Thursday 24 May 2012

Shuffle (2011)

Director: Kurt Kuenne
Stars: T J Thyne, Paula Rhodes, Chris Stone, Michelle Krusiec and Tamara Taylor
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.
Shuffle, which deservedly won for both Best Film and Best Director at the Phoenix Film Festival, which is racking up more awards everywhere it goes and which will return to Arizona tonight to open up the Phoenix Comicon, is exactly the sort of film people like me want to review. It's a low budget picture, albeit not that low budget. Sure, half a million dollars is twenty times what The Blair Witch Project had to shoot with, but once the marketing got added the two come out pretty even. For a more pertinent comparison, it would have accounted for less than twenty seconds of Battleship. If that doesn't nail the fundamental problem with Hollywood today, I don't know what does. The budget also means that Shuffle features character actors throughout the cast, not just to support a couple of stars. We recognise some of them too, three being regulars on TV's Bones. It tells an original story in an original way, which never hurts. It's also really, really good.

In short, it's the sort of movie that you probably haven't heard of, unless you go to film festivals. If you've heard of it, you've probably seen it already or it's on your list. If you haven't, you really ought to seek it out and watch it: whoever you are, wherever it's playing, whatever you have to do to get there. That's where reviews like this tend to come in. You haven't a clue what it's about yet, because I've just raved a little and not told you anything useful. The catch is that it's one of those films where I really can't tell you much of substance because of its inherent nature. If I do, it'll be a spoiler. Usually I can get away with explaining the first fifteen minutes of story, because it's there to set up the rest of the piece. Usually I can illustrate some of the characters a little or offer a few tidbits that might help you see the sort of depth the filmmakers went to. Usually I can cite some examples of what they did right. Yet if I do that here, I'll be spoiling it for you.

The poster pretty much covers it. 'Every day I wake up,' it reads, 'at a different age in a different year on a different day of my life. I want it to stop.' Of course, when I read that, I started thinking of a fragmented art film, something underlined by the discovery that it's shot in black and white. Yet this isn't remotely similar to Memento or Pi. The closest comparisons are to classic films from the golden age of Hollywood: the sort of films made by Frank Capra or Preston Sturges; the sort of films where the lead characters reevaluate their lives, only to find that they're aren't precisely what they had thought; the sort of films where, in doing so, they prompt each and every one of their viewers to do exactly the same. Think It's a Wonderful Life. Think A Christmas Carol. Think Sullivan's Travels. The black and white isn't to be arty, it's to provide us a throwback to another time, fittingly for a film that leaps around all over it to build up its story.
The lead character is Lovell Milo, a great name given that it sounds like it's backwards to begin with, and he's played by T J Thyne, an experienced stage actor who's best known today as Dr Jack Hodgins, the bug and ick specialist on Bones. We meet him at different points throughout his life, seemingly at random but really with clever intent. The earliest we see him is at age 8 when he first picked up a camera; but his earliest memory is from when he was 92, in bed and unable to stay awake for long. In between we find out plenty: his relationships, his family, his work as a photographer. Milo's quest to figure out what is going on, and why it's happening to him to begin with, provides our story and it builds, grows and changes magnificently. I've long felt that Thyne is an underrated actor but I've never seen him play the lead in anything before, let alone a role as challenging as this. It really demonstrates what he's capable of.

The story plays with Milo's assumptions and by extension with ours, making Shuffle something of a unique film experience. In 1950, Alfred Hitchcock played with the assumptions of his audience and his characters in a film called Stage Fright and the final scenes outraged people. Put simply, he'd cheated them. Characters had said things and done things and all of that had built up into a story, yet some of the things that had been said were lies. The twist at the finalé was to tell the truth, which shocked everyone. Now, of course, such manipulation is routine and we expect it, but what writer Kurt Kuenne constructed here is still very clever indeed. At each point in his life, Milo believes certain things but, like all of us, they evolve over time in reaction to experience. Kuenne is honest throughout, but that certainly doesn't mean that he tells the truth. He merely provides an honest perspective of that truth, as the character sees it at the time.

As great as the cast are, it's difficult to separate Shuffle from Kuenne. Even had he only written the film, he would be worthy of note. This is a big jigsaw puzzle and he continually throws out pieces for us to put together, but he deliberately doesn't give us the box. Without the picture to look at, we have to work towards it, just as Milo does. There's mastery in this script, enough that I'm not just looking forward to seeing the film again tonight at Comicon, I'm looking forward to tracking down the other nine films he's written since 1990. Yet 'writer' is only one credit here for him. He shot the film, choosing to do so in black and white and with the photographer's eye that his lead character is supposed to have. He directed too, giving him the clout to ensure that the DVD release will have the black and white version in addition to a colour one. If that wasn't enough, he edited the piece (a particularly key role in this film) and composed the score too.
I can't really highlight anyone else in the cast, as characters are filtered through perspective as much as the story, meaning that they don't serve the same function throughout. One character may be a key player in Milo's life at this point but not be so important at that one. They may not be there at all. They may be seen from a completely different perspective. That's the great joy of this film, but it's also the reason I can't talk about them. You need to watch the movie to find out what they do and what they mean. I can say that Bones fans, who will surely be a major part of early audiences for the film, will find Patricia Belcher and Tamara Taylor along with T J Thyne. It's no spoiler to point out that Belcher, so powerful as Caroline the attorney on Bones, takes a small role as a psychiatrist here and it's good to see her. I won't tell you what Taylor, Thyne's boss on Bones, does here but, if you're a fan of the show, you'll certainly enjoy finding out.

I guess I can tell you about Barney Burman, who's credited as 'prosthetic makeup designer'. In other words, he took care of the aging effects which are massively important in a film where the cast appear at different ages from scene to scene. While the main characters, Milo included, are played by different actors as children, the adult versions are played by the same ones regardless what age they happen to be at the time. That puts a huge strain on Burman, who was required to make them look appropriate for the age they were but also different enough from the last scene we saw them in to delineate it well enough to avoid confusion. He does a great job, so much so that we don't focus on it. He was born to work in movies, given that what seems like everyone in his family did before him, but he's perhaps eclipsed them all with his Oscar win for the make up effects he worked on for the reboot of Star Trek in 2010.

