Tuesday 31 July 2012

It's in the Blood (2012)

Director: Scooter Downey
Stars: Lance Henriksen and Sean Elliot
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 the three Lance Henriksen movies shown at this year's International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival, this was the key one and it took home the Best Horror Film award. It's an indie feature from Monomyth Films, far from the usual schlock horror, yet it landed such a prestigious name. Henriksen's co-star and screen son is Sean Elliot, who precious few had heard of until this film. He started his career in 2008 in a bit part in a sequel shot for TV, then played a little further up the credits in a couple of features. Here, he's half of what's close to being a two man cast in a film that calls for serious depth of performance, playing opposite a major actor with major experience and being responsible for half the depth. As if that wasn't enough, he co-wrote and co-produced the picture too. Given that it's a notable success, it's clear that where Elliot goes next will only depend on how far he wants to reach. His future should be very open indeed.

Elliot plays October, a man with eidetic memory who reads a medical book while hitchhiking his way home to go on a hiking trip with his dad. It's fortuitous because when he gets there, he has to put his newfound knowledge to use pretty quickly, as his father's dog, Cairo, was caught in a trap. Dad is Russell, a fourth generation Texan sheriff, but October not being the fifth is only one reason why they're apparently not very close. He hasn't lived up to his father's expectations, that's clear, but there's a more specific history between them, one obviously tied to a girl named Iris, but the details aren't immediately forthcoming. They're revealed gradually, in keeping with the psychological nature of the story. We wonder how much is external plot and how much just their history, but really it's the latter manifested onto the former. When you fight your demons, how real can they be? Here, they're very real indeed.

Initially, at least, it's clearly about the relationship. It took October a year to answer his father's call and he still isn't really sure why he did. He calls him Russell or Old Man, never Dad, and the back and forth editing as they argue ably emphasises the distance between them. Yet at points, they're still able to find common ground and connect. They can even pee together. The first long scene they share has Russell teaching October how to drive stick and it's a joyous scene, set up as a sexual metaphor. Driving stick is one of those things Russell never got round to teaching him, like shooting a rifle or drinking 150 proof, though as we soon discover, the clock is ticking. This works well. Russell, who has nothing left of substance in his life, wants to start teaching his kid the things he should have done long ago. October, who has wandered the country trying to escape from his past, is on board with that, but not one skill he uses here came from his dad.

The two sides of the film merge quickly, as they reach the woods where they're planning to hike together. Their history starts to appear in their first argument. 'Are we going to talk about what happened,' asks October, 'or are we going to keep pretending there's nothing wrong?' Russell is sure of his side. 'What's done is done,' he states. Rather tellingly, it's as this clash really begins that Russell sees something in the woods that shocks him, fires his rifle in reaction and falls off a bluff, breaking his leg very badly. Now, instead of hiking together, they share in the aftermath of this event and the one that won't stay in their past. We don't really know what that something is that's out there in the woods, because it surely isn't what we see. We're shown what Russell and October see, visions shaped by their personal demons and shrouded in metaphorical fog. 'See what you want to see,' one vision tells October late in the film and that's meant for us too.
While It's in the Blood felt very fresh on a first viewing, it didn't gel the way it did on a second, where it played far more consistently for me. The writing has depth that doesn't all surface the first time through. Certainly though, the two leads do justice to substantial, well nuanced parts. Henriksen is sorely underrated, undeservedly slighted by being perceived as a genre actor, but I've never seen him quite so deep as here. He gets a lot of opportunity to be tough, hardly a stretch for him, but a lot more to be weak too and it demonstrates how broad his range truly is. Sean Elliot may well have this part because he wrote it, but if he wasn't worthy, Henriksen would have stolen this whole thing out from under him. That he fought hard enough for the two to be seen on equal terms speaks volumes. Rose Sima and Jimmy Gonzales only exist in the back story that we see in flashback but they do fine work nonetheless.

A perennial question at film festivals asks the size of the budget, especially with indie pictures. While the revelation of a tiny sum can lead to astonishment at how much was achieved with it, it often becomes an albatross. How can a film that cost X dollars be fairly compared with a movie that cost ten times or ten thousand times as much? This is one of those films where I don't want to know, because it stands up on its own merits. Sure, I can see how nothing we see here would warrant a sizable cost, beyond Henriksen's salary, but it doesn't matter. This isn't a Corman film where we can see the limits and focus on how well he avoided spending money. This didn't need any more budget unless it was spent on a camera with a better steadicam. In fact, more money would likely mean more effects and that wouldn't have helped. This is a monster movie where the monster is even more of a McGuffin than usual. We don't need to know what it is.

It's a frequently dark film, but the lighting (or the lack of it) fits the tone. We see everything we need to see. The camerawork is annoyingly handheld at points for a non-handheld movie, but the composition of frame is very careful and artistically set, starting at the very first shot, which is of an upside down stick insect. Many subsequent shots would work well as photographs, even before movement is factored in. The effects are appropriate, whether they're the impressionistic monsters, part Bigfoot and part Grey and all freaky weird, or Russell's rapidly deteriorating leg. Elliot's cohort as writer and producer, Scooter Downey, also served as director and editor and is capable in all those roles, even though he has even less experience than Elliot. Amazingly, this is his first feature outside of an internship on a Frank Langella movie in 2005. The maturity of the film, given the lack of experience of its key players, is truly astonishing.

Psychological overlay of internal demons with an external threat isn't your usual sort of horror movie, let alone a debut. To see it superbly handled is more than refreshing. I found myself less consistently impressed by the use of October's eidetic memory though. Initially it felt like a deus ex machina, a convenient way for him to have the knowledge needed later on, but as the story evolved, it became more substantial. Russell explains to him that 'everything fades' but it won't if you have photographic memory. From that angle, trauma is a powerful thing indeed and this story an excellent framework to explore that concept. Yet October is a cutter, like someone who needs marks as memories. Why would a man who can't forget cut himself to remember? Maybe I'm not reading that imagery as it was intended, but I can't see another way to read it. It just looks cool? Surely not. Maybe there's more waiting for me in a third viewing.

