Monday, 6 November 2017

DIS (2017)

This can't be good news, right Bill?

So the story goes like this ...Bill Oberst Jr. passed along a correspondence asking me if I would have a look at his new project, director Adrian Corona's effort called DIS. In the email he used the term "arthouse horror" as a descriptor of the work. The first time I found Bill using that tag was when he asked me to have a gander at Coyote, one of the most interesting films I have seen in the last few years. His latest foray into this sub-genre delivers equally intriguing, if somewhat cryptic results.

Providing an explanation of the narrative is a bit of a time-waster, as what goes on story-wise is not particularly fleshed out (seemingly on purpose). This is either a good or bad thing, depending where you as the viewer are coming from. For what it's worth, the official synopsis that was passed along to yours truly goes like this:

"An ex-soldier with a criminal past takes refuge in the woods. A demonic figure seeks the seed of killers and the blood of the damned to feed his mandrake garden. DIS is an infernal descent into the root of the mandrake legend and a man who wanders too close to that legend and the unnamable terror behind it.  What you sow you will reap…"

Now have a gander at what to expect visually, and, yes - the end product is as graphic as what is being suggested here...

DIS is indeed an experimental piece of work in that it is fairly wide open to interpretation; what is going on here is largely left up to the viewer to decide. Some folks will be pissed by the lack of elements associated with conventional storytelling (the ones who don't quite grasp the concept of "arthouse horror" perhaps?). But then, even some of the more broad-minded may be convinced that director Corona isn't so sure what the film is about himself and has, in effect, punked-out of his responsibilities.

Here's where I sit: clocking in at around the 60-minute mark, the film doesn't feel like it takes up too much of one's life or too little in terms of delivering an experience that will make an impact. Oberst commands the screen in every scene he's in, continually proving how much can be expressed with a look, a hesitation, a loud silence. Cinematographer Rodrigo Rodriguez's work is off-the-charts awesome - he really delivers the goods in terms of stunning visuals that sucks one into this strange, macabre world. (Those who have the inclination to believe that the great works attributed to Wong Kar-wai were somewhat/significantly/mostly Christopher Doyle films may find echoes of that belief here. I don't know...I wasn't on the set of this film, but...). And as graphic as the film is (sexual assault including full-on frontal forced masturbation, torture and more) someone (Rodriguez and/or Corona) clued in that those mid and long-shots ala The Texas Chainsaw Massacre makes for a different viewer involvement and reflection than the extreme (and often unnecessary) close-up.

And then there's those cool abandoned buildings. Structures that once had a purpose and an identity that are long gone, re-purposed the way characters try to re-purpose themselves, for better, for worse, for whatever. Another great atmospheric device in the film.

Easy to dismiss but hard to forget, DIS is certainly an experience; what kind of experience it ends up being for anyone who has the courage to regard it...?

Tuesday, 3 October 2017


Joey Skaggs, up to something, as usual.

So the story goes like this ... truth is stranger than fiction - can fiction pass itself off as truth as easily as suggested by Andrea Marini's The Art of the Prank? Joey Skaggs has proven that to be the case, time after time.

A bordello for dogs. A priest with his own mobile confession booth. A coma-inducing drug in combination with hypnosis that allows people to experience fantasy vacations. Extracts from cockroaches to enhance human health. A celebrity sperm auction (for those who wouldn't want to pass up the opportunity of carrying Bob Dylan's love-child).

Preposterous? Absurd? No one would fall for such bunk?

The media has - both on a small-scale local basis, as well as mega-players like the New York Times and CNN - over and over again at the hands of the frustrated artist who decided he needed to see more immediate responses to his work while showing how gullible said media can be.

Art of the Prank takes a shaky, rather unfocused look at the life of Skaggs. The viewer is circuitously plopped into areas of his life and work, rather than smoothly arriving at them - a chronological as-the-crow flies approach would have helped. And there are numerous gaps that confine the documentary as straight reportage with little in the way of human interest carry. What was really up with his earlier Hawaii period? Aside from caring for his mom after the death of his father, what were the close personal relationships in his life? Other missing points of interest: where does he get the coin to finance his projects, as low budget as they are? Why is there as much screen time consumed with following the plotting of a faux documentary on GMO issues with no significant glimpse at the film itself? Too much "why, why, why?" going on here.