Shuffle won't win an Oscar because it's too obscure an indie film. It will continue to play festivals where it will continue to rack up awards and attention, because it deserves them, just like earlier obscure indie gems like The Man from Earth, Lovely, Still and Absentia. It will be released to DVD in July or August and will do well; the Bones connection is hardly going to hurt. Most importantly, its success ought to point the way to future success with other productions. This doesn't feel like a one hit wonder, it feels like part of something bigger to keep an eye on. This film sprang out of Theatre Junkies Productions, founded by Thyne in 2001 and which Kuenne and other cast and crew are associated with. I'm not likely to see any of the plays they put on in LA but I'm certainly going to track back through the films that they've uploaded to YouTube, such as Validation, also made by Kuenne with Thyne, and whatever they happen to conjure up next. Watch this space.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

The Victim (2011)

Director: Michael Biehn
Stars: Michael Biehn, Jennifer Blanc and Ryan Honey
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.
Introducing The Victim at its Arizona premiere at the Phoenix Film Festival, Michael Biehn, who grew up in the state and studied drama at the University of Arizona, so was on home ground of sorts, explained the motivation behind his second directorial effort. 'It's just like cotton candy,' he said, and he meant it. He wanted the audience to enjoy themselves, of course, but not to end up dissecting it over the water cooler at work. It's aimed at being pure escapism and only pure escapism. I'm not sure why he highlighted it so much. Sure, this is far from an original story and his debut in the director's chair, The Blood Bond, made a year earlier, is apparently even less so. Perhaps he felt that the audience might have got upset at the clichés if he hadn't warned them beforehand. Frankly, it didn't matter. However you come to it, The Victim is a lot of fun from the very beginning and it never lets up. It doesn't do much else but it certainly entertains.

It begins the way it means to go on: with a sex scene. We're in the woods and some guy is doing a chick from behind. He's into it. She obviously isn't. When she stops playing along, he snaps her neck. We soon discover that the killer is Jim, aka Det James Harrison. Yep, our killer is a cop, and General Hospital actor Ryan Honey is like a sleazy Burt Lancaster playing a sleazier Tom Selleck. He's in the woods with fellow detective Jonathan Cooger, apparently an undercover narcotics officer. Why Cooger thinks he can maintain his cover by picnicking with the man tipped to be the next sheriff, I have no idea. His excuse may be that while Jim is banging Mary, he aims to get some from Annie, a believable cause for a slip in professional ethics as she's played by Jennifer Blanc, Biehn's wife and business partner and co-producer of this film. If that's why Mary dies and Annie lives, that's fine with me. She's sexy as hell and the camera loves her.

She's also really good at playing the victim. She isn't the greatest actress to ever grace a movie screen and this is hardly the greatest role ever given to an actress, but as she sees Mary's body and runs for her life through the Arizona woods, she's believably as scared shitless as I've seen from anyone in a long time. She's too talented to be restricted to scream queen roles, but on the basis of this, they're screaming out for her. Of course she finds herself at a cabin in the middle of nowhere and pleads for help from the owner who we know is played by Biehn himself, because we watched him drive there in a sequence so long that it rivalled the similar one that sat behind the non-existent opening credits in Manos: The Hands of Fate. Her chaos is contrasted well with his peace and quiet. He's Kyle Linato and while she's been running through the woods in abject terror, he's been reading and listening to self help lectures. For some reason he lets her in.
And that pretty much sets the stage for the entire rest of the film, because as Biehn mentioned, this is cotton candy not Wild Strawberries. You could write much of the rest yourself and not be too far off what Biehn conjures up from Reed Lackey's story, both in the natural progression of the plot and in the less natural turns it takes. For instance, when Kyle and Annie go to look for Mary's body they don't find it, so they head back to the cabin and jump in the sack. You know, like you do. Maybe it can be vaguely justified on the basis that Annie is supposed to be an idiot co-ed or some such, all about sex, power and free coke, but come on, her best friend was just murdered and she's on the run from the cops who did it. Hot monkey sex surely can't be top of her agenda at this point! It makes more sense on a different level: Biehn and Blanc are a couple, this was the first scene shot, she has a great rack and, as she says, he looks really good for 54.

To be fair, this enjoyable cinematic nonsense follows the first really good scene of the film. To begin with, Biehn didn't seem quite right. He wasn't bad, but he could have been better. It made me wonder whether he should really direct himself. Then the cops arrive at his cabin and ask to come in. The tension generated by the three as he refuses is delicious and from then on I saw Biehn a little differently. Kyle is an interesting character, albeit mostly through not being that interesting. He's living at his uncle's cabin deep in the woods because he's trying to keep away from trouble. We don't quite know what kind, but the impression is that he's not very bright but he's both very capable and down to earth. He's exactly the sort of character who might turn a simple situation into a complex one by reacting in ways that don't serve his best interests, just because. Like this one, where he hides the girl even though it makes him an obvious target.
He's something else too, though Biehn seemed surprised when I mentioned it to him after the screening so presumably he didn't aim for it. Kyle is a very refreshing character: he unfailingly says the things we want him to say and does the things we want him to do. It doesn't matter if they're the right things or not, and they often aren't, but they're exactly what we want from him. For instance, when Jim breaks into his house to kidnap Annie, Kyle rescues her in his boxers and uses a heated crowbar to get the truth out of him. Frankly, nobody in their right mind is going to torture the next sheriff to get him to confess to something that he's promptly going to pretend he never confessed to, because the moment he's free he's going to shoot you in the face, but it doesn't matter. We want him to do this because Jim is a slimeball and we want him to get his as a matter of principle. This is not great storytelling, but it's refreshing to be given what we want.

And on it goes, continuing to entertain without trying too hard to keep things believable. There's some mild philosophy here and there, but it's nothing groundbreaking. For instance, Jim explains the depth behind the title in a line of dialogue: 'Take life by the balls and get what you want, or you can be the victim.' See, it isn't just about screaming Annie. It's about being the man or being the victim. Life's a game and Jim plays it really well, but Kyle may just play it better. While Annie turns out to be worth a little more as a character than she's initially set up to be, this is a notably testosterone fuelled thriller. There's a lot of to and fro action suspense, as Jim and Kyle gain and lose the upper hand, done well enough for us to stay with it throughout. There's some sex, some violence, some memorably cheesy dialogue: everything you'd expect, all done well on next to no budget. It doesn't look cheap until you think about certain things. And we don't think too much.
There's a thank you in the end credits to Robert, and which one is hardly a surprise. Biehn had read a book by Robert Rodriguez called Rebel without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player, which spoke to the techniques he developed to be able to make El Mariachi on a microbudget. While I haven't read it, so can't speak to what he learned, Biehn obviously paid attention because this looks like a lot more than it cost. It was shot entirely day for night with a single camera, 40 setups a day for 12 days, 12 hours a day. That sex scene was the first shot because Biehn hadn't finished the script at that point, so a dialogue free romp with his real life wife was safe. Most noticeable for me were the fights. They're very old school, tough punchfests like you'd expect in old Clint Eastwood movies, but they're also mostly outside. We don't see sets and props get broken here, because that would have cost money.

