Monday, 30 March 2015

Just Another Gore-fest?...VANish The Thought!

The film:
VANish (2015)

The under-the-radar factor:
Actor Bryan Bockrader tries his hand at directing with this first feature. As with so many new indie titles, there are VOD, DVD, Bluray, and iTunes options available to check this one out. It seems the best way of keeping up with news on the flic is via its Twitter feed.

The review:

With healthy dashes of Tarantino/Rodriquez inspiration fueling it,  VANish is a micro-budget production that makes the most out of one environment - the inside of an automotive vehicle that serves as the setting for what at first seems to be your run-of-the-mill kidnapping for dollars scenario. But, as you may have already guessed, things are far from what they initially appear...

The movies' prologue reveals a love-bird couple being abducted (the significance of which is explained as the central story goes on) from their vehicle right in the middle of their midnight amour session. Their van resurfaces a few months later with a war vet named Jack (Austin Abke) and his obnoxious sibling Max (writer/director Bockbrader) taking it on the road. Small talk ("...onions have penicillin", " can get that from a hand job?" ya-da, ya-da) gives way to the bros executing their violent plan - the abduction of a potentially valuable young lady named Emma (Maiara Walsh). The bad boys are eventually joined by their unstable and unreliable accomplice Shane (Adam Guthrie), a dude who makes the other two crackpots look like rocket scientists. The one thing that then stays true and remains clear for the duration of the film is the intention of all to have the kidnapped victims' dangerous daddy (Danny Trejo) meet up with this foursome in the desert, allegedly to collect some ransom money from this cartel Carlos guy. This is in spite of Emma not being your typical damsel in distress and not having been on the best of terms with papa for a long time. By the middle of the story it becomes clear not everyone is on board for the reasons originally expressed, setting up a further layer of tension between those taking the thrill ride in what has become an increasingly beaten-up van.

Somewhat reminiscent of exploitation flics from the Corman era, with a sprinkling of black comedy satire, VANish has a clever (if not entirely original) opening and an ending that has more than enough going for it on the violence meter, if that's what you're looking for. Considering the whole movie was filmed in less than two weeks with a paucity of locations, the production values are truly commendable. The camera work is ace, the lighting in the few night time scenes does not come across as amateurish (always a concern for low/no budget works), and the sound track and editing are very sharp. The silly moments are usually more fun than irritating and the mix between times that make you say "ha-ha" and "Holy S**t!" are fairly well balanced. The gore effects don't look amateurish and the final confrontations, while not delivering anything new, will more than satisfy most action seekers.

The cast does a good job of keeping the viewer wanting to follow the ride, which is no easy feat considering how unlikable the main characters really are. Walsh is quite amazing - she gives (first with words, then with physical consequences) as good as she gets and proves she's a lot more than blood soaked eye-candy for a movie poster - a comanding performance. Abke handles a complicated role in admirable fashion and Bockbrader succeeds in making a disgusting character, for the most part, watchable. B-movie vet Tony Todd is a scream in a terrific cameo as a highway patrolman who is both menacingly cool and hysterically funny. And then there's Trejo (you know ...from the Snickers commercial. Hmm ...I think he's done something else ...maybe). He's ...well, he's Trejo! Guthrie struggles a bit playing the least interesting character.

As well executed (layers of meaning to that) as most of the film is, there's a serious bog down in the middle. Once the characters start articulating the real reasons they have for doing what they're doing, eye-rolling dialogue comes out with firehose force - what sounded nonsensical but entertaining early on gives way to the irritating and stupid here. And, in general, there's far too much yakety-yak going on in the centre scenes, causing this otherwise fast moving vehicle to hit some unfortunate and unnecessary speed-bumps in its pacing. Also, many will be disappointed that Trejo is there for what basically amounts to a cup of coffee in screen time.

