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Saturday, 30 June 2012

20th Century Man (2012)

Director: Dustin Lee
Stars: Joseph Adams, Sarah Carleton and Ed Crepage Jr
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
This short film aims to do a heck of a lot in under twelve minutes. It's a science fiction movie, a romance and a thriller. It's a silent movie. Most of all, it's a drama. One IMDb reviewer suggested that it felt like a two hour picture condensed into a quarter of an hour and that's a pretty good way to look at it. It is very much the essence of a feature film, condensed so assiduously that even the dialogue is stripped away. Everything we see has meaning and writer/director Dustin Lee, who shot the film for a mere $2,500 of Kickstarter money, was obviously playing around with cinematic language. It's not just a feature condensed into twelve minutes, it's a film class textbook condensed into twelve minutes too. The use of technique is the greatest success, perhaps aided by the silent approach as the cast and crew were forced to make themselves known and understood without the benefit of words. For the most part, they succeed.

We follow Robert Wallace, a young scientist who's built a time machine to demonstrate at the next World's Fair. It's a simple device, the budget not allowing for the grandeur of the one in George Pal's movie. It's more like an open cage with wires, with a typewriter to trigger it and a flux capacitor to power it, albeit without the need for a DeLorean. We first see Wallace in black and white, as befits 1938, but a device malfunction means that his two week proof of concept trip into the future becomes 76 years and he arrives in 2014 in colour. I really liked how the last shot of 1938 isn't of Wallace but of his wife, Anna, who is given the much harder task of staying behind. She's dead by the time her husband arrives in 2014, but she never leaves the story and the way it progresses is as satisfying as it is predictable. It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or a time traveller, to see where it's going long before it gets there.

Ironically for a film about time travel, its biggest problem is its sense of time. As a silent movie nut, I liked the opening scenes very much, but they're set a full decade after Al Jolson delivered his death blow to the silent era. Even Charlie Chaplin was done with silent films by this point and he had stuck with the concept longer than anyone. Maybe the choice of 1938 was tied to the reference to the Buster Crabbe serial Buck Rogers on the scientist's desk. That was released in 1939, when the big picture of the year was Gone with the Wind, not just shot in sound but in Technicolor too. The art deco font used in the credits is quintessentially twenties so again is far too early for this timeframe. Only the music really seems to fit. Howard Hanson's Romantic Symphony was written in 1930 and was flexible enough to also be used in Alien, but it's full of the sort of swell and grandeur so prevalent during the golden age of Hollywood. It's very 1938.

How much you enjoy this short is likely to depend on how much attention you pay to the details and how easily you can overlook them. As a ride, it's great fun and Dustin Lee speeds us along with panache. You're likely to leave the film full of emotion, not least because of the magnificent way the single word of dialogue is used. I dare your heart not to skip a beat at that point. With repeat viewings though, you're more likely to notice the details that he speeds us along past and if you're the sort of nitpicker that notes plot inconsistencies in the most emotional movies, you'll find a few here. The timing grated for me the most but there were other issues too. I looked too closely at the props. I thought too long about how Wallace's time travel worked. I wondered too much about why people were waiting for him in 2014, given the device's history in between, as neatly outlined in newspaper clippings. It's all unfair to notice in a $2,500 short, of course.

It's fairer to point out that a number of the actors are too young for their parts, including Joseph Adams as Wallace, though he's otherwise capable in the role. He does everything that's asked of him; it's just that his face isn't old enough, both in years and eras. I don't buy that face as being from 1938. I was impressed far more by Sarah Carleton. She gifted Anna with a echoing timeless quality that was palpable; everything she does in 1938 ensures her prominence in 2014, even though she didn't make it there in person. I bought into how easily her husband could leave her behind but how impossible it was for him to stay away from her, even when the gap between them is time. After Lee's use of the cinematic toolkit, which any film fan is going to analyse even as the film runs, it's Anna who lingers after the credits roll. We find that we don't want to leave her either; she obviously has much to say, even in a silent movie. That's good acting.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Secret Identity (2011)

Director: Tyler MacIntyre
Stars: Lee Meriwether, Annika Marks and Charles Howerton
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
Secret Identity had what could be phrased a triumphant screening at the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival this year. I'd been privileged to see it earlier and had been thoroughly impressed, but it simply came alive on the big screen. It hooked its audience early, carried every one of them magnificently along for its near twelve minute ride and left them happier and just a little bit more alive. Doctor Glamour had played less well on the big screen, not through any fault of its own, but merely because the sound was more muted than appropriate. Secret Identity, on the other hand, swelled out at the audience, not just the audio but the emotion too. You see, this is a lot more than the superhero movie you may have guessed at from the title. It's a romance, one powered by nostalgia but utterly contemporary nonetheless. It's also a subtle commentary on how the flurry of modern life can be summarised as not seeing the wood for the trees.

