ryan (Josh Hawkins). Upon officially splitting, the two ex's go into their own separate tailspins. Steph hits the party circuit and indulges in the kind of alcohol fueled behavior that Ryan has embarrassingly had to bear witness to before. Jeremy is more on the numbed side and it's up to Frankie, who's lent him her couch as a temp residence, to try to get him back into the swing of things. Setting the wheels in motion for him to go out on dates with her friends turns out to be a waste of time; Jeremy can only blabber away on details about the woman who has left him behind. Steph manages to convince Ryan to join her for an out of town Christmas time break from it all, just as Jeremy coaxes Frankie to accompany him on an adventure meant as an attempt to reconnect with the lady he has lost.

Take a gander...

I quite liked McIndoo's own feature Say It Like It Is ("Let It Go"..."Say It Like It Is"...hmm, such frank piece-of-advice type of titles from these guys) and was looking forward to her collaboration with Wilton here. This film does start slowly, the visuals are not given any groundbreaking treatment by way of either the cinematography or editing, and it's hardly an indie flick trying to rock the cinematic world. At the same time, it still has that genuine slice-of-life quality that McIndoo's movie possessed, with, gratefully, no attempt to slop on the melodramatics that one might expect from a film that centers...

...well, I was going to say from a film that centers around the breakup of a relationship, but that's not really the case here. Let It Go is far less about the disintegration of Jeremy's world with Steph's, as it is about these two people's relationships with their friends. Friends who know you may end up acting a little drunk and stupid; who excuse the fact that one tries to plant a kiss on them in a moment of emotional anguish and confusion; who'll stick by you even after you've heaved into their shoe...more than once; who won't make fun of you as you react to your first toke... (well, won't make MUCH fun of you)...

To a great extent that's what Let It Go is really about - the subtle celebration of friendship! Friendship through thick and thin, through the laughs and the really annoying stuff. The likeable cast (McIndoo is particularly good and I hope she makes more appearances in front of the lens) are definitely up to taking the viewer along for this quiet but warm ride.

Let It Go is a rewarding put-your-feet up and relax experience for those with the patience to allow the film to find its footing, which it eventually does. So overall, if you're in the mood for a simple but sweet journey, I would recommend checking it out. But don't watch it alone...even though I'm not calling this a "date" film...

Watch it with a friend. Your best friend. That one who will always be there for you... and vice-versa.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

"American: The Bill Hicks Story" Is One For The Fans

The film:
American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009)

The under-the-radar factor:
A UK production, it was shown at the 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival and released in the U.S. as a 2 disc box set DVD with several hours of extras. Aside from that...

The review:

"I believe there is an equality to all of humanity. We all suck" - Bill Hicks.

I'm still rather astounded by how many people have not heard of this guy or are only faintly familiar with his work. Their loss. Hicks was a stand-up genius; when on the ball (and not so drunk) he was worthy of being compared to the subversive, shock likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce in making you think and laugh, even when it felt a little too close to home with your own beliefs and actions. Pancreatic cancer ended his life at the age of 32 but not before he left this planet with sizeable (and often funny) food for thought.

American: The Bill Hicks Story charts the history of its subject in great detail and with tremendous visual panache. Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas were able to convince Hicks' family to provide a stunning amount of photos spanning the comedian's life, which were then used in a type of cut-and-paste animation technique rendering impressive results. Family members, childhood friends, and the other stand-ups from the Houston area where Hicks grew up are interviewed at length, with a smattering of his routines. For a guy who lived such a tragically short life, there is a long and engaging story told here. After starting his live stage work in his teens (first as part of a duo, then going solo), his career accelerated to the point of at least being followed by fellow performers, if not the public at large in the U.S.A. (Hicks was to become in a way to the Brits what Jerry Lewis was to the French - an American cultural figure far more appreciated overseas than on his native soil.) The self-assured qualities he displayed in his earliest periods contrasted to the drunken ramblings he had to fight off later. Sadly, the height of his creative genius seemed to be obtained just as he reached his cancer stage and faced an infamous censorship incident on David Letterman's tv show. More on that shortly...

For those neophytes looking for an intro to Hicks the performer, this production is really not the answer. The major complaint to be had with American: The Bill Hicks Story is in the surprising paucity of actual performance footage (even though his personal territory is given full analysis). Those who have already come to know the man and his material will appreciate the intimate details that emerge regarding his short but accelerated life. While there is a fair bit of hero-worshiping taking place here, there are some unflinching looks at his down-and-out alcoholic period as well, helping to create a balanced portrait of the man at his best and worst.

Like I said, this documentary is highly recommended only for those who have already taken the Hicks comedic journey. Fortunately, there is a plethora of material to be found both online and in hard copy forms to initiate any rookie. A perfect example is the video below from the October 1993 performance on The Late Show with David Letterman that was never allowed to air...  until some 15 years later, when Letterman invited Hicks' mother on his show to apologize and run the clip. Have a look - if you're not into the pro-life campaign, anti-smoking messages... or Billy Ray Cyrus... you'll laugh a lot...

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Briefly - Tom Atkins Blues

It wasn't long ago in my part of the world that I observed a cozy, indie breakfast and lunch joint being blown out of existence by the arrival of one of those chain/franchise egg palaces across the road from it. So I was in more than a sympathetic mood for the goings-on in Tom Atkins Blues, a 2010 German based indie by British ex-pat writer/director Alex Ross.  Shot in 11 days with a crew of six and a budget that wouldn't come close to maxing out a college student's credit card, the film features scripted acting parts based on Ross' own experiences in Germany, with interviews with some of the actual locals who lived the life in his old neighbourhood.

