New Books!

Apocalypse Later has now expanded from blog to print! My first two books are now available at Amazon and the other usual online stores.

Click on the images above or the titles below to visit their pages at amazon.com.

Autographed copies can be ordered from Dog Eared Pages used bookstore in Phoenix.

Huh? An A-Z of Why Classic American Bad Movies Were Made
(front cover by Eric Schock of Evil Robo Productions)

Velvet Glove Cast in Iron: The Films of Tura Satana
with a foreword by Peaches Christ and an afterword by Cody Jarrett
(front cover by Keith Decesare of KAD Creations)

Festival Coverage

Phoenix Film Festival:
2014 | 2013 | 2012
International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival: 2014 | 2013
2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009
Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival: 2013

Phoenix Fear Fest/Con: 2012
2011 | 2010 | 2008 | 2006
IFP Phoenix Filmmaker Challenges: 2013 | 2012Filmstock Film Festival:
AZ 2013

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Four (2012)

Directors: Gordon Chan and Janet Chun
Stars: Deng Chao, Liu Yi Fei, Ronald Cheng, Collin Chou and Anthony Wong
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
The Four, one of many adaptations of a series of novels by Woon Swee Oan, is an infuriating picture that throws so much at us that multiple viewings are required to avoid getting lost. My first time through was confusing for quite a while, the second was clearer while the third was a lot of fun. I'm fond of it now but it really shouldn't take three times through to grasp a plot. Much of the problem boils down to it being a sort of Chinese X-Men which introduces us to so many characters so quickly that it's tough to keep track of them. Some of it is, however, deliberate choice, as if the filmmakers wanted us to have to watch twice to figure it all out. For instance, we see many of the lead characters in the opening sequence, a one shot CGI deal with a camera swooping and soaring like a bird, literally as we're vaguely following a pigeon for surveillance purposes. They appear like featured extras, enough to stand out from the crowd, marked as people we should notice, but only for a moment before they're gone again and the pigeon moves on.

While we see most of the characters during this opening sequence, we have to wait until the first action scene to be introduced to what they do, albeit so quickly that it's tough to keep track. They all head over to the Drunken Moon, a rather delightful inn, to watch Jia San try to sell a fake coin cast that presumably ties to the rampant forgery going on in the town. A debt collector known as Life Snatcher meets him, but when he realises that their wine is poisoned, all hell breaks loose. Life Snatcher battles another martial arts master, while others use wilder talents to stop Jia San escaping with use of body duplication magic. One young lady in a wheelchair hurls things around telekinetically. Her boss uses qigong power to pull people towards him like a tractor beam. We watch this all unfold at lightning speed until they all end up outside, trapped by the constabulary known as Department Six, who descended en masse on the inn and aim to arrest everyone. Only now do we get to the point, that we have a clash of authorities going on.

Department Six are the standard police force around here and they scare most people silly because they exude brutal and militaristic power. They're fond of intimidation tactics and shows of force, which lead to overkill shows like what we've just seen. Their uniforms are dark and fetishistic, as are their headquarters which are vast, echoing and arrogant in their overt worship of power. Their commandant is Lord Liu who runs Department Six through a standard chain of command with four supreme constables. It took me a long while to realise that these characters, who were introduced much earlier than this, are not the Four of the title. Then again, this is an origin story, so we're watching how the Four come together and where they fit in the grand scheme of things. At this point, one them works for Department Six; he's Cold Blood, the master who fought Life Snatcher at the Drunken Moon, but he's about to be publicly fired but secretly tasked by Lord Liu with infiltrating the Divine Constabulary, the secret organisation we've just met.
The Divine Constabulary couldn't be any more different than Department Six if that was the basis of its funding. I loved everything about them except the contradiction that sets them up. Apparently, they're a secret police force, small and select, which reports directly to the emperor through their calm, polite and humble leader, Zhuge Zhengwo, the man with the tractor beam power. Department Six haven't heard of them, so plan to arrest them at the Drunken Moon until the Prince arrives and orders Zhuge to show Lord Liu his imperial badge of office. Yet this secret police force hitherto unnoticed has their own headquarters in town with a sign on the door reading 'Divine Constabulary'. That anomalous sign notwithstanding, it's a glorious place. It's utterly organic, a light and inviting home full of wood and paper, space and curves. Nobody wears uniforms and nobody barks orders. The atmosphere is one of trust and the group of people there feel far more like a family than a police force.

Having saved Life Snatcher from arrest by Department Six, Zhuge invites him to stay, to become one of them. He wants to leave, but is suckered into staying through flattery and wine. Lots of wine. Aunt Poise from the Drunken Moon brings good wine and they drink for free. With Life Snatcher under their roof, the Divine Constabulary now have three of the Four within their organisation, the other two being Iron Hands and Emotionless. Emotionless is the more obvious; she's the telekinetic girl in the wheelchair, who sees into people's thoughts and quantifies the strength of their qigong power. To go where she can't, she also has a bird, a pigeon called Skywings who led us on that merry dance through the sky to show us the key players during the opening credits. Iron Hands is their blacksmith and carpenter, who can forge glorious devices for the group, including a wonderful wheelchair/Segway for Emotionless to power with her mind. Presumably he built the secret doors and awesome steampunk library too. I want.

There are many others, but those are the major players because they're ranked among the Four, even if that doesn't seem to be official nomenclature. They're colourfully named, of course: Big Wolf, Dingdong, Guts and Bell, who in the form of Tina Xiang may just be the cutest creature I've ever seen. And into their ranks comes Cold Blood to shake everything up. He isn't merely a Department Six constable undercover, he's also some sort of moody beast man who was raised by wolves and he quite obviously has the hots for Emotionless. Other key players include Ji Yaohua, the leader of the ladies hired into Department Six at the beginning of the film, on the orders of the Prince, and Lord An Shigeng, the God of Wealth, who she's really working for and who's clearly highlighted as the villain of the piece very soon into the picture. Lord An has the coolest moves yet: the ability to freeze people or burn them alive at a single touch. Stopping a martial arts master from killing you with his sword by catching it in your teeth is a pretty neat trick too.
With this dizzying array of characters finally introduced in about a quarter of the film's two hour running time, we can start to watch their dynamics click into gear like a clockwork plot. Sure, this may all happen against a cool background of imaginative locations, wirework fights and Machiavellian intrigue, but really the plot isn't particularly interesting. We know after twenty minutes that it's all going to come down to a big battle with the big boss, Lord An, and given that this is the first part of a planned trilogy we know the good guys at the Divine Constabulary are going to win. This knowledge lessens the tension and renders some of the subplots meaningless, like the battle between Department Six and the Divine Constabulary. Like the heroes are ever in danger of losing their mandate to the local guys? To be frank, at this point, do we even care about the rampant forgery plaguing the town? Again, we know that's all going to get taken care of one way or another. We're too busy watching the people.

Ronald Cheng is the most engaging of the Four as Life Snatcher. He's a prolific actor who always provides good entertainment and he works well as the will he/won't he outsider who is always going to join in the end. Collin Chou has promise as Iron Hands and absolutely looks the part. He's the least used of the Four, so it's the writing that lets the character down rather than the actor. The moody stylings of Liu Yi Fei and Deng Chao as Emotionless and Cold Blood respectively might endear them to a particular demographic but I found them less interesting because they're a notably emo couple. Above the Four is Anthony Wong as Zhuge Zhengwo. He's by far the most experienced member of the cast, typecast for years as notably outrageous villains, not least in his first Hong Kong Film Award winning role as the serial killer who baked his victims into meat pies in The Untold Story. He steals every scene he's in here by being the opposite of outrageous, making us very aware that he has immense power but keeping it constantly in check.

