Saturday 25 December 2010

My Name is Bruce (2007)

Director: Bruce Campbell
Stars: Bruce Campbell, Grace Thorsen, Taylor Sharpe and Ted Raimi
We're in the small mining town of Gold Lick, OR (population 333), to hear a folksy song about 1878 and Chinese gods to set up our story. It's very Cat Ballou, but we quickly fast forward to find the connection to the modern day. Jeff Graham drives his friend Clayton to an old Chinese graveyard to meet a couple of chicks, but he's a wuss, falling for the slightest peer pressure. The only time he stands his ground is when Clayton disses on Bruce Campbell, who Jeff idolises. As far as Jeff's concerned, 'You don't like Bruce, you walk.' Given that this is a film that doesn't just star Bruce Campbell, it stars Bruce Campbell as himself, as produced and directed by Bruce Campbell, that's not a bad celebrity crush to have, especially as this is a monster movie. At the cemetery, Jeff takes something from the mine that contains Guan Di, the Chinese god of war and protector of the dead, who promptly emerges to massacre the kids and terrorise the town.

Only Jeff gets away alive and he can only think of one person to save the town from destruction by the vengeful spirit of Guan Di: his idol who is shooting Cavealien 2 not too far away. So off he goes to Bruce Campbell's trailer, and when he gets nowhere telling the truth he bumps him on the head with a baseball bat, throws him in the trunk of his car and hauls him back to Gold Lick to save the day. What makes this lunacy inspired is the fact that Bruce's agent, Mills Toddner, has set up a huge surprise for his birthday and he believes this is it. So he starts playing the hero in this bad monster movie, blissfully unaware that it's not a bad monster movie in the slightest. The townsfolk buy into Jeff's stories about Bruce being a hero and he believes it above all of them, because unlike most vanity movies, Campbell doesn't even remotely try to show himself in a positive light. The Bruce Campbell we see in this movie is a complete asshole.

He's an actor, of course, but this fictionalised version of himself has had something of a career downturn. He's got stuck in the B movie mire, all the way down to Cavealien 2, which looks like a truly awful rubber suit monster movie. He's a drunken loser, one who responds to a bad news report about him by shouting, 'They're trying to make me look pathetic!' as he runs out of booze and starts drinking from the dog's bowl. He's a failed husband, who rings his ex-wife Cheryl at three in the morning to whine at her. When he believes Gold Lick has been set up as a birthday present he acts like a spoiled guest, and when he finally discovers that Guan Di is real, he runs away fast, beginning as a coward and progressively getting worse over a number of scenes that are totally wrong in all the right ways. He's so useless as a hero that when he doesn't show up on the set of Cavealien 2, they just use a dummy instead. Who would notice?
While My Name is Bruce is hardly the greatest movie in the world, it mostly succeeds as the fun ride it aims to be. The genesis for the project was an old time comic book called The Adventures of Alan Ladd, which set the real actor against fictional pirates. Bringing that concept into the modern day, writer Mark Verheiden could only imagine Bruce Campbell in the role and that part of the story works really well. It's a real family affair, with the cast and crew mostly comprised of what seems like everyone Bruce has ever worked with, along with a host of local Oregon actors. The cameraderie is obvious throughout, not just in scenes between long term collaborators like Campbell and Ted Raimi. A good part of the film was shot on a backlot built on Campbell's property, something that helped keep the budget low and the problems lower. This is really a home movie, merely one made by professionals who know precisely what they're doing.

It's a three act play and those acts are hardly subtle. The first follows the standard template for a cheesy horror movie from the eighties and introduces Campbell. The second builds up the jokes because this thrives on the comedy you might expect from a Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell movie: Three Stooges humour, Bruce Campbell one liners, even some more Marx Brothers inspired lunacy. This is where most of the charm of the piece comes from, with Campbell's irreverence a joyous counter to the seriousness inherent in Gold Lick. The biggest successes are most obvious in the initial scenes after his kidnap, as Bruce plays the joker to a whole town of straight men, neatly parallelling the story as a whole, with its real actor placed in a town of fictional characters. This is backed up further by references to real movies like the Evil Dead films, Moontrap and McHale's Navy juxtaposed with fictional movies like Death of the Dead and The Stoogitive.

It's the third act where things fall apart, even as Campbell finds his redemption as a character. It just doesn't have the time to do the film justice, so we have to settle for some cheesy scenes to move us along to the finalé. Had this been a serious movie, the second act would have been full of character building and plot progression, but that would have taken all the fun out of this one, so we're stuck attempting to imagine it was still there. So Bruce's act of cowardice is all that Jeff needs to become a hero and Bruce showing back up to help is all that his mother Kelly needs to fall for the hero. It's really no cheesier than any of the movies it ably spoofs but these scenes are so compressed (sometimes into single lines) that they're about as painfully obvious as can be and actors like Grace Thorsen, who does a solid job as the sassy Kelly Graham, deserve much more definition to their characters than was ever going to be possible here.