Tommy (played by Ross) runs the Spatkauf (Late Night Shop) that he has been looking after in the former East Berlin since a bit after the fall of the wall. His gal-pal, a woman unimpressed with what she perceives as a serious lack of ambition on his part, leaves him. The pain of the breakup is eased for the shopkeeper by the community around his enterprise - people come to chat, buy a beer, and sit outside - maybe to play some chess or a musical instrument. Tommy's place is one of life and vitality - especially with drunks trying to raise the ceiling on the tabs they owe or lazy friends who hang around to pick up women. The bubble bursts for all when a refurbished supermarket around the corner signals the gentrifying tides of change that Tommy is powerless to stop. Customers disappear, business dives, and the eclectic multinational group of people who have regarded the shop as a kind of second home come to realize the worst is yet to come.

Without the pressures of earning enough box office receipts to pay for a studio full of lawyers, Ross is able to take full advantage of the true freedom micro-budget filmmaking affords. The pacing is leisurely and the storyline is hardly stuffed but the results feel highly genuine. A charming tale of friendship and community, Tom Atkins Blues is firmly set in its German locale but has a universal voice that all can connect to. It greatly helps that the cast is well chosen and delivers likable performances throughout, matched by sharp production values and a highly appropriate musical score. Unlike many so-called indies that try to function as Hollywood studio cover letters, this film succeeds in showing that strategic plot points can't compete with earnest reflection and expression. What Tom Atkins Blues lacks in adrenaline, it more than compensates for with atmospheric richness and a warm spirit.

If you didn't catch this film's run on Cinema Zero (congrats to them for continuing to showcase such worthy independent work), you can always have a gander at the DVD.

Man, that Spatkauf must have been one cool place!

Friday, 26 September 2014

Manborg - Easy To Admire, Harder To Embrace

The film:
Manborg (2011)

The under-the-radar factor:
Shot largely in a garage (yes, a garage) against green backdrops, this chroma-key/stop-action extravaganza was put together in a piecemeal fashion for around a grand using whatever director Steve Kostanski and associates could get their hands on. After a go-round on the fest circuit, the film was made available on DVD and VOD.

The review:

The last few years have seen a multitude of motion pictures with nine figure budgets and the cutting edge technology that comes with them.

And then...there's the done-by-the-seat-of-its-pants intentionally campy sci-fi effort known as Manborg.  Think Troma mixed in with some earlier types of video games and some Ray Harryhausen touches and you kind of get the results of this micro-budget production.

Manborg and his buddy...
At an unspecified point in history, a war has erupted between humans and the forces of hell. A solider (Matthew Kennedy) seems to die in the line of duty against Nazi-stylized demons led by the evil Draculon. The trooper awakens a number of years later with the realization he has been changed. The half-man, half-machine decides to call himself Manborg. In short order he is introduced to martial arts expert Number 1 Man (Ludwig Lee, with an appropriately (and intentionally) hackish dubbed voice). This escaped prisoner gets to kick-ass with the help of the cyborg who doesn't yet understand the powers he has been given. After they've been recaptured by the evil ones ruling what's left of Earth, the other hero characters are introduced. A quasi-Aussie punk named Justice (Colin Sweeney) is incarcerated with his sister Mina (Meredith Sweeney, Colin's real life sibling), a chick who's more of a fearless fighter than any male in the tale. All you really need to know from here is that the Manborg character comes to know how he was created and what he's really capable of and, that after a period of a little mistrust, the four heroic fighters band together to take on the forces of Draculon for one awesome final showdown.

But Wait!!! Bonus movie time. After the 60 minute feature that is Manborg, viewers of the DVD and VOD get an extra treat - a five minute fake trailer for a faux feature called BIO-COP about a mutilated law enforcement official who cannot die and takes on some drug warlords. It is a very funny and entertaining appendage to the main movie and I want you to keep that in mind as you watch the real trailer for the real feature...

But wait again!! Because you're such nice people, let's look at a different trailer with a few different scenes. (There's a point to this, believe me.)

Hey, we're on a roll now, right? Let's keep watching. The folks behind this film have uploaded a few clips to their own YouTube channel (so it's legal and legit). Here's where the henchman character known as The Baron first lays eyes on the lovely Mina.

Okay, so what's with the trailer-thon?

Don't get me's not that there aren't things to admire in Manborg. These people put a great deal of effort into a project with the most limited of means. The end result is kind of dazzling (here and there), kind of funny (here and there), kind of good...

But remember what I said about the Bio-Cop faux trailer and how entertaining its five minutes were? Perhaps it's just as well that they never made the actual feature because I'm not sure any true additional entertainment value would have arisen. Okay, that's a dumb comment because, of course, who knows?...

But I did see all one hour of Manborg and have revealed here some four minutes or so of trailers and clips and, to be honest, if there was about two or three more minutes to show from other parts of the completed work, I'm not sure there would have been any great additional value in watching the full movie. Much of Manborg comes across as a private video game where you're not allowed to come in, interact and participate in what fun is to be had. The characters, while an okay enough kind of group, aren't going to get you all that wound up in their lives (although Colin Sweeney provides great comic relief in his semi-literacy moments - the film could have used a lot more of him.)

I'm probably just being a big stick in the mud and on another occassion would have had a different reaction. And there are probably folks out there that would get into the cheesiness of this movie and enjoy it immensely. I really wanted to like this flick but, for me, Manborg was a decent eight minute project wearing an ill-fitting 60 minute long suit. People with less stuck up their ass than yours truly can find the film here.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Mourning Has Broken...With No Time For Tears

The film:
Mourning Has Broken (2013)

The under-the-radar factor:
This film, written and directed by the brother team of Brett and Jason Butler, is one of five financed with a $1,000 grant from an initiative put out by independent filmmaker Ingrid Veninger. It has made festival appearances (winning awards), had a week long run at a Toronto theatre and is slated for a VOD release in 2015.

The review:

The song "Morning Has Broken" holds a special place in the hearts of my wife and I. This Christian hymn (better known to many from the version put out by Cat "You Can Call Me Yusuf Now" Stevens) was played at the beginning of our wedding ceremony. So, I was certainly able to take a trip down memory lane with a recent screening of the micro-budget dark comedy Mourning Has Broken (clever play on words), where the song is given no less than six different versions/interpretations on the soundtrack.

