Sunday 28 October 2012

The Holding (2011)

Director: Susan Jacobson
Stars: Kierston Wareing, Vincent Regan, David Bradley, Terry Stone and Skye Lourie
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
While some have dismissed The Holding as being merely an English version of The Stepfather, I see that reading as rather unfair and strongly suggest that it shouldn't be ignored that easily. It does follow a similar sweep, with a stranger coming into a young woman's life because he wants to be part of a perfect family, and it acknowledges the similarity with a couple of overt homages, but it's much more of a feminist response than a mere rerun through the material. In particular, the lead character of Cassie Naylor is a long way from being a victim. She's a strong woman, so much so that I'm unsurprised to see that the film's director is a woman, although the writer isn't. What's more, there are deliberate pains taken to blur the traditional killer/victim roles, which are interchangeable here, as we're shown that the killer is also a victim and the victim also a killer. I appreciated this depth to familiar material, and surely I can't be alone.

Kierston Wareing is dominant as Cassie Naylor, a small but strong leading lady. There's softness in her, but it's buried deep as she's had to be strong for a long time. She hunts, she farms and she runs the business of the title, a holding in the English Peak District. She's a single mum, with two daughters to bring up on her own, as her abusive husband Dean has 'left'. Obviously she's used to taking the lead and doing what needs to be done, whatever it takes. In fact, that's how we know that Dean hasn't just left, because the opening scene clearly shows Cassie killing him. Why she does this isn't made clear until later in the story and she's shown in a sympathetic light throughout, but we know from moment one that she's a killer and her guilt flavours everything that follows. So does her doubt, as eight months on we find that even with their biggest problem supposedly taken care of, life didn't magically fix for the Naylors.

Cassie is finding it tough to keep the holding going financially and tough to stop her family from falling apart. Her eldest daughter, Hannah, ably puts it into words. 'We're not exactly a family,' she tells her mum, 'just three people who live together.' What's more, Karsten Rabe, her nearest neighbour, really wants to buy her place, going as far as to propose marriage if that would only do the trick. He's polite enough to begin with, but he escalates nastily, killing one of her calves and blocking her way off her own property. Into this mess comes Aden, a stranger who claims he knew Dean a long time ago and happened to be in the vicinity so thought he'd look him up. He proves useful immediately, saving a pregnant cow and her calf, and promptly offers to help out wherever he can. He talks Cassie into letting him work there for a month, in return for room and board, but of course soon becomes much more than that. You know how that goes in movies.

In most films, Aden would be the lead. He's big, strong and able, and he's the element of change in the story. Vincent Regan, yet another actor who exchanged substantial experience on British television for supporting roles in Hollywood, shows that he's a force to be reckoned with, not just as a tough guy, but as a flawed individual. Aden is an interesting character, as he deteriorates as we learn more about him. Initially he's the saviour of the day, equally at home delivering calves, cleaning gutters and responding to threats. He makes a quick connection with Cassie's youngest daughter, Amy, who sees him as an angel sent from God. We know he has an agenda, but with each hint as to what it is, he decreases in worth even as he increases in menace. By the end of the film, he's a ludicrous creature, unable to forge his own destiny and shed a definition that was forced on him by his upbringing. He's as much a victim as he makes others. He's just a cycle.
Here, Cassie is always the lead. She's always stronger than Aden, except physically. It's telling that the moment he steps over the line, she ushers him out at the end of a shotgun. I wonder if director Susan Jacobson has had any feedback from battered women who have watched her film, because I have a feeling they'd identify very strongly with it. They'll take a lot, especially when their oppressor is physically stronger than they are, but eventually they won't take any more and they'll prove that strength is far from only physical. There are points here that are overtly fuelled by testosterone but, if you pay attention, you'll see that it's the women calling the shots, even in the roles of victims. Once we learned a few key facts, it was clear where the film had to go and how it had to end, and that's exactly what happened. Yet, that isn't a bad thing, it's a good thing as most films play to convention with concepts like damsels in distress and lucky accidents.

The other reason this plays to me as such a feminist piece stems from what might appear to be a throwaway line given to a supporting character named Coop. Overtly, he's just an employee, the only one, but he's really Cassie's rock and he's been instrumental in keeping the holding open, all the way down to freeing it of her husband by helping her kill him. Late in the film he talks about the idea of moving on and how it always comes down to people and the secrets they keep unspoken. Of course, we know what secrets he's talking about, but his words are prophetic and firmly mark the moment at which real healing begins in this film. David Bradley, who plays Coop, is a highly experienced television actor, albeit one probably best known for playing Argus Filch in seven of the eight Harry Potter movies. He's a quiet presence throughout this film, with little to do but all of it important, and he's very much its key.

I can understand how those who read this as a straight thriller might be disappointed. From that perspective, it would be an unimaginative piece with a weak villain, a victim who refuses to play ball and overly quick, albeit brutal, scenes of violence. What I can't understand is how they can fail to see the depths here. None of these characters are throwaway. Cassie and Aden obviously carry baggage, but Hannah and Amy carry no less. Coop has depth, Karsten has depth, even Jed the local cop has depth. I appreciated Jarrod Cooke as a very British cop, who knows his beat and the people in it, who commands respect because he cares. This film isn't flawless, as Maisie Lloyd shows some inexperience as Amy, Hannah is too stereotypically written and a few lesser characters are poorly built but these are minor compared to the subversive take on the familiar. This deserves better than it's got and it could be valuable viewing for a lot of abused women.

Saturday 27 October 2012

All Men are Called Robert (2010)

Director: Marc-Henri Boulier
Stars: Gwenaël Przydatek, Jean-Françoise Picotïn, Thomas Baelde and Alexis Samailovitch
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
A man runs through the forest. He's buck naked, as is made patently obvious from the frequent full frontal shots. He's covered in dirt, which looks worn into his skin. And a woman is calling him by name, calling for his help. He runs towards her at speed, but he also runs away from the men with shotguns too, as we're apparently in some sort of Most Dangerous Game territory. It's very realistic, the actor playing Robert doing a heck of a lot more naked than I'd ever want to do. He's Gwenaël Przydatek, which I wouldn't want to attempt to pronounce, and he throws himself into this film as if his life depended on it, which to Robert it certainly does. He hightails it through the forest as if he wasn't barefoot, he ducks from shots coming his way and he even drags himself through the grass, face down. I hope he didn't hurt himself making this film, but his efforts are much appreciated because they add a great deal to its success.