The lead is a young lady by the name of Janet, who is distracted from the moment she enters our story, chatting away on her mobile as she arrives at the Whispering Oaks Retirement Community to see her grandma, Faye. It looks like a nice place, but Janet is too busy chatting and texting to see beyond the world inside her phone. She has 'like a billion things going on', she tells her gran, and her fiancée Darren isn't there because 'he's busy', even during the holidays. We're already siding with grandma, of course, not least because she's played by Lee Meriwether and therefore has to be right. She's as elegant at 75 as she was at 31, replacing Julie Newmar as Catwoman in the Adam West Batman movie. She's quiet but you just know you should be paying attention to what she says. Faye thinks Janet could do better, and so do we when she asks to use her gran's wedding ring because, you know, it'll be romantic and, well, Darren can't afford one.
And it's here that Janet comes alive. She does seem to care and she doesn't seem to visit out of duty, but we're not sure if she really sees her grandma either. Yet, when she discovers that the green tin that the wedding ring is hiding in also contains press clippings about the young Faye meeting Captain Magnificent, she sees her in a whole new light. He's a superhero! He's famous! And there's a story in there somewhere, right? Absolutely! It's the bedrock to our film, and even Janet pays attention. If Janet is our lead and Faye our star, Janet's phone wants to depose both of them and we can tell that it's as thoroughly pissed off as we are happy that Janet doesn't answer it when Faye prepares to tell her story in flashback. That's a really telling moment, showing that she's found her grandma's secret identity and she can see her as a woman who's lived a life, not just a grandma who serves her tea. Her phone exits stage left.

Janet is played by Annika Marks, a young actor a decade or so into her career, and she does a good job here. Perhaps the best way to highlight that is to explain that Lee Meriwether is note perfect throughout, as magical as the story she has to tell, endowing her character with more depth in a mere few minutes than many actors manage in entire features. It would take a tough cookie indeed to not get caught up in the gentle emotions of her performance. Yet, her story is only there to underpin Janet's story and it's Annika Marks who ensures that we never lose sight of that. She has an entire story arc, and she leaves the film a little wiser than she was a mere dozen minutes earlier. Grandma gets the last scene, as she should, and we're treated to a neat, if not too surprising, twist. Like Janet, we leave the film a little wiser than we found it, wondering mostly whether Tyler MacIntyre's direction is a bigger triumph than his writing or vice versa.
The thing is that once you start to think about secret identities, they start to crop up everywhere. It's as if the only thing needed to find is to look, and once you start looking you start finding all sorts of magical stuff floating around in plain sight. It takes a lot of people to make a film, even if some of them wear a few different hats when they do it. MacIntyre's direction is deceptive, as it does everything it needs to without us really noticing until we look. Arndt Peemoeller's editing is no different, so seamless that we don't realise how good it is until we pay attention. MacIntyre's writing is a lot more overt but it's spot on, even though the realisation that this wasn't written by a woman is a surprising one. Msaada Nia is worthy of mention too for casting so well. That a short indie film can land both Lee Meriwether and Charles Howerton proves that there is much that is right in the world. Both have history in the genre and the talent to play the parts.

The look of the film is notable, especially in the flashback sequence. Cinematographer Daniel Kenji Levin turns the restriction of space within the care home into an opportunity to focus on the characters, but he plays the flashback scene like a comic book, aided by a simple but very effective alley set. I'm not enough of a comic book geek to know whether MacIntyre and his crew nailed that style, but it feels right. The story takes us from the busy, complex, detached modern world back to a quiet, simple, connected one, both of an earlier day and an earlier era of comic books. Showing us a young Faye, who wasn't a superhero, with Captain Magnificent, who was, is a throwback to both eras, real and comic book. The different visual styles used make it easy for us to compare the old with the new and to see that nothing has changed, really, if we'd only let ourselves notice. If only it didn't take a film that tells us to look for us to see.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Hollywood Forever (2011)