I was impressed that Verheiden and Campbell managed to sneak in some subtle notes in what is hardly a subtle movie. When the mayor of Gold Lick explains to Campbell that Guan Di arose out of a mine collapse that killed a hundred Chinese miners, there's a great touch in the story being buried in a tiny paragraph at the bottom of the front page of the Gold Lick newspaper instead of being shouted as a huge headline. It's admirable but hard to notice amongst the blatancy that this film thrives on. Similarly Grace Thorsen acts well but she's lost behind the hams who go all out here on purpose. Ted Raimi is a riot in three roles: as Bruce's sleazy agent, as an Italian sign painter and, best of all, as an old Chinese man called Wing. Of course, Bruce dominates in what is really a glorious send up of himself, on his own dime. If you're not a Bruce Campbell fan, this is so not the picture for you, but if you are this is just another reason to hail to the king, baby.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Zombie Girl: The Movie (2009)

Directors: Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall and Erik Mauck
In August 2005 the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund granted $1,000 to a filmmaker making a zombie movie in order to aid with the post production work. That's not too surprising, given that everyone and their dog are making zombie movies nowadays, but this particular filmmaker was only twelve years old at the time. She's Emily Hagins, a sixth grade middle school student in Austin, TX, so hardly your average film buff, let alone your average writer/director/editor. The only thing not surprising is that when she progressed at the age of ten from a set of short films to her zombie feature, Pathogen, a team of documentarians made their own film about her. This is that film and it does a reasonably good job of explaining who Emily is and what she's like as both a person and a filmmaker. It succeeds best in capturing the change between the ten year old girl who has the crazy idea of shooting a feature and the thirteen year old premiéring it.

Emily is obviously a bright kid. Between ten and thirteen during this film, she seems older, both physically and mentally. It's reasonably obvious that for her to succeed at something, she needs only to want to succeed and to avoid all the blue fish and keep on track. She does benefit from her environment. Her family moved to Austin, a town of creativity and culture, before she could walk, and she became a regular at the Alamo Drafthouse, one of the legendary cinemas in the US today. Her parents are creative sorts themselves, her mother Meghan being a graphic artist and her father Jerry having obvious musical talent. She has their support too, open support that doesn't require her to be a little version of her parents. It's very apparent that the drive here is Emily's but Meghan is the glue. I get the impression that however gifted and driven Emily is, this film would not have been finished without her mother running herself ragged.

There's a textbook example here of not holding back, something that many of us regret. Many kids are talented and able to achieve but have a mental block keeping them from getting out there and doing. Emily does not have that problem and that fact really paid off. After getting seriously into the first Lord of the Rings film, perhaps because she looks rather like Orlando Bloom as a young girl, she wrote to its director, Peter Jackson. Jackson put her in touch with 'his buddy in Austin', Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News. She showed up to his annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon festival and saw the Aussie zombie movie Undead. At ten years of age. Fortunately she has parents who are willing to provide context because her immediate reaction wasn't to hide behind the sofa but to make her own zombie feature. Knowles put her in touch with Rebecca Elliott, who produces indie films, and next thing we know she's written a fifty page script. Pathogen is born.

This documentary initially seems to focus on Emily's failures rather a lot, but the reason for that is soon made clear: she has a lot of learning to do. Most of the things that she has absolutely no clue about at the beginning of production have become second nature by the end. She doesn't understand basic technical questions asked of her at the outset, she doesn't say cut, she can't wield a clapperboard. These issues are quickly solved but there are other points where she's utterly out of her depth, as if she's, well, a ten year old girl making a movie. Towards the end of the film, there's a heartbreaking moment where she realises that she's accidentally wiped over some of her final day's footage. Now I've met and talked with a lot of low budget filmmakers whose early films detail just how quickly they get over the learning curve. Until now I haven't actually seen that process documented but we watch Emily learn here, big time.

By the time Pathogen is finished, which takes two years and so is far from the quick shoot Emily expects, she's become a filmmaker. Perhaps this is the cinematic equivalent of Jerry Pournelle's idea that to become a writer you have to write a million words. You start and finish pieces and once you've racked up a million words, you're a writer. You can throw away what you've written because most of it will be crap, but you're a writer nonetheless. I've been through that process and vouch for it absolutely. Here Emily makes a feature film with all the bits that go right and all the bits that go horribly wrong. She deals with writing a script and shooting it, with lighting and sound, with props and make up, with reshoots when footage isn't good enough. She spends as much time editing the film as making it. And she admits at the end, when she introduces the film's premiére at the Alamo Drafthouse, that the continuity sucks. But now she's a filmmaker.
This transition from ten year old girl to filmmaker is this documentary's key success but there are a few others worthy of note. In particular it ably captures the energy levels involved, from hyper periods of creativity to complete grinding halt. There are points where everything stops for months at a time, partly because Emily's parents did not allow her homework to suffer and partly because the energy just went away. Emily bounces through it but Meghan noticably deteriorates over two years. Juggling a full time job with being a wife and mother is tough on its own but this movie adds a huge commitment. She's there constantly, not just because Emily can't drive but because she handles the boom mike, does the special effects and goes searching for costumes and props. Late on Emily explains that her mom has been invaluable but she doesn't think she should be involved with her future films. She's outgrown her and that's heartbreaking.