I can't say much more about the plot, because there's only four minutes of footage and the twist comes three minutes into that. It deserves to not be spoiled, but it's very nicely done indeed. It's a concept that I've seen before, one that's easy to describe and draft out on paper but difficult to do right, and it has to be done right if it's going to be done at all. It would have been so easy for writer/director Marc-Henri Boulier to get this horribly wrong, as for instance, Y Sci Fi did, just to name one short that aimed at the same concept and missed by miles. That film struggled under the weight of its own propaganda, like an albatross around the filmmaker's shoulders. This one has no need to struggle. The approach Boulier took, with its lack of dialogue, successfully avoids any charge of propaganda, even though it has the exact same message. It's a brave French film that deservedly added the audience award at FearCon V to its already hefty tally of laurels.

Zombeer (2011)

Director: Drew Griffin
Stars: George Mulholland, Daniel Schurgin, Ulysses Mauricio and Jesse Denton
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
I'm hardly going to mount a complaint when a horror short kicks off with Dance of the Knights from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet, but while its ominous overtones suit the feel of the opening scene, it doesn't play well with the rest of the film. As you might imagine from the title, which works well as a one word synopsis of the plot, it isn't a particularly subtle piece. In fact, it wouldn't go too far to suggest that this is pretty close to what I'd have made if I'd have found a movie camera and a few likeminded friends when I was sixteen. It's nine minutes of gore effects, heavy metal and beer. The humour is lowbrow, the philosophical hints even lower and technical quality obviously wasn't a high priority. There are movie posters galore on walls and a couple of homages to Bad Taste, or at least I read them that way. They were overt enough for instinctive quoting on my part. It's fun, but it's overdone and it gets old quickly.

I'm not sure which character is which, though there are only four and their imaginative names warrant mention here. The one with cheap sunglasses is Spud Krousensky, but I don't know if his guest in the neat Dark Tranquillity shirt is Dink Hefeweizenheimer, Chimmychummy Stoutington or Bjorn Reinheitsgebot. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that they apparently like beer and Spud's crazed roommate has been brewing up a vat of it that glows radioactive blue and is served in bottles with cool labels. He, like any sane beer lover, is offended that they're drinking Bud Light, so brings out a case of Zombeer and we get to watch them drink. A lot. These scenes run on far too long, perhaps just to allow for more crunchy metal while they foam at the mouth and go red eyed. The inevitable gory twist is neatly foreshadowed by the Anthropophagus poster on the wall. When I was sixteen, this would have been the greatest thing ever, but I grew up.

Cargols! (2011)

Director: Geoffrey Cowper
Stars: Marc Ayala and Mireia Figueras
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
An accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable short film from Spain, Cargols! is an odd movie in that its biggest success is also its biggest failure. On the positive side, it's a stereotypical feature length monster movie with all the crap taken out. For the record, that makes it fourteen minutes long. On the negative side, that means that everything we see is something we recognise from a whole host of other movies. We get every setup, every shock moment, every red herring. We get every screw up, every heroic gesture, every shot at redemption. We get every emotional peak, every slomo shot, every topical choice of song. If you don't recognise every single cliché then you haven't watched enough monster movies. Yes, it starts in lover's lane with some guy trying to get some. No, he doesn't manage it. Yes, it moves to a party crashed by monsters. Yes, the hero saves both the day and the heroine. No, their happy ending doesn't reflect the big picture.

All this guarantees that there isn't a single surprising moment to be found anywhere in the film, which therefore has to succeed on completely different merits. It succeeds on the writing front as Geoffrey Cowper, who also directed, understands not only the mechanics of monster movies but that they're fundamentally supposed to be fun too. He manages to sneak a few nice touches in there as well; the immediate reaction of all the partygoers when a giant snail breaks their party up is to film it on their phones because it'll look great on YouTube and the Jurassic Park section is priceless. It succeeds with the acting too, as Marc Ayala and Mireia Figueras are both capable and pleasing to the eyes and they're well supported by a string of others with much less to do. They play Joel and his first girlfriend, Eva, who he unwisely dumped when he thought it meant he was getting popular. He's regretted it ever since and now he gets the chance to try again.
It's mostly successful on the technical side too. The song choices are appropriate throughout, though I can't believe they got clearance for all of them. They're matched well to the action on screen, down to the Angus Young trainers the hero's wearing. The tone of the piece feels right as well, though it loses a little when it gets too stylised, like with the running against the tide shot. The biggest flaw is probably the effects. The giant snails are good but far from great. They do exactly what they should but they're far too obviously animated graphics. Maybe we're spoiled by the achievements of modern day effects wizards, but the animators from the Barcelona 3D School here created monsters that don't quite live up to the live action world that they're placed in. It isn't a major flaw and it certainly doesn't stop the fun, which is what this short thrives on. Just don't expect anything you haven't seen before.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Refugio 115 (2011)

Director: Ivan Villamel
Stars: Georgina Latre, Dani Ledesma and Alba Arenals
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
Set entirely underground, to the hiss and boom soundtrack of bombs hitting the surface above, this Spanish period piece is a neat little exercise in tension and suspense. There's little story, as it runs only eight minutes and obviously aims to use the supernatural as a political metaphor not a literal plot device. We find ourselves amongst an inoffensive group of people in the tunnels of Refuge 115 hiding from the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War. All they want is to survive, but they discover that even down here, their worst fears may be hiding in the darkness. There's no effort made to provide any explanation of what mysterious force might be picking them off, beyond a little girl's song about the bogeyman, so it's obviously a metaphor for all fear, which in a civil war is rampant because it's so tough to figure out who is friend or foe. As the darkness extinguishes light after light, we wonder if anyone will make it out and how much meaning we should seek.

Some of it is clear enough. Jordi appears to be the ostensible leader, doing what he can to keep these folk together under pressure by keeping calm and helping who and where he can. None of the others have similar strength, only Aina proving stronger than her obvious fears, so they find their own moments to cave and disappear. I wonder whether these points mean more than just further steps in a progression, but I don't know enough about the Spanish Civil War to guess. So I'm left appreciating the acting, which is solid but overshadowed, pun not intended, by the style of the piece; and the various devices used to build the tension. The effects don't aim far, relying on basics like lights going out, but they do what they need to. I'd have thought there would have been more telling moments, like the one where one woman screams, 'The darkness has taken my daughter,' but it's left vague and creepy. That means it's effective but not too abiding.

Velvet Road (2011)

Director: L Gustavo Cooper
Stars: Thomas R Martin, Heather Ricks, Walter Colson and Stephen Ezell
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
Velvet Road oozes class even as the opening credits unfold. With the same muted colour palette as The Walking Dead, not to mention the same subject matter, it's difficult to avoid comparison. As the film runs on and we both enjoy the Jacksonville countryside and realise how grounded the story is in the human element, we can't help but see it as cut from the same cloth. Of course, at only 14 minutes, it's a brief slice rather than a grand sweep, but it resonates nonetheless, subtly providing a time and place without ever hammering the point home. As Brian Jerin's theme adds sinister piano undertones to soaring strings, the radio tells us that a disease is spreading across the deep south, inevitably suggesting a source in the negro population. I've seen a lot of zombie movies over the last few years, many metaphorically substituting zombies for this demographic or that, but this may be the most telling example I've seen yet. It proves the well still isn't dry.