The cast were the crew, something you expect in microbudget cinema, but not necessarily from people that are recognisable. Everyone knows who Michael Biehn is, given that he took on Arnie in The Terminator, albeit as a different Kyle. He's a regular for James Cameron, whose budgets for single movies exceed that of entire countries. We don't expect someone like this to appear in a movie that cost nothing, but then he did write and direct too and is building up his production company. It's going to pay off well for him because this is deservedly going to make a quick and decent profit. It demonstrates what can be achieved without scary money and frankly, I'd rather go to see movies like this than movies like Avatar or The Avengers that cost hundreds of millions of bucks. If this was the average Hollywood film, tickets could be five bucks a pop, I'd be seeing two or three every week and everyone would be making money. That's not a bad dream, is it?

It's certainly what I'm going to take away from this. As Biehn suggested, it's cotton candy. There isn't much to think about, though there is a neat little twist at the end. It's mindless action, done well if not particularly originally. Biehn plays a solid hero, somewhat different from the perennial soldier roles he seems to get typecast as. In many ways he isn't even a character, he's the will of the audience taking the place of a character. This is a Choose Your Own Adventure movie where you're torn away from peace and quiet by a sexy and buxom young wench who arrives in mortal peril and requires your tough and manly help to save her. Cue the sex and violence. I'm certainly not complaining. I just wish more films were like this! I'll certainly pay to see the next film from BlancBiehn Productions on the basis of this one, but I also hope that Biehn passes on my wish to James Cameron that at least one viewer would love to see what he could do with no budget too.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Into the Wake (2012)

Director: John Mossman
Stars: Tim Miller, John Gray and Kristin Anderson
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.
Fortunately I'd scheduled a break on Saturday afternoon for lunch with friends. The Phoenix Film Festival had gone very right for me on Friday evening but Saturday wasn't holding up very well and that break turned out to be the turning point. The Woman in the Fifth was an interesting but frustrating substitute for The Monk. Monster Brawl was an endurance test that warranted a great deal of recovery time. Queens of Country, which I'd picked to fill the slot before Michael Biehn's The Victim, was sold out, thus prompting a switch to Into the Wake, about which I knew nothing at all. Things were not looking good. Yet this film, made by people I hadn't heard of and starring people I hadn't heard of, turned out to be exactly the turnaround I needed. It's a tough story of revenge, closure and trust which benefits from the gorgeous vistas of Sauk County, Wisconsin. It's set up well, it unfolds capably and it builds to a powerful finalé. It's what film festivals are for.

Our lead character is Ken, who has found himself a comfortable spot in life that he doesn't want to change. He's spent twenty years as a contract driver for the same Chicago company, though they want to hire him on as management. He's good at his job and he's good, period, as we find when he breaks up an uneven fight, three kids against one. He also enjoys mild bondage with tattooed chicks so he certainly can't be all bad. They're a cute, though unusual couple, Ken and Simone. He's a middle aged white guy with a beard that's turning grey. She's a younger black girl with a passion for life. When not in bed, they lie on their backs identifying cloud pictures or sit on park benches playing Super Spy, imagining the secret identities of passers by. He piggy backs her into a tattoo studio so the staff can give her a psychic reading for her birthday. This could easily be a romantic comedy or a subtle drama built around Ken's inevitable change.

And change he does. He looks a good deal younger when Simone shaves off his beard. He takes the management position. 'I don't want to be the same guy forever,' he explains. Unfortunately, this isn't good timing. As if he's the punchline to some cosmic joke, it's here that he gets an odd voicemail that underlines that he can't avoid being the same guy forever. 'Randy is seriously ill,' it tells him, 'and Kyle needs to come home.' It isn't a wrong number, as Ken reacts by vanishing and getting drunk for three days straight. When he finally rings the number back, our real story begins. He gets on his bike and drives back into a life he thought he'd left behind, one in which he was known as Kyle. He takes the gun with him that one of those bullies had dropped after he broke up their fun. We only have hints to go on: 'they're going to find it', 'only he knows where it is', 'he needs to move it'... All we really know is that this isn't going to end well.
I knew absolutely nobody in the cast, including Tim Miller, who carries the lead role of Ken/Kyle ably. Most are local Wisconsin actors known more for stage work than anything they've done on film before. Their average filmographies barely stretch beyond this picture, but that works to its advantage, especially when the story shifts us deliberately from known to unknown, from city to country, from busy downtown Chicago to the lower Wisconsin river. It means that we're able to follow Kyle in more ways than the physical journey itself: he's been gone twenty years, and while he understands the clan war that he's being dragged back into, he doesn't recognise many more faces than we do. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Kyle is a McMillan and it's Campbells who chase him through this lovely countryside. Using MacDonald must have been either too overt a reference or seen as risking a lawsuit from the guardians of the golden arch.

As you can imagine, there's bad history here, each side having committed atrocities against the other: unforgiveable ones, naturally. We experience it with Kyle, without any real understanding of why it began, merely the knowledge that it passed critical mass long ago and thus can't be stopped. The best that can be done is apparently to leave it behind, move to Chicago and take on a fresh name. Yet, as Kyle found, even after twenty years that isn't enough. Described as an 'existential action thriller', it meets that description well. There are scenes of action, tension, toughness, the things you might expect from a thriller; but there's far more depth than could be fairly expected, especially in a feature that apparently cost a mere $61,000. The script, which Miller co-wrote with director John Mossman, who works by day as a film professor at Chicago's Columbia College, really takes a shot at dissecting the cycle of revenge.

Had it not been for that depth, it would be easy to cite comparisons: Deliverance being obvious, Rituals a little less so but with a little more accuracy. The depth makes it tougher, because we can't help but realise that this isn't about setpieces, as decent as they are. Campbells chase Kyle into the Wisconsin river, shot from so far above that it highlights how small these players are on the stage that surrounds them. With Kyle safely chained up in a barn, they try for information by asking, reasoning, beating. One crazy chick tries seducing, cutting off and eating his tattooed tear, then letting him go. Needless to say, he doesn't get far. But this is just cinema. Pervading these scenes is the pointlessness of it all. The filmmakers throw us into this clan war alongside Kyle and we want to be there as little as he does. It isn't cool or pretty. There are no good guys and bad guys. It's exhausting and hateful and pointless.
The big picture is never unveiled. We have no idea what sparked this generations long cycle of revenge. Nobody takes it back to a Glencoe massacre to give it perspective. We're at the point where the current generation either don't know why it all started or they don't care. Miller and Mossman do give us a little picture to focus on, so that we can understand how things built to this point. We realise that everything we see has unfolded inexorably from one moment, not the first one but the only one that matters now, the MacGuffin of the piece. Around it we're given different characters, written well enough to provide a number of different attitudes even though few get much screen time. Balancing them all together, we realise that nobody knows how to make it end and that there are always new moments to build from. We wonder whether the endings are really endings or just new beginnings, but without any need for a sequel.