On the side of the villains, Wu Xiu Bo is delightfully cocky as Lord An, at his best when he's commanding an army of reanimated corpses. Jiang Yi Yan is more vanilla as Ji Yaohua, not particularly memorable until her fight with Emotionless, which is highly entertaining. As an origin story, there's less attention given to the villains though and far more to those little dynamics between the characters that will no doubt work as ongoing subplots throughout the sequels. Lord An is more apparent here than, say, the villains in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, another origin story with an ensemble cast of characters, but he and his minions clearly don't get the attention that the ongoing heroes do. The biggest problem the script has is in its attempt to cram so much in, because we'd appreciate so much of this all the more if we didn't miss it by blinking. It's fine for us to miss little background details, because that sort of thing will draw us back to watch again, but losing introductions and key plot points like explaining the title is unforgiveable.
And, at the end of the day, the speed at which this unfolds is both what is most memorable about the film and its biggest flaw. The fights are cool but they're so frantic that we often can't catch what's going on. It took me two viewings to nail down who some of the minor characters were, why they were in the picture and what purpose they served, all because they're skipped over so quickly. Here's a key scene in the plot, but don't dally on it because here's another one and, if you didn't catch the first one, the next three won't make any sense at all. On one level, this would have worked much better had it been slowed down to fit a four hour mini-series instead of a two hour film. Perhaps I should seek out the TV series on the Hong Kong channel TVB, also titled The Four, which ran for 24 episodes of 45 minutes each. Then again, if we could easily figure out what's going on in a slower version of this film, its other flaws would become much more apparent and those are even more problematic.

Put simply, while this is a Chinese wuxia movie whose trappings couldn't be mistaken as being from any other culture, it's notably reminiscent of western superhero movies. The fact that I much prefer the look and feel of pictures like this to anything I've seen in a Marvel superhero movie doesn't mean that it isn't acutely derivative. In what is becoming a sad trend, this is a Hollywood action movie in Chinese clothes, for all that the source material was penned by a Malaysian Chinese novelist who studied in Taiwan and lives in Hong Kong. It's formulaic stuff which tries to cloak its unoriginality in its blistering pace but fails because the more interested we become in the characters, the more we realise that their powers aren't traditionally Chinese, they're just mutant powers from X-Men and its like translated into vaguely Chinese characteristics. Zhuge is Professor X, the Divine Constabulary is his school for mutants, Emotionless is a Rogue/Phoenix hybrid and so on. If you can get past that, this is fun action fluff. After enough viewings.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Found in Time (2012)

Director: Arthur Vincie
Stars: MacLeod Andrews, Mina Vesper Gokal, Kelly Sullivan and Derek Morgan
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
It took a while for me to remember Found in Time, even though I first saw it less than two years ago. My notes suggested that I liked the concept but not where it ended up, but I had to rewatch to remind myself of why, perhaps because it takes a while to ground itself and until it does that it feels rather confusing. It begins in a field, for instance, where a young man asks an older Peter Fonda hippie type in a colourful shirt to push him back. He isn't a taxi service, he says, but clamps his large hand onto the young man's face until he falls to the grass unconscious, to promptly wake up on a couch looking at a young lady with a laptop. He's Chris and she's Jina, his fiancée. Well, not quite, because he hasn't given her the ring yet, but he will and they're certainly a couple. He's on meds, somewhat unsurprisingly, but she's his rock so he needs her. And he needs to go to work too, with RJ, who serves coffee from the sidewalk with the aid of a manual typewriter and some electronic gadget. They're not your usual street vendors, by any stretch.

They seem to give people precisely what they need, whether that's exactly the right coffee or a key to a box. Yes, this is a little weird. Then again, Chris seems to pay more attention to a nail he nearly treads on in the street, standing on its head and waiting for someone to impale themselves on it, than he does his rock and almost fiancée. Clearly he cares for her, but he's more than a little distracted, literally. When he touched that nail, he seemed to transport to another dimension where he found himself putting it down. It's quite obvious that something is going on here that we aren't being told about yet and Chris and RJ are at the heart of it. In this world, people go up to coffee vendors on the street and ask for stamina, humility or confidence rather than cups of coffee. In this world, people with blood on their shirts and emptiness in their demeanour buy small rocks for arbitrary prices. In this world, people silently present boxes for Chris to unlock with the first key in his tin and refuse to charge a fee for doing so.

And in this world, cops take photos of them that mysteriously appear on their cameras as the people they might be thinking about. Here's where we really understand that we're not in Kansas any more, Dorothy. I don't know if this world is supposed to be an alien planet that looks uncannily like our own or an alternate dimension that's just that far adrift from us. At this point, it seems almost appropriate that RJ is played by Derek Morgan whose first regular role on TV was as a character called Thomas Gibson, three years before the Criminal Minds franchise launched, with its lead actor, Thomas Gibson and most prominent character, Derek Morgan. To us, this really ought to be nothing but a meaningless coincidence, but the framework of this film almost wills us to search for weird patterns. This is disjointed stuff, with clearly deliberate intent, I'll grant you, but disjointed nonetheless. We're stuck at the level of little Billy, for whom Chris fills a little bag with crayons. 'What are you doing?' he asks. 'How do you do it? You're scary.'
Even the explanations don't explain much because everything is either cryptic or surreal, depending on our point of view. That customer who bought a rock? Apparently the cops beat him up because he might have used it, but he comes back for another one, which Chris refuses to sell. The psych cops would take away their licenses and send them to the Mine. The customer doesn't believe it exists, whatever it is, but Chris claims to be able to see it in the faces of the cops. Either writer/director Arthur Vincie was dropping some serious acid as he put this together or it's all going somewhere, merely collating confusion factors. Making the lead character a psychic is one, but having his mind experience the days in a different order to his body is another. Having characters swap places, depending on how Chris dreams those scenarios, is a third. Having what might be everyone in the story apparently be there for one reason but possibly a few more besides is what makes it quintessential Philip K Dick.

Trying to fathom what this film was trying to tell us reminded me of Dick stories like Time Out of Joint, in which the lead character has a strange profession, lives in a world that's almost but not exactly like ours and who starts to experience weird anomalies that he can't initially explain. In stories like that, what we see is just a front because something completely different is going on behind it and we have to discover what that is. Here, we're not sure who to look at. Should we be looking at the cops, who are over the top and drawn from a dystopia that this world doesn't quite seem to be? Should we concentrate on vendors, which here seems to be a given role as much as a profession? How about the psychiatrists, like Jina, who do their work from behind masks that are rather like welding helmets fashioned by Apple? Clearly we're supposed to watch the characters who appear in more than one category, but at least three of these are identified quickly, even if their reasons are not. If anything, we wonder about the ones who aren't.