Director: Amy Ludwig
Stars: Brian Bogulski and Alana DiMaria
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
Hollywood Forever is many things beyond just the title of this deceptively simple romantic time travel short. Most obviously, it's the name of the vintage store in Hollywood in which we, along with the lead character, spend the entire picture; it literally begins as Ben walks in and it ends when he walks out again. More substantially, it's the theme of the piece. The setting emphasises how styles are ever-changing, but the story emphasises that love never does. Ida, the salesgirl, conflates the two by explaining to Ben that the store 'hasn't changed in a really long time' and in doing so highlights that neither has the formula that has kept Hollywood synonymous with the movies. A little more subtly, it's even a hint to the film industry that Hollywood constantly needs to look both forward and backward. The character of Ida represents both of those views: her job has her living in her past but she's really from Ben's future.

What's more, it's a nod to first time writer/director Amy Ludwig's reasons for making this short film. She's apparently a thrift store devotee and, like many such people, she has a fondness for romance, not just in the modern meaning of the word that focuses only on love but also in the older meaning that speaks to adventure and imagination. She's a romantic, summed up well in one of Ben's lines of dialogue. His casual suggestion that simply changing clothes is enough to change time is more than a cosplayer's manifesto, it's a personal statement of individuality, a gentle reminder that we should all be whoever we want to be and the most freeing thing in the world is to simply allow that to happen. That feeling, close to my heart too, is what I took away from this film. We, the viewers, are personified in the character of Ida, whose last line is a very appropriate quote from classic Hollywood. She merely makes a decision to live it.

The story is less a plot and more a springboard for our minds, which is exactly what a science fiction short should be. Ben is an actor who has come to Hollywood to find work, so steps into Hollywood Forever to buy a suit he can audition in. Brian Bogulski, who plays Ben, does have one of those faces that transcend time, so it's not surprising to find that it was one of Ludwig's inspirations for the story. He's intriguingly somewhere between Vinnie Jones and George Raft and it would be fascinating to watch him in black and white, especially in a gangster movie or film noir. By contrast, Ida, the goth salesgirl, is already there. She's dressed entirely in black, which includes her make up, her only colour being the red in her tattoos and the gold in her nose ring. The two characters clash mildly for a little while until they realise that it's cultural not personal. You see, she's from 2009 and he's from 1948, and that's where our story really begins.

As a short film, this is pretty good and as a debut for Amy Ludwig, it's very promising. It's short but it has no real need to be longer. The story is basic but achieves everything that it aims to. It draws us in capably and leaves us wanting more, our minds happily conjuring up what happens next. The framework is simple, everything hung on two actors in one location, but those actors are solid and their dialogue is well written, if hardly surprising. While Brian Bogulski may have influenced the film, Alana DiMaria gets more substance to work with, so gets to shine brighter. After all, Ben only needs to open his mind a little between beginning and end but Ida gets a real story arc, gifted with both the opportunity to change and the decision making process to do so. The romance is sweet, albeit swift, and the Ruth Brown song is appropriate. The whole piece is as enjoyable as it's well made, those two attributes not always playing as well together as here.

That's not to say that it couldn't be better. There is notable attention to detail, but there could have been a good deal more. The biggest flaw in my eyes was in how often the camera gave us views out of the front window of Hollywood Forever, something that didn't gel particularly well with the progression of the story, the continually passing cars unwittingly undermining the idea that our characters are isolated in a timeless space. That's tough to avoid in a low budget short, especially given the geography of the store, but it's a problem nonetheless, one that adversely affects the lighting at a couple of points too. If only the fog that obscured the door in one scene could have obscured the front window throughout, but sadly that opportunity apparently wasn't viable. The good news is that the more romantic the viewer, the less likely they'll care and the more likely this will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Amy Ludwig's future work.

Doctor Glamour (2011)

Director: Andrew W Jones
Stars: Chris Shields, John Charles Meyer and Priscilla McEver
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
By sheer coincidence I watched Doctor Glamour, starring John Charles Meyer, immediately after watching The Millennium Bug, staring John Charles Meyer. The latter was a fun feature but it was very dark, visually. Doctor Glamour was dark only thematically, at least for a while, but it never failed in being less than visually striking. What's more, The Millennium Bug was only one thing, even though it had a feature length to run with, while Doctor Glamour crams a number of shifts and changes, rather wild ones to boot, into a mere fourteen minute running time. The main one, when it shifts tone and mood utterly a short way in, is fun at home in private but really works in a theatre environment. It truly shocks theatre audiences into paying attention and that helps it to stick it in the mind when it finishes, pressuring you to return to it to see if you really saw what you think you saw. I've now seen it a few times and it gets better each time I see it.