The story is solid and very carefully crafted, but it jumps back and forth between an evening and the following morning enough that it took me a couple of viewings to fully put the various jigsaw pieces together to get the whole picture, even though there are only four characters. There's a mechanic called Bobby, fleeing the zombie apocalypse with his pregnant wife Carolyne, who has obviously been bitten. There's a black man walking the other way, who Bobby sees on the road and again the next day, handcuffed to the door in the back of a police car. At that point, he's in search of his wife, who bit him while driving and caused him to crash, literally and figuratively, until the morning, when he crawls out of the wreckage and follows the blood trail. Finally, there's the cop, bloody himself and slumped in the front seat, waiting to turn. It won't be too surprising to find out how everyone interacts, but it's done stylishly, carefully and with strong impact.
This is one of those films that really need a couple of viewings to be fully appreciated. Initially it was a little confusing and I wondered why it leapt back and forth so much, until I realised that we were understanding these events from the perspective of someone who was bitten early in the story and was turning into a zombie himself. Of course he's confused, but he figures it out, just as we do, enough to realise how carefully the gun is pointed in the best shot of the film. We also realise how lean this piece is. Some filmmakers would spin this story out to feature length, but L Gustavo Cooper, who directed and co-wrote, trimmed the fat away, so he and editor Bill Gaggins could keep it under a quarter of an hour, including both opening and closing credits. They'd have found it tough to go any further without causing damage, but it does everything it needs to, with a wide story and a number of smaller ones, all within a social framework and told with panache.

I Want to Be Tom Savini (2011)

Director: Bianca Luedeker
Star: Bianca Luedeker
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
It really isn't surprising that I Want to Be Tom Savini won for Best Short at Phoenix FearCon V, as it's almost a textbook on how to engage the audience at a horror film festival. It's a lively piece from the outset, with an enticing lead character and a just as enticing sense of humour. In fact it was the humour that leapt out at me first, not only because Bianca Luedeker, who is not only the writer, producer and director but also the subject of the piece, is a real character. From moment one we only see her hidden behind a black wig and a thick moustache, meaning that in one fell swoop we get a visual explanation of the title, a simple gimmick that isn't annoying, the means by which the shy Bianca can keep a distance from everyone she meets in the film (and at a festival) and, perhaps most important of all, a surefire way to keep the audience wanting more. It may just be the merest hint of a disguise but it's a sheer stroke of genius.

Luedeker is refreshingly grounded, honest and aware of her limitations. She describes herself as a 27 year old child who's afraid to be around other people and she squees quite magnificently at the slightest provocation. She's a small town Arizona girl, who apparently hasn't been anywhere or done anything. She's never been further from Sedona than Flagstaff and she hasn't been on a bus, a plane, a subway, you name it. However she very much wants to change that. She wants to do all those things and more, you know, like casting full size heads, filling them with blood packs and shooting them with a shotgun so they explode, that sort of thing. After she absorbed Grande Illusions, a 1983 manual on special effects, she knew exactly who she wanted to be: the author, legendary make up/effects artist Tom Savini. By the point she proclaims, 'I'm really into blood and gore,' festivalgoers will want to be her, or be with her, or both. She's horror nerd heaven.
While half of what follows isn't surprising in the slightest, it's done with style and it's flavoured by the other half, which is pure character. Luedeker heads off to Hollywood, where she meets a host of genial effects guys who make her feel welcome and answer her questions about how to get into the industry, but it isn't as remotely dry as that sounds. These guys are impishly cool, even when not playing eviscerated corpses in horror movies and she's less like a CNN reporter and more like a teenage writer for a punk zine. She intermingles real substance with giggly girly stuff, the sort of thing that many filmmakers would cut out, but it's this mix that makes the film. Here's Oscar winner Tom Woodruff of Amalgamated Dynamics Inc, but there's Luedeker running down an up escalator. Here's Tom Devlin's body parts closet but there's Luedeker attacking her fear of people by holding up a Free Hugs sign in Hollywood. In her Tom Savini disguise.

And so, while she forgets most of the questions she wants to ask these industry experts, it really doesn't matter because at heart, this isn't about special effects, let alone Tom Savini. It's about discovering who you are and having the balls to do what you want to do. Luedeker meets people getting full head casts who are claustrophobic. The funny and outgoing adrenaline junkies who run Hollywood effects shops explain how they started out as shy kids. So the engaging humour on the surface turns into a meaningful journey, both for Luedeker and for us. Repeat viewings do wonders, peeling away the layers of this deceptively simple 21 minute short. The first made me laugh, the second think and the third highlighted Luedeker's skill in editing, as I appreciated her decisions about what to leave in, what to take out and how long to pause. Oh, and yes, she does meet Tom Savini, of course, and that's no spoiler as it doesn't play out remotely how you expect.

Monday 22 October 2012

A Cruel Tale: Return to the Dream (2012)

Director: Andrés Vidal Alarcón
Star: Sofia Medel
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
Here's a strange one: a four minute animated horror story set in the land of dream. It features a child but is narrated by his mother, who we're not sure is really looking out for him or not. Maybe that's the point: from a child's view, it's often hard to tell the difference. Neither character has a name, making them archetypal. It's a Spanish film, though one that's presented in English, from the warning screen to the heavy but appealing accent of narrator Sofia Medel. IMDb hasn't quite figured out what it is yet, as it lists two films by two different writer/directors: an 8 minute 2005 short, Vuelta al sueño, by Andrés Vidal Alarcón, and a 4 minute 2012 short, Vuelta al sueno: Un cuento cruel, by Andres Vidal. The truth is in hidden at the end of the credits: the 2005 film was a student short, while the 2012 film is a remastered version with a fresh cut, updated story and new music. The filmmaker is the same, Andrés Vidal Alarcón.

It tries to do a lot in a mere four minutes, not least to fix what Alarcón saw as errors caused back in 2005 by being more ambitious than his skills would allow him to live up to. I haven't seen that version, but this one is a fascinating piece. We watch a child go to sleep and enter the world of dream through a portal. Alarcón paints fractal landscapes with liquid walls and playful light. He uses effects to enhance the story, like artistic blur and double exposure. Everything is scary but warm, especially with the lush voice of Sofia Medel telling us how much she cares for her baby, who runs away from her in his dreams. But then we meet her, in dream form as a scary sort of steampunk dinosaur Jack Skellington. She's not a cruel mother, she tells us, while committing what we might interpret as a cruel act. But this is about innocence and sacrifice, right? She does care for him deeply, right? Or maybe she doesn't. That's open to a great deal of interpretation.