It's around the fifty minute mark that we appear to be given an explanation though, of course, we can't be remotely sure that this reality is indeed reality or just another front. The film's synopsis suggests that Chris, who experiences time like a jigsaw puzzle, finds out that he commits a murder in the future, so he attempts to change his past and present in order to prevent that from happening. This may be true, but it would seem to be a massive oversimplification. From what I understood of the story, the key to unlocking the confusion is the realisation that not one but two characters, who are connected in a number of ways, are doing exactly the same thing and their respective efforts are undoing each other's. Floating around that are the people who are somehow monitoring this, at least one of which has their own motivations to change this particular future. Then again, what do I know? I'm experiencing this story as a jigsaw puzzle too and, after taking two runs into this particular trip, I'm still only sure that I'm not sure about anything.
With a story this deliberately fractured, multilayered and open to different interpretations, it has to live or die on other factors. It can't simply rely on the story to hook us because after a couple of times through, I still don't know for sure what that story is telling us. I do like the basics that it uses as building blocks, the idea that in this world, wherever it is, there are people with talents and those talents can be used to form and reform that world. I like that the script refuses to answer our questions but is content to pose others in dialogue. 'What do we really know?' asks Ayana, one of those double characters, the vendor who sets up next to Chris and who sees his almost fiancée for psychiatric help. 'We think we have some say in how things happen?' I also like how some characters remain unexplained and thus open to interpretation, like the hippie with the spider tattoo on his neck. Is he God? Is he some nature spirit, given that we never see him outside the forest? Is he a humanoid visualisation of a place? Who knows? We can argue that all day.

If the story defies analysis, at least the performances of cast and crew are quantifiable. MacLeod Andrews is a decent lead, reminding of Jake Gyllenhaal in both looks and screen presence. He has surprisingly few credits to his name, IMDb suggesting that this is his first feature. Derek Morgan is very capable too, even if his character fades somewhat, to be replaced by Mina Vesper Gokal as the new vendor, Ayana. I'm still not sure about her performance here, as it doesn't seem to find a consistent tone. Andrews acts as if the story revolves around his character, while Gokal seems to react to him and others rather than setting her own stage. I've actually seen her before, in a dubious cannibal vs zombie movie initially called Holocaust Holocaust and later renamed to its tagline, Destined to Be Ingested. This is a better film, but not because she had a bigger part. Kelly Sullivan is better as Jina, though she was much better before we start asking too many questions about who she is and thus what she's doing.

Behind the camera, things are capable enough for us to translate what we see in an attempt to figure out the story. The camera moves oddly, making the whole thing feel disjointed, and the editing enhances the trippy feel. Characters can move in a consistent direction, yet suddenly be somewhere else, whether that can be interpreted as physical, astral or metaphorical. The view often waves around, though in more of a buoyant, floating way than a traditional handheld one. The score is strong, the odd combination of cello, harp and percussion making it memorable. On the negative side, the footage of Chris and Jina interacting on a New York street was clearly guerrilla style shooting and there are too many people obviously looking at the camera for us to focus. The scenes in the Mine are crazy low budget and unconvincing. And I'm at a loss to explain the ending, which feels to me like a huge copout. I think I've figured out most of the plot after two trips through Found in Time, but not all and the ending especially makes no sense to me.

I wish my readers luck in getting further than I did. I'd love to hear what other people read into this film and whether it made sense to them. I'd love to know if the ending felt right to anyone, or if they sat there watching the credits roll wondering if they'd blipped out for a while just as Chris does periodically in the story. To be honest, I'm still not quite sure what causes Chris to experience the world in the way he does and, if it isn't inherent, who's causing it. There are so many questions here that every time I think I've got it down, I start to argue with myself about whether I've understood any of it. Found in Time will surely be right up the alley of those who tend to appreciate complexity for its own sake. I enjoy being treated like a grown up by filmmakers and given something substantial to get my teeth into, but I don't enjoy being led down the garden path by something that can't be explained at the end. I'm not yet convinced that Arthur Vincie understands the story he wrote, but I may end up giving it a third attempt to figure out.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Sader Ridge (2013)

Director: Jeremy Berg
Stars: Trin Miller, Brandon Anthony, Andi Norris, Josh Truax and D'Angelo Midili
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
For some reason I can't fathom, Sader Ridge is a polarising movie. It quickly garnered a great deal of love and promptly won awards on the festival circuit, from audiences and judges, and topped at least one end of year list at a genre site. Yet the film was quickly retitled The Invoking for home release, which usually means that it wasn't capturing the audience it aimed for and so needed a marketing makeover. Its IMDb rating dropped massively to the point that the many naysayers debated how low it could go. Well, I'm in the middle. This isn't close to the worst movie ever made but I wanted a lot more from it than it was able to give me. Most denigrators may have wanted it to get going quicker, because it has a notably slow and subtle build and, especially to viewers used to jump scares every ten minutes, nothing meaningful seems to happen for quite a while. I didn't have a problem with the pace and enjoyed the character building, but wanted more background. At 82 minutes, it could have done with another 8 to nail it down tight.

We're here to watch Sam, who's driving into the countryside to take ownership of a house that she's just inherited from an aunt she never knew in the family she didn't grow up with. She's been raised by foster parents, the Harrises, who have refused to tell her anything about her former life that she left at a young enough age to not remember at all. As you can imagine, that rediscovery of who she was will constitute a good deal of the horror story that she's going to find herself in, but director and co-writer, Jeremy Berg, is eager to avoid clichés. This is really a drama that wends its way through traditional horror territory, where each scene seems to show us something we recognise from other horror movies but is approached from a different angle. Yes, this could be read as a cabin in the woods story, but it's far more subtle than that subgenre tends to be. We even open with four young adults in a car, but this thankfully doesn't turn into found footage. The biggest departure from the norm may be that these characters aren't stupid.

For a young lady who was raised by foster parents, Sam seems well grounded, pondering about her past without being overtly inquisitive about it. She realises that they'll lose cellphone signal on their journey, so sneaks in maps and directions to make sure they avoid the usual wrong turn. The car's in good shape, so we don't get the expected breakdown. Mark, in the passenger seat, is her ex-boyfriend not her current one and we don't feel that they'll be drawn back together even if Jessica dumps him over the phone soon into the film. He's a believable ass, up tight and bitchy but able to apologise. He's bright but socially off a little. The cute couple in the back seat, Roman and Caitlin, aren't a couple, even if he'd dearly like them to be; she really does see them as best friends. Roman is nerdy but not stereotypically so, capturing odd sounds for his library on an old tape recorder. Caitlin wears the nerdy glasses we might have expected of him, but she's a little tomboyish, a little hyper, a little free spirit. It's easy to see their connection.
I found the four of them refreshing. They're not doing drugs in the car, mooning other drivers or bitching at each other. They're believable people with realistically cool dialogue and it's great fun to watch them, even though they're apparently doing next to nothing. Ten minutes in, the wildcard arrives in the form of Eric, the caretaker of the property who clearly remembers Sam even if she doesn't remember him in the slightest. He's the one who found Sam's aunt, peacefully dead in her rocking chair, and he's the one who meets them at the gate to show them the property. And, of course, he's the one who's about to introduce us to some of the background that Sam doesn't remember. Her aunt lived here for fifteen years, but took the place over from Sam's birth parents, James and Ellen Sader, who owned most of the land around the house, including the ridge of the title. Sam even lived here too until she was five years old; she played in the woods with Eric, the kid from a property over, five miles down the road.