Nice...but not the only nice thing about this spunky effort.

A character known simply as "Husband" awakens one morning to feed his cat a gourmet meal before heading back to bed and to his wife, who, as it turns dead. The plethora of medication on the side table clearly indicates the woman was not well and her passing far from a surprise. Still, the loss is a shock and her husband doesn't seem able to cope with her departure. Putting his best face on and pretending that it can be "just another day", the widower finds the "to-do" list his spouse had made up and sets about to accomplish each of the tasks that would have been expected of him.

The problem is, "Husband" is about to encounter a multitude of assholes in the world outside on what has already started out as the saddest day of his life. His bully neighbour insists on coaching him on how to wash his car. The clerk at a clothing outlet won't allow him to return an unsuitable garment bought for his wife. Fellow motorists are either driving too slowly in front of him, giving the wrong turn signals or are berating him for not moving out of parking spots quickly enough. Once his vehicle shows a flicker of an issue, the nearest auto mechanic is more than willing to upsell the maintenance requirements to come. The audience at a movie house is too busy talking and texting to allow him to enjoy the screening. All along, a certain kind of cake he needs to acquire becomes as easy to locate as the Loch Ness Monster.

At first, our main character tries to keep his cool, taking the high road and staying polite. But eventually, the world around him becomes too much to bear for a man repressing emotions that don't need to be stirred any further. Vocal assertiveness gives way to physical reactions and before "Husband" knows it, he is planning on the kind of retaliations where baseball bats come in handy. His final actions allow him to return to the side of his deceased and conclude his long day in the way he feels he must.

With indie productions in general, and low/no budget efforts like this one in particular, scripts can be the strongest element if enough time and thought have been utilized. Production values are a less certain variable, given the obvious restrictions on what can be accessed and the conditions the filming is done under, far away from high-tech sound stages. The area that becomes the most problematic is the acting talent, since Benedict Cumberbatch probably can't be enticed to show up to your shoot, no matter how fresh you promise the coffee and bagels will be.

Bravo, Robert Nolan
Flip those concerns on their heads and you have the strengths of Mourning Has Broken showing up in reverse order. The lead character is played by Robert Nolan and this guy totally brings it in a way most filmmakers dealing with minimal financial resources can only dream of. Nolan is practically in every single frame and delivers the right blend of inspired lunacy and moving dramatics throughout. His Howard Beale-ish movie house rant is a classic at one end; a flip-side three minute single take in a record store shows a suddenly taciturn man expressing everything in his emotionally wracked face. Nolan is so good that one may be concerned that he would show up the deficiencies in a supporting cast made up of amateurish personnel, but the Butler bros struck gold in that vein as well. The actors the husband character is required to play off of are pretty much all up to the challenge, with a special nod to Graham Kent as that all-too-familiar kind of shady auto mechanic you don't want nursing your wheels.

While there are are occasional signs this film was made for cinematic spare change, the overall look is sharp, with the Michael Jari Davidson's Cannon 5D MKII camera work complemented well by crisp editing. Sound montage and the aforementioned musical score are also of top caliber.

The least hearty aspect of the film is the script, which is pretty much a one-trick pony of sorts. You come to understand that the husband surveys the to-do list, sets off to accomplish a task and, along the way, has some sort of confrontation, to be echoed over and over again. The predictable rinse-repeat cycle is less successful in some scenes than in others. While the movie clocks in at 77 minutes, some of these bits feel too drawn out and often take their time arriving at any payoff. Fortunately, Nolan makes most of these periods worth the wait in the end.

Considering this effort was made for less than five figures, the results the Butler brothers have produced are quite impressive. Many times you've seen a film and said to yourself "I could do better than that!" This film will have you saying "with what they had to work with, how could I have topped this?"

But what does that have to do with it being a film to recommend, especially if folks out there are debating forking out some coin to catch it?

When Mourning Has Broken makes its VOD debut, it will be up against big studio cinema candy, flicks that cost a lot of money and, in many cases, ripped off the movie-going public for at least as much. There are great films to be had in the streaming/downloading world but there are also tons of insincere, dubious ones. A sterling example of how much can be done by extremely modest means, Mourning Has Broken puts many big budget motion pictures to shame.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Briefly - Say It Like It Is

Old friends from middle school years have morphed into becoming adult strangers to each other in Maria McIndoo's micro-budget feature debut Say It Like It Is (2013).

Dylan (played by director McIndoo) is a Philadelphia based wannabe writer who accepts her plight as a bartender to make ends meet, dumping on the urbanized phony artists she labels as the "attack of the clones". She takes a trip into Long Island to meet up with old gal pal Brooke (Rachel Williams). The latter has just moved in with Bill (Alex Karfarkis), the same boyfriend she had been talking about dumping, but now finds herself in the abode he has inherited from his Florida bound parents. Dylan finds it hard to believe Brooke is into the suburban life (including unlocked doors) and talking about starting a family; Brooke seems surprised that Dylan wants to stick to the "writing thing". As if these two weren't out of sync enough, the homeowners are looking after discombobulating nephew Laden (Michael McIndoo), a standoffish kid when he isn't being exceptionally needy. Dylan's next few days feature schedules determined by the "happy" couple's shopping habits or Laden's tantrums. A surprise party for the writer attended by her old friends helps to accentuate how different the two main characters have become.

Some films try to be BIG - all-encompassing, all-knowing, here to have the planet and its seven billion inhabitants entirely figured out. Other flicks try the micro route, examining details in the most petite of proportions. Say It Like It Is refreshingly tries to stay on the same scale as life itself and does a pretty good job of it. The situations are not over-dramatized or carry on as being "important". They're also not drawn out in navel-gazing introspection. The situation here is one you can recognize, the verisimilitude passes the sniff test, and the whole production seems to be in the hands of a filmmaker who knew exactly what she wanted to capture and what to not bother with.