What this means is that film is almost the McGuffin here because the real story has as much to do with a couple of parents dealing with the fact that they have an incredibly precocious child who they love and cherish but who is rapidly leaving them behind. While Meghan gradually got drawn more and more into the film herself, I get the impression that it really isn't their cup of tea and that they were there only to help their child reach her potential. Perhaps the hardest part is the realisation that they give so much to help Emily only to find that by the end of the film, they have nothing left to give that she needs. Meghan offers technical advice during editing but Emily doesn't need it because by then she knows what she wants and how to get it. I hope the creative process hasn't ended up as a divisive one in the Hagins household. I don't know what it means but it was noticable that Meghan and Jerry were never on screen together.

Where the film falls apart is when it tries to look beyond Emily and Meghan. There is a little insight into film production generally and into the Austin scene, one of the most dynamic in the country, but this is less successful because these things aren't the real focus of the film and there isn't enough time to do either justice. I'm sure Harry Knowles and Tim League and others could make a great documentary on the Alamo Drafthouse and the Austin film scene but this isn't it. There are also a few valid interviews that touch on the progressively decreasing cost of entry into filmmaking and how this is going to change the future of cinema but again this is skimmed over quickly, perhaps because it isn't the primary reason that Emily made Pathogen, merely something that helped her do so. Most of these comments really speak more to YouTube than the discovery of the next Stanley Kubrick, or even the next George Romero.

At the end of the day, this documentary made me eager to watch Pathogen, included on the DVD, even though, as Emily herself warns her premiére audience, it really isn't very good. One local critic wonders about its quality: is it going to be a good film, is it going to be a good film for a twelve year old or is it going to no good at all? Well, it doesn't matter too much because having watched this documentary, it's going to be impossible to separate it from the age of its writer/director. However it's more than just a single film, as Emily has gone on to make two more features, a 2009 ghost story called The Retelling and a vampire comedy due next year called My Sucky Teen Romance, which looks interesting for being perhaps the first teen comedy to be entirely made by teenagers. The span between the release of these three films is only five years but that's over a quarter of her life. It pays to start early and this is an able marker for that start.

7 Down (2010)

Director: Tyler L Schmid
Stars: Raychel Fejfar, Michael Crawford, Adam Flores, Josh Crawford, Sam Sajid, Gaia Foxx, Kenton Masloskie and Tyler L Schmid
Of all places, I met director Tyler Schmid in the line to get our Night of the Creeps remake DVDs signed by scream queen Tiffany Shepis. I was chatting to her husband Sean Tretta because his latest film, The Frankenstein Project, marked my debut on the big screen as an extra. Schmid was in front of me and when he gave Tiffany a copy of his first DVD and I pulled out a business card, he gave me a copy to review. In my eyes, that one event is all the justification I need for printing the things in the first place. Well, that and the Subway coupons I got for throwing one in a fishbowl. Both the beauty and the catch of having films handed to you by strangers in signing lines is that their quality is an utterly unknown factor. On one hand this budding filmmaker could grow up to be the next Nicolas Cage and this could be the work on which he cut his teeth. On the other he could actually have some real talent and this could be a real gem. Which would it be?

Well, it's hard to tell yet. 7 Down is obviously a film made by people who are learning their trade but it avoids most of the usual low budget pitfalls and shows some serious promise. I'm eager to see what growth works its way into later Schmid films like Surviving Dish, The Morning After and Abby Dux Zombie Slayer. 7 Down is obviously a beginning rather than an end but it's also an ambitious one. It's roughly half the length of a feature so has plenty of time to build itself into more than your average debut short and it starts out with a lot of character introduction. As the title suggests we have seven lead characters, plus Schmid himself as an intriguing eighth wheel. Just how much his character has to do with the story to come is open to discussion but I have a feeling he has quite a lot to do with it. These seven characters head out on the road to go to a hayrack ride but they don't make it and the title proves very prophetic indeed.