Thus far, it's a generally believable piece, very old school in its slow character-driven build, the downside being a few darker scenes and the lack of anything except hints at what we might imagine will be coming later. Clearly there's something in Sam's past that she's blocked out, but it takes no less than 41 minutes, literally the halfway mark, for her to get round to asking Eric what happened back when she was five and for him to not answer. There's a darkness in Mark's background too, based on one offhand comment, and Roman begins to react a little strongly to him getting lost in the woods. It's Roman who gets the first real horror scene too, crouching on the steps to the house too scared to go back inside, pitching some sort of fit about what Sam interprets to be Caitlin's plan to travel for six months before finishing college. Yet, as she calls everyone over, he's not there any more. We're 36 minutes in and suddenly we're in the realm of horror, wondering if Roman is possessed or Sam's having hallucinations. Now's when we need to find out the history of the place, because even if the characters don't think in horror movie terms, we do.

It's certainly the growing shift from banal drama to clear horror territory, a very gradual shift but a strong one, that shines brightest in Sader Ridge. Berg doesn't give us anything flash here to distract us from the build and the characters that experience it. He wore a lot of hats on this project, one of which was as the cinematographer, but as capable as his eyes seem to be from the well framed rural stills that pepper the minimalist credits, he keeps his visual work very subtle. There are no ambitious camera movements, not a lot of cinematic angles and relatively pedestrian editing, certainly no jump cuts. That's fine, as he's not going for either art film or mainstream horror movie. He's going for that old school disconcerting tone as we gradually question what's real and what isn't and he's relying on the actors to ground their characters so deeply that we can tell when they're being themselves and when they're not. That's crucial here for us to figure out what's really going on and that's the strongest part of the film.
Trin Miller manages to remain the focus throughout even though Sam is a rather passive lead surrounded by more outgoing, more dynamic characters. Brandon Anthony is particularly impressive as Mark, as he's given two tones to find and he manages to nail both of them, channelling a less comedic Jim Parsons for one and some Alexander Skarsgård for the other. Josh Truax has a similar task as Roman, a more obscure one in which the two tones are a little less distinct, thus a little more unnerving. Andi Norris also has two tones to find but gets less opportunity to do so. As Caitlin, she's the most obvious character in the movie but her other part is more obscure and it took the end credits to tell me that I'd misinterpreted it. As Eric, D'Angelo Midili only gets one character to play and so he seems a little less dominant, even though he's very capable in what he does. I can't say that every actor reached every note, but the way these five act around each other, three of them juggling two personalities, is to my mind a major success.

I was less sold on the story, which Berg conjured up with Matt Medisch and adapted with John Portanova. To be more precise, I was less sold on where it went. I appreciated the basic concept, the way that it built and the ideas that it threw out, but even after a few viewings, I haven't figured out exactly why any of it is happening. I can't talk in depth about this without introducing spoilers, so I'll try to keep it generic. It felt to me like there were two stories here, one in the present and one in the past, one psychological and one literal, one featuring the characters we're watching and one featuring others. My problem is in how these two stories tie together, because they have to in order to work, but they don't seem to fit. The end result to me was a huge image made up of pieces from two different jigsaws. Now, those pieces may fit together if they happen to be the same shapes, but they're still not from the same picture and thus we can't expect that completed image to make sense. Maybe I'm still missing something but I don't think so.

In the end, I think that Berg had all the constituent parts he needed to make a memorable feature, but he didn't put them together right. He had a capable eye, a strong cast and a good location. He didn't have a large budget, but this didn't need one. What it needed was some more imagination to the camerawork; a bit more attention to the sound and lighting, especially in outdoor scenes where night is falling; and a lot more work on the script. The location could have been used better, but the script deserved to be polished a lot more than it was. It felt to me like the first half should have been condensed to be the first third, the second half sped up to be the second third and a whole new emphatic third added at the end that makes some sort of sense within the larger framework. It certainly deserves to be more than it is and I wonder if what was shot matched what was written. Could Berg have run out of cash in his clearly small budget and so shot a quick ending rather than a third act? Inquiring minds want to know.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Found (2012)

Director: Scott Schirmer
Stars: Gavin Brown, Ethan Philbeck, Phyllis Munro, Louie Lawless, Alex Kogin, Angela Denton and Shane Beasley
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Scott Schirmer deserves a lot of respect and not all of it is due to the fact that he made this feature for as low a budget as $8,000. More is because he adapted it to the screen from a self-published horror novella in collaboration with its author, but most is because, two years earlier, he took the effort to write a review of that novella at Amazon. It's Found by Kentucky writer Todd Rigney, who published it himself back in 2004 to 'the deafening sound of crickets'. Well, one of those crickets was Schirmer, who explains in his review that he found it 'quite by accident' and 'could not put it down'. He appreciated 'the bleakest, most disturbing scenarios you're like to read', but also the 'provocative themes and beautiful ambiguities'. It's a meaningful review, one that ably highlights just how deeply he was drawn into the piece. 'I've read the book three times now,' he says, 'and new layers keep unfolding before me.' Schirmer had made a couple of long short films already, but it's not difficult to see that he felt compelled to adapt this to the screen.

I haven't read Rigney's novella (though I really should remedy that fact soon), but Schirmer's adaptation is magnetic from the very first line. 'My brother keeps a human head in his closet,' narrates a twelve year old boy called Marty and that's about as engaging as any movie can start out. Marty is our protagonist, a kid who's being dragged into the adult world whether he likes it or not. He doesn't want to grow up, given that he's been told it'll mean that he won't enjoy horror movies and comic books any more, but he'd sure like to get past the bullying at school. The catch is that he's a curious youngster who wonders about the world and explores it by learning other people's secrets. Mum's are old love letters from some guy called Danny, while Dad's are porn mags in the garage. And, most shocking to us but initially just another adult weirdness to Marty, his older brother Steve keeps severed heads in the bowling ball bag in his closet, a new one every few days. Marty found that out by accident too but can't leave it alone.

Whatever you're imagining the film to be based on that paragraph, you're probably wrong. This isn't a horror comedy, for a start, a juvenile take on 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag. It's not a sick and twisted flick that crosses boundaries just to make us grin. It's not even a fast paced gorefest where Steve works his grisly way through the neighbourhood like an insane Batman and Marty signs up to be his Robin. Really, it's a coming of age flick, one that eschews every bit of John Hughes cuteness because it's telling the opposite story. You know all those movies where the kid hero makes it through one adult thing and suddenly is set for life because he gets it? This isn't that, not remotely. Here, growing up is a slow, traumatising process, where everyone is against you in one way or another and nobody gets what you're going through. Gavin Brown, debuting here as Marty, isn't a great actor in the traditional sense but he nails the tone of his role completely and we're with him all the way, as coming of age moves steadily into disturbing horror.
Marty's a relatively normal kid on the surface, one major reason why he's such a powerful lead character, but there are warning signs throughout. He's a quiet kid who only has one real friend, David, with whom he draws violent comic books. One of his pictures upset his teacher a year earlier, so he's clearly on that invisible watchlist. His teachers wouldn't like that he watches horror movies too, often borrowed from his big brother, but then all the best kids do. He wants to be accepted, but finds that following the rules don't seem to help. 'I get good grades and I do what people ask me to,' he pronounces early in the film. 'They should just leave me alone.' Of course, they don't. He's picked on at school by Marcus Sanders, a bigger kid, and his stooge. Marcus punches him in the stomach one day in the bathroom and only gets a couple of Saturday detentions for it. Marty doesn't have the courage to fight back and his mum pulls him out of school for a couple of days to get over it. You can imagine how well that works.