Monday 30 July 2012

Paranoia (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 29 July 2012

Dream Cleaners (2011)

Director: Craig Phillips
Stars: Larrs Jackson, Dave Shalansky and Devan Leos
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 found Dream Cleaners to be a really frustrating picture. One one front, it's executed superbly, with great acting from everyone involved, gorgeous effects and fun gimmickry. Yet, on another front, it immediately raised a whole bunch of questions and steadfastly refused to answer any of them. There is an ending that offers an explanation to a question actually posed within the film, but that wasn't one of the questions I was asking. So I sat back and enjoyed the visual aesthetics and the work of the folk we see on screen, while screaming internally at the writer for setting up something that made so little sense. Perhaps Craig Phillips, who wrote and directed, was working entirely in dream logic, which after all is no logic at all. Anything goes, right? In a dream, you can ask a question and a get a fish in reply and it'll make perfect sense until you wake up and try to figure out what the heck you'd eaten the night before to bring all that on to begin with.

We come in as a pair of professional dream cleaners finish off their lunch and prepare to get on with cleaning the dreams of a boy named Fudge, who they've been monitoring for a month. Artie is the experienced one of the pair, brought to life by the suitably grizzled form of Larrs Jackson, who does a great job with the jargon and the 'been there, done that, seen it all' attitude. Rex is the new guy, full of pep and confidence but who naturally screws up. Here, screwing up means a glorious opportunity for the effects guys to take over and paint digital effects over this suburban neighbourhood as they escape from Fudge's dream. They look like state of the art graphics and they're as fun to watch as the delightfully analogue gadgetry in the back of Artie and Rex's van, some of which looks animated too. Visually, this is a treat, courtesy of a team of visual artists, at least one of whom is extremely experienced. If it wasn't for the actors, it would feel like Pixar.
Well, not entirely, because while Pixar are pushing the boundaries of computer-based animation, they're fundamentally about telling stories and, as slick as Dream Cleaners seems to be on that front, the story is the weakest link. I've watched this a few times and I still have no conception of what dream cleaners do, why they might be required and who employs them. How can I accept a film without accepting its basic rationale for existing? I can't even figure out what these guys did in Fudge's dreams. There's no internal consistency here at all. They monitored for a month but Rex is brand new. Artie needs Rex but he can take care of business himself, without breaking a sweat, even if Rex screws up. The afternoon shift is, what, about three minutes long? How do I get that job? I understand the ending, honestly, but there just has to be more substance here. We can't merely apply dream logic to everything and expect that to suffice. At least I can't.

Outsight (2011)

Director: A R Madabushi
Stars: Steve Raine, Oihana Garde, Adam Loxely, Frances Allen, Amanda Golding, Gordon Ridout and Dot Smith
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.
Somehow I liked all the component parts of Outsight without particularly liking the film itself. The idea behind it is a good one: one man's rediscovery of colour in a world where people are unable to see in anything but black and white. It's easy to read this both literally and metaphorically, as what we see fits both sides equally. It's a arty black and white piece from the outset, with colour appearing only at key points in the story and with serious effect. This was timely, given that I'd recently read about Bruce Bridgeman, a 67 year old neuroscientist whose stereoblindness was cured after watching Hugo in 3D. Yet the story is also dystopian science fiction, with a traditional small man placed into a traditional big machine, although how Agricorp controls its employees is unfolded a little less overtly than usual. Nonetheless Ethan's discovery of colour arrives literally at the same time as his discovery of choice, of viewpoints other than what he's given.

I think my biggest problem was with the feel. I liked the science fiction aspects, the concepts and ideas that are woven into this story without explanation, like Anthony Burgess might do. 'Only the company can release people,' we hear Ethan tell a company counsellor, though 'release' in this instance apparently means 'death'. We're given no background to the environmental chaos that has presumably led to every employee growing their own plants, which are provided to the company as a quota and distilled into some sort of liquid, unpleasant without a pill, that provides all necessary nourishment. It all simply is, and we're tasked with reading this reality as if we'd been dumped into it by a time machine. It runs 24 minutes and often feels like it ran twice that but lost half of its material. Yet this black and white world misses out on as much emotion as it does colour; that's perhaps deliberate given the metaphor but it's missing nonetheless.

Visually it works very well, though inconsistently. We're treated to some gorgeous shots, though others appear almost throwaway. The colour gimmick is handled well. The lighting isn't what it could be, some scenes almost turning their contents into unintended silhouettes. The actors are capable, Stevie Raine leading the way as Ethan with able support from others. Surprisingly it was the more mechanical corporate figures of authority who stood out for me, rather than those who ought to have provided the metaphorical colour. In the end, I found myself drawn more to the story than the film. The screenplay was written by the director, A R Madabushi, based on a short story by Amy Lydon-Strutt called Oculus. That surprises me, because it's such an obvious piece to adapt to the screen, so much so that that could easily have been intended from its inception. Yet it's the ideas that stayed with me, not the gimmick, not the characters and not the visuals.

Mirage (2011)

Director: Miao Yu
Stars: Cory Aycock, Courtney Alana Ward and Andres Acosta
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.
Over the last few years, I've spent a lot of time inside movie theatres and I've seen how difficult it is for them to stay alive in a world of changing technologies and competing attractions. It's not an easy thing today to find a venue screening actual film as everything is going digital. I'm sure that writers Miao Yu and Christopher Amick wouldn't expect that what I'd take away from their film is the joy that in 2064 AD there might still be a movie theatre showing real 35mm. Judging from the posters in the Mirage lobby, all films in the future will be made by the Chinese: Losing Coconato is directed by Miao Yu and The Adventures of Captain Adam by Sissy Tsu. These are self-referential though. Miao Yu directed and co-wrote this film while Laura Coconato produced. Sissy Tsu isn't in the credits. Anyway, I just wish I could be projectionist Andrew Pan's audience, as he doesn't have one otherwise, perhaps because he's showing just another romcom.

When a bulb blows and the movie stops midstream, nobody notices because he is literally the only person in the Mirage. The popcorn machine has a shroud over it. The counter is covered in dust. Nobody goes to this theatre and Pan must be independently wealthy to be able to keep it open, though this 2064 AD does appear to be a true post-scarcity world. I really wish I could be there for that too. I'd rather not have to deal with Treasure Island though. While compared with the Mirage, which is retro even today, it's much more like the sort of futuristic vision you might expect for the year, it's recognisably grounded in today. A physical store where Pan can pick up a physical item, it's bare except for GEF, a Genuine Electronic Friend, like Microsoft for Stores. It says, 'Have a nice day,' when it delivers Pan's bulb, but a call for assistance generates technical difficulties. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It's here that our story really begins, because the young lady that emerges carefully from behind the scenes is obviously as uncomfortable being around another real person as Pan is. This is key, as without it the ending might seem a little insulting. Pan spends his time in an empty theatre, imagining himself into the role of the leading man in the romcom he's projecting. When the new bulb projects him into the picture and he finds himself having to live that role, it's an eye opener. Initially it's because he has to interact with a woman in a romantic setting, but it becomes more than that and that underlines that the bulb is teaching him a lesson. Without thinking about the young lady at Treasure Island, it feels like a dubious lesson to give to a man who screens movies in a movie for people who watch movies. Yet, I wonder if it's not aiming just at his geeky solitude but at life in a world with no physical interaction. I hope so, but it's still not the ending I wanted.