I wonder just how long Schmid, and his sister Shadlee who co-wrote the script with him, intended this film to be. The introductions are deep, as if they were aimed as the foundations of a ninety minute feature, and initially they have no connection except theme, the theme being addiction. Jools has lost her parents and injects heroin to numb the pain. Salvatore is both her boyfriend and her drug dealer, one who is more than happy to receive sexual favours from his clients in lieu of payment. Seamus suffers from nightmares and talks in his sleep. Craig is the new guy at a fear of the dark meeting. Damien is a drunk bartender, who is promptly fired for drinking with an underage girl. 'Crazy drunk clown' is the apt description we get later when he hangs out with Craig and Seamus. They drink beer but he's out of his skull on vodka. That leaves Mickey, Seamus's sister, and Ted, who share a photography class. They indulge but perhaps not scarily.
These introductions show the biggest flaws of the film and the biggest success. Mostly the flaws are technical, the early scenes being frequently dimly lit and with dialogue occasionally lost in the mix. The success is that this admirable attention to character provides a depth that keeps us interested as the film runs on, something that surprised me given that these are hardly the sort of people I'd want to go anywhere with, let alone with one of them behind the wheel. Craig and Seamus empty an ice chest of beer before they even begin, with only a little help from Ted. Jools and Damien are both drunk when they arrive. Ted gets left behind because they forget he went to the bathroom, so he has to follow on in his car. Only Mickey is sober and she still manages to consistently stay louder than all of them. They're not your usual dumb college students but they are just as annoying. Yet unlike many modern slasher victims, I never stopped watching them.

Part of this is the acting, which is varied but generally solid. Most obviously the actors bounce off each other very well indeed, to the degree that it wouldn't surprise me to find that many of them are friends rather than just actors (two of them even share a surname). Even when shouting at each other there's an obvious connection and that helps the realism, as does the dialogue which is very believable. Characters like Damion and Mickey are annoying but actors Kenton Masloskie and Raychel Fejfar bring them very much to life, any overacting done appropriate for the parts. Gaia Foxx has a free Janis Joplin vibe going for her and both she and Michael Crawford manage to subtly build scenes even when not the focus of them. There are the occasional sneak peeks at the camera and the odd line lost in the background, but that's forgiveable in a film with an obvious low budget. Some of the actors are obviously not actors but they don't spoil the show.

What I didn't have was sympathy and in an obviously carefully written screenplay I wonder just where the Schmids aimed that to come from. Deep characterisation made me interested but it doesn't necessarily make me sympathetic. By the time the clichés begin (and that's not really as negative as it sounds, because I'm not sure it's possible to make a slasher film without clichés any more), I was far more interested in the technical side of proceedings than in the characters being killed off. The camerawork is pretty solid, though it's not surprising to find that there are no less than six credited cameramen. At points it's a little shaky but I was frequently impressed with the composition and choice of shot. This could so easily have descended into handheld hell but it refused to do that. The continuity is also questionable but the more I thought about it, the more appropriate the goofs are to the characters. For once I believed in their idiotic choices.

At the end of the day, this may not be a groundbreaking short film but it's a surprisingly capable one on a number of fronts and it may have a pretty decent feature film inside it waiting to break out. There's story here that we don't see, all the thematic setup about addiction not really going anywhere but wanting to. If my theory about the killer is right, then there's a very subtle setup indeed that cries out for more background hints and back story. When the killings begin they're shot well but very quickly, so the addition of a good effects guy into the crew could easily turn those scenes into something much more memorable. I don't know if the Schmids have any plans to expand this film, but I'd recommend it. 45 minutes is an odd running length, too long to sit in a festival shorts programme but too short to run as a feature. The amount of worthy character building doesn't deserve to be cropped down so building 7 Down up is the best option.

Saturday 11 December 2010

As Good as Dead (2010)

Director: Jonathan Mossek
Stars: Andie MacDowell and Cary Elwes
Debut director Jonathan Mossek obviously has an interest in extremism, as his few credits are on documentaries about Adolf Eichmann and the Black Panthers, and this picture shows its colours quickly. 'In America today it's OK to be a demon,' says Brian Cox in the superbly shot opening scene. He's in priestly garb, preaching his sermon to a flock that seems full of downhome people like Andie MacDowell. It's when the camera pans back that we realise that it's also full of more sinister types that fit the Aryan symbology that plasters the walls around the cross. As the Hon Revd James Kalahan talks about how it only takes one match to burn a forest, one man takes it upon himself to climb onto a bus with a pump action shotgun. Nothing happens yet but there's plenty of implication hanging around. Given the title of the film we can't help but wonder about what sort of scary ride Mossek is going to take us on, but we know it can't be a pleasant one.

The central character is Ethan Belfrage, a New York photojournalist played by Cary Elwes, who for some reason remains one of those faces I never seem to remember, however many films I see him in. I don't just know him from The Princess Bride, I saw him as recently as The Alphabet Killers in 2008, but somehow I still see him for the first time every time. Here he's in for a rough experience, not that he's been having it too great thus far. He's separated and shares custody of his daughter. He's ten weeks into an attempt to quit smoking but he's still on nicotine patches. He's also being pressured to leave his apartment by Seth Rosen, his landlord, who wants to redevelop the entire place, and he assumes that the pressure that starts being brought to bear is at Rosen's instigation. People attempt to knock his door down in the middle of the night. Others look threatening at the dog walking park. Eventually he finds two men hiding in his apartment.