Marty is rarely off screen and his character is built meticulously, enough that everyone watching is going to recognise something of him in themselves. Even though he's polite, talented and far from stupid, he's not getting anywhere in a social setting because he's quiet, awkward and a little nerdy. His parents aren't much help. Dad seems to care, but he's a bigot with a temper. When he hears about Marcus Sanders, he focuses on the kid's black skin rather than what he did. Mum seems to care, but she's overprotective and babies him. So it's big brother Steve who he looks up to. Steve is quite a few years older and notably cool to someone like Marty. Just look at the posters on his bedroom wall: of bands like Iron Maiden and Venom and movies like The Astro-Zombies, The Deadly Spawn and Wild Zero. There's even a 27x40 of The Taint, one of the more telling ones in this story. The catch of course is that Steve, the cool big brother, the only one who understands him, is also a serial killer. How's that for a tough realisation?

Steve is played by Ethan Philbeck in his only film role and he does a powerful job, especially as he was a last minute replacement for another actor who had to drop out after his family objected to the picture. It's surprising thinking back on the film afterwards at how little he's really in it and how far it revolves around Marty. Even scenes about Steve are often shown from Marty's perspective, even if he's in another room at the time. One of the most telling early scenes has Steve argue with his dad upstairs, while Marty and his mum silently mirror that argument over the dining room table. To Marty, what's being argued about isn't important, just the fact that they're arguing again. Another scene later on does precisely the same thing and turns out to be even more brutally disturbing because we can't see what's happening. We're focused instead on Marty's face, his horror at what's going down and his frustration at being unable to stop it. The best scene in the film may be the tense one that has us stuck under a bed with Marty.
There are a number of themes here that delve much deeper than most horror movies attempt. Bullying is the first obvious one, but that isn't just restricted to Marcus Sanders and the responses that are raised to deal with him. Scenes late in the movie suggest that Marty's dad is a bully too, which perhaps highlights why Marty's the way he is and even why Steve's the way he is. Certainly another theme explores the way that horror movies influence people, a subject close to the heart of anyone who grew up in the UK during the video nasty era. Steve's most overt influence is a fictional (at the time) horror movie called Headless, which he appears to be reenacting, but did it and other movies turn him into who he is? I noticed that he has a copy of Snuff in his VHS collection, which did what Headless did back in the seventies, with a major furore around its supposedly real act of murder, which of course was no such thing. David Alton and other campaigners against video nasties always screamed about copycats, which Steve could well be.

There's a hint at homophobia, but it's only a hint. While Marty has nothing to do with girls throughout, his bullies spread rumours that he's gay and he certainly has hero worship for his big brother, there's no real evidence that he really is gay and Marcus Sanders is committing a hate crime. He's just a bully, throwing out whatever crap is likely to cause impact. There's more of a hint at racism though, as Steve's collection of human heads are predominantly of black women. Whether or not Headless (or Snuff) influenced Steve to do what he does, we're clearly led to wonder if his father's bigotry influenced him too, because surely that's where his racism comes from, even if he doesn't realise it. Perhaps the Daily Mail could campaign against parents as well as horror movies. At this point, we even wonder if Steve's sexualised violence is sourced from Headless, from Dad or some strange conflation of them. As we see this household entirely from Marty's perspective, we know that we're not being told everything and that there's history there.

And, of course, as we wonder about Steve and what really turned him into what he's become, we wonder if we're going to watch Marty going through the same transition. He's bullied already, as Steve may have been earlier in his life. He watches the same movies, perhaps at an even younger age. He's already seen Headless, for example, and he overlays his brother's face onto the perpetrator in his mind. He's gradually being alienated from all authority figures (parents, teachers, pastors) except for Steve, his serial killer of a big brother. He starts the film with one friend and ends it without any. If he isn't sexually frustrated yet, he'll surely get there soon, whether he's gay or not. Even without the final scenes which he appropriately interprets as his life becoming a horror movie, he's being screwed up every which way and we can't help but wonder what he'll become. Will he become Steve in the sequel? Will he take the Lovecraftian way out and go completely insane? Or will he just grow up, if this is all traumatising metaphor for coming of age?
I first saw Found as a festival screener and I was impressed but not bowled over. It was clearly a capable film, even before I realised how minimal its budget, and it obviously had a lot to say, but it wasn't difficult to bring my own expectations to the table and realise how different this was. It's much slower than horror films tend to be, even down to the music, which varies in style from ambient to noise but rarely ramps up from tracks that include the word 'soothing' in their titles. While it was banned in Australia for 'prolonged and detailed depictions of sexualised violence', that's mostly restricted to Headless, the film within a film, and it's far from the most disturbing material, much of which isn't seen but conjured up in our own minds from what Marty has to go through. Watching Found again to review, I realised that it had stayed strongly with me from a couple of years ago, so opened up this time round for me to explore more of its admirable depth and realise just how powerful this story is.

And, unlike those Australian censors who couldn't see past the surface, it's the depth that endows it with its power, not the faux snuff antics of the guy in the mask in Headless, which incidentally is being made into a feature of its own by Arthur Cullipher, the head of the Found effects team. What's disturbing is the realisation that Marty is so thoroughly everyday but enduring so much as he travels through the rites of passage that lead us to adulthood that we start to wonder why everyone doesn't go completely insane when they hit puberty. Suddenly we wonder what's going on next door and next door from them. We ask ourselves how we would react to the apparently minor events that lead up to more major ones, all those little details that we denigrate as minor because we've forgotten how worldchanging they are to a twelve year old. We even put on Steve's shoes as Marty muses about his caring, protective big brother and says, 'Why do there have to be two Steves?' If that isn't real coming of age, I'm not sure what is.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Bum (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Eric Almassy, Travis Mills, Tenley Dene, David Wellnitz, Rohan Shetty and Steve Wilson
I saw most of the 52 Films in 52 Weeks at the three day festival that debuted them to the public, and not one of them stood out as more immediately and obviously meaningful than The Bum, a 1929 story by W Somerset Maugham originally titled The Derelict. Even before it finished, I was intrigued as to how much of what's on screen is what Maugham wrote and how much what Mills brought to his adaptation of it, as it's impossible not to read it as the Running Wild Films manifesto. That interpretation is aided by real life observations. This was the first of these 52 films to feature Mills himself as a prominent character, not as the lead but as the most important character in the film. The first day of shooting, which took care of the present day scenes, is why he cultivated a memorably bushy beard over a number of months, one which got ever bushier with each succeeding episode of the webseries they shot during 2013. Once done, that beard was promptly shaved so he could shoot scenes the next day set years earlier.