Tough-as-nails sexy chicks. Crazy guys who might kill each other before their enemies. Drug cartel desperadoes ready to blow your brains out in the desert. For the crowd looking for this type of entertainment, VANish does a good job of delivering the goods. It also excites for the potential shown by some of its participants - Walsh looks like she's due for much meatier, breakout roles and Bockbrader looks promising in writing and directing his debut feature. Far more watchable than similar attempts of this ilk, VANish is one to recommend.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

William's Lullaby Strikes A Sharp Note

The film:
William's Lullaby (2014)

The under-the-radar factor:
Shot in 16 days for a reported $1800, this micro-budget production has won awards at some of the festivals it has played at and is scheduled to be made available via DVD and streaming/download options through, among other platforms, the movie's website.

The review:

Hollywood is Hollywood. Many interesting, intriguing, and worthwhile efforts have been sabotaged by that monster called "The Hollywood Ending", that strange beast nervous investors, myopic producers, and equally astigmatic distribution channels deem to be what the public wishes to see.

News flash for the above mentioned interests: especially in this day and age, "public" is a plural. While many still wish to absorb the mainstream pap that is out there, others seek something with the honesty and integrity that the indie film circuit should deliver but, sadly, doesn't do often enough.

In spite of some shortfalls along the way, William's Lullaby stands pretty tall by the end credits after having delivered a difficult to watch but uncompromising look at a tragic tale. Hollywood it's not and here, in regards to writer/director Nicholas Arnold's sophomore feature, that's a good thing. Just don't be fooled by the title - this is anything but a gentle experience.

The film starts in the past with three teenagers in a school washroom and an incident that will have ramifications for the lifetime of the one who will grow up to be Thomas Splinter. The story jumps to the present to show Thomas (Richard Roy Sutton) as a recently widowed single parent, whose life is a pile-up of moments from the years gone by (and, possibly, the future) that has led to chronic depression and paranoia. The bills are piling up to the extent that his home's hot water supply has been cut off. Employment is precarious and once he does land work as a school janitor, his motivation to show up for shifts is far from assured. As well as dealing with the grief concerning his dead wife and the challenge of raising his five year old son, the William of the title (Toby Bisson), Thomas is also haunted by images and nightmares concerning the episode from his boyhood years. Raised by a cold mother who never encouraged emotion and expression, Splinter finally agrees to see a hypnotherapist (the late Robert Lawton) who tries to help. While William has enough trouble being accepted by others in his school setting, his equally isolated dad has difficulties trying to resolve his own issues - every step forward taken with the doctor treating him is met with one back ...sometimes more. One of the most haunting visions he has to deal with concerns William growing up to be too much like an acquaintance from the father's past. This only adds to the downward spiral in the relationship between papa and son...

I'll pull back from adding any more of the storyline for fear of wadding too far into spoiler territory ...check out the trailer for now...

Sure, it's true that the film is a tad long and could use some trimming throughout - the first half of the movie seems particularly plodding. A few of the performances in the first hour, while far from embarrassing, seem serviceable at best. The low-budget look to the lighting in some night scenes calls attention to itself and a conventional cut-on-dialogue approach exists in much of the editing.

None of these shortcoming sabotage the end result. What evolves is an earnest and powerful examination of a life probably not meant to resolve some or even most of the potential tragedies waiting so obviously around the corner for it. William's Lullaby tackles a troubling scenario without pulling punches or engaging in mainstream compromises. Its unabashed honesty is the antithesis of big studio canned pablum. Why seek out indie works if not to find the filmic fresh air corporate cinema smothers? Arnold refuses to indulge in feel-good cop-outs or contrivances regarding the subject of mental illness and the ending leaves the viewer feeling as shattered as the characters on the screen.

Sutton delivers when he has to, convincing in his portrayal of an individual who has lost his grip. Bisson is appropriately charming (if loud) as his son. As the tale continues the time-displacements, flashbacks, and nightmares combine effectively to drive home the disorientation the Thomas character experiences. Kudos also go to Paul Barton' score, adding richly to the atmospherics at play.

There have been solid examples of micro-budget indie work coming recently from Canada, in the form of films like The Butler Brothers` Mourning Has Broken and Christopher White`s I Fall Down. Add one more that can proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those worthy efforts. William's Lullaby rewards by refusing to turn away from stark truths in a way few other productions have the courage to follow.