For such an impactful film, Into the Wake feels deceptively loose. We're given plenty of time to get to know Ken before we discover that he's really Kyle. None of what happens in Chicago feels important but some of it is very much so, even down to details that crop back up later. Mostly though it's to tie us, the viewers, to the lead character, to feel like we understand him, like him and identify with him. At the point where that seems to be true, everything changes and we're thrown into those changes as unfairly as Ken is. It isn't about whether we might like Kyle too, it's about our reactions. There's subversive intent here. If we lash out at the unfairness, we'll find our reaction reflected in the reactions of characters that we have yet to meet, something that provides a more acute insight into the unending cycle of hate that the story revolves around than we might have found otherwise. It's clever writing and it deserves a good deal of praise.

There's much to praise, even if we don't factor in that minuscule budget. To be fair, while we can marvel at how much is achieved with so little money, it doesn't feel low budget so shouldn't be restricted as such. It's merely an independent film, if that hasn't lost its meaning nowadays. The writing is the foundation upon which the rest is built, and if nothing else matches that standard it's only because it's such a tough target. The acting is consistently capable, Miller the standout both because he's really good and because he's the only character with screen time enough to really shine. Technically it does exactly what it should, providing field experience to University of Wisconsin students in the process. The locations are appropriate, Sauk County gifting a timeless aura to this timeless conflict and Chicago contrasting neatly. I don't want to suggest that it's perfect but it's a thoroughly refreshing take on an age old theme and it deserves to be seen.

Thursday 17 May 2012

Monster Brawl (2011)

Director: Jesse T Cook
Stars: Dave Foley, Art Hindle, Jimmy Hart, Robert Maillet, Herb Dean, Kevin Nash, Lance Henriksen and Jason Brown
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.
I'll 'fess up, I wanted to see Monster Brawl after seeing the trailer. I even told people I wanted to see it. I pointed them to the trailer online. I showed them when it was playing at the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival and suggested they give it a shot. Boy, did I end up looking like a prize idiot. Sure, it looked stupid, but it looked stupid in a glorious way, like the ultimate fan film. Watching the trailer afresh, after having seen the entire film, I still want to watch the movie that it generated in my head. Whatever that movie is, it isn't this one. You seriously couldn't pay me to sit through Monster Brawl again. I can't remember when I last felt more conscious of just how long ninety minutes can be, when my will to remain in a theatre seat was so threatened, or when I was more strongly aware that there were people watching this movie because I'd irresponsibly suggested it. I formulated an exit strategy that would allow me to leave without being lynched.

What's so sad is that it should have been awesome: a riotous, thrill-a-minute, horror comedy set up as a wrestling pay-per-view. C'mon, who wouldn't want to watch a pay-per-view event where eight iconic monsters battle it out in a cursed graveyard? I shouldn't even have to add that there are real wrestlers on board, including Kevin 'Diesel' Nash and Robert 'Kurrgan' Maillet, two of the biggest in the business, and they're far from the only names who signed up. To introduce the match ups is the legendary Mouth of the South, Jimmy Hart, with his trademark megaphone and a couple of lovely ring girls, both of whom have appeared on Naked News. The referee is Herb Dean, in real life one of the most respected referees in MMA. There's comedian Dave Foley to call the play by play, and narrating both film and trailer is the ever-reliable Lance Henriksen. It stuns me, documenting that talent here, that it could be wasted so absolutely.

And yes, it really is that bad. The entire picture is almost nothing more than a consistent set of missed opportunities, an incessant barrage of missteps and lost directions, a disappointment in almost every way. It's hard to explain how the filmmakers could have gone more wrong, but in the interests of journalistic integrity, I'll try to explain the few things they got right. For a while, Jimmy Hart's eyes steal the show. He always did know just how to make himself noticed and he manages it pretty well here, regardless how effectively his ring girls flex and pose by his sides. The graphics are well constructed, from the opening credits to the rundowns of stats on each of the monsters via a host of intros, segues, comparisons, the works. The sound effects are solid and some of the gore effects are pretty good too, though those are less consistent. The framing shots are capable. Best of all are Lance Henriksen's Mortal Kombat style voiceovers.

So it's certainly not all bad, but to compare those measly positive aspects to the overwhelming negative ones in the metaphor of the film, they'd be destroyed before they even made it to the Hillside Necropolis ring. In fact, if you exclude Henriksen's contribution, a genuine pleasure that could only be enhanced by the copious consumption of alcohol, thus suggesting that this entire movie should be viewed as a drinking game, all those plus points would seriously be outweighed by a single flaw: that the film is resoundingly, cavernously, echoingly empty. It's Monster Crawl. I have no doubt that its quality would double by simply adding a crowd. Real wrestlers play their audience far more than they ever spend performing wrestling moves in the ring. How can they do that when there's no crowd? The fan film feel of the trailer does extend to the movie, but if writer/director Jesse T Cook is a fan, why in the Hulkster's name did he not rope in 500 extras?

In the emptiness that this non-existent crowd constantly highlights, Dave Foley is tasked with keeping our interest as commentator Buzz Chambers. Even though he's partnered with former champion, Sasquatch Sid Tucker, played by movie veteran Art Hindle, he fails miserably to do anything except make us cringe. While he ably provides us with far more detail than we ever care to know about the fighters and his professional banter is peppered with the expected bad puns, names of specialty moves and backstage theatrics, he's not a highlight. His lines are slow, his timing is off and we quickly realise that all he's really doing is slowing the whole thing down, presumably because $200,000 Canadian only buys so much in the way of monster costumes and effects. At the end of the day, there's not a heck of a lot of brawling in this monster brawl. We're in Swamp Gut's swamp longer than we are the ring. At least it's imaginative and funny there.
It feels like forever before we get there for the first match. We're stuck with explanations of the event's structure that go on forever, accompanied by music that doesn't remotely fit. Who cares that there are four undead characters and four legendary monsters, split up by category and by weight? We just want to see them in the squared circle, delivering some of the testosterone that the trailer promised. When Cyclops faced off against Witch Bitch, I realised just how much better this would have been in claymation like Celebrity Deathmatch. The first contest is nothing but a warm up, setting the stage for the rest with a few moves, a few cheats and a finisher. Only when Lady Vampire takes on the Mummy in the second match do we really get any actual wrestling, courtesy of real wrestlers Kelly Couture and R J Skinner. Unfortunately it's over too soon and we don't get a lot more later on, just more delaying tactics to hide that the budget was all gone.

Well, at least we're going to get Kevin Nash against Robert Maillet, right? I mean, it's a size thing. A former WWF wrestler, Maillet is 6' 11" tall and so is a great choice for the role of Frankenstein. Unfortunately in this take on Jack Pierce's iconic make up, he looks rather like Martin Landau as Frankenstein's monster, which does diffuse his impact somewhat. Nash, a world champion both in WWF and WCW, is only 6' 10", meaning that he actually has to look up at Maillet, something he can't be too used to doing. How can this matchup not happen? Well, I won't spoil it, but I'll point out that the filmmakers do. It's nothing but promise, just as all the other hints are nothing but promise, like the missing necrophiliac serial kiler, the severe storm heading in towards Lake Michigan and Herb Dean's blood on the cursed necropolis soil. Cook's writing sets us up for so much that either never arrives at all or shows up in such a way that we simply don't care any more.