There are some bumps in the presentation - the acting is somewhat stilted at times and the editing has an unimaginative cutting-on-dialogue consistency. But for a production that apparently stuck to less than four grand in financing, the end results bring good value to the 75 minute running time asked of it. After seeing so many cinematic (self) delusions trying to be this or that, it's nice to see a feature which unspools as naturally as this one does. And that's how best to describe Say It Like It Is - it's simply a "nice" film.

(And this feature is currently (11/09/2014) screening over at Cinema Zero.)

Monday, 8 September 2014

Nobody Can Cool - Two Odd Couples Do Not Make One Right

The film:
Nobody Can Cool (2013)

The under-the-radar factor:
The directing/writing team of Marcy Boyle and Rachel Holzman, who piloted this production under the collective moniker of Dpyx, followed up a 2013 DVD premiere with the current iTunes/Amazon VOD offering, a typical route for many indie filmmakers in the absence of opportunities for wider release.

The review:

Andy Warhol said everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes.

Notice he never said they deserved to be.

If Andy was alive today, looking around the digital world, I think he may have come up with the observation that, in the future, everyone would make their own feature length film. Hopefully his follow up would be the suggestion that pursuing such opportunities would not always be the best idea.

Case in point: the micro-budgeted wannabe thriller Nobody Can Cool, about a young couple who literately make one wrong turn. Unfortunately, filmmakers Dpyx make several.

Workaholic lawyer David and aspiring entrepreneur Susan (David Atlas and Catherine Annette) are off for a "relaxing" weekend at a friend's abode but zig when they should have zagged and end up at another cabin inhabited by psycho couple Len and the very pregnant Gigi (Nick Principe and Nikki Bohm). The latter fabricate a story about how they came there and something about a car that is no longer available. Everyone tries to do a nicey-nicey shtick (less so the snarly Gigi) and there is a general (if somewhat reluctant) agreement that David and Susan will crash upstairs for the night. These two folks go through a series of motions that pass for romance, followed by some that pass for revelations and disagreements, followed by some shut-eye.  A sound in the night awakens Susan, who discovers their car has been driven away and they have been locked in their room. She doesn't want to put up with that for a moment, whereas David seems to cherish sleep more than his well-being. (Hey, everyone has their priorities, right?) An eventual window escape leads to the city slicker couple's capture by their hosts. Turns out Len and his gal have committed a heist, with Gigi's cousin Tommy lying in a bed upstairs via a near-fatal gun wound, awaiting the return of the real face of trouble, his brother Mo.

But fear not - in a dizzying contest to determine which of these factions has the least common sense, David and Susan take turns with the crooks at capturing and being captured, all the time bickering and proving beyond a measure of a doubt that they shouldn't be a couple in the first place. Len and Gigi, while closer to being two peas in the same pod, are not too far behind in the incompatibility department. Marriage proposals take place at the strangest of times, while plans for from here to eternity are laid out, even though no one's future looks very promising with all these guns and knives being pointed at each other. Eventually Mo appears, looking as dangerous and assertive as we've been told he would be and as confused with the goings-on as he has every right to be. The tale ends with a predictable measure of violence but also a few genuine surprises.

In viewing the trailer you may feel a little left out if you're not packing heat. Everyone else is.

For every positive you can spot in Nobody Can Cool, you'll also notice far too many negatives. The crisp camerawork is betrayed by the unimaginative editing. The engaging performances by Nick Principe as Len and the underutilized Haris Mahic as Mo contrast to the one-dimensional approaches of Annette and Bohm (who don't seem to realize that teeth grinding plus yelling do not add up to "acting") and especially of Atlas, who never looks fully awake, no matter what life-threatening danger awaits his character. And while the story moves along at a good clip, the expressiveness of all the cast has taken the real weekend getaway, replaced by some of the most ludicrous dialogue you'll hear this side of Tommy Wiseau or Ed Wood Jr. The part where Susan and Len decide it's actually okay to do a little alcoholically fueled bonding after she's relived herself in front of him is one for the cinematic Hall of Shame.

So you may have guessed I didn't like this film much. That makes you considerably less clued out than the characters in Nobody Can Cool. Anything else that's positive to say? I will note that in spite of the general lack of merit that prevails, the strong drive on the part of the two female characters in refusing to be subservient to the wishes of their male counterparts is refreshing. I just wish I could say that its worth encouraging these two filmmakers to pursue whatever cinematic goals they have in their future, except, based on this project, I remain unconvinced they deserve such cheerleading going forward. The film world needs more women behind the lens but the results of this effort feels like a setback to that end.

The best thing I can say about this production?...

Dpyx is a pretty cool handle.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

BloodRayne - A Movie For The "Why So Serious" Crowd

The film:
BloodRayne (2005)

The under-the-radar factor:
German born director Uwe Boll has somehow managed to output one of the most prodigious (as opposed to "prestigious") collection of movie titles of the twenty-first century, in spite of never really having blown the pants off of the box office or DVD sale tallies. This entry, based on a video game, is no exception, although it must have made enough/cost so little to allow for a couple of sequels. 

The review:

Some people lack a sense of identity. This surely cannot be the case for Uwe Boll, who only has to look at a small collection of reviews for just about any of the feature films that have had his name on it for the past dozen plus-years. Boll is constantly reminded by many of the cinematic tribe of what he is suppose to be - the worst film director in the world.

Now, are we talking Ed Wood/Tommy Wiseau entertainingly bad? Or just plain simple sucks? This is the question I needed an answer for as I subjected myself to my first ever Boll experience, wondering if 99 minutes of my life could have been better spent on something more entertaining... like hurling snot at rabid squirrels. Well, we will see...

But before we have a look at the film itself, let's hear what fond remembrances screenwriter Guinevere Turner has of dealing with director Boll:

Well, that's encouraging, isn't it? But hang on to that "campy" thought. Anyway, here we go...

