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...

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