It looks a lot better than you might expect a fourteen minute short to look from the beginning as some sort of fabulous steampunk airship lands in the grounds of Miskatonic University. It brings the smug Walter Gilman to study the subjects you might expect if you've read Lovecraft, from geometry and history to witchcraft and dimensions. Gilman is initially annoying as he dominates every subject with growing arrogance, but soon enough is dominated himself by a mere girl, Eve Walpurgis by name. Sure enough they fall for each other and so dominate together. Life is bliss. Then, as is prevalent in romances with connections to Miskatonic University, she's absconded to another dimension by some sort of tentacled elder god before he can even propose. Everything thus far, and the ensuing attempts by Gilman to find her, are entirely silent, or more accurately voiceless, but then he manages to summon Prof Jaroslav Gregory Glamour and all that changes.

Dr Glamour, you see, is the 'best transdimensional astronaut this side of Heaven or Hell'. He's a bizarre cross between Frank N Furter and Zaphod Beeblebrox, with more than a hint of Michael Jackson. He's a rock 'n' roll superhero whose every movement is a pose; Horatio Caine isn't in the same class. He has a techno glove o' love, you dig? And apparently just because it can, this picture transforms instantly from silent movie to rock opera, from Lovecraftian dread to comic book inspired graphics demo, from gothic sepia to hallucinatory colour. Unless you worked on the film, and perhaps not even then, this is not a shift you'll see coming. It's impossible to review the film without mentioning it though, because it's the most important thing about it, so I doubt it can be classified as a spoiler. There are other twists and turns of story in and amongst the songs and graphics work but you'll have to watch Doctor Glamour to find out about them.
To suggest that this film is a riot is being rather obvious, but it's a controlled riot: it feels like it does exactly what writer/director Andrew Jones aimed it to do. He's racked up a few shorts but he doesn't seem to have any intention to be traditional. I'd see that as a Good Thing and I'd very much like to see his other work. It did take a while for me to be won over to the approach he took to this film. Initially I enjoyed the early scenes so much that I felt sad when the tone shift arrived and whisked us off to somewhere else entirely. Everything at the Miskatonic is spot on: the CGI is effective, the editing is sharp and the darkness is palpable. Only with repeat viewings did I begin to appreciate how powerful that tone shift really is. Doctor Glamour played partway into a quality set of science fiction shorts at this year's International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival and it was the most emphatic moment of the set by far. Everyone there immediately paid attention.

As good as Chris Shields and Priscilla McEver are as the starstruck lovers, and they are both very good indeed, the short is entitled Doctor Glamour for a reason. John Charles Meyer doesn't even appear until his co-leads are firmly established, yet he stamps his authority on the picture with every pelvic thrust and every facial expression. He's as different from the part he played in The Millennium Bug as could comfortably be imagined, but he's solid in both roles, suggesting that he's very much a talent to watch. He's been a busy man these last few years since his first film credit in 2008. Five years has seen him appear in nineteen movies, with five more in post prod, plus appearances on eleven TV shows. Beyond acting, he also produced both films mentioned plus a couple more. Whatever else Doctor Glamour ends up as, it's an emphatic demonstration of screen charisma for Meyer. He doesn't need a demo reel; he can just hand out DVDs of this.

I'm still trying to figure out what this short means to me. It's the easiest thing in the world to let it wash over you: the pace of the early scenes, the surreality of the later ones and, of course, the sheer effervescence of the whole thing. I initially compared it to the experience of gulping down a supersize energy drink with triple the normal sugar and caffeine. Your brain immediately shuts down in response and then frantically attempts to quantify what just happened to it. Yet maybe a rollercoaster is a better comparison, because you're likely to want to ride it again as soon as you get off your first run. The thing is that I don't do energy drinks or rollercoasters, so neither really work for me. Instead I ended up going back to the Lovecraftian themes that the film began with. Perhaps this is as close a translation of his work as I've seen, interpreted as Walter Gilman spiralling into insanity after reading De Vermis Mysteriis. That works for me. You dig?