It's the eighteenth century and bruising babe Rayne (Kristanna Loken) finds herself trapped as the feature freak attraction in a Romanian carnival. She's considered unusual by being a Dhampir - not really a vampire, but hardly human either. While she'd be happy to drain any person she meets, she tempers matters by settling for the blood of animals. After making an escape where she wipes out just about the entire travelling sideshow (even her friends), she meets up with a fortune teller (Gerladine Chaplin, one of a number of recognizable faces that apparently signed up for some additional beer money) who helps clue her into the fact her mother was raped and killed by the king of the vampires. This dude, Kagan (Ben Kingsley, embarrassingly griting his teeth throughout this paycheck role) would like to take out his daughter as well but is even more preoccupied with coming up with the Tailsman organs (an eye, heart, and rib) that would really make him all powerful. Thing is, Rayne gets into a situation where she obtains and absorbs the eye for herself. She eventually comes across a couple of vampire hunters, Vladimir (Michael Madsen, who occasionally opens his eyes and says a line before going back to sleepwalking) and Sebastien (Matthew Davis, who's basically just around for the one obligatory hot sex scene with Loken). Another hanger-on is Katarin (Michelle Rodriguez), who turns out to be a bad apple among vampire slayers (seemingly for being jealous that she's got some competition in the hot babe department from Rayne...although that apparently wasn't the case - nudge-nudge, wink-wink - behind the scenes between Loken and Rodriguez). And then you get the big confrontation with Kagan, ya-da, ya-da...

It would be cruel to keep you in any further suspense without watching some scenes, so to the trailer we do go...

Problems with the storyline? Oh yeah, we got problems with the storyline. What's up Rayne single-handedly destroying her captors but then getting a little love tap on the noodle from Domastir (Will Sanderson) that turns off her lights for hours? And what about Vladimir insisting she's too raw and unready without further combat training, even though she can already slice and dice multiple swordsmen at a time? Aggravating annoyances? Nah, not at all - it's some of the cinematic ineptness that had me howling throughout this catastrophe.

And call me cruel but there really is something entertaining about the look on Kingsley's face throughout, with that "how do I torture my agent for getting me into this mess" scowl. Or watching Madsen almost refusing to address the camera - if he had his way I'm sure he would have done his entire performance walking backwards or with his long hair combed over his face.

While I admit that the costumes look like they were purchased at the weekly half-price off sale at some local thrift store, some of the cinematography/scenery bits are actually pretty good. And while I've heard critics complain (they were actually analyzing this film in a serious manner - whats up with that?) over the veg-a-matic style of editing that was clearly done to compensate for the obvious lack of swordplay talent in the cast, I thought it added some needed flash to the proceedings. Hey, BloodRayne is a piece of crap film, sure... but in some places it actually looks like a fairly artsy piece of crap.

I had an okay time at home watching BloodRayne on DVD - I would have had a howl watching it in some musty, dilapidated grindhouse theatre (if you can find one...farewell, Rio Cinema) with a bunch of grubby alcoholics shouting at the screen. Based on this offering, I would suggest that's the way all Uwe Boll masterpieces should be absorbed.

I don't exactly recommend the film - there's defiantly better schlock out there - I'm just saying it's not a write-off as a time-waster if you're in the right kind of uncritical mood. In some ways, it's the sort of production the CW would turn into a weekly tv series if they could get away with this level of constant gore and occasional birthday suit T & A. If you ever do view it, leave the serious, critical attitude vibe at the door.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Littlerock Kinda Rocks!...Quietly (Shh!)

The film:
Littlerock (2010)

The under-the-radar factor:
This small indie production has screened at over 40 film festivals and picked up awards at the AFI Fest, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Reykjavik International event, among others. In spite of crossing the globe at these gatherings and winning positive critical notices, this work has received extremely limited exhibition possibilities and nothing too significant by way of digital channels.

The review:

We've all encountered those people who you meet for the first time and they just can't stop it. The loquacious. The wind-bags. The gab-a-holics. People who talk a lot but really say little, if anything. But they go on and on. Then there's the quiet introverted types who feel drained by even attempting to put forward a welcoming remark.

And then there's the young Japanese girl who stares blankly with hardly an utterance since she can neither understand nor make herself understood in Littlerock, put out by Indie Spirit "Someone to Watch" winner Mike Ott. Fortunately, his film, a second feature effort for him, is itself mostly well worth watching.

Siblings Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) and Rintaro (a young gent named Sawamoto, also going by his real first name) are taking a trip across the United States, much to the disappointment of their father back home. He's detail driven and cautious - she's more relaxed and open to experiences when they come up. Bro speaks a tiny bit of English, which is lot more than his sister can muster. Their rental car breaks down in the Los Angeles exurb of Littlerock, a place which is about as anti-glamorous as California gets and the driest the state has been seen on screen since Polanski's Chinatown. While waiting for a replacement vehicle they first meet some of the shiftless locals at their motel in a confrontational manner but are quickly adopted by the populace at large as new friends. Much of this has to do with the fact that many of the Caucasian boys find Atsuko attractive and alluring. Two in this boat are Cory (Cory Zacharia), a somewhat effeminate fellow in trouble with the local drug dealer for having smoked most of what he was suppose to distribute, as well as Jordan (Brett L. Tinnes), a wannabe musician who can't suppress the glint he has in his eyes for the oriental visitor...for which she "glints" back. Together they take their new Japanese friends sight-seeing (in this town, that doesn't amount to much) for which two-wheeler bikes (not the motorized kind) are supplied. These same two locals blokes are not, however,  too broken up when Rintaro decides to go ahead with a visit to San Francisco without his sis. She proceeds to find romance with one fellow, artistic endeavors of sorts with another and gets to pass time alongside an immigrant cook (Roberto 'Sanz" Sanchez) that she can't talk with but can relate to. Rintaro eventually returns and, while I won't go into the details here, the last leg of the trip taken by brother and sister delivers a poignant (and unexpected) conclusion to their tale.