Other than the ending, I liked Mirage. Current events notwithstanding, there's something about old school movie theatres that feels somehow timeless and they make for glorious environments for futuristic science fiction to play in. I liked Cory Aycock's portrayal of Pan, though he does feel well rounded for a geek whose only friends are fictional ghosts of the past on his theatre screen. I liked Ashley Pincket even more as Dona, the tentative Treasure Island assistant, enough that I really wish Yu and Amick had gone for the obvious ending for a change. There was room to make it awkward and meaningful rather than just sappy and it would have given Pincket more to do. I liked the design of Treasure Island, which is half welcoming and half padded cell. The effects are well done. I even liked the film within a film, though more for how it fit this story than for itself. It looks more rom than com and rather painful to sit through otherwise. This one is much better.

Saturday 28 July 2012

Anaphora (2011)

Director: André Albrecht
Stars: Andreas Bendig, Deborah Müller and Stephan Menzel-Gehrke
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
This long German short is a deceptive creature. It begins traditionally enough with a few of the usual science fiction triggers. We're not in the future, as the phones are huge and the games are 8 bit, we're in what is more like an alternate recent past, where the Cold War is still raging and bad things are happening in Germany. The power dies as the news talks of special forces raids so our lead finds his way to a bar. We wonder why we're watching him, as he's hardly magnetic. In his apartment he played a video game with a cigarette on his lip as if he doesn't know what it's for. He buys a cola at the bar as beer is illegal, even if it's on offer. He shrugs off some chick who tries to chat him up, without even looking at her. Presumably the goal is to set him up as the standard brainwashed citizen/consumer, living as he's told. His cigarettes are Eight Ball, the brand on all the billboards. His story arc matches the film. Here we watch, later we care.

We're given some paranoia too. During the blackout, helicopters fly overhead and a bum tells our lead that they're after him. The bar only provides a moment or two of respite before special forces raid the place, decked out in black body armour and black balaclavas, and the place turns into a warzone as they try to find whatever it is that they're tracking. Most of the customers are armed, including the bartender, and we suddenly realise that we only spent a couple of minutes here before it turned into a big action movie. The testosterone is palpable, though if we have an action hero it's surely our blonde bartender chick. She kicks ass while our lead doesn't, making us wonder again why we're watching him. Sure, the fight choreography isn't as slick as it could be but I'm not complaining; Deborah Müller wasn't bad on the eyes even before she disposes of a trio of tough guys without too much effort. She was definitely the focus of my attention here.

All this unfolds so quickly that we have very little time to blink, let alone ponder the meaning of the picture. The feel isn't science fiction at all, the occasional low budget nods to Blade Runner notwithstanding. It feels like an action movie, albeit one whose timing suggests that it's meant to be a very eighties style action movie, presumably set in a pre-unification Germany. I started to think of the bartender like a West German Cynthia Rothrock. Yet the undertone is all science fiction, dystopian and paranoid and pessimistic, and sure enough, it soon makes itself overt. As our protagonist reaches for another cigarette, he instead pulls out of his pocket what looks like a pocket sized monolith. It glows and generates some sort of mini-black hole. The effects are solid, suggesting that while the budget is obviously low, it's far from non-existent. Both the length of the film and the ambition that soon manifests back that up. As small films go, this is a big one.

It's a film of two halves. The first half is all about expansion: building the atmosphere, tone and background. It ends with the mysterious death of our bartender in a back alley, but don't worry, she'll be back and that's no spoiler. The second half is all about contraction, as the story takes over and gradually reels in all the little throwaway moments we've seen thus far, explaining how none of them were throwaway in the slightest. It does so through a spiral approach, tightening relentlessly and with a faster and faster pace. The title, a linguistic term for self-reference, is highly appropriate because the spiral of the story is full of them and, like Pokémon, each time we think we've caught them all, another one leaps out at us. What's more, the longer the film runs, the quicker they come. The question is merely whether we figure them all out before they're explained. Given how fast it all unfolds that's not too likely. You can't catch 'em all.

I enjoyed this on a first viewing but liked it even more on a second. While it's a short that could viably be a feature, keeping it compressed to 22 minutes successfully maintains a pace that a feature probably couldn't, at least without the plot becoming a labyrinth of detail. At this length, it's straight forward enough to understand on a first viewing, though its revelations will make you want to see the film again. When you do, you'll see a lot more with the benefit of hindsight but it will still remain consistent. The writer is André Albrecht and he'd deserve most praise here even were that his only role, but he also edited, produced and directed, meaning that it's pretty much his film throughout. This is his third short film, each time handling those four roles himself (or more), but they're notably spaced out: the first in 2003 when he was 20, the second three years later. Did it really take him five years to make this film? I hope not.

His actors do their job well. This is surprisingly Deborah Müller's only credit. She feels enough at ease here for me to expect experience. Maybe she came to this from the stage, maybe she's just natural. Andreas Bendig, who plays the lead, has a few credits, including the intriguingly titled The Golden Nazi Vampire of Absam: Part II - The Secret of Kottlitz Castle. I simply have to track that one down. This appears to be by far his largest part though, and based on the second half of this film much more than the first, he should be moving on to bigger parts generally. The third notable actor is Stephan Menzel-Gehrke, older than his fellow cast member and notably wilder in his role but still effective. Nobody else lets the side down, though the budget ensures that you wouldn't mistake this for a Hollywood blockbuster. Yet I've seen worse explosions and gunshots in big budget features. For a short film, they're great, and they sit within a story that's better.

How to Kill Your Clone (2011)

Director: Jack McWilliams
Stars: Jamie Kaler, Joseph Culliton and Sasha Feiler
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.
While Y Sci Fi was a political message, How to Kill Your Clone is a commercial one, albeit fictional right now. With current advances in science, how long will that remain the case? Well, this short advertising pitch from Clone Killer Corporation aims to take the future into the past. Everything here is done up to seem old school, from the aging effects to make it look like a worn 35mm reel to the wooden corporate spokesman and his mismatched suit. It's like we're back in the fifties, but an alternate universe fifties where clones are an everyday reality for us all. Our spokesman, Larry, takes us into that reality by showing us lots of Dicks. No, I don't think that was accidental either. Dick has been cloned a number of times and he thinks it's great. For a while. After all, he can sit back and enjoy being waited on by his wife while his clones are doing his job and fixing his car; but soon they're doing his best girl and fixing his demise. Always a catch, huh?