Whom God Helps (2012)

Director: Louis Mansfield
Stars: Jason Vail, Kate Boyer and Brandon Ruckdashel
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
Visually striking from the outset, it's not immediately clear where this sixteen minute American short is going to take us. Combining enticing abstracts with shots of privileged young things at a Philadelphia party, it feels like a music video for a percussion heavy jazz improvisation, or even footage to sit under the opening credits of a television legal drama. A couple of minutes in, we switch to an underground parking lot where one tipsy couple is heading back to their car. They aren't named, so are obviously archetypal, but their happy evening gradually descends in tone and action. The only other character is a mysterious stranger who doesn't appear to be entirely human but watches them from the shadows nonetheless, even driving their conversation with commands in an ancient tongue that only the man can hear. They're one word commands that we see translated in subtitles and while the man follows them, it isn't clear if he knows it.

There are no easy answers here, which I'm sure is absolutely deliberate, but the key may be in that 'Whom God Helps' is the translation into English of the Hebrew name Azrael, the name of the angel of death. What doesn't help is that different traditions see Azrael very differently. In Judaism he's the embodiment of evil, while in Islam he's the returner of human souls to God. It isn't often that watching a horror movie can spark a theological debate, but this almost invites that, to help understand what writer/director Louis Mansfield was aiming at. His background is in thoughtful and ambitious experimental film, which adjectives describe this one well. It's entirely clear what's happening, as Azrael manipulates the couple's interaction from fresh desire to the profane and the violent. Jason Vail is strong as Azrael, under four hours a day of make up. Kate Boyer and Brandon Ruckdashel are just as strong as the couple. What it all means is up to you.

Juan y la Borrega (2011)

Director: J Xavier Velasco
Stars: Manuel Dominguez, Carlos Aragón and Edgar Vivar
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
At heart, the Phoenix Fear Film Festival is a thing of tradition. Whatever it chooses to call itself (Phoenix FearCon V in 2012), however big it becomes (this year was bigger by far than any prior edition) and whatever events it generates (a zombie fashion show, modern day horror host Dr Diabolic, even a burlesque performance), its core remains solidly in the sort of independent film that you might expect primarily, if not only, to see at a film festival. This year, Trash City's Chris and Jim McLennan screened four features and ten shorts, hailing from seven different countries and every conceivable corner of the horror genre. It kicked off in no uncertain fashion with this tough but thoughtful Mexican short film from writer/director J Xavier Velasco. In many ways it's not really a horror film at all but it contains much that is horrific, even as the story it has to tell begins when the end credits roll. It's a great film to start a real film festival.

Juan is a nobody. He lives alone and has no family, his hairline is spectacularly receding and he arrives at the uniform store at which he works long before anyone else. Eleven years of service has led him nowhere; he still mans the counter, but he doesn't seem to mind because he has no ambition. Life to him is a collection of routines, what most of us would call tedium. He's detached from the world around him, or at least he is until La Borrega shows up one morning, asking for Juan's boss, Enrique Salgado. Given that 'la borrega' translates from the Spanish as 'the sheep', obviously something is going on and when La Borrega follows Juan to an employees only area of the store and pulls out a gun, it's pretty clear what it's going to be. We've seen this scene before, though it's shot with style by Felipe Perez-Burchard and actors Manuel Dominguez and Carlos Aragón do fine work. The key is that it's not going where we might expect from experience.

Really this isn't about La Borrega at all. He could be anyone, as surely all the best hitmen seem to be, and what he has going on with Salgado is of no real importance. What matters is just that he's there and the few minutes he spends with Juan become a life changing experience for the unambitious clerk. His arrival is literally a wake up call and the best scene of the entire film is the quietest one, after it's all over. We see Juan in a completely different light, as if he's finally noticed the world. The film ends precisely when it should, without giving us any idea where it's going to go next, only that it's going to be somewhere completely different. Dominguez is good with the subtleties and the score by Alejandro Bonilla, all strings and piano, underpins it well. If FearCon V had ended after this first short, it would still have done what film festivals are tasked to do, namely to show us something of quality that we wouldn't be able to see elsewhere.

Sunday 21 October 2012

With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story (2010)

Directors: Terry Dougas, Nikki Frakes and Will Hess
Star: Stan Lee
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.

Unmistakably one of the great names in the world of comic books, Stan Lee is more than worthy of getting his own documentary. In fact, it wouldn't take much argument to suggest that this is a long time overdue, whether you've known him for decades from the characters he co-created for Marvel Comics, whether you discovered him more recently through the blockbuster adaptations of those characters to the big screen or whether he's just a personality who magically appears at what seems like every single nerd event known to man. In some ways this is a telling biography, as its best parts step back from his numerous achievements to look instead at a humble man and his wife. In others, it's a notably misleading propaganda piece as it focuses so closely on Lee that a fresh face to comic books would be excused for leaving it believing that he invented the things, created every character and pushed them all past every evolutionary step.

Perhaps it would have been more grounded had this film been shot in the late nineties, before the success of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films and before Marvel Studios ventured into producing their own pictures, like Iron Man and The Avengers, but after Marvel Entertainment had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and after Stan Lee Media had collapsed into bankruptcy amid the illegal stock manipulation of his partner, Peter Paul. At that point, Lee was by no means the infallible man with the Midas touch he appears to be today and telling his story might have been more about restoring his rightful place in comic book history. Maybe, maybe not. Instead it was shot a decade later in 2010 with Lee a household name, his powerful charisma matched only by his sense of childlike wonder at the world around him and seemingly unstoppable energy, even at 88 years young. So it's an iconic American success story seen through rose coloured glasses.

I'm far from a comic book nerd, but I do read graphic novels, I do go to Comicons and I do know a little about the history of the industry. I know enough to recognise that while what we're told in this film is no doubt the truth, it's far from the whole truth. I learned a lot about Lee's part in the wider story of American superheroes and the evolution of their worlds, but only because I could recognise some of the gaps, where the work of others who worked before and alongside him was either omitted entirely, dismissed quickly or explained away in dubious terms that occasionally left a bad taste in the mouth. These omissions are far from minor and their presence leaves all the various looks back at comic book history on shaky ground. One such omission might perhaps be excused as an unfortunate oversight, but when they're frequent and pervasive the film turns from a viable documentary into purest propaganda.