Mills plays the bum of the title, in which form he never speaks. He just wanders around, looking unkempt and notably intense. In another story, we might believe he was dealt tough cards or abused a substance or three, but not this one. Here, he's the architect of his own destiny, through sheer stubbornness. To find out how and why, we have to meet him through the eyes of the real lead character, Barry Connor, played by Eric Almassy, who's really good at being the visualisation of a narrator, the person who experiences a story on screen along with those of us watching at home, without necessarily playing a part in it. Here he wants to be a writer, but he doesn't seem to have the drive to make it happen. Perhaps he's more in love with the idea of having written than actually going through the process of writing. As we meet him, in the present day, he's taking a couple of weeks off to write, which may just mean reminiscing through the box of old stories he keeps out of sight because his wife wants to throw them away.
The connection between the two almost happens when Barry is sitting at an outdoor table thinking while his wife shops. Enter the bum to look for scraps on tables, bundled up in a hoodie but with those piercing eyes and bushy beard. He looks potentially dangerous. He moves on, but Barry has recognised him. He's the centre of attention in the flashback scenes that we watch in colour, as if everything was more vibrant back when Barry and Tom were in college. Tom, sans beard but with just as intense an air, holds court in an auditorium, three other students hanging on his words. Somehow he's relaxed but angry, denigrating the validity of the professor who's been giving them advice because he's never been published, at least not really. Barry and the others are unnerved, as if they know they should agree with Tom but don't have the courage to dive down that rabbit hole. Further conversation backs that up and it all feels exactly like Mills's views on film schools and professors who only teach, never do.

Barry says he wants to be a writer, but his writing revolves around classwork. He's inquisitive enough to ask Tom for feedback on The Desert Stranger, the story he pulls out first in the present day which sends him back to these flashbacks, but Tom doesn't give him the critique he expects. He asks why he wrote it, whether he'd have written it outside of class. Barry doesn't have answers to questions like, 'Where did it come from?' Tom believes that writers write because it's who they are, not because it's who they want to be. 'It should be coming out of you,' he enforces. 'It should be coming from your gut.' This dialogue is all the more magnetic because while we're hearing from Tom, we're clearly also hearing from Travis. There are scenes in the 52 Films in 52 Weeks webseries where Mills sounds just like Tom, driving and analysing because the best education is doing. That's what this project is all about, releasing the films that burn to come out of him and, in the process, making him a better filmmaker. It's learning by doing.

Barry Connor doesn't understand and Eric Almassy captures that well. He's a little too loose in the earlier scenes but in the flashbacks he reacts just right. Half of him wants to reject Tom's arrogance, but half of him wants to adopt him as his guru. None of him realises that his dreams aren't going to lead him where he wants to go because he doesn't have the passion. Instead he turns on Tom when he says that, 'I don't have any answers' and tells him that he's going to end up a bum, which of course he does. This is the old paradox of integrity: if you compromise, you might just succeed and be able to create professionally as a living; if you don't, you might never get anywhere but you'll still be true to your artistic vision. Many may see the last scene as a suggestion that you have to compromise that vision or you'll burn yourself out. I see it differently, that Barry's compromise inevitably led him nowhere while Tom's still true to himself, as a bum writing in puddles in the park. Each sees the other as worse off than them. Who's right?
Maugham's story leaves that question as open as Mills does, but cloaks the idea subtly in religious garb as if the bum his narrator meets in Vera Cruz, Mexico and who he eventually recognises as the confident and arrogant writer he knew decades earlier in Rome, has Christ-like attributes. The narrator realises that 'he had sacrificed everything to be a writer,' but for whom? Is he merely suffering for his art or for that of others, like the man who tries to help him but is rebuffed. Perhaps this act of charity, after the symbolic three days, is what will save the narrator instead, who began by lamenting 'that I had not half the time I needed to do half the things I wanted.' Perhaps he'll now make the time, if only out of shock. Barry might do the same, because Tom has at least lived and experienced. Maybe Barry might have achieved without the distractions of an easy life with a job and a wife who thinks old stories should be thrown away. Maybe he should reevaluate his dedication. Maybe he can write the sequel to The Bum.

I have no idea how much Mills has sacrificed for his art, but I know that making 52 films in 52 weeks isn't an easy task and it surely involved a great deal of sacrifice. This challenge was about creating new films, however easy or hard the task at the time. Sure, some films might just flow easily, especially to someone who had already made fifty or so, some of them features, but others wouldn't. We've already seen that in Catastrophe, The Return and Araby, but there were challenges here as well; this time the crew were able to use the rain to their advantage. Mills chose to shoot the present day scenes in black and white but the flashback scenes in colour. Clearly one reason is just to delineate between them, but I doubt that's it. Are we merely enforcing that Barry's ambition has faded over time or are we highlighting how his options are more polarised and obvious? Perhaps if he makes the right choice, to let his passion loose and write what he perhaps aches to write, everything will shift back into colour. Maybe Tom saw it that way all along.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Running on Empty Dreams (2009)

Director: Nitara Lee Osbourne
Stars: Kathleen Benner, Rachel Owens, Jose Rosete, Sevan McBride and Wil Rillero
To switch things up a bit from the predominantly action and horror movies I've been covering thus far for my Arizona feature project, here's a lesbian drama from writer/director Nitara Lee Osbourne. Well, that's what most people seem to take it for, even though there's a lot more going on, and they either love it or hate it accordingly. Some hate the film because there's only one brief sex scene even though IMDb lists keywords for it like 'female nudity' and 'lesbian love', while some love it because there's only one brief sex scene but the two leading ladies, Kathleen Benner and Rachel Owens, are believably close anyway. The contrast between sex and love is only one of the themes that Osbourne riffs on throughout; there's much that's worthy of discussion here and she deserves a good deal of credit for attempting so much in one feature. Sadly, her drive to send a very particular message (this was based on true events) prompts much of the negative side as she refuses to let her characters collaborate with her.

While this is generally seen as a lesbian film, that isn't the first theme that's explored; initially, this aims to take a look at fresh starts. Sydney Harris moves to Phoenix in the summer of 2000 with her husband, Corey, a former marine now working as a private investigator, and their young son, Matt, who's too old to be starting kindergarten partway through the movie. Their new home isn't the only fresh start. They are clearly not connecting well as a couple and Sydney is fighting thyroid cancer, something that they can't afford and thus is putting even more strain on their relationship. The second theme looks at what makes a hero. Corey saved the life of a colleague under fire, someone who was overtly thankful even though he lost a leg in the process. Having been a hero once, he feels frustrated that he can't be one again, to save his own wife, because he simply doesn't earn enough. He does everything he can for her, but he does it out of a sense of duty rather than because she wants him to. He thinks it's what heroes do.

The third theme is the most awkward one because of where it leads; it's the difference between religion and spirituality, as personified in the leading ladies. Sydney takes Matt to the playground in the park and he gets squirted by another kid with a water gun. He's Tony Smith and Sydney immediately hits it off with his mum, Jane. Jane epitomises spirituality as she's a free spirit, much more bubbly than Sydney and with a powerful smile that's even more notable during the few scenes when it's absent. Sydney, however, has a Roman Catholic background, so everything in her life is wrapped up in guilt, something that particularly plagues her when she realises that she's fallen in love with Jane. Even now, the film isn't about lesbians, as Jane, her kids and her house, are merely ways that Sydney can escape what's behind her. Presumably she ties her cancer and her husband together in her mind, even though he's decent, loyal and caring, so she tries to run away from both. She runs away a lot, often literally to underline the point.
By this point we're starting to see the strong aspects and the weak ones. The actors are strong, all three of the major cast selling their characters and aiming to endow them with substantial depth. The themes are flowering and the picture has a lot of potential. There's also a really nice transition into flashback, as Corey slams his fist down on the table at home and we explode into a battle scene where he's being a hero. It's the technical side that also leans most into the negative though. The sound is the worst, with certain indoor scenes underpinned by background noise that sounds like someone's vacuuming in the next room or a jet engine is about to take off next door. Bizarrely, sound isn't a consistent problem, as it's mostly OK, just obviously poor in some scenes. The camerawork is generally capable, if never particularly ambitious, but the colours are too warm throughout. The music is consistently predictable too, especially in the more overtly religious scenes; it's also often overblown and intrusive.