And here things get nasty, mostly courtesy of Frank Whaley who plays an emotionless sociopath called Aaron. He's one of the two men, the elder of the two, the one with an SS tattoo on his neck and a reluctance to even touch the lesser races, even if it's to get his change from a store clerk. Whaley has something of a Gary Oldman vibe, but without any of the overt flair. The only emotion he shows for the longest time is a mild impatience. The other man is Jake, far younger and far less dedicated to nihilistic violence but still with the determination to do whatever it takes to get a job done. The catch is that Ethan has no idea what they want, as they proceed to beat him up, kill his dog and trash the place while playing Amazing Grace on his piano. They leave him chained inside a fridge with his hands tied together with duct tape; and he escapes only to find a noose strung up waiting for him and himself soon on tiptoes inside that noose.
The initial story is reasonably straightforward and is explained when Andie MacDowall shows up. She's Helen, the Revd Kalahan's wife, and she's looking for vengeance for her husband's murder in 1999 by men in balaclavas who ambushed their car, shot him dead and burned the vehicle with her in it. She survived, with third degree burns over half her body, and she still walks with a crutch. Her young son Jake was pulled to safety and grew up into the young man torturing Ethan. 'An eye for an eye, a life for a life,' he says, as he's pressed for an explanation. Helen tells him the rest while his head is in the noose because she believes he did the deed, fingered by Peter, the last guy they tracked down and tortured to death. The fact that they don't just kill Ethan outright is because she wants him to name the third man involved. They don't hold back either, even stooping to hauling up Amy from downstairs to inject with drugs in front of him.

There are layers here, far beyond a basic revenge story. After all, if he did it, they already have him exactly where they want him; but if he didn't do it, there has to be something else going on. There are a few twists, which are revealed subtly at the appropriate points in time, changing our expectations of the story to a large degree. This subtlety is one of the great successes here, the brutality being rather clinical and the gore surprisingly minimised. Sure, Aaron slices open one of Ethan's eyelids while calmly asking Jake to bring him a caffeine free ice latte, but it doesn't feel remotely like a deleted scene from Reservoir Dogs. This story is all about characters and their motivations, rather than special effects. There's much that could be debated even about the least of the characters, like the pair of cops who visit Ethan or the young lady who watches his daughter be forced back into his building in something that might be kidnapping or might not.
The twists are strong because they don't just slap us round the face with a Shayamalan gesture that breaks a second viewing because now we know what it's all about, they make us reevaluate what we saw and add progressive layers of depth. As we learn about these characters, we come to conclusions about them, not just from emotional response but through confession and fact. Instead of turning everything on its head by explaining how X and Y, these revelations prompt us to reevaluate our own responses. The morality in this film is far from a black and white thing. It isn't about bad people doing bad things for good reasons, all three judgemental adjectives there being played with throughout. It's like a game of 'where would you draw the line', but one where you keep getting asked that question with other background to flavour your answer. The real key to the story may be in a photograph at the end of the film but it could easily be taken a number of ways and I'm still not 100% sure of all the motivations. Maybe it doesn't matter.

There's a hint in the credits through a possible origin to Ethan's surname, but that may be taking subtlety to an extreme. Another oddity in the credits is that Nicole Ansari, who co-produced and took the role of Ethan's wife Kate, is married in real life to Brian Cox, who in the picture plays the man Ethan is accused of murdering. Presumably that's how they landed him for the movie: Cox is truly one of the most underrated actors working today, being the best screen Hannibal Lecktor merely one of his achievements. He's good here but he has little screen time and is not the focal point; others have more intense roles to play. Elwes is excellent as the most complex character, MacDowell decent as the one with the most inherent irony to flesh out. Matt Dallas is capable as Jake, though he's outshone by those around him, especially Frank Whaley, who plays Aaron with surprising realism instead of stylistic flair, befitting a solid character based meditation on revenge.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Serenity (2005)

Director: Joss Whedon
Stars: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass, David Krumholtz and Chiwetel Ejiofor
I caught the odd episode of Firefly back on its original run. I didn't have a TV at the time but I was flying over to the States a lot and every now and again I saw something other than That 70s Show, which never seemed to be off air. Firefly seemed like a pretty good drama but I didn't have the back story so couldn't really say. What I didn't realise until later is that nobody else did either. Fox have built something of a reputation for screwing up shows on their network but they really did a number on Firefly. They didn't just show the whole thing out of order, they refused to show the feature length pilot first. They interrupted its run for sporting events. They cancelled it before the end of the first season, though creator Joss Whedon had envisaged a seven season story arc. With an eye on the eventual DVD release, he also shot it in widescreen but Fox did a pan and scan job for broadcast. If there was something else they could have done wrong I can't think of it.

When I first saw Serenity, the feature length follow up to Firefly, shot three years later, I was hugely impressed. This was a real science fiction story, one that didn't just have an epic space battle and a cute chick kicking large amounts of ass but actually made us think too. I remember particularly loving the fact that all the technology looked used and reused, like it did in the original Star Wars movie, because back then George Lucas didn't have enough money to make everything artificial gleam that idiotic newer than new gleam that repels dirt and age and reality the way he insists on nowadays. Yet watching afresh, after spending a couple of weeks working through Firefly's entire run in the order Whedon planned, I found that Serenity does have flaws, but perhaps they're inherent. Now I know who these characters are, I wanted to see their story arcs but Whedon was forced to compress six unshot seasons of that into a mere two hours.