With so much wrong, it's hard to really focus in on the root of it all. Surely Cook has to be the prime culprit, as writer, producer and director, but then it's his imagination that set the whole thing up and really it's only the imagination that can leave the Hillside Necropolis with its head held high. Would this have been the riot it could have been if he came up with all the gimmicks but let someone else direct or write the script ? I don't know. I'm sure it would have been a darn sight better if someone had reallocated some of the effects budget into filling up the movie with extras. I don't care how cool the cemetery set looks like, I want to see it full of fans holding up hand written signs for a swooping camera to pick up, screaming their lungs out as each of the monsters walks down to the ring and serving as props for them to play off. It looks really sucky when wrestlers play off invisible crowds, trust me. More wrestling wouldn't have hurt either.

A crowd would have brought a sense of life to the picture. It would have removed the need for a soundtrack, or at least most of the need. Todor Kobakov's score is unfairly tasked with keeping us awake and it can't do it. Without anything to attach to, it feels like he was told to compose a score without seeing the film it needed to accompany. Screaming fans would have stopped the film feeling like it was playing out in slow motion or I'd been ruthied with speed on the way into the theatre. Having the lead commentator be bored and depressed was never a good idea. He should have been the opposite: hopped up and hyper. Unfortunately we don't get any of that, which leaves us wondering if the approach taken would have been better if the film would have been crushed down to half an hour. My thinking is that it shouldn't really have been a movie at all, but rather a recurring skit on Robot Chicken. That would be legendary.

The Woman in the Fifth (2011)

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Stars: Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas
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.
I'm primarily at the Phoenix Film Festival nowadays for its sadly merged in International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival component, which is the festival where everything began for my better half and I back in 2007. Yet this year I saw more films than ever from the Phoenix Film Festival proper, partly because so many of them were really horror and sci-fi films and partly because they just looked so appealing. Top of my must see list was Dominik Moll's The Monk, a modern French adaptation of Matthew Lewis's 1796 gothic cause celebre with dream casting of Vincent Cassel as Ambrosio and Geraldine Chaplin as the Abbess. Unfortunately it didn't happen. The editors were still at work, or some such, so it didn't make it over in time and I got to see the substitute instead: a cryptic French, Polish and British co-production of an American novel. It's so quintessentially European art house in its execution that I'm still trying to figure it all out.

Beyond the French title of La femme du Vème being a neat rhyme, it hints at the international flavour of the piece. It refers to the fifth arondissement of Paris and a woman by the name of Margit, who calls herself a mongrel: a half Romanian, half French lady who boarded in England and married a Hungarian. In keeping with this flavour, she's played by a British actor who lives in France, is fluent in the language and mostly appears in French movies nowadays: Kristin Scott Thomas. We don't meet her for a while though, instead following the real lead around first. I'm not sure why Ethan Hawke is fluent in French, but he does well with it. He speaks it with a very American accent, appropriate given that he plays an American, Tom Ricks by name, who has an estranged French wife, Nathalie. He's in Paris to see her, even though she has an exclusion order against him, and especially their young daughter, Chloé, who was told he was in prison.

Whether he was or not is the beginning of the mystery, though it doesn't seem so at the time. It merely suggests that while Ricks is our protagonist, he may not be our hero. Certainly he runs from the sirens when Nathalie calls the cops. Unfortunately he falls asleep on the bus and wakes up to find that he's been robbed, left only with his passport. He doesn't go to the bank to cancel his stolen cards, he finds a café and barters a room with the obviously shady Sezer. By this point we've realised that he's cultured and capable and he can think on his feet. However, we wonder why he makes the decisions he does and we can't help but read his words to Nathalie and Chloé as both caring and sinister. He feels somehow both adrift and shifty. Whoever and whatever he really is, he's fascinating and we're drawn into his character. We wonder about his motivations and where his new world at Sezer's café will lead him.
As you might expect from European art house cinema, it leads him into intrigue. Sezer gives him a job, one that fits his calling as a writer. Really he's a university professor but he'd published a novel and is writing another one. Sezer takes him to an underground room and tasks him with locking himself in daily for a six hour night shift. All he has to do is mind the screen in front of him, press a button once in a while to open a door if someone arrives and maybe dial a number if they look suspicious. Naturally, 50 euros a night to do nothing in solitude is a dream job for a writer. I'd take it if I didn't have bills to pay. It's around here that he meets Margit, floating about at a literary party to which he's been invited by a local bookseller who recognises his face. In keeping with his potential dark side, he doesn't just introduce himself, he follows her around and watches her for a while first. Soon, of course, they fall into a passionate affair.

It's hardly your standard passionate affair though. She's utterly in control of their relationship, in every way: practically, emotionally and sexually. She mandates the times he can see her: always at her apartment, never before four. He brings her flowers but she makes all the moves. In her hands, he's not just putty, he's inexperienced putty. He fumbles like he's never done any of this before, ex-wife and child notwithstanding. Margit obviously becomes a muse for him, as she did her dead husband, but she becomes an obsession too and a pathway to somewhere ephemeral. And then, out of the blue, as we ponder what all this really means, we discover that none of it is real. Omar, the black guy in the room next to Tom's, shows up dead, in a fashion that points at Tom Ricks in no uncertain manner. He raises Margit to the cops as his alibi, only to find out that she committed suicide fifteen years earlier. Now we really have a story.

What we don't have is an answer. When the film finishes, we don't know what is real and what isn't. Reading it straight is unsatisfying. While Margit is apparently a construct of Tom's mind, she isn't a complete construct as she did exist as a real person who lived at the apartment he visited her at, merely long before he ever came to Paris. Where he might have heard about her to build this subconscious fantasy isn't addressed. Why he would do so isn't addressed. Whether he was really in prison before the story begins, as Nathalie told Chloé, is never confirmed. Maybe he was in a mental institution. Maybe he still is. Maybe everything we see takes place inside his head and we never make it to Paris at all. Certainly we don't see the usual Paris, the tourist spots and the landmarks. We see immigrants in cafés off cobbled streets. Oh, and we see mysterious underground rooms where he has to lock himself in. Is it really that blatant a metaphor?