The biggest omission surely has to be the competition. Created in 1934, DC Comics predated its biggest rival in name by 27 years and through lineage by 5, given that Marvel Comics began its life as Timely Comics in 1939 and became Atlas Comics over a decade later, formally adopting its most famous name in 1961. We're given some fascinating background into this progression, but Marvel's achievements are not given context, even when they were made in reaction to the competition, most obviously DC. Marvel's superheroes were successful in the early sixties, but they were written in response to DC's prior success. The Fantastic Four was a direct response to DC's Justice League of America. To be fair, this is a standard hour and a half film and Lee's story is inextricably linked to Marvel's rather than DC's, but omitting the competition utterly removes any real context and makes both Lee and Marvel appear even more important than they were.
More galling is the treatment of a couple of other people whose names are tied more closely to Marvel's. Jack Kirby was an artist with Timely at the beginning, while Lee was hired shortly after as an office boy, tasked with keeping the artists' inkwells full. Kirby co-created Captain America with Joe Simon, as Lee was moving up to writing filler stories. By the time superheroes were all the rage again in the sixties, Lee was now editor-in-chief and art director, but most of Marvel's most iconic characters, such as Iron Man, the Hulk and the X-Men, were joint creations of Kirby and Lee. Those characters Kirby didn't have a hand in, such as Spider-Man, another artist called Steve Ditko did. Both Kirby and Ditko are highlighted here and their importance evaluated, but while Lee personally enthuses that they were every bit as important as he was, the film's tone is that he's merely being modest and that they're only equals because Lee says so.

None of this is meant to undermine Lee's own importance, merely to counter the film's viewpoint that he was the be all and end all, either at Marvel or with comic books at large. Lee legitimately did change the face of the industry in a number of ways, most obviously crediting the artists and letterers as well as the writers and grounding superheroes in the real world. Peter Sanderson, a comic book historian, wrote that DC was the equivalent of the Hollywood studios, while Marvel in the early sixties was the French New Wave, shaking up the way in which these stories were told and, in doing so, revolutionising the entire industry. While DC characters lived in Gotham City or Metropolis, Marvel characters lived in New York. They fought Communists as they'd fought Nazis during the war. They even dealt with everyday problems as well as villains, marking the point at which superheroes became more important out of their masks than they ever were inside them.

While this film does well talking up Lee's substantial contributions to his field, aided by neatly animated graphics, they're lessened through the equally substantial gaps. It succeeds better in the little details, revealing that comic books had two page prose layouts in order to qualify for second class mail privileges, that Lee acted out on top of his desk the poses that he wanted his artists to draw or that he contributed to training films during the war, classified by the US Army as a playwright. It succeeds in the highs and lows of Lee's emotion: talking about the modern movies, he's full of energy, like a kid in a candy store whose only enemy is time; while talking about the horrendous earlier live action movies, his frustration is palpable. Nicolas Cage may talk fairly about the deficiencies of technology but that isn't the key reason; it's that only with Raimi's Spider-Man did those who understood comic books start making comic book movies.

Without a doubt, the best scenes are reserved for Lee and his wife, a former English hat model named Joan. While she was married when they met, he proposed after two weeks and they've been together for 65 years. They're a riot of a couple, bickering back and forth with the sort of twinkle in their eyes that can't help but raise a smile. We're privy to happy moments and sad ones, all of which feel remarkably honest, so intrinsically so that the filmmakers aren't able to spin what they say into something else, however they edit the footage or splice in interviews with others. They know what they want to say: the movie opens with Larry King calling Lee 'the most famous name in American comic book history' and what feels like all of Hollywood agrees. Yet fame isn't substance and what I'll take away from this is that, comic books aside, Stan and Joan Lee have obviously enjoyed the heck out of their lives and they're still doing it.

Lo (2009)

Director: Travis Betz
Stars: Jeremiah Birkett, Sarah Lassez, Ward Roberts, Devin Barry and Aaron Gaffey

Given that Dust Up was a pleasingly riotous surprise that I've been happily telling all and sundry about, it seemed appropriate that I follow it up with this quirky genre buster with close ties to it in a number of ways. Released in 2009, it's the third film from Drexel Box Productions, Dust Up being the fifth (in between is The Dead Inside, to be released in November). It was written and directed by Travis Betz, who played Herman, the waste of space who caused most of the trouble in Dust Up. The actor apparently isn't too much like the character, as that film was the only one of the five that he didn't write and direct; the lead actor here, Ward Roberts, did. Bizarrely, Betz neither appears noticably in this one nor Roberts in that one. Go figure. What's more, the demon who gives his name to the title is played by Jeremiah Birkett, the wild drug dealing lunatic, Buzz, from Dust Up; and Devin Barry and Aaron Gaffey are prominent in both films too.

It begins slowly but surely with a young man in a painted pentagram in his apartment, preparing to summon a demon. He has a book that looks like it's bound in human flesh and would have fit well in The Evil Dead. He's less Bruce Campbell though and more Xander from Buffy, perhaps a Xander who's trying to be Bruce Campbell. Anyway, the ritual works and he gets to command Lo, a sassy demon with a powerful roar and half his skull missing. Yet, as surprising as it may sound, this is a romcom, albeit one that's a little quirkier than usual. You see, our hero, whose name is Justin but who Lo calls Dinner, has lost his girlfriend, April. She was abducted by another demon, who left Justin with nothing but scars on his chest, and he wants her back badly, badly enough to call up a demon from Hell and command it to rescue her for him. I'm not sure whether that's love or stupidity, but it's certainly dedication. Of course, it's not going to be that easy, right?

Well, never mind easy or hard, it's pretty tough to figure out what's real and what isn't. It's very confusing, but in a really good way. After Lo comes crawling out of the darkness, everything we see is what Lo wants him to see. It might be truth, albeit truth plucked out of Justin's head and reenacted on an imaginary stage on his apartment wall. It might be lies, manipulations from a trickster demon who wants to eat him and has enough imagination to conjure up anything that might persuade his unwanted master into slipping up somehow. Lo's quickly expounded theory, from apparent first hand knowledge, is that April wasn't what she seemed. He explains that she's really a demon too, one who didn't love Justin because demons don't know how, and who saw him as nothing more than safe harbour during her escape from Hell. She wasn't kidnapped by a demon, she was just brought back to pay for her crimes in the deepest pits.

