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.