The thing is that I don't buy that everything we see is in Tom's head. Maybe the beginning is real but everything after he falls asleep on the bus is his dream, prompted by a tense situation and a reception he didn't expect. There are brief bookends to the film that open up the possibility that, while we watch the film from Tom's perspective, maybe the whole thing really takes place within Chloé's head as she attempts to come to terms with a missing father. We visit occasional dream sequences that feature Tom and Chloé together in a forest, but they could be Chloé's dreams as much as they could be Tom's. Yet the story visits places that we wouldn't expect a young girl to visit, even in her subconscious. Maybe the real focus is Ania, the young Polish waitress at Sezer's café, who really belongs to Sezer but falls for Tom anyway. She seems to influence Tom as much as Margit, though in completely different ways. Is this all a cleverly constructed escape for her?
Who knows? I certainly don't. I have no problems with cryptic stories told in unorthodox ways. I rather enjoy the challenge that they bring, especially in a cinema where mundane is merely a route to more ticket sales. Yet what I also enjoy is a solid resolution before the credits, whether I've been astute enough to foresee it or whether the filmmakers goose me with a grand reveal. That resolution doesn't have to be black and white, it can be cleverly and ambiguously wrapped up in shades of grey so that the credits and the drive home can be accompanied by dissection and interpretation. What I don't particularly relish are movies that are so thoroughly ambiguous that it's hard to even figure out where to begin a discussion of what they all mean. This is one of those and it runs the viewer down the road of inadequacy and futility that begins with 'maybe I just don't get it' and ends with 'if nobody else does either, maybe there's nothing to get'.

What we can get are quantifiable details. It certainly looks great, the cinematography by Ryszard Lenczewski a notable and elegant success. He has a strong filmography, mostly in his native Poland but he may now be based in England where he's won a couple of BAFTAs. Writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski is also Polish, though he's less prolific than his cinematographer. My Summer of Love in 2004 was Pawlikowski's previous film as both writer and director, while Lenczewski shot six other films in between. The acting is excellent, Kristin Scott Thomas almost as dominant as an actor as Margit is as a character. Ethan Hawke acquits himself well, in English and French, and the supporting cast are consistent. I was especially impressed by experienced French actor Samir Guesmi, who I last saw in a supporting slot in Luc Besson's District B13, and Polish born Joanna Kulig, who plays the enigmatic waitress and possible driving force, Ania.

With all those positive aspects though and with precious few negative ones, what we're left with is the story, which is intriguing and magnetic but ultimately frustrating and disappointing. I don't know if the fault is with Douglas Kennedy's source novel, as it isn't listed among his best work, or with Pawel Pawlikowski's adaptation. There's always that underlying suspicion that it's with me, as a viewer who doesn't have the insight to figure it out, but I don't think so. Usually I can tell if that's the case and reserve my opinions for a second viewing that tends to clear the matter up. Here I don't believe a repeat visit would help. It all felt very familiar to begin with, as if I'd seen this story before, perhaps phrased as a short film, but I can't track it down. Maybe it just tapped enough into the general European art house feel to become part of something bigger than itself. If so, it doesn't distinguish itself above its peers and will fade into being merely another enigma.

Monday 14 May 2012

Folklore (2012)

Director: Justin Calen Chenn
Stars: Laura Waddell and Brad Roller
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.
Of all the many movies I saw at this year's Phoenix Film Festival, this was perhaps the one that I enjoyed the most. It wasn't the best picture or the deepest. It was far from the most outrageous or provocative. It wouldn't even make a shortlist for the most expensive. Yet it was 81 minutes of pure enjoyment that I still think back on with a smile, because that's what was plastered across my face for the entire running time. Shot in only eight days after a bigger project fell through, with a Kickstarter budget a tad shy of not a heck of a lot, Folklore is something of a textbook on how to achieve a lot with only a little. There's an empty office floor near LAX that doubles for a set of corporate looking conference rooms and corridors. There are a smattering of props to break up that empty space. There's a vague concept of a story setting rather than a plot. Not much to build a feature film out of, huh? But with great actors and great writing, it comes alive.

And that's exactly what we have here: a multinational ensemble cast of character actors who have a blast with their roles and a script that bubbles with quirky British humour. Surprisingly, 30 year old writer/director Justin Calen Chenn is Taiwanese American, Californian born and bred and fluent in Mandarin, but you'd think he came from the other side of the pond, so natural is he with the British sense of humour. He cites Mike Leigh and Ken Loach as primary directorial influences, with Monty Python's Flying Circus, This is Spinal Tap and even Minority Report more specific to this script, but I have a feeling he could cite three other influences at every screening he attends and never come up dry. This script is something of a distillation of the history of British comedy: the surreality of the Pythons, the dry wit of the Ealing comedies, the satire of the news quizzes, the perspective shifts of Douglas Adams, and of course the frustrations of no end of BBC sitcoms.
Out of this cauldron of comedic influence comes a simple story concept. The Quartz Agency is a government department that attempts to keep track of the supernatural entities which populate our planet through periodic interviews. We're treated to a single day's worth, conducted by new guy Collins Jahn, struggling through his first day on the job without the right paperwork or the classifications of his fourteen scheduled subjects but with the joyously inappropriate Merle Eppis to assist him. His struggles are framed as a set of recurring but rarely tied vignettes, so if you're here for a plot you're going to be sadly disappointed, though some do join together to approach a subplot on occasion. The joy here comes from the vignettes themselves, the situation comedy that underpins them and the character actors who give them life. It may sound like a flimsy base for a feature film, but in these hands it could easily drive a sketch comedy series for years.

In many ways, Jahn is the least watchable because he's almost the only actor in the entire film who plays it straight. Brad Roller does a capable job but being the only character without quirks in a picture that thrives on quirkiness does tend to shift him into the background. I'd like to see him in something with the opportunity to be more dynamic. Certainly, he's overshadowed by his assistant, Merle Eppis, because actor Laura Waddell is as natural a clown as I've ever seen. She steals a great deal of the show here, as Eppis has no restraint and Waddell has perfect comedic timing, along with a smile that doesn't know how to quit. It makes her entire face light up and it's contagious. Simply visualising that smile has the magic power to turn bad days into good ones and the memory of the blush that arrived when I told her that is a treasured bonus. If she's given the right opportunity in the right sitcom, she'll be a superstar in no time flat. Watch this space.
Jahn and Eppis are the grounding for the entire film and their chalk and cheese characterisations are what everything else is built on. In many ways the rest of the cast are merely props for them to work off, my favourite scene perhaps being one where a French android is tasked merely with keeping a straight face while Eppis leans into frame for more inappropriate monologue. Yet a few of them are gifted with their own opportunities too and while some do shine brighter than others, not one lets the side down. It's hard to tell which is more diverse: the sampling of beings from folklore, the origins of the actors playing them or the different comedic approaches they take to their roles. Fourteen actors from ten countries play thirteen different beings and the most important crew member after Chenn would surely be casting director Stephon Frost, if only that wasn't him too. I can't imagine anyone else in these parts, even the ones with little screen time.