Of course, what we find is that it doesn't really matter. Sure, there's a story here, a plot to which we want to discover the outcome, and a host of quirky characters to flavour the journey. There's a gay demon in an antique military uniform and a Nazi armband, who feels that he has to sing his story to the backing of a Las Vegas lounge band. There's an omnipresent waiter who turns cocktail mixing into a bizarre dance form. There's even a demon rat, which is frickin' awesome even though it doesn't do anything whatsoever except be a demon rat. Each of these play part of a backdrop, in front of which Lo and Justin talk back and forth about humanity and love and meaning, all of which resonates beyond the framework they're bandied about within. By the time the truth comes out, courtesy of a neat but not unexpected twist at the end, it's part of a much bigger picture. Realistically how much you take away from it will depend on how much you bring.

Lo is a surprising but very welcome film. It's experimental and brave and ambitious and all those other words that tend to get lumped into descriptions of films that don't fit in the mainstream but folk want to talk about anyway, usually to highlight their failings. It's extremely minimalist, not quite as far as Dogville but certainly to the degree that it could be easily adapted to the stage. It obviously cost almost nothing in sets, the only one that we see being mostly hidden in the dark, and we never set foot outside Justin's apartment, cutting down location work to nothing. What we get is a very small cast, who hardly move from the spots they arrive in, talking a lot but not doing a heck of a lot else. To break this up, we get a routine or two and a few notably theatrical explorations of Justin's past. On the bad side, it has little substance and it's definitely stretched out a lot further than it should have been. On the good side, it never loses our interest.

The inspiration is from Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus, as filtered through Jan Švankmajer's Faust, which combined live action with stop motion animation at a feature length. I've long enjoyed Švankmajer's work, though I've not yet seen his Faust, and it's truly wonderful to see a young filmmaker inspired by him to create something new like this. Travis Betz deserves a great deal of respect just for that. He deserves more for what he manages to do with it, though it's not entirely a successful experiment. There's some excellent writing in the dialogue heavy script and nuanced performances from Ward Roberts as Justin and Jeremiah Birkett as Lo do it justice. Yet while the overall sweep is more successful than Dust Up, it doesn't hold together throughout. At eighty minutes, it's half an hour too long and the pace feels slowed to allow for feature length. The routines are fun but they don't serve any purpose and will get worse on repeat viewings.

I was impressed by Roberts, though his overt channelling of Bruce Campbell became overdone at times. Some scenes almost felt like reenactments, especially when he's talking to his hand. I wondered for a while when he was going to cut it off and replace it with a chainsaw. To be fair, it's a challenging role, given that he's confined to a magic circle for the entire film, except when playing himself in the staged flashbacks. Burkett is just as impressive, confined even more. Lo is crippled, so gets to crawl into view without the option to leave the spot or to even stand up. He gets no flashbacks, of course, and he's stuck inside particularly effective make up, to the degree that I wouldn't have known he was black if I hadn't seen Dust Up first. His performance isn't as derivative, though there are hints of Beetlejuice when he plays to the film's audience more than to Justin. The best parts are when he viciously focuses back in, as Birkett's delivery is superb.

I was less impressed with the rest of the cast. Sarah Lassez proves versatile as April, but she's really the MacGuffin of the piece and, perhaps because of clumsy writing or perhaps because of clumsy acting, she's unable to sell us on why Justin is so hooked on her. I get the impression that Devin Barry does exactly what he was meant to do as Jeez, the gay singing demon, but that isn't much in the big picture, partly as he's just a distraction and partly as he's far too reminiscent of Lorne, the lounge singer demon in Angel. Aaron Gaffey similarly can't be faulted for his work as the omnipresent waiter but he ends up inconsequential, even with both eyes in place. While I did enjoy these various distractions, Lo really should have ended up as a two man show, running for maybe fifty minutes at most, with Justin and Lo's verbal sparring tightened up, sped up and focused in on. I'd really love to see that, however experimental, brave and ambitious it would be.

Dust Up (2012)

Director: Ward Roberts
Stars: Amber Benson, Jeremiah W Birkett, Aaron Gaffey, Devin Barry, Travis Betz and Ezra Buzzington

I find myself in the rather unique situation where I know Amber Benson as a director rather than as an actor. I never got far enough in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to see her most famous role as Willow's girlfriend, Tara, though I can still be jealous, of course, and the only acting I've seen her do was in The Crush when she was merely sixteen. Yet I got a kick out of Drones, a quirky indie sci-fi flick she co-directed in 2010 with fellow Buffy star, Adam Busch. Now I get to catch up with the rest of the world and see her as she's known best, as an actor, albeit in what purports to be a grindhouse western written and directed by another actor finding his way to the other side of the camera. Benson is excellent: innocent and everyday but also magnetic and desirable, which is a pretty good combination if you can find it. She's not in this film enough but she's great to watch whenever she is, even when she's not chained up in her underwear.

While she gets top billing as Ella, she's not really the lead character; she's more the damsel in distress. Before we meet her, we meet the hero, Jack, and his sidekick, Mo. Those names sound deceptively normal, given that Jack is a one eyed ex-marine turned High Desert Handyman who wants to rebalance his karma and Mo is a rather Jewish red indian in traditional dress (except for sneakers and tube socks). Both of them have escaped modernity by returning to the land, Jack living in a mobile home and Mo in a teepee with a solar panel outside. They find our story when Ella calls Jack to fix her plumbing and he takes it upon himself to help with her bigger problems, namely her husband, Herman. While Ella is a cute and likeable young mum, Herman is a jackass speedfreak and meth addict, offering handjobs to all and sundry to pay his substance abuse debt which is being called in by the villain of the piece, That's Buzz.

Buzz is played by Jeremiah Birkett, who manages to steal a great deal of this film, even though it's peppered throughout with memorable and quirky characters. He's hardly stable to begin with but he continually ratchets up the lunacy to true grindhouse levels and he's magnetic to watch. He's been around for a long time, it seems, with many TV roles going back to 1990 and films a year further. Perhaps best known for lead roles on TV in AJ's Time Travelers and Police Academy: The Series, I last saw him in an offbeat horror comedy, Mutant Vampire Zombies from the Hood! in 2008, but I don't remember him at all. I'm certainly not going to forget him after his showing here though, as he plays Buzz like a freaky combination of revivalist preacher, game show host and fringe cult leader, which ensures that every scene is all about him, even when it isn't. It's a whirlwind of a role, gloriously out of control, and Buzz becomes the backdrop for everyone else.