Ott seems at home delivering a film at this scale, which is not as easy as it sounds. Staying within smaller confines and resisting the temptation to paint bigger pictures is a discipline not everyone possesses. Littlerock is a simple and appropriately subtle tale. The characters in the film are neither saints nor satanic - they're simply real. The Asian girl finds herself alone with the guys of the town, instilling enough creepiness and suspense to her plight. At the same time, while Atsuko may be unworldly, she's not naive or stupid. It's obvious the local residents are their own worse enemies, particularly true of Cory. Even though he's the one who can speak English, he seems less clued in to what is going on around him than she does though surveillance and intuition. She discovers, he spins. It makes for a mostly interesting, if somewhat predictable relationship. (Unfortunately, you can see her rejecting of his advances from a mile away, one of the few significant weaknesses in the film.)

The town of Littlerock itself is an interesting ingredient in the movie, a place that seems to be in the middle of a desert and a fairly comical locale to drop off two foreigners "discovering" America. But it's on this blank slate of a nowhere town with a group of inhabitants going nowhere in particular that makes for an appropriate place for the protagonist to get her bearings. Littlerock is largely a film about communications and miscommunications, experienced by both the protagonist herself and observed in the dealings of others who supposedly speak the language.

Mainstream audiences who prefer their movies with popcorn and a heavy lathering of Michael Bay on top will be bored to tears by Littlerock. And even some of the latte crowd will accuse Ott of delivering less than meets the eye. But there are enough of those out there who will appreciate this quiet character study and the naturalistic acting style of the cast to make the trip to this nowheresville a destination appointment.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Who Killed Johnny Doesn't Survive On Screen

The film:
Who Killed Johnny (2013)

The under-the-radar-factor:
The film has played at a number of smaller and specialized film festivals where it has won some awards and has aired on Swiss television but its main means of exhibiton appears to have been through streaming on Google Play and DVD sales through the production's website.

The review:

Two Swiss filmmakers try to come up with a script for their made-in-Hollywood micro-budget movie when a dead dude bearing a strong resemblance to a certain A-list celeb complicates an already chaotic situation in Who Killed Johnny, a first feature directed by European actress Yangzom Brauen.

As indicated, the story takes place in a film-within-a-film setting. A writing/directing team (Melanie Winiger and Max Loong) sit around their apartment doing alcohol, drugs and very strange conversation with the very strange people dropping by as they bounce ideas around for the script they are trying to write for a low budget movie. Imagined scenes go through numerous variations involving the male lead (Carlos Leal), while the creative team try to also put some focus on their real lives and desires. Providing unneeded distractions are the outré crew/cast members in waiting, Jambo (Ernest Hausmann) and his outrageously curvy gal pal Gudrun (Jordan Carver), who end up hogging the swimming pool. The production and the lives of all involved turn on their heads when a dead body shows up on the street outside. A Johnny Depp lookalike for hire (Ronnie Rodriguez) has apparently been run down by a car and his corpse creates problems and opportunities for the desperate filmmakers. Genuine principal photography of the film finally gets underway, where tensions rise and the lead actor gets a little too real with his intensity in the pivotal kitchen scene.

The problem with this movie is the same problem faced by the two lead characters in the film - what to do about the script? Who Killed Johnny spouts out a number of ideas and premises but never really develops any, jumping from one implausible circumstance (even for a comedy) to another. People with filmmaking experience that can relate to the agonies involved in trying to put out cinematic endeavors will be more amused by the frustrations of the two main characters than general audiences will. At the same time, the lackadaisical manner in which the protagonists try to throw together a movie project may be seen as insulting to dedicated film artists.

The movie does realize a needed focus in its last twenty minutes, as the cast and crew characters finally get around to trying to accomplish something tangible and the interplay between them works in an arresting manner. Unfortunately, it doesn't make up for the rag-tag nature of the preceding hour that gets the audience there.

This is all very unfortunate, as the cast is actually very likable and seems more than talented enough to take on a better developed project. And for a film that is obviously being done on the cheap (sticking to the one central locale of action throughout), the production values are first rate, with particular kudos going to the crisp photography and sharp editing on display.

Who Killed Johnny, like the film within the film, is a glimpse of what might have been if serious scripting details had been improved. Director Brauen and company serve notice they are capable of better things and should be encouraged to go forward with such.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Briefly - Puppet Master

Anytime you can get a film franchise that stretches into the double digits (ten and counting), one becomes curious as to how a series could have such enduring legs. In the case of the Puppet Master movies, success has come by way of the direct-to-video market, as opposed to line-ups at the local multiplex. Low budget and low-brow perhaps - but still... what's up with the ability of Charles Band/Full Moon Studios to keep churning out one offering after another?

I required a little more incentive to decide to spend time on this first production released in 1989 and I found it in the curiosity I had over the fate of its lead actor, Paul Le Mat. When one thinks of American Graffiti and the incredible career success enjoyed later by a number of its (mostly) unknown cast like Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron "Opie" Howard, Suzanne Somers (as well as decent career developments for Cindy Williams and Charles Martin Smith)...whoa! Head spinning! Not so for Le Mat. Despite a well regarded performance in the critically successful Melvin and Howard in 1980, the cinematic radar screen has rarely seen the former Vietnam veteran appear in anything truly noteworthy. Which made me wonder how he fared here. Oh well...

A puppeteer named Toulon ( in this production the honour goes to William Hickey) uncovers an ancient Egyptian spell that brings his creations into an anthropomorphic state but the little ones (Pinhead, Blade, Leech Woman, Jester, and Tunneler) are a pretty mischievous lot to be left running around on their own. Toulon has another reason to pack them away for safety in a wall of The Bodega Bay Inn where he's been staying, circa 1939. The Nazi's are a comin' for him and he decides to head them off by committing suicide (a chronology that is largely changed/distorted in later episodes of the series, I'm told).