All this diversity gives me the impression that any random sampling of viewers would turn up a wide range of favourite characters. I'm pretty sure mine wouldn't stay constant for long. During the film itself, I'd probably have gone with the black clad shapeshifter Freda Gomo, who knocks herself out trying to shift in a performance that owes much to mime. Half an hour later I might have switched to the Ipsett sisters, a twin alien double act who continually finish each other's sentences, even when they're mad at each other. Tomorrow it might be the dominatrix vampire who can slap people with her mind. Or the surreal time traveller who channels Shakespearean dialogue in a truly outrageous outfit. Or the Icelandic troll with an accordion. Or... let's just say that I'm likely to play Folklore so much when it comes out on DVD to discover my favourite that I should buy two copies so I don't have to slow down when the first wears out.
While we're drawn into the characters, the actors deserve credit. Chenn wrote the script but his writing was improvised on by some of the actors, making their portrayals a collaborative effort. The shapeshifter is Tracy Bjelland, one of the few inexperienced members of the cast, judging from her credits list. Beyond mere dialogue, I loved how she acted with her face and body. The Ipsett twins are Sherill Turner and Rachel Rath, who share incredible chemistry as a double act, even though one is English and the other Irish. Taryn Kamus, time traveller, is Napoleon Ryan, who I'm seriously amazed managed to keep a straight face reading pompous dialogue. Garrett Liggett plays the troll and he's priceless, though he gets little to do. Ruth Connell is the haughty lady vampire. Also worthy of mention are Paris Benjamin as the stoic French android Annabelle Sein and Paulie Rojas, who channels Audrey Hepburn as ethereal water nymph Nairie Sleen.

I'm eager to follow many of these actors to other roles in other pictures, because I want to know how much of themselves they put into these characters and how much they conjured out of the material. I knew one already, though I couldn't place her at the time. Maria Olsen, a backwoods Texan unicorn here, was the bloody nurse I enjoyed so much in Shellter. She's less impressive here but utterly different and she serves as the point at which I began to wonder about the story. There's no budget for effects here, so we can't safely assume we're watching what we're told we're watching. You won't see the werewolf or shapechanger change or the time traveller travel in time. Until Eatha Haemm, I took it as given, but afterwards I began to wonder whether it was all really unfolding in a lunatic asylum with Jahn merely a doctor playing along with his patients' delusions. Certainly one character is not what he claims to be, but I wondered about others too.
Since Folklore I've also seen Laura Waddell in a web series called Divine White's Introduction to Hollywood, which is more British humour but very different to this and she's by far the best thing in it. Catching up with her other work is no hardship but I'll even have to track down the William & Kate TV movie, in which she attracted attention as Kate's boss. She's not the only member of the cast that I'm fascinated to follow up on. I'm particularly interested in seeing if Sherill Turner and Rachel Rath, the Ipsett twins, are as good apart as they are together. I know it's going to be strange not seeing the double act. I'd also love to see what Napoleon Ryan can do outside of the time traveller, Taryn Kamus. Coincidentally all three, along with Maria Olson, appear in Embers of the Sky, a themed set of serious science fiction shorts that's next on my viewing list because it's Chenn's previous feature as a writer/director with Turner and Rath again as the Ipsett twins.

All four of them are building prolific filmographies, as are most of the rest of the cast. It's obvious that these actors, mostly previously unknown to me, are going places with a few already well on the way. It'll be fascinating to see where they've all got to in five years time. I'm also intrigued to see what Chenn will be doing. He came late to film, a troubled young man finding a way to slay his many demons through the art of filmmaking. His debut feature, The Way of Snow, was made in 2007 with Chenn saving money by doing almost everything himself, not just serving as writer and director and sundry other crew roles but as lead actor too. Then again, it's sourced from his own life. He followed up with a number of science fiction shorts that grew into Embers of the Sky. Folklore makes something very different again, an overt comedy to follow drama and serious sf. What next? A musical? Well, Folklore does make the best use of bubbles since Robot Monster...

Sunday 13 May 2012

The Fields (2011)

Directors: Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni
Stars: Cloris Leachman and Tara Reid

Marketed as a horror movie, The Fields is much more of a psychological drama, a coming of age slice of American gothic suspense that would feel like a Stephen King story if it wasn't so subtle. That subtlety has polarised viewers. There were ten IMDb reviews when I watched the film. Six were positive, five of them gushing. Their reviewers explained in expressive, capable language how much they appreciated its slow burn and the promise of writer Harrison Smith. The other four weren't just negative, they were vitriolic. Each of these reviewers built their hate in broken English and fractured, almost unintelligible sentences, raving about how empty it all was, how nothing happens. It seems that if you're literate and you appreciate subtlety and tension, this might be a good pick, but if you can't string more than a couple of words together it obviously isn't. It certainly isn't your average beer and pizza slasher flick or zombie movie.

Any consensus to be found is in the lack of action. It opens beautifully, with a capable eye, a painter's palette and a stylish camera movement that descends into a cornfield and creeps on through it. John Avarese's score is subtle horror music to build tension, which continues until the opening credits end and we find ourselves with a sleeping boy in October 1973. He's Steven, at that awkward age where he's just starting to venture into the adult world, leaving him half brave and half scared and never quite sure which side to go with. From the very beginning he's rarely consistent, hiding under his covers after his dad gets home and starts hitting his mum but then wandering downstairs to find him waving a gun in her face. This inconsistency pervades the film as, the top names notwithstanding, Steven is our central character about whom the entire story revolves. For a while the inconsistency is maddening but eventually I appreciated it as realistic.

We meet the stars quickly. Tara Reid plays Bonnie, Steven's mum, well against type. No blonde, scantily clad airhead here, she's dark haired white trash with depth. Thoughtful and deep aren't words I ever expected to use to describe a Tara Reid role, but this is a neatly complex portrayal, all the more admirable given that she has precious little screen time to work with. Like the other characters, Bonnie isn't quite what we expect from first impressions, so not the saving grace of the family. At a first glance, she's a caring, long suffering mother who has enough strength and decision making ability to take her son to stay with his father's parents instead of her own for a couple of weeks, so she can use the space to try to mend things with Barry a long way from our story. Soon we discover her flaws, through hints and confirmations, and later we realise that her absence from the story is a little more meaningful than we might have initially felt.

Faust Checho, one of the film's producers, debuts well on screen as Barry, travelling the opposite way through our expectations, from abusive redneck low life to... well, let's just say he improves somewhat. Character depth is always welcome and it's in abundance here. All these characters are flawed, but few are without sympathy. They're well drawn enough to be believable bundles of humanity: good, bad and probably a lot in between. Certainly Bonnie and Barry are so overt combinations of good and bad that it's tough to draw conclusions, yet the situations we watch them enact invite us to do so. That we're usually wrong when we do is yet another reason some may find a problem here: passive viewers don't tend to like having assumptions and personal prejudices challenged. More active audiences will enjoy the complexity of this troubled couple, who both want to do the right thing but can't, mostly because of consistently poor judgement.