Most of these characters are archetypes, easily defined and understood. They're colourful and quirky and they're tied together by outlandish humour, but they're not deep and they don't try to expand beyond the boundaries set them. Jack and Mo are peaceful warriors, just waiting for the right battle to join. Ella is a damsel in distress who doesn't want to be a damsel in distress, while her husband is a big child whose one talent is to keep her in distress. 'Baby, it's the crank,' he tells her. 'You know it turns me into a maker of bad decisions.' We never discover why she made her one bad decision, namely to hook up with him. Sheriff Haggler is a textbook corrupt cop. Keith is a delightfully obliging stooge, all the more funny for being one dimensional. Perhaps the best example is Buzz's enforcer, Mr Lizard, the most outré character on show with his lime green skull tattoos and pointed teeth. He acts tough and looks weird but he's given zero background.
Breaking Glass Pictures are advertising this as a 'grindhouse western', which to me conjures up memories of Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead. While Hurricane Buzz is surely sourced from seventies excess, he's filtered through a very contemporary sense of humour and apocalyptic outlook. Everything else feels like an eighties cult comedy, one that was ahead of its time and people didn't know what to do with. It would sit well as a double bill with Six-String Samurai, not only because of its wild and quirky outdoors setting, but because of the spiritual moments and the strong but unusual use of musical accompaniment. Dust Up features the psychedelic rock of Spindrift rather than the Russian rockabilly of the Red Elvises, but both soundtracks are high in the mix and harness the power of nostalgia. The track backing Adam K Tiller's memorable title sequence sounds like nothing less than a psychedelic surf take on the Rawhide theme.

Technically, it looks fine but betrays its lack of budget, given that we can easily tell that much of it was shot against a greenscreen. The camerawork and effects are variable, some of each being great but some of each being a lot less great too. The colours are garish, which may or may not have been deliberate, but the look worked well to underpin the comic book characterisation. The fight scenes mirror the movie as a whole in that they're strongest in details but more lacking in their sweep. Mo does get to show off the best use of darts ever in a movie, but it's hard to keep track of the fights generally. The tone of the script is inconsistent too, with writer/director Ward Roberts setting up moments of subtlety only to swamp them with overkill. One scene compares Jack with Buzz, both ex-marines with bad field experiences but who took completely different paths in life, but the next goes hog wild with fringe social commentary to justify cannibalism.

At the end of the day, it's the people who shine brightest, mostly on screen. Amber Benson is delightful as Ella and I hope she continues to work with Drexel Box Productions on whatever's next on their agenda. The regulars are all solid. Aaron Gaffey, Devin Barry and Travis Betz do exactly what's required of them, whether that's subtlety, action or grossout. Much of the joy is rooted in their dry delivery of wild dialogue in wild situations, none of these characters doing much on their own but all coming to life in pairings and groups, regardless of the combination. Mike C Nelson and John Karyus get great moments, as do some of the extras, but Al Burke could have done a lot more if his lizard job had been more authentic. Real lizardmen look a lot scarier than this, even though Burke was the tough guy on set responsible for stuntwork and weaponry. Jeremiah Burkett flamboyantly steals the show though and I'm eager to see what else he's done.

After a limited theatrical run, Dust Up will be released on DVD by Breaking Glass Pictures on 13th November.

Monday 8 October 2012

Cat Run (2010)

Director: John Stockwell
Stars: Paz Vega, Janet McTeer, Alphonso McAuley, Scott Mechlowicz, Christopher McDonald, Karel Roden, D L Hughley, Tony Curran and Michelle Lombardo

In need of a mindless action movie last week, this one leapt out on Netflix and cheered us all up immensely. It's far from the best film we've ever seen, in any category you want to lump it, and it has a slew of faults that simply can't be ignored, but it's great fun and I have a feeling that it's one of those pictures that we'll keep referencing years from now. It's obvious from the beginning that it so wants to be a Guy Ritchie movie, merely with a footprint that spans all of Europe rather than just England, but after about ten minutes it decides that it can't be bothered. If anything, it turns into a sort of schizophrenic take on action movies like True Lies, with one mind wanting to make a buddy comedy like Rush Hour, another wanting to go for gritty Tarantino coolness and a third thinking that maybe the European setting warrants a Luc Besson vibe. By the time it's over, we're left wondering what we just saw and remembering snippets rather than a coherent movie.

We begin in Boka Kotorska, Montenegro, introduced to a host of key characters in true Ritchie fashion. Branko Jakovic is The Boss, as in a crime boss with a veneer of social respectability. He hosts an orgy in his huge mansion, for guests like Bill Krebb, aka The Pervert, an alcoholic ex-senator who's now the US defense secretary. He enjoys the attentions of high priced escort girls like Catalina Rona, The Exhibitionist, who is somehow ostensibly both the lead of the movie and its MacGuffin, both of its strands being about finding her. She's on the run after Krebb strangles another of those escort girls and she's sought because she stole a hard drive that contains the footage. Daniel Carver, Jakovic's scary ex-Ukrainian special forces security guy, is tasked with fixing the problem, so The Enforcer hires The Seasoned Assassin, Helen Bingham, to track Cat down while Rona accidentally inspires a unlikely couple of detectives to do the same.

These three pursuers couldn't be more different. Two are The Loner and the Extrovert, a couple of young friends starting out in business together from an office above a blue movie house. The Loner is Anthony Hester, a bright but unsuccessful cook hiding from his family, so laid back that he's almost lying down. The Extrovert is his friend, a black karaoke singing chick magnet called Julian Simms. Together they're like Holmes and Watson, if Watson was played by Chris Rock and Holmes was on sedatives. Bingham, however, is prim, proper and very British; also very tough, very calm and very professional. She's two parts Helen Mirren to one part Maggie Thatcher with a seasoning of James Bond. To be brutally honest, we don't care where the plot goes. We're just watching to see what insanity this trio are going to get up to next. By comparison, Paz Vega is a sexy lead but she's given little to do once the story settles down and she's sadly lost in the mix.
Many have called Janet McTeer out for praise. She does dominate proceedings as Bingham and she's glorious fun to watch, but she's hardly an original character. I'm not convinced that there's anything original in her portrayal whatsoever, but it's difficult to imagine the role being played any better by anyone else. I liked the unlikely detectives, but they were insubstantial compared to Bingham. As Simms, Alphonso McAuley is little more than comic relief but he does exercise that relief unceasingly throughout the film. Scott Mechlowicz is wasted as Hester because he's a subtle character in a film that doesn't have a clue what subtlety means. To highlight that, they leave D L Hughley minding shop as they travel around Europe. He lost an arm to gangrene after a shark ate his wife and he turned to drugs, and both legs to a failed suicide attempt on a train track. Yet he gets a fight scene with Bingham! It's tough to even remember his bosses after that.