The subject himself is a pretty fascinating guy, although one could dismiss Skaggs and his numerous co-conspirators as being more infatuated with infantile actions where the payoff is giggling over deceiving the media, rather than truly enlightening the public. As Phil Donahue is briefly shown pondering, doesn't the media attention Skaggs produce take away from the coverage of serious issues? It's also ironic to see - after getting national and even global coverage through his other actions - Skaggs thoroughly sweating out the production of the faux documentary and getting the final short film into less than A-list film festivals with only (seemingly) a few dozen in attendance at any screening.

Perhaps two quotes from profound intellects could best sum up how one may end up regarding what Skaggs has been up to and the true impact (or lack of) he has had. The first comes from Henry David Thoreau who said "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." Hmm. So, in terms of addressing the societal poison that arises from media incompetence in delivering accuracy, are Skaggs and company more of the latter than the former? Perhaps I'm influenced by that other quote ... from a plumber I had over to fix a leak. "Yeah, make no doubt about it ... if you see a little tiny drip on this side of the ceiling it means you have a really big problem on the other side." I tend to agree. Joey Skaggs spots drips showing that there are some serious problems with a traditional media crowd that points to alleged fact-checking prowess as a reason they provide superior deliverance of "the truth" compared to the alternatives that have arisen in the digital age. And he's been proving that for decades. For that reason alone, Art of the Prank is worth a look.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017


Perhaps you're like me, getting pretty depressed about the way this world is going. It's not only the hate and confusion, the lies and deceit, the posturing and pretense ...

... it's a world that doesn't seem to have enough inspiring people in it. Or at least we don't hear about them often enough. Sure would be nice if ... wait!

This account of the life of Suzanne Ciani has arrived just in time.

Suzanne Ciani

So the story goes like this... In the end, all things come back to Buchla.

That is to say the Buchla synthesizer, the prime (but far from exclusive) tool used by Suzanne Ciani to forge a career (if not a name) that would find its way into every household.

Now, listen carefully to the music in the backgrounds:

If you've seen/heard a Merrill Lynch commercial featuring a bull walking through a china shop ...

... or traversed through the Atari universe ...

...  or played a Xenon pinball machine that made "oooh" and "aaah" sounds to its Ciani-scored musical accompaniment.

And here is a clip from the documentary itself; how refreshing does a Coke sound after Ciani gets through with it?

Okay, maybe you're not that impressed with all this Madison Avenue-type stuff. Hmm ...

I invite you to try this beautiful composition on for size and then meet us back in the review. The piece is called Neverland.

I guess I didn't mention Suzanne Ciani is a five-time Grammy nominee. Well, now you know. A bio-pic on the life of the person behind these music and sound design innovations has been long overdue. Fortunately, director Brett Witcomb and writer Bradford Thomason have now answered the call in top-notch fashion with A Life in Waves.

How do you create immediate interest and historical placement re: this largely unknown figure? Answer: start with a clip of Ciani's appearance on David Letterman's NBC show circa 1980, with the host looking bedazzled with the offerings of the effervescent musician. After some testimonials from New Age music pioneers/practitioners (including Tangerine Dream's Peter Baumann) the doc then catches up to its subject in 2015, with her returning to Wellesley College to accept the Alumnae Achievement Award, where her face fills with pride and admiration upon regarding the photos of past graduates who made their mark in many of the male-dominated professions (including a super-string theorist, an astronaut ... someone named Hillary Clinton). The career highlights that follow emphasize a similar refusal on Ciani's part to be held back from anything. There was no holding back on the pursuit of electronic music, despite the lack of support she received while attending the U of Cal at Berkeley. There was the determination to continue working in the studio of synth pioneer Donald Buchla, despite a misunderstanding that led to him firing Ciani after only one day on the job. (Not to worry - he still became a mentor and an inspirational force for much of her work.) She wouldn't allow male-dominated Madison Avenue stand in her way after her move to the Big Apple, and she didn't care if the record labels weren't ready when she did a piano-based neo-classical pivot - Ciani just found ways to release the music on her own. (The category New Age came along just in time, although she admits it was largely "a club nobody wants to belong to".) Needless to say, no one was going to tell this artist what to do when she came full circle to once again embrace the sounds of the Buchla invention.