And that's where Clone Killer Corporation comes in. The name is self explanatory and as long as you get to them first, they'll never accept business from your clone. I really like that little touch. I like a lot of the little touches that quickly unfold as Dick and his clones act out the scenarios that will send you rushing to Clone Killer Corporation with chequebook in hand. How to Kill Your Clone runs a mere five minutes but it's a frantic five minutes that keeps us on the hop as much as Dick. Poor Dick! Every time he turns round, his retro-futuristic clone-filled life has taken another turn for the worse because he doesn't know the tricks that Clone Killer Corporation know. If only he'd got to them sooner! Well, thank you, McWilliams Brothers, for sharing this valuable information. Now we can be sure that when one of our clones shows that little defect, that little personality quirk, we know exactly where to go to fix the problem. Blammo! Get them before they get you!
It's easy to slip into advertising lingo because the tone of the film and its fast pace bore into your brain, lay down foundations and set up shop, just like every advertising agent back then wished they could do. Joseph Culliton does a deceptively clever job. Larry feels like a hasbeen, or maybe a never was, who's making a final attempt to pay his rent by hawking a product that might just generate 'original casualties'. That's much trickier to do than it sounds and he nails it. Jamie Kaler has it even tougher because he doesn't only have to play a character called Dick, he has to play a whole bunch of characters called Dick, all of whom are slightly, if not wildly, different from each other. He's on screen a couple of times at once for much of the picture. Jack McWilliams directed and Ed McWilliams wrote, but maybe that's a Coen Brothers trick and they both did both. Either way, there are flaws here but they hide them well by not allowing us time to blink.

Friday 27 July 2012

Cosas feas (2010)

Director: Isaac Ezban
Stars: Miguel Couturier, Aida Torres, Julia Carrillo, Victor Bonila and Mijael Askenazi

Kriko Krakinsky's childhood entered a metaphorical minefield when he attended his first sexual awareness class. It isn't immediately obvious why he bounces up and down nervously like he's masturbating under the table and then runs out of the room soon after Dr Narroza starts to explain the anatomy of the human penis, but the story is our explanation. And what a story! This is one of those rare gems that is unlikely to be like anything you've ever seen before. Cosas feas, which appropriately translates from the Spanish as Nasty Stuff, is a Mexican short film by writer/director Isaac Ezban, but it plays out far more like a Eastern European movie, full of wonder, surrealism and the outright bizarre. Mijael Askenazi debuted here as Kriko Krakinsky and it's going to be a hard act to follow because there just aren't many films that are as truly out there as this one. A David Lynch film would feel like Disney after this. He's going to have to find Jodorowsky to go a step further.

Most of the film is shot through a fish eye lens which turns almost everyone and everything into a caricature, especially his freaky family. Only Kriko seems normal because he's almost always seen right in the centre where there's no distortion. His dad works in a bank and his mum is a housewife but that only sounds normal right now because you haven't seen this picture yet. His elder brother Erbert is the most bullied nerd in school but still manages to get some every night from his long term girlfriend Filda, who looks rather like a cavewoman. That's how surreal this movie is from the outset, sort of like casting Eddie Deezen as Hugh Hefner in a biopic and playing it straight. And it gets consistently further out there as the 29 minutes run on. Honest. This film was shot as Ezban's thesis project at the Universidad Iberoamericana and it isn't surprising to find that his influences included David Cronenberg, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Terry Gilliam. Yet the feel of the picture was inspired by Ed Wood, hence the narration and the artificial film aging effects.
Nothing I can tell you here will prepare you for this film. If you take that as a compliment, you're going to love it, even before you get to see the mutant vagina that took prosthetics expert Alfredo Garcia (yes, really) four months to design and build. It was inspired by H R Giger and medical volumes detailing skin diseases. If that sentence sounds ominous to you, then you really don't want to go any further. If you're a member of the moral majority I should point out that this is a film all about sexual coming of age and could be described as a paedophile bestiality movie with cripples and aliens to boot, but you wouldn't believe me and I certainly can't be bothered to press the issue. Let's just say that whenever I've imagined Mexican movies about illegal aliens, they looked a lot more like Machete and a lot less like this. Shot in twelve days by a man driven to keep his cinematic vision intact, it bodes very well indeed for his future in psychotronic cinema.

Thursday 26 July 2012

36ème sous-sol (2010)

Director: Pierre-Henri Debies
Stars: Julien Guibert, Stéphanie Kern-Siebering, Eduoard Audouin and Anne Courpron
The lift is small enough to be packed by four people and it has a long way to go. It's descending steadily but we come in at the 58th floor and it's not the quickest lift in the world. It doesn't take us long to work out why these people are in it and where they're going, especially with the aid of flashbacks, but it takes them quite a bit longer because that's the point of the story. The picture is therefore at once entirely predictable and magnificently realised. If there are surprises, they're in the details, not the big picture. The four are very different and very well portrayed, well beyond the apparent experience of the actors involved. Julien Guilbert plays slick and self assured Samy, used to being in charge. Anne Courpron makes Josie impatient and annoying but somehow a little sympathetic nonetheless, though only a little, because Edouard Audouin, as her brother Henri, has dealt with her long enough to have become even more impatient and annoying than she is.

It's testament to their skill as actors that they spend most of the thirteen minutes this French short runs fleshing out their characters with nuances, none more so than the fourth in the lift. Stéphanie Kern-Siebering is a joy to watch as Lili. There's one lingering shot where she transforms from quiet laughter to worry, all done without words and told through facial expression and inner feeling. It's great acting but while she's apparently the most experienced of the four actors, that doesn't mean she has a long filmography behind her. I won't explain the back stories of the characters, because that would spoil the only revelations this film has. 36ème sous-sol, which translates roughly to 36th Basement, though I'm not sure precisely why, is far from a surprising picture. In fact, the most surprising thing about it is how well it turns out given how inherently unsurprising it all is. Beyond the acting, it's shot beautifully, the effects are good and it does exactly what it aims to do.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Alchemy and Other Imperfections (2011)

Director: Zachary Rothman
Stars: Heather Doerksen, Billy Marchenski and Peter Hall
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.
What a unexpected treat this was! This Canadian short is a great big slice of fantastic quirkiness from the very outset and it didn't let up until the credits rolled at the end. It's also many other things in between. It's a silent movie with sound, as there are only two characters, an unnamed married couple who have lost the ability to speak to each other, so there's precisely no dialogue whatsoever. It's a prose poem, as that gap is filled by Peter Hall, whose explanatory contribution cannot be described merely as narration, his voice as delightfully playful as the bouncy Balkan brass score by Vancouver's Orkestar Šlivovica, who must be a glorious riot live. It's a visual treat, the lush colours and fabulous set design enough to bathe in. At heart, it's a fable, less a story and more a cautionary tale with a number of depths to explore. Oh, and whatever else it is, it's surely the best film ever narrated by a cockroach. That grabbed you, huh?