Flash forward five decades - four psychics that were colleagues of Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs) receive troubling visions that they attribute to this person they've lost touch with. Drawn to visit the Bogeda Bay Inn where slimeball Gallagher had been staying, the quartet experience two shocks - the man is now dead (it seems) by way of suicide...and was also married to a gentle, soft spoken woman named Megan (Robin Frates). The four clairvoyants, a rude, crude lot with the exception of the taciturn Alex (Le Mat), conduct their own hi-jinks into the evening, unaware that Blade and the gang are on the loose. Murder and mayhem occur, with Gallagher's true status revealed and the puppets then taking turns at being both villains and heroes.

Directed with little panache by David Schmoeller and exhibiting an anti-atmospheric 1970's made-for-tv look throughout, Puppet Master is hardly a visually impactful offering for its genre. Throw in an unapealling cast (most of the actors playing the psychics are lively but in a self-conscious way that becomes irritating - except for Le Mat, who sleepwalks his way through his role) and a uninteresting plot with scant backstory/explanations when required and you have a recipe for boredom through the first 68 minutes.

But as poor as the first hour-plus is, things really come to life at the end as the puppets finally get to do their thing unhindered. In an age of CGI overkill, there is something really magical in watching the Harruyhausen-ish touches put forward by the people in the puppeteer department. Blade and the gang easily steal the film - which isn't a big accomplishment among these humans - and clearly provided the incentive for continuing the series.

Puppet Master serves as the template for a franchise that showed amazingly resiliency but even though I have in my possession a DVD with the next two installments on it, I think I've concluded that one film in the series is more than enough for moi.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Signal Comes Through Clear Enough

The film:
The Signal (2007) - not to be confused with a more recent release with the same title starring Laurence Fishburne.

The under-the-radar factor:
Launched at the 2007 Sundance fest, the low-budget (less than six figures) hybrid horror/comedy/sci-fi film has had light box office returns (just over six figures) but, in-spite of having polarized audiences and critics, has attained a cult status. 

The review:

You know that Jerry Seinfeld joke that goes "Have you ever met anyone so stupid that they think you're stupid?"

In a way, The Signal asks the question "Have you ever encountered anyone so crazy...they think you're crazy??"

The film was directed by a group of three (David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry) and consists of...hmm...three segments or "transmissions".  I guess this leads to the idea that each person directed one act, passing the baton off to the next. This would certainly help explain some of the jarring tone changes taking place from one volley of action to the next.

A typical torture-gore preamble about a group of captured women gives way to anything but the type of archetypal horror usually found at this budget level. The real opening to the story that follows, set in a nondescript city known as Terminus, introduces us to Mya (Anessa Ramsey), a married woman lounging in the home of her sidebar lover Ben (Justin Welborn). She's contemplating leaving her husband Lewis (AJ Bowen) but in trying to contact him her cell phone cacks - the first of many tech items that are not up to their usual behavior. Ben's attention is more diverted to his flat screen TV which has mysteriously turned itself on, emitting odd sounds and strange patterns.

When Mya does return home she sees that the people in her apartment block are acting in a loudly disoriented manner. She finds hubby and a few buddies pissed that their ball game isn't on the tube, with their TV making the same strange sounds and patterns seen elsewhere. The guys are goofing around with a baseball bat but something seems sinister underneath their jocularity, a sign they are experiencing "the crazies" the rest of the folks in the building seem to be going through. When the bat is used with someone's head substituting for a ball, Mya decides it's best to escape Lewis, even though the world outside has become violently unhinged, lined with dead bodies in the streets. This first segment is done in a relatively straightforward horror manner.

Jump to the second,, "transmission"...and we find ourselves in Shaun of the Dead territory. A smiling woman named Anna (Cheri Christian) is still expecting guests for her New Year's party...even though she has killed off her husband. Her rather nerdy landlord Clark (Scott Poythress) has a geeky explanation for why people are flipping over the edge from the TV signals but his palaver runs long and says little that can be comprehended. Meanwhile, Lewis and others invade Anna's apartment, attempting to kill each other when they're not trading jokes. Self-awareness of being disturbed and recognizing the same symptoms in others becomes more elusive as the mayhem increases.

The uncertainty over what is real and who can be trusted (and if one can trust their own selves) comes to a fever pitch in the third act//transmission, as Ben has teamed with Clark to try to save Mya from the clutches of the now total madman that is Lewis. This final segment truly takes the existential examination to the hilt, combining the horrific with attempts at humour, while also bringing in some cerebral sci-fi if things weren't already complicated enough.

The trailer doesn't convey how goofy the tone of the second act becomes.

The Signal is one of those films that some will dismiss, citing the "just-because-you're-indie-and-different-doesn't-excuse-the-lack-of-quality" argument. It is true that the acting is occasionally flat and unconvincing (especially at the beginning). You may end up feeling the exploration of the high-brow concepts being thrown at the audience are superficially examined. Then there's the grab-bag approach of three filmmakers playing pass-the-dutchie-and-fry-the-viewers-minds with the wild tonal changes taking place. And I haven't yet mentioned the considerable gore (which, of course, will be one viewer's music to another's noise). Understandable criticisms...

But then there are the strengths of The Signal. The generic qualities of the city of Terminus setting that actually gives the film an existentialist vibe, suggesting the horrors that lurk there could be around our corners or in the back of our minds. The acting that often does work well, especially (and surprisingly) in the middle Shaun-ish segment that could easily have had me checking out if it wasn't as successful as it was.

Arguably the strongest (and creepiest) element in the film is the uncomfortably blurred line between the routinely rational and the impulsively rabid. Some of the characters, aside from their split-second descent into violence moments, don't really carry themselves much differently in normal conversation as some of the people you would meet on a daily basis in your life - they just carry through with whacking you in the end. In a world increasingly fueled by low tolerance for what the other person thinks and believes (hmm...can media in general and television in particular have something to do with that?), The Signal might have gone deeper but still raises enough on the matter to make its point.