By pointing out how the invention of music as effect took matters to a new psychological level Ciani proves her true trailblazer status. And while I'm hardly an electronic music aficionado (although I've always dug Brain Eno), I think it's safe to say Ciani has brought a particular feminine sense of sensuality to her compositions. The film is fascinating enough given the many self-determined twists and turns the woman's career has taken but there's more to it. Hers is a radiating spirit and exuberant personality that captivates; it's a pleasure that we're at least able to get this close to her through this film (although, as some others have pointed out, her private life remains pretty private throughout  example: her hardly discussed marriage. Sure, maybe it's none of our business, but...) And with only 76-minutes spent as it is, there could have been a little more examination re: the nuts-or-bolts behind some of her work. Nonetheless, we are treated to a smooth flowing presentation featuring solid production values as it is.

We may not all carry the genes this immensely talented person has but her "go for it" message serves all. As promised, Witcomb and Thomason have introduced us to an inspiring story in a world that seems to need such.

So now I'm not going to say anything more, because output on my part would seem very dry compared to the pleasure that comes from actually watching this film. The screener link was supplied by a PR rep who I will thank immensely - this was one of the most enjoyable films I have seen in a LONG time!

As you've already guessed from my gushing, this one is way high up on the recommended list.

This film deserves kudos for ...

- a revealing look at a great talent we didn't realize was around us. 

- an exploration beyond the traditional boundaries of what many regard as music and the means to create such. 

- offering seventy-six fascinating minutes with such a charismatic personality.   

(The first three videos in the post were embedded from Suzanne Ciani's YouTube page. Check it out.)

Wednesday, 6 September 2017


So the story goes like this ... It's not like you can just go and have it done. Lawyers speak in hushed tones for a reason. Doctors make it clear that money will have to come their way, so you better have it. Some offer the procedure in a home instead of an office, so as not to attract attention.

Anne Zohra Berrached's film doesn't cover the plight of women looking for back-alley abortions in those times when such a procedure broke someone's law. Quite the opposite - Isabella (Karina Plachetka) is looking to get pregnant. Problem is, she and her lesbian wife Katja (Sabine Wolf) discover one road block after another in their quest to have a child without adopting.

Facing their approaching middle years, both women are initially enthusiastic towards the idea of bringing a third member into the fold. Being the one most galvanized by the notion, Isabella offers to carry the child.They discover what's good for the heterosexual goose is off-limits for the gay gander. Excitement gives way to frustration as they encounter the inconsistent and baffling laws pertaining to the non-straight set in Germany. Any gatekeeper who may help pave the way in the legal and medical professions are always men - males who also expect to be heavily compensated for their involvement. That's pretty much a no-win situation for two people not seeing a hoard of disposable income via their career paths (waitress and video store manager ... and we all know what happens to video stores). They finally come across a sympathetic physician with somewhat more affordable services - but no guarantees that his fertility procedures will lead to success. There's also that last hurdle to overcome: finding a sperm donor. At least one they can tolerate. The first batch of candidates are strikeouts as far as the two women are concerned: some are too old (more on that later), some have concerning genetic characteristics like height (as in too much of it) and a few don't appeal when it comes to attitude; those are the ones who prefer to have sex with a female - lesbian or otherwise - rather than shoot their wild oats into a cup. Up steps a more affable chap named Florian who scores well on most of the checklist, with one catch - he would like to visit the infant on a regular basis. This goes over much better with the increasingly desperate Isabella than it does with her progressively perturbed mate. Katja develops third-wheel syndrome as she notes how chummy her wife and Flo become. The strain between the two women intensifies as Katja points out the mounting expenses that Isabella is oblivious to.

The rest is spoiler territory.

(Ahem ... there's some intimacy sans clothes in the trailer. Don't say I didn't warn ya ...)