I find it truly astounding that Zachary Rothman, who wrote, produced and directed, did so on a budget of $800 Canadian. There are Hollywood movies that wish they had as much eye candy as this, ones with five or six more digits in their budgets. I'm not just talking about visual effects like the esoterica that dances around Heather Doerksen's head as she conjures up a plan to fix what can't be fixed. I'm talking about the palpable textures of the set and the costumes, the arcane ephemera that her character dabbles with and the antique mechanics that her screen husband constructs. Surely much of it must have to do with the production design and costumes credited to Enigma Arcana, but it's also in the camera motion, careful choreography and the way that the editing plays with distance and division. This is a movie to feel as much as see and hear, a treat for quite a few different senses.
And all of this means that it's less of a film and more of an experience. Like most fables, it hints at far more than it says, letting its audience find their own meaning and application, so you're not going to get much of a synopsis. Suffice it to say that this couple have a let a single event bury them so deeply in guilt that they've become isolated both from the world and each other. Our little fable is triggered by the woman, a practioner in dark arts, deciding on a possible way to fix things. Naturally it doesn't go quite as she expects. Heather Doerksen and Billy Marchenski do a great deal with their characters, especially as they have no dialogue and are deliberately short on background detail. They both approach their roles like paintings, dabbing an impression here and a suggestion there. I haven't seen either before, but I have seen a film by Rothman: 2006's Lost, which I didn't rate highly and don't remember. This one is a gem I won't forget.

Y Sci Fi (2011)

Director: Martin Doyle
Stars: Peter Halpin, Hester Ruoff, Femi Houghton, Rebecca Keane and Roger Wright
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.
There's a lot in Y Sci Fi in the way of imagination, pure science fiction posed as questions by an unseen narrator. It posits that space, as Douglas Adams famously stated, is big, really big, and we're both tiny and relatively new in the grand scheme of things. So, if someone or something is really out there, what would it be like, beyond not being remotely like us? At least, it initially felt like a high concept science fiction piece, these questions addressing the definitions of concepts like time, scale, evolution and, most obviously, intelligence. Yet visually, it's a lot more generic. We're tasked with watching a trio of conspiciously diverse young adults being chased through a forest by mysterious lights in the sky. They only get throwaway dialogue because there's no real story to speak of, just the chase and some visual and creature effects to keep us interested until the narrator gets to his point. It's obvious that he's who we should be listening to.

We do play along for a little while, wondering what these aliens are going to look like when they come out from behind the lights and what they're doing. The lights are cool, beams that appear to have numbers within them. When the aliens arrive, they look interesting, not quite like we've seen elsewhere but with many similarities, both those running the show and the creatures they bring with them. I especially liked the effects as these creatures bounded through leaves. The early views of the aliens are well shot too, keeping suspense alive by bathing them in darkness or light. But, in the end, we realise that this isn't a science fiction short at all, not really. It's not here to ask questions, it's here to answer them and how it does that feels more like propaganda than science fiction. The fatal flaw isn't the message itself, which is valid, it's the fact that the message is the entire point and the film itself is nothing but a thirteen minute underline.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Queens of Country (2011)

Directors: Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke
Stars: Lizzy Caplan, Ron Livingston, Joe Lo Truglio, Matt Walsh and Maynard James Keenan
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 really enjoyed Queens of Country, even though I'm hardly the core audience. I initially chose to see it at the Phoenix Film Festival because I had a scheduling gap between other pictures and I wasn't remotely interested in anything else screening at the same time. Then I noticed how well its tickets were selling and my interest was piqued even more. Sure, it's a local film, albeit with lead talent from further afield; sure, it was the world premiere; but selling out the first screening meant a second was added, then a third and I think that sold out too. On the ticket front, I'd be surprised if it wasn't the most successful film of the festival. It was received well by the audience too, with people not just laughing at appropriate moments but singing along to the soundtrack under their breath, including my better half. People I know have called it their favourite film of the festival, and while it's not rated highly at IMDb, it's still working the festival circuit.

To be fair, many audience members had obviously worked on the crew or saw it being shot in Cave Creek and wanted to see the finished product, but most may well have been attracted by the major names leading the cast, precisely none of whom I recognised. My biggest cinematic gap nowadays is modern Hollywood comedy, mostly because it tends to make me cringe, so I didn't know who any of these stars were: not Lizzy Caplan, not Ron Livingston or Matt Walsh, not Joe Lo Truglio, in or out of drag. I haven't seen Hot Tub Time Machine and I was too struck by motion sickness to notice who was in Cloverfield. I haven't seen The Hangover or Ted. I haven't seen Pineapple Express or Superbad. I have, at least, seen Office Space, but only once a decade ago, so I don't remember what people looked like. The only recognisable face for me was O-Lan Jones in a supporting role, because I've watched Edward Scissorhands a lot over the years.

What all this means is that I didn't come in with preconceptions and I do wonder that if I'd had them, I might well have been disappointed. Queens of Country is an offbeat comedy, but in an old school way where the characters drive the story and not the other way around. It doesn't feel remotely like any of the few modern mainstream comedies that I have seen, instead taking the outrageous approach of John Waters and distilling the campness into something more akin to an older Coen Brothers picture. It's telling that many of the crew also worked on Raising Arizona. The inclusion of a character like Penny McEntire, a pre-op transsexual who Joe Lo Truglio plays as a woman rather than a man in drag, is very modern, but the feel is older, reminiscent of the screwball comedies of the thirties. If this had been shot in black and white without foul language and with Patsy Montana instead of Dolly Parton, it would have felt like an edgy precode.
Our focus is on Jolene Gillis, a young lady who emulates what she calls the queens of country, all the leading ladies of the genre from a half century ago. 'These are the women who define me,' she tells herself in the mirror. Lizzy Caplan's southern drawl is a little overdone but it emphasises her attitude, which is such a palpable thing that it drives this story. In the Arizona town of Dry Creek, she's a big fish in a small pond: beauty queen and line dance champion, living with hunky Rance McCoy and the money he makes from his ATV dealership. The catch is that she's living in the past and she knows it. When she finds an iPod in a grungy gas station bathroom, she doesn't even know what it is. She's as uncomfortable speaking to the goth chick manager as she is using the gents because the ladies is out of order. Even in her own little world, she's being left behind: the line dance championships are shifting to new country, what she calls 'flying saucer music'.