The less subtle, wilder ingredients - low-budget gore horror on one side, outrageous attempts at humour on the other - may strike some as irritating but actually helps to contribute to the sense of disorientation the filmmakers are seeking. (Again, one person's music...) And providing the glue to this mercurial trip is the simple love story of two people wanting to be with each other. For yours truly, this all worked.

And, oh yes,, is daring and different the way true indie cinema should be.

In spite of some shortcomings (which, as I'm suggesting, may be more in the eye of the beholder) , The Signal was a film that I found myself intrigued with throughout, always wondering what was going to happen next. A truly wild ride, it's also an acquired taste but one I suggest you sample.

Many thanks to Kirsty (@twistedsista74) for bringing this one to attention.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Darwin's Nightmare Haunts Us All

The film:
Darwin's Nightmare (2004)

The under-the-radar factor:
Nominated for Best Feature Documentary at the 2006 Academy Awards, it's safe to say this film has never garnered the same attention or audience as the winner of the category that year, March of the Penguins.

The review:

I have lived in the city of Toronto for all of the years of my life and at this juncture find myself residing in an area with the Humber River to the west and High Park to the south-east. I go for walks and see different birds hanging out in each area. The Red-winged Blackbird seems to rule the Humber valley, with a fair smattering of Goldfinches to boot. Marsh birds, Woodpeckers, Blue jays, Cardinals and far more exotic species can be found around High Park, especially as one makes their way to Grenadier Pond. There are all sorts of flying creatures that one will find in either location at various times of the year because...they belong there.

As the documentary Darwin's Nightmare points out, there were once a plethora of different fish that belonged to Africa's Lake Victoria. Then about fifty years ago someone (identity unknown...or, at least, unidentified) began depositing significant quantities of Nile Perch into the waters. Goodbye to the indigenous species, as the predator fish virtually wiped out whatever else was swimming in the lake. The Nile Perch fattened up to the extent of making it a most desirable delicacy to be packed and sent off for European consumption. The resulting industry that grew in Tanzania created winners and losers...although some on the down side of prosperity still felt they were better off than in their previous circumstances.

Something else has also been introduced in the Tanzanian landscape corresponding to the presence of the Nile Perch industry - planes. Aircraft fly into the region regularly and not often on a scheduled basis. The cargo crafts don't always arrive empty; some say guns are regularly brought in to supply those in battle in other parts of the continent. Before the planes fly back out with their loads of fish, the crews (mainly Russian and Ukrainian) take time to party with their "girlfriends" - the prostitutes they return to on a regular basis. These are the flashier women who are available for the visitors with the real big bucks but gals who have come in from the countryside with no other means of procuring income turn tricks for the local men looking for such distractions. Not surprisingly HIV infection and AIDS becomes an issue, helping to jack up the number of children living in the streets. The youngsters find their chief means of coping with the gloom around them comes by way of their makeshift means of sniffing chemicals found in the local refuse. And as far as diet for all are concerned, only the maggot-infested heads and other scraps of the Nile Perch are available, if that - the fillets that fly off in the aircraft are far too expensive to be considered by the indigenous population that finds themselves at the bottom of the economic totem pole of Tanzania.

Yes, there are all these specific references to what is happening in Tanzania but director Hubert Sauper uses the micro examination of the country in order to arrive at macro estimations of what the worst aspects of globalization/imperialism and the exploitation of those with lesser means amounts to.

Raphael still hopes.
Such an example is offered by the presence of Raphael, an ex-solider being paid a dollar a night to guard the fisheries institute. He "lucked" into the job when his predecessor was killed during an attempted robbery. Raphael knows an advanced education would help improve his standings but is aware that a more practical means for getting ahead would be the outbreak of war. If the government were to need him again, he could ditch his poisoned arrows and get equipped with real firearms and a better salary. It's kind of like an insane version of Thoreau's improved means to an unimproved end - better things can happen for some when bad things go down for others. But it's not the same means of amelioration he wishes for his son - Raphael would be pleased to see his offspring become a pilot, flying those planeloads of Nile Perch off to the well-heeled customers in Europe and returning with....actually, he's not sure what. Raphael just knows it would represent advancement, comfort...less of the nightmare.

Sauper hasn't constructed a let-me-connect-the-dots-for-you type of documentary, of the excellent Inside Job variety. There is also no Michael Moore-type intrusions, aside from some off-screen questions addressed to the participants. His film spools out more like an album - a collection of snapshots your regard from the beginning to the end and then arrive at your own conclusions as to what has really been broached. Perhaps an important missing element is the "before" picture - what life was really like for the people of Tanzania before the introduction of the Nile Perch. By way of omission of this examination, the inference seems to be that it was, of course, not as bad as now. Really? Perhaps it was more of a just-as-bad-in-a-different-way type of life, although it is safe to say the local eco-system was in better times. Perhaps widespread corruption has always been the issue, the force that kicks open the door for other evils? The film doesn't really try to reveal this significant type of back story.

Still, the bottom line becomes that what the locals go through now is plenty horrible and the exploitative nature of extreme globalized interests will not be the way out for these folks. It may not be the real cause of their troubles but it certainly ain't no cure. Even the Russian airplane crews seem to be a sad lot - while they enjoy the material benefits that come from their workload they seem embarrassed, saddened and perhaps even a little frightened by the ramifications of what they are involved in, even when they insist with a shrug that "it's business".

In spite of it's somewhat incomplete nature, Darwin's Nightmare is a film that refuses to leave the viewer unmoved. While this story may be set in what seems a world away, one is left with the creepy feeling that the Tanzanians are one of the folks who are first experiencing what may be to follow (or already has) for many of the rest of us in different ways. Look around...after you've first watched this film, of course.