The film Two Mothers is described in the credits as ein dokumentarischer, appropriate in that this brisk 75-minute effort is based on the input of three different lesbian couples who experienced the kind of tribulations depicted here. There are also a slew of regular folks in the cast: doctors playing doctors, sperm donors portraying sperm donors, and other non-professional actor types. Their contributions add to the cinéma-vérité feel of the film (as does an absence of a musical soundtrack and any flashy montage/mise en scène intrusions). For such an emotionally charged topic, there is enough distance provided to allow the viewer to both empathize and scrutinize with clear heads.

The casting of the two leads pays off in spades. Wolf's silent moments are all telling; you can feel her sinking into a more isolated state as the story continues. Plachetka does a fine turn as a person whose myopic outlook overtakes her.

ALAS, NOT EVERYTHING HERE SMELLS RIGHT: the women are shown interviewing a slew of men but Berrached elects not to allow the conversations to be heard - except when it comes to the certified jerks. In the case of the older man, their consideration of him seems to end upon hearing his age. Perhaps sperm counts are down in the sunset years of a male but we never find out this chap's background (University professor? Research scientist? Noted artist?) - it's strictly a case of ageism. The couple's picky paint-by-numbers approach to pregnancy (and outright dismissal of adoption) will leave some viewers less sympathetic to their plight.

Still, the importance of detailing the b.s. people encounter when it comes to sexual orientation is always worth the effort. Two Mothers deserves an audience.

This film deserves some nods for:

- strong performances.

- an approach to storytelling that doesn't descend into melodramatics.

- avoiding the cinematic bloat that so many other feature films suffer from.

Monday, 4 September 2017

MAUDIE (2016)

Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins
So the story goes like this ... Racked with rheumatoid arthritis that affects her gait, Nova Scotia born and raised Maud (Sally Hawkins) discovers her asshole brother has sold the property of their deceased mom - the fink needs some of the cash to pay off their control freak of an aunt to look after the sibling he prefers to ignore. Devastated that she's not heading back to the one joint she considered a home, Maud (kinda) rebels; first by dancing solo at a local jazz club in the wee hours, and then by announcing that she is taking a powder on Aunt Ida's hospitality. Fate strikes as she finds herself in a local store just as grumpy illiterate fishmonger Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) arrives to whine his way into convincing the proprietor to write up an ad for a housekeeper. Maud answers the call, arriving at Lewis' no-frills shack of a domicile to a cold reception and a mountain of nit-picking doubts from her potential employer ... but - wink - you know he's going to eventually cave. Unfortunately, not all of Everett's criticisms of Maud's lack of attention to chores are expressed solely through words (the one such outburst shown in this telling of their story is difficult enough to sit through); nonetheless, an unconventional romance develops, leading to marriage. Everett has no use for the cheerful paintings of plants and animals Maud creates to decorate the cottage walls but a New York socialite staying in town commissions some work. This leads to local fame (and a bit of coin), which leads to the insecure husband trying to keep his fragile ego in check for as long as possible - one guess as to how that goes. But even with all of their falling outs, Everett helps Maud learn the truth regarding an explosive situation from her past.

I see the name SALLY HAWKINS on the credits and expect a performance that shines, but this time she's outdone herself. This may be the best work of her career. You may have heard some Oscar buzz surrounding this gig and it is well deserved. Hawkins seems a natural to take on her role; what is particularly interesting (and highly impressive) is how Hawke manages to keep pace. In my books the guy is a little too Handsome-Hollywood-Leading-Man(ish) to have been an obvious casting choice for the role of husband Lewis - that's driven home by a brief clip at the end showing the real Maud and Everett from the CBC documentary alluded to in this movie. Nonetheless, eye-candy Ethan delivers the goods when it comes to conveying Everett's uglier internal moments. Put a star next to this performance on Hawke's curriculum vitae.

The cinematography displays several Left Coast scenery-so-crisp-and-beautiful-you-can-practically-smell-it moments (aside: Newfoundland actually stood in for Nova Scotia - follow them tax credits, ya all!). The pacing of the film is, for the most part, appropriate, although the threats of separation between the not always happy couple provides for some tedious junctures. While the storytelling is conventional in approach, director Aisling Walsh seems to sense that Sherry White's script would be well-served by hanging the narrative on the strong shoulders of the two leads and leaving it at that. Smart choice.

This film can take bows for:

- standout performances.

- beautiful cinematography.

- a moving tale told without sappiness.