By the time Bonnie and Barry leave the film, Bonnie's parents have come and gone too, mostly because they're only there to highlight how hard her life has been. Dad is a tough, hypocritical sheriff who may have molested her, while mum may have known and done nothing about it. A snap summary would be that they appear to be upstanding people but aren't, while Barry's folks don't but are. They're Gladys and Hiney, the real adult leads here, and they're another complex pair. Overtly at constant odds with each other, they've really just become comfortable over time with each other's quirks, which makes their interplay fascinating to watch. In fact they're so well written and so well played by Cloris Leachman and Bev Appleton that it's occasionally tough to focus on Steven, whose journey into adulthood is the real point of the movie. Joshua Ormond is good at being a focus in the background but he can't compete with Leachman and Appleton.

Of course, neither can anyone else. Tara Reid may be surprisingly good as Bonnie, but a single scene opposite 85 year old Leachman demonstrates just how out of her depth she is. Gladys is as gloriously foul mouthed, judgemental and cantankerous as you might expect from Leachman, though still caring. She underplays the part if anything, most of her dialogue delivered under her breath. She spends the film in a perpetual slight cringe, which fits the dread she fosters about everything. She's happy for Steven to be free range, fade into the background and do his thing until she can hardly tell he's even there, but at the slightest provocation she starts conjuring up what ifs in language shaped from the public domain horror films she watches. A BB gun? It'll pop his eyeball like a grape! It's a peach of a part and she nails it absolutely, but its arc is weak. If it had been more substantial, this could easily have warranted yet another trophy for her cabinet.

With the story all grimy and worn down, not in substance but in tone, thankfully we have Hiney to provide a modicum of lightheartedness. This is far from a comedy, but he's the family clown and Gladys is his straight man. Appleton mounts a pretty fair attempt to match his screen wife line for line, and it's not surprising that Steven bonds with him better than he does his grandma. We can appreciate Leachman's talent but Gladys would be a scary prospect for a kid, apparently animated by a combination of profane bluster and morbid fear. Friendly, fearless old Hiney is much more appealing, though simply riding around with him highlights more dangers. And this is the real point. Dangers are everywhere in the middle of nowhere, but they're new to Steven. A year earlier he probably wouldn't have noticed them, instead being lost in play with his beloved companions, Godzilla and Ultraman. Now he's growing up and the world is a scary place.
Here is where Harrison Smith's writing comes into its own. Apparently working from true events, presumably autobiographical, he conjures up a world of subtle danger as seen through the eyes of a child who's starting to see life in a different light. Partly it's his experiences with his parents, domestic abuse ever pushing kids towards early adulthood. Partly it's the fearmongering Gladys constantly conjures up. Much of it ties to a token bogeyman, Charlie Manson, who's up for parole and so all over the news. Steven doesn't really understand why Manson is important but he asks questions to find out. Unfortunately the answers come in unfortunate phrasing that makes sense but only builds his unease, as he conflates Manson with events around him that seem to mimic his crimes: a corpse in the cornfield, hippies squatting in a disused amusement park, hoodlums terrorising a household, even Aunt Tootie introducing her new man whose name is Charlie.

What may have confused the movie's detractors is how directors Tom Mattera & David Mazzoni chose to depict this growing unease. Often it's told with cinematic language traditionally used in horror movies, but not in the usual way. When Steven finds the corpse, it's built like a standard shock moment but it's drawn out so much that we have no doubt where it's going to go. When Steven runs back through the cornfield, shot from the side as you might expect, he doesn't even scream. Anyone expecting the usual shock/release cycle is going to be sorely disappointed with these scenes, but they'll be missing the point. This isn't shock horror, it's slow, inexorable dread. The story isn't about individual moments, it's about a whole collection of moments that bundle together into one flawed understanding of the world in a child's mind. It's about Steven learning what 'scary' really means, without anyone else really understanding what he's going through.

I enjoyed The Fields considerably, but I found it as complex and flawed as its characters. It looks really good. There are many very long shots, often phrased as still photographs that contain just a little motion. The camera rarely moves quickly but often finds effective angles. Our first shot of the cornfield shows it as so vast that it extends beyond the horizon. The Pennsylvania locations are superb, indoors and out, the cornfield here being as effective as any I've seen in film. The old Bushkill Park amusement park is well used too, down to the wonky moving staircase on the way up to the freakshow. The props feel authentic and receive a good deal of attention. When the story aims for freakiness it nails it, especially at Aunt Gracie's house which is surreal and quietly traumatising rather than outright scary. I appreciated the way that ostensibly traditional scenes, such as the finalé, didn't pander to the horror genre's usual conventions.

Yet I wanted more and less at the same time, placing me between those two camps of reviewers. I appreciated the slow burn but occasionally it got too slow and tighter editing could easily have trimmed a few scenes to the story's benefit. Steven's fear built through what he saw and heard, not what he didn't see or hear, at least until the end when that fear has taken on a life of its own and no longer needs direct stimulus. Empty space earlier on doesn't help. Some scenes build for so long that they become repetitive, their meaning imparted long before the escalating droning of the score is done. There's too much of the same in the finalé, for instance, which runs on too long, promising more than it delivers. While the freakiness is well handled, much of it seems out of place in a story aiming at subtlety. It was these scenes where Steven's inconsistent reactions were most trying as it all seemed like too much.

Perhaps the most overt example of the film's simultaneous success and failure is in how it uses characters. The character definition here is as laudable as it is unusual, because each and every main character is endowed with depth far beyond what you'd expect in a horror movie and often far beyond what you'd get in a character drama. Yet many of those characters aren't given the opportunity to grow and so that depth becomes wasted. There's a disturbing pattern too: female characters start strong but end so weak that they're worthless, while male characters start weak and find strength when they need to. Are all these relationships seesaws? Hiney lets Gladys run the show until something actually happens, at which point she becomes a gibbering wreck while he tries to save the day? Are Bonnie and Barry merely an earlier version of the same thing? Both have backgrounds we want to explore but we're given very little opportunity.

Perhaps it all comes down to the aim. Certainly those wanting a straightforward horror story are going to be disappointed. However much the marketing and the trailer may suggest traditional horror, this is not about shock moments, Charlie Manson or monsters in the corn in the slightest. What that audience will find is slow, subtle drama and character development, which they don't want. Yet the audience that wants exactly that isn't going to necessarily be happy either. There's too much that's phrased like a horror movie and too little actual development to the characters. It works best as a painting, where we're given a location, a tone and a wealth of hints at why we should be paying attention. Yet what we get out of it is going to depend on what we put into it. There are no answers here, no fully drawn characters, no real plot. There's just perspective and this is told from the perspective of a young child who doesn't understand what he's seeing.