It's as the film progresses that it starts to show its seams. The big themes are good ones but when any of the characters question, the script refuses to bend to give them the opportunity to grow. This often leads to odd scenes where they act out of character because that's where the themes require them to go. Some of this even leads to contradictions that shouldn't be there, because you can't force a square peg through a round hole. Little details are less problematic but more predictable. We can usually see where the script is going to go by keeping an eye on them because they're always telegraphing something. As characters say things, we can see the scene after next because that's obviously the only reason why they had those lines to begin with. These issues made me wonder about something else that could be seen as a positive or a negative; the way in which lines of dialogue obviously apply to more characters than those to whom they're delivered. I saw these as positive for about half the film but then started to switch to negative.

Another major flaw is the character of Geri Woods, not because Amber Ryan does a bad job because she does precisely what's required of her, but because a conscience should never have been this prominent. Corey's conscience is personified by John Duncan, the soldier whose life he saved, though one late scene hints that perhaps he didn't save him after all. If he's imaginary at this point, why should we assume he wasn't earlier? Similarly, if he's imaginary to Corey, perhaps Geri, Sydney's conscience, is imaginary too. She seems real though, an intrusive, obnoxious character who raises a lot of awkward questions. She's a lesbian who turned celibate for Jesus and adopts a mission to convince Sydney to do the same. Sydney's Roman Catholic and the priest to whom she gives her confession is worse than useless, so she's happy to both follow her heart and then feel notably guilty about it. Geri should have been a one scene character to make an important point, but she moves into the film like an unwelcome guest and refuses to leave.
I liked the setup of the first half hour and appreciated the promise that was offered by a thoughtful script. I was less impressed by the second, which creaked its way into the lesbian drama that Osbourne perhaps always wanted it to be. The third half hour was like the second but more so, because the characters were consistently screaming to develop while she held them back to tell the story she wanted. I was impressed most by the actors at this point, because they kept my interest even as they became progressively more forced. As Sydney, Kathleen Benner is an engaging lead, the pivot of the drama, but she's unable to find ways to sell many of the changes that she's going through as they don't all make sense. Jane should be a lot more than just Sydney's love interest and Rachel Owens seems up for it, but the script holds her back in that one role and can't stay consistent. Jose Rosete is especially hamstrung because he's given depth but no story arc, struggling at the end with the same things he was struggling with at the beginning.

And that's a real shame. While I appreciated the way in which none of the major characters come out of this as either the good guy or the bad guy, I didn't appreciate how they didn't come out as themselves, pun accidental but appropriate. I also didn't like how the film never seemed to end, or rather that it kept ending, with the last half hour full of places where the credits could have run, only for yet another scene to carry on regardless. This is a ninety minute story that takes two hours to unfold and shredding Geri's role down to match John Duncan's is only the beginning of what the editor should have excised from the picture. I was surprised to see that Webb Pickersgill edited, as this felt very much like what happens when a writer edits their own work. His cinematography is generally a lot better here than his editing, if he was left to his own devices. I have a feeling that he may not have been and, at the end of the day, he was stuck with the material that was shot and that focused on the script which refused to bend.

Osbourne's refusal to let her characters tell their stories as they saw fit shapes the whole picture and that sadly overwhelms many of the more ambitious things she attempted. Even as annoyed as I became with the inconsistencies, obstinance and out of character moments, I liked how she continued to weave those bigger themes through her script, most of them still worthy of praise at the end. The love vs sex angle is particularly well handled, one reason why the growing relationship between Sydney and Jane is so strong. Jane, with her two kids and many prior relationships, explains to Sydney that she's never made love, only had sex, something that helps their friendship grow into something more. The hero angle is deepened by a discovery late in the film that isn't surprising but is welcome anyway. Unfortunately it's weakened later still by scenes that shouldn't be there, especially a few of Corey's. The theme of religious guilt is the one that's resolved best (the conflict is abandoned) but it was bludgeoned into submission first.

It might be ironic that Sydney is a screenwriter with a BA from Yale and a subplot that has her submitting her work to studios to fulfil a dream or it might merely be projection on Osbourne's part. While the film is apparently based on a true story, I have no idea whether it's hers or not. It could be that she's telling her own story through abstraction into a character or she could just be adding little details to Sydney to build her character. Certainly she has a sense of humour, as at one point Sydney and Jane watch a short on TV called Romey and Jules. Sydney says she can write better than that and Jane agrees, but Osbourne was a script supervisor on that short earlier in her career. Given what she achieves with this script, I'm sure that she can write better than this too, but she needed fresh eyes on it and she needed another draught; this isn't what it should have ended up as. Most of all, she needed to collaborate with her characters, loosing them from the rigid framework she constructed and letting them go where they needed to.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Rounders (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Phyllis Allen and Minta Durfee
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
Charles Parrott's pre-Charley Chase appearance in His New Profession reminded me yet again how early Charlie Chaplin's work was when compared to the other great silent comedians. The Rounders highlights what else could have been: a great comedy double act, not only because the characters of Mr Full and Mr Fuller display some notable chemistry between Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle that could easily have been built upon in future films, but because there's little else here except that double act, the story threadbare but the laughter acute. Arbuckle was established before Chaplin, of course, starting out five years earlier at the Selig Polyscope Company and later switching to Keystone in 1913, where he established Fatty, his regular character. His double act with Mabel Normand, which ran from late 1914 into 1916, maybe began with his title role in Mabel's New Hero in 1913. Had Chaplin not left Keystone, it all could have been very different, as this film ably highlights. Instead Arbuckle teamed up with Buster Keaton in 1917.

There were many double acts in the slapstick age but none come quicker to mind today than Laurel and Hardy, one that outlasted the silent era by decades, their final film together arriving as late as the 1951 feature, Atoll K. It's perhaps worth highlighting that they were young men in their early twenties in 1914, Stan Jefferson still with Fred Karno's vaudeville troupe, the very one which Chaplin had left for Keystone, and Babe Hardy starting out on screen in split reelers for the Lubin Company in Florida. Their double act wouldn't officially debut for thirteen years in 1927's Putting Pants on Philip, though they did appear in a couple of earlier films together. The first of them, The Lucky Dog, wouldn't arrive until 1921 and Laurel's debut on screen wasn't until 1917's Nuts in May. As Arbuckle and Chaplin pioneered the little and large double act in The Rounders, the latter's former understudy, Stanley Jefferson, seven years before taking his stage name of Stan Laurel, was doing impersonations of him on stage for Fred Karno.