Needless to say it doesn't work as well as a single movie as it would over a more leisurely six season exploration, but Whedon does give it a really good try. In fact the way he introduces his universe and the characters that populate it is better than the pilot episode that Fox screwed up. The first scenes unfold to three layers, nothing if not ambitious, but they cover so much. They define the real focus too: River Tam, played by Whedon regular Summer Glau. In Firefly she was a broken character, one who has been experimented on by the Alliance, the people who run this universe, but one who was also rescued by her brother, a doctor named Simon. For those who haven't seen the show, Firefly is the class of ship that they join, initially as passengers but soon as crew. Serenity is the name of the ship and it's run by Captain Malcolm Reynolds, who fought for the Independents, the losing side in the galactic war that consolidated power for the Alliance.

There are many things that made Firefly special and this concept of building a series around the folk who lost a war rather than those who won it is the foundation of them all. Mal and his crew are our heroes because we watch them do good episode after episode, but they're outlaws by trade, people who bend and break plenty of rules every time out. Yet they're not anti-heroes as the setup makes us reevaluate our automatic bias that it's always the good guys that win wars. I love the ambiguity of this universe, where the Alliance are the bad guys but apparently do a lot of good too. Life always seems better on core Alliance planets than those out in the boonies. Yet the Independents have freedom on their side, the ability to go wherever they want and do whatever they like. There's security and stability on one side, freedom and risk on the other. It's fascinating to watch and try to decide where we would place ourselves in this universe.
River Tam was always going to grow as the seasons ran on but here she's thrust to the forefront as the heart of the story. The film begins with her under Alliance control, dreaming while being experimented on to harness her psychic powers and turn her into a weapon. Her dreams become her reality, but she's promptly rescued by her brother, only for us to realise that we're watching a recording that sets our new story in motion. The Alliance are defined here as the bad guys, as brutal and inhuman monsters, but once that's enforced we're thrown a curve by the character watching the recording of River's rescue. He's an unnamed Alliance assassin, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, always a deep actor to watch. Here he does evil deeds and he knows it but he believes in what will grow out of them. He's an idealist, a calm and very dedicated idealist, and the chase is on to bring River back to the Alliance from the ship she's hiding out on, Serenity.

Ejiofor is a heavyweight actor and he's superb here. His character has no name, rank or number. 'Like this facility, I don't exist,' he tells the doctor from whom River escaped, before making him fall on his sword. He's infuriatingly Zen and he's a gem of a character, set up well in a few short scenes. His opponents are the crew of the Serenity who had a whole season of Firefly to grow, but he's a worthy foil. I won't run through all the crew members but all of the regulars from the series are back, reprising their roles. All have a part to play in this story with nobody sidelined too much. We also get another new character, a hacker called Mr Universe, who lives in his own fortified metal castle with the lovebot that he married. Mr Universe is enticing, not least because he's played by David Krumholtz, the year he began as Charlie Eppes in Numb3rs, but he's gone far too quickly. He deserved to grow as a recurring character but doesn't get the opportunity.

The story that unfolds here is a timeless one, coincidentally one getting a lot of exposure on the news at present. There are secrets in this universe that the citizens of the Alliance are not privy to. We already know from the series about what they do to people like River Tam but the crew of the Serenity stumble onto an even bigger secret here that explains far more of the background to the series than it has any right to. A six season explanation wouldn't have had to tie it all up with just one bow. It's still a good secret though and its timeliness today is palpable. It also helps define why Mal and his crew are our heroes, because they show here what heroism is, putting a principle of freedom above their own safety. They make freedom ring too, making us proud of them and wanting to join in their fight. No wonder there are so many dedicated followers today of this mangled series: watching Serenity makes us want to join the Browncoats.
Joss Whedon originally came up with the concept for Firefly after reading Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, the book about the battle of Gettysburg that was adapted to film in 1993. He liked the idea of people trying to find their identity after losing a war. It would be easy to compare the Independents like Mal Reynolds to American Confederates but there's a deliberate lack of moral background to allow that to go too far. The take is merely of Confederates during the age of reconstruction, a difficult time for the folks who lost, especially those who still believed in a cause. As expected in such a short running time, there are more obvious comparisons in Serenity to be drawn, like the Jews under the Nazis. It wouldn't be difficult to see the Alliance as Great Britain and Serenity as the American colonists, if they'd lost the war for independence, but what leapt out to me today was Serenity as Wikileaks and the Alliance as the US government.