The overt storyline has to do with Jolene searching for the owner of the iPod she finds, as it's full of queens of country and so conjures up visions of the man of her dreams, surely the only sort of man who would listen to all these tearjerking songs about strong women. Yet, the iPod is really the MacGuffin of the piece. We really don't care about it in the slightest, only how fundamentally important it is to Jolene and how it shapes her story arc. The other important factor in her story is the character of Bobby Angel, in a freaky performance by Tool's Maynard James Keenan. Rance, realising that he's losing his girl to her 'Mr Mystery Lost iPod Man', pays Angel, his new lot boy, to pretend to be its owner and thus freak her into giving up the search. It turns out that Angel is her mirror image, dark side and logical extension all wrapped up into one, so he becomes even more of a wake up call than the iPod. Some of the best scenes of the film are between these two.

There are many great scenes before them too, though more comedic than meaningful, as both Caplan and Livingston have a blast with the material they're given, while keeping their delivery as straight as can be. Lo Truglio does the same as Penny, however much the hormone therapy obviously isn't working in the slightest. To me, Rance dominated the early scenes by treating the film like his relationship to Jolene, who has to claw her way back into the spotlight. Once there, she stays there, as Rance's attempts to steal it back turn more and more ridiculous as time goes by. Livingston is a riot as Rance, a complete ass but a funny one. His ranch house is packed to the rafters with stuffed animals and he believes that John Wayne was the definitive Genghis Khan. He's also hilariously inappropriate romantically, comparing Jolene to a cow in bed and singing Toby Keith's How Do You Like Me Now?! when he's about to reach that moment.
Jolene and he are chalk and cheese, so much so that she can't even remember why they hooked up to begin with. While he's all new country with a trimmed beard so small it hardly makes it out from under his bottom lip, she's so caught up in the queens of country that she even wears their big wigs and make up and she carries it well. He may love her, if he even understands what that means, but she certainly doesn't love him. She 'endures', her word, so much so that she escapes from sex by dreaming herself into old country songs and screaming her own name. Once Rance has set the tone to emphasise just how disassociated Jolene is from everything around her, we begin to follow her on her journey to find a future. In her own way, she's as out of sync with the world around her as Penny, who at least has a medical way forward. Jolene has to find her own direction, with only the iPod to guide her. It's an enlightening trip.

As much as I enjoyed Livingston's antics early on as Rance, it really is Caplan's film. She finds her way so deeply into the character of Jolene Gillis that it's impossible not to be caught up in her journey. Penny is in the film to parallel and enhance it, Lo Truglio as excellent in the role as Matt Walsh is as her boyfriend Cleveland. He deserved more screen time, but couldn't get it as Penny naturally gets all the girl talk scenes with her BFF, Jolene. You just know that's how she'd describe it. Cleveland is only given the stage during a guy talk scene with Rance at the Buffalo Chip, which is drily hilarious. Moo! All these actors benefit from the material, which is situational humour enhanced by clever dialogue. Co-writers Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke had free reign, given that they were also the co-directors, but they have fun with word choices, turns of phrase and sheer concepts. I loved everything about the roleplaying in the third person scene.

Where this film goes from here, I really have no idea. It may well fail commercially, not for any issues of quality, but simply because it's just too far out there for a mainstream audience. This is far from your usual rom-com, after all. Wherever it becomes available, it'll surely get lumped in with films that aren't anything like it because there aren't enough like it to make a category. If people find it because of automated metrics like 'if you like X you'll like Queens of Country', they may well be disappointed. Yet those who see it and appreciate it are likely to recommend it and they may well be the people that other people listen to. And the more I write this, the more 'cult film' springs to mind. It's not camp but the camp audience will love it and those are the folk who keep films in theatres for years. Bobby Angel is a cult character played by a cult musician. At the end of the day, the time machine may stop being Angel's trailer and become the film itself.

Monday 23 July 2012

Ambush (2011)

Director: Joe B Bauer
Star: Lance Henriksen
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.
In 2010 Lance Henriksen was a special guest at the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival, but not with new material; he was there to introduce a screening of Aliens instead. A couple of years later, he wasn't there in person but yet he was all over the screen. His feature, It's in the Blood won for Best Horror Film; his voice was almost the only decent thing about Monster Brawl; and, most surprisingly, he was the star of an effective short action film called Ambush. Sure, he's a prolific actor, so much so that there's a mockumentary currently in production called Bring Me the Head of Lance Henriksen, in which Tim Thomerson's inability to find work leads him to seek out Henriksen, his co-star in Near Dark and others, to find out how he's managing to land every genre role for an actor over 65. Yet it was still pleasantly surprising to see him so omnipresent. He deserves no less, of course, being a gentleman offscreen and a magnetic presence on it.

This to me was the most interesting of his three films showing at the festival. It's a short film, under fifteen minutes in length, that was written and directed by a man new to both roles, but with a vast experience in film nonetheless. He's Joe Bauer, a Hollywood visual effects man with an impressive and varied filmography that runs from Zu Warriors to Rise of the Silver Surfer via Zathura. Yet, this is far from an effects film. It may not be as gritty as it intends to be, but it uses darkness, dubious lighting and off kilter angles to build a tone and feel that comes off as pretty effective. There should be more actors and more noise in this decaying urban landscape, but it's well envisioned in the sets, costumes and ambience. The few effects are in the news footage and in frequent views of the neighbourhood through infrared sniper scope. Oh, and also in what goes down, of course. The title is there for a reason.

Out on the street is an old man with a flamboyant moustache who's ripped off when he tries to cash a cheque. They take 40% of it as a fee and try for the rest later by force, but he's waiting. There is some more depth to the background but it's pretty transparent, given that the facial hair isn't enough to hide Henriksen and yet he's also on the TV as John Adams Lofgren, a massively rich public speaker and author of a book called Take It Back: The Battle to Retake Democracy. He wrote it because he read in the paper about an Indianopolis homeless man who had been set on fire and couldn't even be identified. On the news he asks, 'Who stands up for John Doe?' On the street he tries to answer his own question. While this works well as a short, it feels like it's part of something more, whether the pitch for a feature or the beginning of one. I'd certainly like to see more but then I always enjoy an opportunity for Henriksen to both look old and kick ass.