Chaplin, of course, was too independent to be locked down to a mere partnership. He was the epitome of a solo artiste, even if he proved as early as his fifth film, Between Showers, that he could work well with a partner, albeit the actor he was replacing at Keystone, Ford Sterling. Within a couple of weeks these two would do more work together worthy of a double act in Tango Tangles, most obviously the superb scene towards the end where they try to put on the same coat at the same time. Arbuckle and Chaplin were big names at this point for Keystone and they had already shared the screen in six previous pictures, though none are real partnerships. The most time they shared together before this was either in Tango Tangles, in which they literally battle on the dancefloor for a pretty hat check girl, or The Knockout, a film starring Arbuckle as a man who ends up in a boxing match officiated over by Chaplin in one of his guest slots in other Keystone stars' pictures. However, after this success, they'd never share the screen again.
Beyond the obvious potential for an ongoing double act that never happened, what leaps out here is the pacing. Chaplin's script may have had very little to say but it had a lot to say about how it should unfold. We're introduced to each of the four major characters individually, so that they have the opportunity to develop before they start colliding with the others, collisions which grow naturally too. Chaplin is Mr Full, yet another opportunity for him to haul out his drunk routine, as he's three sheets to the wind as he first staggers onto screen; the odd word in the title comes from an old slang term for drunkards, presumably those who make the rounds of bars. Jeffrey Vance describes this as 'the best of Chaplin's drunk roles for Keystone' and I'm not going to argue with that, especially as he's notably better at it than Arbuckle, who would have sold his drunk routine more effectively if he wasn't tasked with trying to match an actor who was hired by Mack Sennett on the basis of his stage role as a drunk in Karno's Mumming Birds.

Chaplin's introduction is very reminiscent of Mabel's Strange Predicament, his third film, in which he stole all the early scenes by stumbling around a hotel and getting in the way of everyone else in the film. Here he's stumbling around a new hotel but its geography is exactly the same. In both films, he stumbles into the lobby, where he interacts with a lady in a chair to his right and another in one on his left. Eventually he makes his way up the stairs at the back which lead to a hallway with a pair of rooms on each side. We find our leads in the two rooms nearest to the camera. Here, Mr and Mrs Full have the room to our right, while Mr Fuller and his wife occupy the one opposite. These characters are bounced between them, often quite literally, as the story progresses. In the earlier film, Mabel and her significant other had the room to our right, while the couple they get caught up with are on the other side of the hallway. Some things are apparently clearly defined in the cinematic comedy rulebook; even the carpet is identical.

As Mr Full, Chaplin is apparently doing much better for himself than he has for a number of shorts, even if he forgot to change his shoes along with the rest of his costume. We have no idea why he's so drunk, but we get one when we meet his wife, who's a formidable battleaxe in the form of Phyllis Allen, overbearing and violent. No wonder he has eyes for the fluff in the lobby! It's telling that she uses his cane to pull him towards her in a similar way to how Charlie pulled his employer's girlfriend to him only a week earlier in His New Profession, albeit with completely different intent. Charlie was getting fresh in that film; Mrs Full is merely trying to keep him upright so she can upbraid him some more. Once we have their relationship down, Mr Fuller and his wife can make their entrances, introduced in a similar way that highlights both similarities and differences. Fuller enters like Full, only instead of ogling the girl he sits on her. His wife is initially as weepy as Mrs Full is violent, but only initially. When she gets going, she really gets going.
If this setup is completely reminiscent of Mabel's Strange Predicament, fortunately the ensuing chaos is not. The earlier film had a more substantial plot, but it was a stupid one, better suited to the pantomime stage with its hide and seek shenanigans. This doesn't go far beyond two drunks dealing with their upset wives, in a way that brings them together, when they realise that they're masonic buddies or some such and escape their collective wrath of their wives arm in arm for a nearby café. The gags are improved too, Chaplin's in particular. One has him unable to get up from the floor as he's standing on his coat; another sees him thrown bodily onto the bed, where he finds himself upside down because his feet have caught on the headboard. Arbuckle does well in the scene with his wife too, though perhaps partly because she really was his wife. Minta Durfee and Roscoe Arbuckle made a strange couple, but they wed in 1908 and remained married until 1925, though they were estranged before his legal turmoil in 1921.

The best and worst moments of the film unfold at Smith's Café. The latter is clearly the decision to have Billy Gilbert play the doorman in blackface, something that admittedly wasn't offensive at the time but is still completely unnecessary to the picture as a whole, which makes it all the more offensive in hindsight. The former arrives when we find ourselves trying to figure out which of the two leads we're supposed to be watching. After Mr Fuller attempts to lift an almost paralytic Mr Full off the floor using not one but two canes, their action splits in two. Arbuckle is trying to disentangle his jacket from his hat, drinking tabasco sauce or something similar and using the the champagne bucket as a footstool. Meanwhile, Chaplin is at the next table causing problems for Jess Dandy's unnamed diner. Only when both of them end up using their respective tablecloths as blankets and collapsing onto the floor into drunken sleep does the action bring them back together again, quite literally and with a thump.

This would have been a good ending, especially as the slower, more methodical pace makes it seem like we've already reached the end of a reel, but there's the traditional Keystone chase to come, another one that takes us into Echo Park where characters end up as always in the Echo Park Lake, but with a notable change: this time we see a growing crowd of onlookers on the other side of the lake as the action moves on. They're too far away for us to see details, but California locals had been apparent in a number of the films Chaplin made at Keystone which were shot in public spaces and how those everyday folk interacted with them changed over time. Initially they were disinterested, even annoyed, by the distraction Chaplin was at the beginning of Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal, but they moved to enjoyment by the end, then on to casual acceptance in Tango Tangles, grinning awareness in Mabel's Busy Day and now on to standard tourist activity here in The Rounders. Such was Chaplin's rise through 1914.
As always, there are problems with the film, which is another strong step forward in terms of pacing and structure, as well as the manipulation of more emotions than were usually found in comedies of this era. Rounders are dissolute drunks, debauchers, but Mr Full and Mr Fuller aren't as obnoxious as many of the drunks Chaplin had played at Keystone. These rounders certainly become sympathetic by the point they swap their secret handshakes and we're with them all the way to the end, but we didn't need Arbuckle's attempt to strangle his wife to stop her beating him up. Phyllis Allen is overly violent to her husband as well, throwing Chaplin across the room with a vengeance. At least her performance is far more consistent than that of Minta Durfee, who pantomimes a great deal too much, the old school overdone silent acting she throws out in her solo scenes reminding at once of how much of that we got early in Chaplin's 1914 films and how much it gradually decreased. Allen and Durfee rage well at each other though.

Chaplin is the star here, of course, as writer, director and lead actor, but he plays very well with Arbuckle, who brought a new level to his co-star's regular routine as a drunk, one of my favourite moments in this film being when Mr Full trips on the welcome mat outside the hotel and Mr Fuller keeps on going, literally dragging his colleague along behind him because they're arm in arm. Arbuckle was a big man, hence the nickname he never appreciated that became the name of his regular character, but he was often able to use that attribute to his advantage. He's not loose enough to be as believably drunk as Chaplin and he's too obviously aware of his surroundings when he's bouncing people off his belly. Yet the pair of them are great on screen together. Arbuckle later praised Chaplin, saying that, 'I have always regretted not having been his partner in a longer film than these one-reelers we made so rapidly.' He's not alone. Lack of story aside, I got a real kick out of this one and wish they'd have been a double act for longer.

Important Sources:
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

The Rounders can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered. The full version debuted in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.