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 outrĂ© 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.