Saturday 29 September 2012

The Lakeside Killer (2012)

Director: Bret Thomas
Stars: Johnny Ortiz and Jarod Anderson

Given how much fun writer/director Bret Thomas is obviously having with The Lakeside Killer, I wonder why it took three years for him to get around to his second film. Everything is bigger and bolder than 2009's Anywhere But Here, and that spreads beyond the movie itself. The premiere at FilmBar in Phoenix sold out, the film's website is an intriguing attempt at viral marketing and Thomas aims to publicise even more with fake missing posters put up around locations used in the film. Arizona locals will recognise many of these, as this often dabbles in travelogue. The stomping ground of the title character is Rio Salado Park by the Tempe Town Lake, but we're also driven along the 202, over the bridge from the Marquee to downtown Tempe and most of the way down Mill Ave, with stops at places like MADCAP Theatres and the ASU campus. Now that Tempe has a monster movie, I wonder if Scottsdale will feel obligated to get a bigger one.

The Lakeside Killer is a found footage film, but don't let that put you off. It's not that shaky, so you're not going to get motion sickness. It even follows the rules, so avoids editing in camera and, for the most part, deus ex machina plot conveniences. There is one right before the finalé but that's when the real suspense and shock moments kick in, so while you'll certainly notice it, you may not care too much until afterwards. As with Anywhere But Here, the biggest downfall is the sound, but the benefit of this being found footage is that that's not as important. The setup is that Eddie Toren, grieving his girlfriend, Kasey Robertson, is shooting a documentary to look into her death and others nearby, while raising awareness of what the media calls 'The Lakeside Killer' but the cops call coincidence. Eddie is not a professional journalist and his cohort Ty is not a professional cameraman, so their footage not being professional is merely realism.
Given that this footage was found with their camera at the scene of a triple homicide, it's pretty obvious that Eddie and Ty are going to constitute two thirds of the body count, but it's open as to who the final body will belong to. What I found was that it really doesn't matter. I hope this isn't supposed to be a whodunit, as there's little effort spent on pushing us into figuring anything out, merely a vague collection of hints that we're dealing with something a little more traditional in the monster vein than just a serial killer. That isn't to say that the film fails, because I think it works really well as a portrayal of grief-driven frustration. Eddie starts out fed up of getting nowhere with the cops, fed up of being told to wait, fed up of being ignored. He falls apart for a moment during his first monologue to the camera before composing himself. His questions to Kasey's mother are less interview and more therapy. All this is handled really well.

Johnny Ortiz does an excellent job as Eddie. He's rarely off screen and he feels very real indeed, not just because Ortiz subtly explores how much of an emotional rollercoaster Eddie is on, but because Thomas wrote the character surprisingly deeply for someone we know from the outset is going to end up dead. I loved scenes like the one where he orchestrates an interview with a park maintenance worker who had been questioned about Kasey's death, without ever having a clue that the man doesn't speak English. It's a solid combination of emotionally driven success and amateur failure, and it underpins Eddie's journey magnificently. He simply keeps on going because he has to, whatever. Tying this character into a monster movie framework works a lot better than shoehorning 'The Lakeside Killer' into 'The Mud Pond Monster', but the final showdown is surprisingly effective. Just don't make us wait three more years, Bret, for your next short.

Update: the film can now be viewed at the film's website.

Anywhere But Here (2009)

Director: Bret Thomas
Stars: Bret Thomas and John Lolmaugh

It's always good to see new local filmmakers presenting their work on the big screen at FilmBar in Phoenix. It's especially good to see them sell out the venue. Bret Thomas was here on Monday night to present The Lakeside Killer, a new long short film he wrote and directed. To warm us up, he treated us to his previous short, Anywhere But Here, shot in 2009 with him unrecognisable in the lead. It's an interesting piece but tough to review, because all the talking points it generates begin at the end, which I can't reveal. There's a reason why the mysterious protagonist wakes up in the middle of the desert without any apparent understanding of where he is. There's a reason why, after he takes a fork in a desert path, he immediately finds himself timeshifted a couple of minutes back to take the other one. There's a reason why, when he finds himself among people, he appears to be invisible. I'd love to discuss these reasons but I can't without a spoiler.

