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Monday, 30 July 2012

Paranoia (2011)

Director: Bivás Biswas
Stars: Katherine Stewart, Tiffany Shepis, Shane Dean, James Ray and Cavin Gray Schneider
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
The more time I've spent watching the Arizona film scene grow, the more I've been sure a movie like this was going to turn up sooner or later, with what is on the local level something of an all-star cast. There's just too much talent floating around here nowadays for different cliques to not coalesce every once in a while, especially given how prolific a few local actors are, but this is the first time I've seen it actually happen. I recognise everyone here: the director, the writer and the actors who play every major part, even some of the supporting folk. Many of them were at this year's Phoenix Film Festival in person, not only to promote Paranoia but often other pictures as well. Quite a few of the actors here also appeared in selections from the Arizona Short Films set, and that extends to the crew too: Diane Dresback, who wrote this movie, also directed Wish Inc, which featured Paranoia's director, Bivás Biswas, as an actor.

What makes Paranoia work so well is that instead of expecting the stars to carry the picture just because they're there, like Hollywood productions have a habit of doing, it builds a strong story for them to flesh out. Dresback's script is a clever one with a great deal of depth to explore. The title is unfortunately generic, so much so that there are, on average, a couple of films a year with this title, because it's highly appropriate in this instance. While initially it's Alaina Denison who is obviously paranoid, we soon begin to wonder just how paranoid she really is and whether she's the only one. The title really applies to the film as a whole rather than just one of its characters and it doesn't take forever to realise that. The feel is supposed to come from film noir and there are certainly noir themes here, but it played to me more like a cross between a whodunit, where the story is king, and a gothic, where the minds of the characters are as important as they are.

The puzzle of the plot is understandable on a first viewing but it's just as fun on a second, even knowing all the twists, turns and revelations before they happen. In fact, a second viewing is an eye opener, as there are a large amount of cleverly placed hints that are easily missed first time through but become more obvious in hindsight. Eagle-eyed students of the cinematic toolbook will do better than others in seeing the visual cues but the red herrings are plentiful and there's enough complexity to ensure that if even if you figure some of it out ahead of time, you won't catch it all. I certainly didn't. 'When I see someone through the lens of my camera,' a character explains during the film, 'nothing's hidden. Everything's right there.' While he's being literal, and chatting up the leading lady in the process, he's really explaining the key to the film. Everything is right here for us to see, if only we look at things from the right perspective.

Of course, Dresback doesn't make it that easy for us. We begin dramatically with an ending, to which we'll return at the halfway mark, before moving forward. Something very bad has gone down, something that has to do with money and betrayal and gunshots, and once established, we're taken back three months to see how it all came about. Alaina and Mark are on their ninth year of marriage, but there are obviously problems. She's had trouble getting pregnant but has finally been accepted for expensive fertility treatment. He works a lot, but may well play a lot too, given that he flirts inappropriately with his secretary. The distance between Alaina and Mark is emphasised everywhere. It's in his words and her facial expressions. It's in the placement of characters when they meet their closest friends or when they eat dinner. It's pretty obvious that these two shouldn't be having a child together and the evidence for that keeps on building.

Alaina is Katherine Stewart, looking far more dowdy than she does as the elegant Lady Chenna in Mantecoza. It took me a long while to get used to a dowdy Kate as, even out of steampunk costume, she's so inherently elegant as a person. Mark is Shane Dean, yet again playing an ass, but I learned here that he's better at being a deliberate ass than a casual one, better at being an emotional ass than a quiet one. I'd suggest that it's the skinhead that leads him to this sort of typecasting, but then James Ray is just as bald and he gets to play a nice guy. He's Ben, a quiet cop and doting father, married to Sherry, which is a neat role for scream queen Tiffany Shepis, obviously enjoying playing a different sort of character for a change. These two couples are long term friends and they account for four of the five leads. The fifth is Cavin Gray Schneider, who is Jason, a fresh employee at Mark's solar company, yet another opportunity for Mark to be an ass.
And as the title suggests, the rest of the first half is an exploration of paranoia, most obviously manifested in Alaina believing that Mark is having an affair with his secretary. She does have good reason to suspect, after all, and frankly he couldn't dig more holes during the argument that erupts when she brings it up if he tried. Then, as we catch up to where we started and we discover that it was Mark who was on the receiving end of those gunshots, we find that the end only brings a new beginning. We quickly realise that what we've seen thus far may not be the truth, it may only be a perspective of the truth. Everything is suddenly open to interpretation, except for a single fact: Mark is dead and somebody shot him. Now, even if we weren't doing so already, we have to pay close attention to all the detail to figure out what's real and what isn't, not to mention who killed Mark and why. It's refreshing to find that this is a challenge.

I enjoyed Paranoia on the big screen, but its budget constraints were very apparent. Perhaps it was screened on DVD rather than BluRay. Certainly the resolution didn't seem high, especially in the darker shots which in a film with a noir flavour are pretty commonplace. I enjoyed it more on the small screen where this wasn't quite so apparent. The lighting issues were still there though, especially with Alaina on the screen. Stewart often looked bleached or sweaty and both were just a product of the lighting. Most of the film's flaws obviously tied to technical limitations and it's not outside the realm of possibility that most of the rest do too. While Stewart and Dean do well generally with very complex characters, there are scenes and lines that called for another take that didn't come. The only non-technical flaw is the needless contraction of the director's name. 'A film by Bivás' merely looks pretentious and this isn't a black and white experimental art film.

If it wasn't clear from early scenes, the revelations halfway through really underline that this is all about the script. I enjoyed Dresback's writing here more than I did in Wish Inc, because it has length enough for depth and subtlety and she built it onto a structure that engaged my mind as well as my eyes. It's also a notable challenge for the actors, because they're not just tasked with playing a part, but playing it from a number of different perspectives. Stewart gets the toughest task, especially as she's stuck with what appear to be ludicrous character decisions: only with later perspective does anything about the whole hitman scenario seem believable. Dean gets a tough job too, though less so. These characters are not easy ones to play and, while both give it a great shot and succeed for the most part, they don't nail them all the way through. The more emotional they are, they better they are, but the quieter moments are more inconsistent.

The other three main stars do better, but to be fair, part of that is because their characters are less complex. Tiffany Shepis is excellent here in a role that ably demonstrates that she isn't just a scream queen, especially as almost every move she makes has importance. For someone who appears in so many campy movies, she's the most natural on camera of all the leads. Cavin Gray Schneider is best with the subtleties. Like Shepis, he's in and out of the film throughout, adding detail each time. My big discovery was James Ray, who plays Ben. I've seen him in a couple of films before, but only short ones. While he doesn't get much opportunity until the second half of this film, and then unfairly (no cop would be allowed to investigate his best friend's murder), he's a constant from then on and he maintains a quiet and thoughtful presence even when he's not on screen. I was also impressed by Shari Watts, who does a lot with a little as Alaina's mother.

At the end of the day, this certainly isn't a film for everyone. It's not a linear plot and it refuses to hold your hand and lead you through the story. More than your average whodunit, it requires you to keep your eyes open, to look for details that you may not normally look for: expressions, reactions, interactions between characters. Take note of them all, even the ones that don't make sense, because they may make sense later. It's also an ambitious picture, trying to do a lot more with the budget than it would normally allow, which led to technical issues that harm the film's impact. Lighting is its own character in a film noir and not only does this lighting not add style to the substance, it lessens the material. That said, if you're willing to look past the limitations and be open to engagement in the storyline, there's much here to appreciate. It's also a good way to be introduced to a lot of local talent in one fell swoop.

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