Employee of the Month (2011)

Director: Olivier Beguin
Stars: Catriona MacColl and Manu Moser
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.
If I hadn't seen Folklore, this short Swiss comedy might have played better. As it is, I can't avoid the comparisons and, while it's not a bad little short, it loses out on all fronts except a single key one: it was made first. Like Folklore, it's a set of skits focused around a diverse group of mythical creatures being interviewed by someone working for an agency dedicated to helping them. This time out, it's the BRPML, or Bureau de Reconversion pour Mythes et Légendes. Yes, it's in French and it means that the agency provides counselors to help find suitable jobs for the supernatural. Like Folklore, some of the actors are better than others, but all are capable and most of them find a moment or two to shine. Like Folklore, there's no real attempt to have these creatures interact, instead allowing them to build their characters on their own. Unlike Folklore, however, its laughs are wildly inconsistent. There's funny stuff here, but you have to endure to get to it.

For a start, the names aren't particularly imaginative. Folklore wasn't entirely immune from that problem but its vampire was called MaryLane Heth rather than Vlad Pitt and it didn't stoop as low as having a character called Bob Zombie. British actress Catriona MacColl, who makes far more films in French than she does in English, is capable as the counselor tasked with dealing with all these characters, though her part is little more than a prop for them to work off. They all manage that well, but when we cut away to see their exploits in previous jobs, the cringe factor sets in. A few of the ideas are great, but most are tired and obvious. For every great idea, like having the zombie man a suicide hotline, there are a half dozen bad ones. How long did it take to come up with a vampire having problems in a French restaurant because of all the garlic? And why would anyone think that his being a lifeguard would be a bright idea, pun not intended?

Folklore was consistently funny, in a very dry British sense, and as much as the supernatural folk worked off the interviewers, the interviewers worked right back off them. Here, the counselor has little to do, so much so that she ends up repeating jokes in a short film. The imagination is solid but the writing is mostly cheap, surprising given that the co-writers have each done better work. Director Olivier Beguin also wrote Dead Bones, featuring Ken Foree, which wasn't high art but was still far more consistent than this. His co-writer Colin Vettier also wrote 36ème sous-sol, not a particularly surprising film but a well written one nonetheless. It didn't have to put a ghost in a Hawaiian shirt to make up for a lack of substance. Folklore was so brimming with character that I found it impossible to pick a favourite. Whenever I picked one, I wanted to switch it to another. Here it's tough for the opposite reason: I couldn't pick one to begin with.

The Waking (2010)

Director: John Stead
Stars: Sophie Goulet and Jonathan Goad
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.
The Waking is a Canadian short made in 2010 but in many ways it feels like a much older piece. The focus is on tension, which is managed deliciously throughout, especially through superb use of sound: not just John Rowley's score but all the sound. It's telling that, as much visual material as there is to play with, this works well even with the visuals off. You lose the fluid camerawork, the lush lighting and the careful composition, as well as Sophie Goulet's exquisite performance, but you gain even more creepiness in the ambience. Rowley goes for the sort of simply effective themes that John Carpenter does, but these are quieter and more subtle, reminiscent of Coil. The dialogue is sparse, as Anna is the only character in play for most of the film, so we're even more aware of each sound with nothing to distract from it. Adding the visuals back in enhances them, bringing life to the sound cues and ably growing the tension.

The story itself is relatively simple and far from new. Anna is moving into her dream home, but is left to unpack on her own as her husband Tom has commitments elsewhere once everything has been brought inside. The camera is fluid and frequently in motion, highlighting to us what Anna is feeling, namely that something else is in the house with her, something that she merely can't see. Things progress roughly how you might expect. Doors open and shut by themselves. There are odd noises. The mellodion starts and stops on its own. There's a superbly executed shot of a mysterious figure in the shadows. The presence really doesn't like Anna's wedding photo. Best of all is the ball of string that rolls itself into view, while Anna ponders things at the kitchen table. It has to be said that nothing here is new: the ideas, the shocks, the techniques, even the twist. Yet the craft with which John Stead puts all of this together is magnificent, textbook stuff.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Shoreditch Slayer (2011)

Director: Simon Levene
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
This one caught me completely by surprise. From the title I expected some sort of microbudget British slasher movie, probably heavy on the gore. While it did turn out to be British, it's subtitled for the most part because it's shot in a number of languages, even though there's a mere three minutes to cram them all into. As for style, it's a mockumentary in which a varied collection of international vampires explain the other thing that they all have in common: a lack of decent job opportunities. Explaining just how Twilight is destroying the potential for real vampires to play fake vampires in horror movies is a sure bet to go down well at a horror film festival. Talk about a gimme! That's an automatic win right there, guaranteed, with only a dragged along girlfriend or two taking mild umbrage, and at three minutes, there's not too much room to really do much else. The good news is that writer/director Simon Levene manages to do quite a bit.
He runs through the history, explaining that the movies made it possible for vampires to make an honest living, up until Twilight, of course. But what next? Everyone can be a zombie, right? Well, these vampires take regular jobs, which are explored surprising well in the time. All the unnamed actors look great as vampires and as their menial alter egos. Beyond the mere concept of vampires taking jobs like these, there's humour built into each clip. The composition of frame and choice of locations make the footage seem like art. Levene even knows when to wrap it up. All these successes no doubt stem from his regular work, directing TV commercials. To do that right, you have to know how to grab our attention, tell a story in a short timeframe and, most importantly, leave us wanting more. If not, we're going to prioritise taking a leak over whatever you have to say. Thankfully, Levene is good at his job and his skills are put to great use here.

Roid Rage (2011)

Director: Ryan Lightbourn
Stars: Zach Canfield, Ben Evans and John Russo
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.
'Hello world,' says Sammy Jenkins. His life was a joke, he says, but things are going to change. Let me explain that they're not going to change in any way you're likely to be comfortable with. This is far from a comfortable movie, but then that's the point. If I highlight that the title isn't referring to steroids but haemorrhoids, you might have a vague idea of how uncomfortable it's going to get. As a pair of FBI agents follow a trail of mutilated hookers from motel to motel, they discover that the killer is far from anything that they could have comfortably imagined, I found myself torn. The concept is hardly a mature one to begin with and it quickly became clear that writer/director Ryan Lightbourn only wanted to lower that bar as the story unfolded. Yet there's some serious art in what he does with words. He has a real mastery of B movie dialogue that frankly outstrips anything Tarantino can conjure up.