What's more, the ending is the best bit. It begins promisingly with a good setting, an unspoken mystery and some neatly framed shots, but the sound is problematic just as quickly. With very little dialogue and very little need for background sound, the desert wind promptly establishes itself as a noisy character with no part to play except to distract us with thoughts of earthquakes that don't happen. This problem is never overcome, and I wonder if the film would work better silent. Certainly it's visually capable, with interesting shots like a striking one of our protagonist against the sun and sky. The progression keeps us interested too, as reality mistreats our lost character and we want to know why. These blips escalate in frequency, depth and meaning until the final revelation, with the title admirably left unspoken. Ambitious and intriguing, it's worthy of multiple viewings and much discussion, but it deserves a lot less sonic distraction.

Thursday 20 September 2012

Man/Woman/Motel Room (2010)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Dean Veglia and Kelsi Zahl

I'm happy to fall into the habit of letting the first review of the month be of a Travis Mills film and this one may be the most important of all: it's the first picture from Running Wild Films and it set the stage admirably for what would follow, epitomising what this production company has come to stand for. If it isn't the most prolific in Arizona already, with two capable features and twenty five or so short films in a mere couple of years, it surely soon will be, with no less than 52 short film adaptations scheduled for 2013. That's one a week, every week, for the whole year, on top of a couple more features. In other hands that would be insanely optimistic but Mills is a master of the art of guerrilla filmmaking, shooting quickly and cheaply without sacrificing substance or quality. To illustrate, this short film took six hours to shoot on a sixty buck budget with a single set and a cast and crew of two each. This isn't just Running Wild's beginning, its their manifesto.

The minimalist title really sets the scene, because it's almost everything we get. Excluding the establishing shot at the outset, there's a man and a woman in a motel room and that's about it. Oh, and a story, of course, courtesy of Gus Edwards, who co-founded Running Wild with Mills. It's an intriguing little story, given that it tells us next to nothing. We aren't given character names or even their relationship. We have to figure it all out for ourselves. Running Wild regular Dean Veglia plays the unnamed man with the seedy, down to earth calm he put on in The Detective's Lover. It's his motel room and there's not much more there than the unnamed woman played by Kelsi Zahl, who I haven't seen before. Surprisingly, he's the grounding for her, as she's the one with character, lounging seductively on the rumpled sheets of his bed while telling him that he's a pervert who disgusts her. We can't tell if she's a girlfriend, a pickup or a whore.

Zahl fittingly plays her like a cat throughout, pouting one moment and preening the next. She's continually manipulative, but good at playing disappointed when all she gets is blatant honesty in return. She's good at playing curious too, ably switching from doe eyed rejection to intrigued seduction in a single moment. The only thing she can't put on is integrity, as this character will do anything if only it'll get her what she wants. It's a rich character, detail notwithstanding, and Zahl does a great job. I wonder why she hasn't acted more. Countering this fluid portrayal, Dean Veglia is constant and unchanging as her host, brutally honest but still stubbornly not telling us much about who he really is. It doesn't matter particularly. This isn't a whodunit where we need to pick up on clues, it's a one act dramatic scene where the interplay is all. This couple dance their little dance and we're drawn into the drama rather than into any semblance of plot.

It's fascinating to see how much Edwards gives us without really telling us much of anything. The dialogue feels almost throwaway but there's not a word spoken that isn't there for good reason. Don't come to this one expecting Tarantino-style quips. This isn't a script to quote, it's a script to reread and admire for its leanness. Emilio Mejía, Jr's camerawork and editing follow in a similar vein, so good that we don't even notice them until we rewatch and realise that they've quietly done everything that needs to be done. There's nothing here that's remotely flash but then there's nothing here that needs to be. That's not what Running Wild is about, after all. What Mills achieves here as producer/director is the essence of everything that he does want Running Wild to be: character-based story, stripped down to its bare bones, acted and shot well. It's somewhat like theatre could be if it didn't have reality to constrain it. Now go watch it on Vimeo.