That would make Capt Reynolds a version of Julian Assange but I doubt the Aussie would cut as dashing a stride as Nathan Fillion in the lead role of this movie. Fillion is an underrated talent, though I've only seen him in Firefly/Serenity and his more recent series Castle. He's not the only one either, his whole crew being populated by talented actors, many of whom have become Joss Whedon regulars, including Alan Tudyk and Summer Glau. Nobody lets the side down, though there's precious little screen time for any of the nine central characters in this film, eleven if you count the additions of Ejiofor and Krumholtz, especially as the story rides over them all with its dynamic message of freedom, as emphatic as Rorschach's final words in Watchmen, that being another obvious comparison to draw. Serenity is Rorschach, merely less black and white, while Ozymandias is both the Alliance and its unnamed assassin.

It's not unfair to reach for references as Joss Whedon filled the movie with them, but such detail is only one reason to watch and rewatch. The performances are worthy of that also, but most of all the story is one that resonates and seems to become more resonant over time. The ending is a tough one, but it's appropriate. You don't fight for nothing and you don't all come out intact, but hope says that there's always a future. Throughout Firefly, Whedon made tough choices that others would not, avoiding political correctness and artistic license. It made his universe more real than any other science fiction show I can think of and this feature is a worthy, if inherently flawed, addition to that. Anyone with an attachment to the characters, which is anyone who saw the whole series, will find parts of this film difficult, but that's the point. Firefly and Serenity are about life, all the bits we want to remember and the bits we don't. That's refreshing.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

The Taint (2010)

Directors: Drew Bolduc and Dan Nelson
Stars: Drew Bolduc, Colleen Walsh, Cody Crenshaw and Kenneth Hall
My copy of The Taint arrived neatly wrapped in pink paper, for all the world like it was the latest animated Barbie movie. The title of the film is inscribed on the disk in pink as well, even on the menu page. Yet the concept of this modern underground horror comedy gem is about as un-girly as you can get, even though the taint of the title in this instance is just a chemical that has been introduced into the water supply. When confronted with that title, my wife immediately thought perineum and I thought of the archaic term that IMDb reminds us hasn't been used for a century or so. This chemical carries more than social stigma though, it makes men misogynists, violent and raging misogynists with hobbies like crushing the skulls of women and wandering around with their wedding tackle in full view. Apparently writer Drew Bolduc worked his way through a hundred flesh coloured dildos to make this movie, and you don't hear lines like that every day.

The menu screen of the DVD has a whole slew of them, waving around behind Bolduc's head in a halo formation, as if he's a saintly Medusa being choreographed by John Waters masquerading as Busby Berkeley. It does highlight what we have in store for us, just in case we haven't seen the trailer, which I had. That's done in the worst possible taste and revels in it. What I wondered most after that little gem was how long Bolduc would be able to maintain the pace. After all, as the old joke goes, it may be bad taste to throw underwear at the wall but it's worse taste when it sticks. This film obviously aimed not just to stick, but to smear and leave a smelly residue, but would it keep us interested for an hour and a half? Well, it starts as it means to go on with naked breasts, severed faces and falling excrement, plus a dramatic maniac with a scythe and a lead actor with the same wig that got prominent use in Bad Taste, hardly a bad thing in my book.

At least the vomit waits until after the title credits. And the urination. And the shambling monster with the rock and the ejaculating penis. And the shotgun blast through the skull. And the... well, let's just say this picture doesn't exactly dawdle out of the gate skimping on things to offend us. Amputations, decapitations, head mashings, you name it, along with gloriously off kilter dialogue like, 'Who are you? Who is that large cocked man?' Did I mention the exploding squirrels and the fish decapitations? I'm sure I didn't mention a lot, but eventually I'll get around to the plot. There is one, no doubt contrary to your expectations after reading this introduction. The protagonist is Phil O'Ginny, perhaps the ultimate slacker given that he looks like a 25 year old schoolboy. He has a terrible wig and sunglasses that change with every scene. He has a standard set of replies for every question, ranging from 'What?' through 'Huh?' to just a blank stare.

Most importantly, he's managed to avoid the Taint. Somehow his disconnection from reality has kept him alive for twelve days while the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. Maybe he just doesn't drink water, because that's how the Taint is transmitted. Twelve days is a long while to go without a shower but Phil wouldn't know what motivated meant if it kicked him in the balls. Given that he's played by the obviously enthusiastic Bolduc, the man with more roles in and on this ultra-indie than I can count on both hands and both feet put together, I'm guessing he's the antithesis of Bolduc himself. When everyone else does, Phil O'Ginny writes his own excuse note and that finally works out when everyone else touches water and he survives by accident. Soon he meets another survivor, the tough as nails Misandra, who introduces herself by shooting a man in the head with a shotgun. Well, not a man, a zombie with a misogynistic one track mind.
It's with Misandra that we find something else in the picture beyond an endless stream of bashed heads and exploding penises. If the Guinness Book of Records had a record for the number of exploding penises in a single film, this would take all comers, if you pardon the expression. Yet Misandra has a happy past and Bolduc plays up the schmaltz as he shows it to us. Before the Taint, she was flouncing through the fields flying kites and blowing bubbles with her boyfriend. There's a glow following them as if the light is magnetic. It's well shot and we can't help but feel the difference in style, not just the tone but the camera angles and the lighting and all those other technical things that you wouldn't expect to see done right in a film that must have spent about two thirds of the budget on marital aids. Of course, one glass of water later and she has to smash his face in and cradle his brain in her hand as she says goodbye. Sparkly doesn't last.