Fortunately the dialogue found me first. Agent Munroe asks his boss if the dead hooker they're looking at means that they have a serial killer on their hands. Utterly deadpan, Agent Jenkins replies, 'Either that or a skull fucking maniac with flesh eating semen.' Actor John Russo (no, not the one who wrote Night of the Living Dead) channels Tim Thomerson and gets many of the best lines throughout. 'Get on the phone and call every ass doctor in town,' he orders as they discover their first lead: recurring tubes of corRectum, a haemorrhoid cream. By this point, I was ready for another delightfully over the top modern grindhouse gem like Machete, Hobo with a Shotgun or even The Taint, but then it decided to aim at the Poultrygeist vibe when Sammy runs out of cream and has to go back to see his doctor. John Archer Lundgren is a crazed scenery chewing doc, the maturity level leaps into the toilet and everything else goes for the gross out.

And so there's much I liked and much I didn't like; there's a lot more of both. On the acting front, Russo is a joy to behold and Ben Evans is capable as his partner, Agent Munroe. The other actors are mixed: some good, some bad, most mediocre, some bizarrely over the top. Russo rules here, but Evans is great in the trailer that accompanies the end credits. I have no idea if this trailer will really be expanded into a feature or whether it's supposed to stand alone, but it's much more traditional grindhouse than this short, which merely tries to cram as much as it can into fourteen minutes: a little sex, a little drugs and a lot of violence, plus lots of ass jokes. There is, it seems, already Roid Rage: The Christmas Special, which is a stroke of genius all on its own. I have no idea what it's really like but I can imagine. This can't be unseen, after all. I'm sure I'm going to find myself wondering partway through other movies when the anal facehugger will appear.

I enjoyed the gangsta subtitles. I enjoyed the spaghetti western music that accompanies the gun battle. I enjoyed the ambitious camerawork, which includes aerial photography. Even if it's stock footage, it works awesomely. I enjoyed the dialogue more than I can say. 'You're nothing but a filthy ass demon and it's time I sent you back to Hell' is grindhouse gold. 'I've been given a third eye that weeps shitty brown tears for humanity' is outsider poetry. Maybe if we pray, Lightbourn will be able to finance Robert de Niro for the feature. I'd pay to see that. On the other hand, the plot progression is a shambles, far more attention given to the outrageous bits than what links them together. The whole back story is mangled and the Globotech Research scientists look less like scientists than any scientists I can think of. It takes more than a white coat, folks. And how many ass jokes can you cram into one short film anyway? That's a rhetorical question. Honest.

The Table (2011)

Director: Shane Free
Stars: Matt Kawczynski, Dan Homeijer and Whitney Wellner
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.
A couple of guys explore an antique table that one bought at an estate sale, an antique table with a very deliberate hole in the middle. Now, if that doesn't already conjure up the entire rest of this short film, then you really aren't paying attention and I have some beachfront property in Arizona that I'd really like to sell you. Yes, they fiddle around with it. Yes, one of them sticks his head up inside the hole. Yes, the other one closes the table around him. And... oh, c'mon, you honestly need help here? This pair of idiots really do deserve everything they get, but at least the stupidity that they wear like overalls is countered just a little by a young lady called Christie who reads the instructions. Well, she heads online to translate them. They are in French, after all. Oh, and handwritten. Inside a leather bound book. How many flags are going up here? Dude! There are pictures! And yet... well, let's just say that this is an exercise in inevitability.

Fortunately it only has five minutes to run and, outside of being as obvious as it gets, it unfolds pretty well. For a start, the table looks awesome, though the screws are a little anomalous. If I'd have been at that estate sale, I'd have outbid this moron for sure, though I'd like to think that I'd notice the weight of the thing. The acting isn't even close to subtle but it fits the material; the delivery of 'Dude! Put your head up through!' is never going to be better, but Dan Homeijer and Matt Kawczynski are as overt as the outcome and Whitney Wellner can only add a little more subtlety. With the ending telegraphed from the very beginning, tension becomes of paramount importance and Shane Free, who directed and co-wrote, does a capable job on that front. It's continually obvious what's going to happen, though little details of how are fed gradually into proceedings, but we are kept interested wondering who's going to do it and when.

Brutal Relax (2010)

Director: Adrián Cardona, Rafa Dengrá and David Muñoz
Star: José María Angorrilla
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.
Brutal Relax has won many awards, all from festivals in foreign countries with names I've never heard of, as befits a picture whose very title makes no sense in English and which was made by three directors, each with an accent somewhere within each of their names. As if to highlight his importance, the lead actor has two, because it really is all about him. And gore. Let's not forget the gore. There's more of that here than you can comfortably imagine. First, though, there's Mr Olivares. He's apparently recovered and is ready to leave hospital. We have precisely no idea of his condition but he's now so happy and unresponsive that he looks like he's been lobotomised. The doctor wants him to take a holiday, to somewhere beautiful where he can stay calm and relax. He gives no reply except that incessant happy face but he looks like the perfect tourist as he heads off for the sun in suitably colourful attire.

He's apart from everyone else even as he arrives. He shows up on the beach in a pair of tighty whities, white socks and a pair of headphones, carrying a suitcase. He plops himself down in the beach cesspool but seems very happy, slathering himself with crud. And it's all pretty peaceful: calm and relaxing, just what the doctor ordered. We see families having a great time. We hear sunbathing girls giggle. But not for long. Out of the sea comes a horde of zombies, gorgeously made up marine zombies with scaly skin oozing neon green slime and covered in ocean detritus. They pose for a moment like a metal band doing a photo shoot and then it gets very real indeed. The tourists get very gory very quickly with gruesomely inventive technique, but Mr Olivares simply sits back in his puddle of crud and grins. Well, until the batteries on his Walkman run out. Then he gets angry and turns into a brutal angel of destruction, a Spanish take on the Thing.
For the most part, this is complete overkill. Eleven of the fifteen minutes constitute a marathon of special effects, gruesome gore without any semblance of plot. The beachgoers are just props for the zombies to destroy and the zombies are just props for Mr Olivares to destroy. It might be fun to review it as some sort of spiritual journey or feminist manifesto, but it's really an excuse to go hog wild with the gore effects. That's it. There's nothing else here. It is structured well, at least, built in five sections of vaguely three minutes each that keep ramping up. What keeps it all from becoming boring is the humour which is inherent and frequently gloriously wrong, the unusual lead and a neat contrast between happy music and outrageous gore. On the downside, the camerawork is too jerky during the fight scenes and the choreography and greenscreen work show their seams. Really though, you won't care. If this is your thing, you'll revel in it.