So this exercise in blatancy, brutality and belligerence has a clever side and that keeps our eyes glued to the screen as much as the expectation of the next taboo to topple. No, this film isn't subtle but it has spots of surprising subtlety buried inside the outrageous material, little nuggets of human interaction that might be phrased as points of discovery at the most unexpected times or as stereotypical discovery moments that carefully omit the discovery at the end. The hand touching scene couldn't have been done better by a pro; the scene where an abuser realises what he's doing came so out of left field that it stunned me but it was absolutely right. People are going to divide on this film, without a doubt, with the dedicated few who love it outnumbered to a scary degree by a mass horde of people who will only be offended. I wonder how many will see the skill in the angles, the colours, the choice use of clichés, not just words but feel.

Much of this has to come from Bolduc, who wrote, produced, directed, starred, edited, filled the teapot, whatever had to be done to get his picture made. He did have collaborators, eager ones beginning with Dan Nelson, who notched up almost as many roles as his co-writer, co-producer, co-director. He graciously described the effort as being balanced Bolduc's way: 'Drew wrote the script and is very much the creative mind behind the whole project,' he said. 'I'm just there to make sure that it all happens without too much going wrong.' Bolduc is just as modest, keen to explain how much Nelson put into the film. He describes an organic partnership, where the pair act almost as two halves of a single whole. 'We kind of just become one entity when working,' he says, explaining how there was no set division of labour, just a pair of colleagues stepping in to ensure that whatever was needed at any moment in time was taken care of.

While Bolduc spent a lot of time on screen in a double role as the leading man and a lesser but still prominent character, Nelson mostly stayed behind the camera to handle the shoot. He did play a couple of characters himself, minor but intriguing ones. Who wouldn't want to start out their acting career playing a Nazi Lieutenant and a Severed Head? Yes, there are Nazis here, but only in an insane penis enhancement commercial done in the style of a Nazi propaganda film. This is only one of a number of pastiches woven into the storyline to keep us on our toes and to allow Bolduc to poke fun at everything from nerdy scientist kids to beefcake workouts. Much of this is actually pretty clever, if you can watch it as something other than a checklist of broken taboos, which would be as dangerous a drinking game as one shot for every exploding wang. Remember this film is a riot even when sober. Drunk, it must be truly insane.
What isn't clever is the acting. This picture was probably made for less than I have in my wallet and I'm not feeling too rich today, but it defies it in every way other than the acting. The camera moves well, the picture is good, the effects are awesome for any price. The actors though really aren't actors. Drew Bolduc is a name to watch behind the camera but not in front of it. I saw a lot of comparisons to Bad Taste here, Peter Jackson's debut film and my favourite movie of all time. Bolduc stars twice in his debut feature, just as Jackson starred twice in his, but it didn't take long for the director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy to move progressively more offscreen. I expect Bolduc to do the same, as his budgets improve and his ambition grows. Do I expect him to end up with three films in the IMDb Top 10 at some point in his life? No I don't, but then nobody did after Jackson made Bad Taste either. I'm eager to see Bolduc grow and change.

While he's certainly the most obvious bad actor on screen here, he's joined by others, though to be fair they're all as enjoyable as they are bad. Mostly they just chew on every piece of scenery they can find, from Cody Crenshaw as a flaming queen of a high school gym teacher who may or may not still be in the closet in his own mind to Kenneth Hall as the origin of the Taint. Hall is pretty good as the boy scientist but goes completely batshit crazy later in an Oriental mask with cool teeth. He takes lines as utterly banal as 'This is my friend's parents' basement' and turns them into chanted religious discoveries. Did I enjoy both of them? Absolutely. Would I give them an acting award? No siree, Bob. Maybe in something else. The token girl in the picture is perhaps the accomplished, Colleen Walsh being given a stereotype-breaking part with perhaps the most politically incorrect screen exit ever filmed. I don't know if I cringed or laughed more.

At the end of the day, The Taint is a film that can't be ignored. Most people will hate it, many will love it with a passion, but nobody can really ignore it. The title sucks you in and the trailer can't be unseen. By that point you're either horrified beyond words or you're seeking out the picture. I've talked quite a bit on this blog about the boom in local filmmaking talent in Arizona that has come out of the film school at Arizona State University. Bolduc, Nelson and The Taint seem to be part of a similar boom in Richmond, Virginia, centred around Virginia Commonwealth University. It's wonderful to see such scenes growing up and I look forward to more VCU originating auteurs. In the meantime, I need to spread the word about The Taint. The thing is that this film isn't really a film that you tell people about. It's a film that you go round to their house, interrupt their sleep and force them to watch it. That way you can watch it again while watching them too. I miss that.