This is far from the only outrageous scene because writers Nick Ball and John Niven obviously wanted to make an impression with their first feature. Maybe they got bored with their mashup of National Lampoon's European Vacation with Snatch and decided to switch the latter out for Crank instead. This isn't even the most outrageous scene, that honour surely going to the one in which Bingham takes down Ryder, Cat's business partner in Luxembourg. It's a sort of response to the notorious ear scene in Reservoir Dogs, outdoing it on the violence front in every way but justifying it as a valid response to the use of profanity. Just imagine if Tarantino's cop was played by Joe Pesci and Michael Madsen was replaced by Mary Poppins. It really is that surreal. There are many such scenes of note too, so many that it's as much fun watching the reactions of those you're watching with as watching the movie itself. Maybe only The Room outdoes it on this front.

So every song of praise comes paired with a matching criticism. For every neat take on a scene in another movie, there's another unimaginatively stolen. Every inspiration is acknowledged but then discarded. I loved the little touches, such as the elevator muzak version of She's Not There at precisely the right moment, but the movie as a whole is so jarringly inconsistent that it feels like it was created by film fans with ADHD. I enjoyed some of the humour, though it was gleefully generic, rarely realistic and often over the top. I even enjoyed the plot, or at least the concept it kept vaguely alluding to, though it descended into cliché so often that identifying each instance could become a drinking game. Most characters are wasted even as they're gifted great scenes, just as dialogue transcends the characters who deliver it. I'm still not sure how this will settle in my mind. It's terrible, but I loved it. Now, do you need a moment?

Sunday 7 October 2012

Red Sand (2012)

Director: Caleb Evans
Stars: Ayman Samman, Amy Searcy, Greg Bronson and Mark Meer
A one year project with more effects work than you're ever going to believe, Red Sand has been described as the 'most ambitious' film attempted thus far at UAT. I'd say 'ever' and be truthful, but they keep out-doing themselves with each project, so it may well end up merely being the most ambitious until the next one. I was impressed by the effects work in Fallout but this shows just how far professor Paul DeNigris has taken his classes in a mere two years. This one is also the most important film made thus far at UAT because it's going to be by far the most obvious. Whereas most of the UAT student films are good enough to make it to film festivals and even to win awards, this one is also a fan film that serves as a prequel to BioWare's Mass Effect game franchise and how successfully it premieres on YouTube today at 4pm will direct how far and wide it'll end up being seen. We'll find out by tomorrow whether it'll go viral. It deserves to.

I saw Red Sand without any prior knowledge of Mass Effect and it made complete sense to me, so you don't have to be a fanboy to watch. From what I can gather, writer/director Caleb Evans successfully walked a fine line to ensure that newcomers like myself don't need to have played the game to understand the film but also that the die hards aren't going to complain about any perceived inaccuracy or liberties taken. Evans went back to the beginning of the franchise's chronology, which is scantily documented, and linked two events together with a story. Players of the game will recognise the one character taken from the series and the depth of how far the ending is really a beginning, but the rest of us will get almost as much without back knowledge. It's not the most complex plot, but dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's to avoid a backlash from gamers, who may be the most anal naysayers anywhere, was a meticulous task done well.

We begin on Mars, as the SSV Phoenix lands to deliver a couple of scientists to a new discovery: ancient alien ruins. Mars looks good, with red sky, red sand, red everything, and the dirt from the vacant lot next to UAT that became their set looks surprisingly close to the pictures Curiosity has sent back. Dr Ayman Averroes is in charge of investigating the alien technology found in these ruins, but within a year local bandits are refining one example, a miracle energy source named Element Zero, into a drug called Red Sand that boosts telekinetic powers; and of course they'll fight for continued access to the source material. The battle that ensues is the setpiece of the film, with a horde of bandits emerging from a frickin' awesome red Martian sand storm veined with lightning bolts to hurl telekinetic fireballs at the Alliance soldiers tasked with defending the ruins with traditional, albeit futuristic, weaponry. It's a glorious thing to behold.
I've talked a lot at Apocalypse Later about what has been described as the 'democratisation of filmmaking', the way in which the cost of equipment and software has dropped so far that any budding filmmaker can theoretically match what big Hollywood studios can do. The theory may be sound but the practice doesn't come close, especially with special effects. Filmmakers like Travis Mills are proving time and time again that feature length dramas can be made for under ten grand and still look great on the big screen, but science fiction films that rely on effects are still stuck in amateur hour. Iron Sky may well be the first widespread exception but, on a smaller scale, UAT has been leading the way to demonstrate what can be done on that front without a large investment and this is easily the pinnacle of what they've achieved thus far. Red Sand felt to me like a fourteen minute Hollywood blockbuster, only with a plot.

Needless to say, the crew is made up primarily of effects folk. Like duh. Even Evans has trouble describing what some of them do but he does grok it all and he got exactly what he wanted out of them. Almost all the effects are digital, with perhaps Nola Yergen's excellent costumes being the only exception. One special shout out should go to Mattia Cupelli, whose deep but sweeping orchestral music fit the epic sci-fi action perfectly. Perhaps underlining that 'democratisation of filmmaking' comment, Evans found his fan soundtracks for Mass Effect games online and hired him to compose the score. Yet Cupelli lives in Rome where he turned eighteen during the film's production. You'd never have guessed it from the quality of his work. Everyone who worked on this film obviously has a future in the industry, and many UAT students have already gone on to work on major TV shows or Hollywood films, but Cupelli's future may arrive sooner than most.

On the acting front, there's one obvious coup. Col Grissom, the one canon character, is played by Mark Meer, who has voiced Cmdr Shepherd in the Mass Effect games from the outset. Flying him out and paying his salary probably amounted to over half the budget, but that investment will surely pay major dividends on the publicity front. He does a fine job and looks the part. Amy Searcy, who I've only seen thus far in the horror movie Closets, is an able sidekick, kicking just as much ass on behalf of the fairer sex. I need to seek out more of her work. Shane Dean and Cavin Gray only have fleeting roles, making me wonder if there are contractual obligations that force them to appear in the same films. It's Gray's co-star from Parallax who has the other main role though: Ayman Samman, as his namesake, Dr Ayman Averroes. He's just as stoic here but with a stubborn drive that leads him to be irritable and frustrating. He's excellent again.

Holding all this together is Caleb Evans, a musician who has obviously found his calling as a filmmaker. He hasn't even graduated UAT yet but he has this under his belt nonetheless. There are people in Hollywood with their faces on tabloid magazines who haven't turned out anything of this quality. His filmography is a skimpy thing, showing that he wielded a camera on Parallax and assisted DeNigris in directing Covet, on which he also did the sound editing. That's not a heck of a lot of experience to bring to a project like this, but it doesn't show. Red Sand was his idea, his script and his direction. Whatever other successes it might contain, the overall one is going to fall to him to achieve and he nails it. Within twelve minutes, he gifts us grandeur, adds in explanation of back story, then hurls us into battle, where we win out and reach for the stars. I'm eagerly awaiting the launch on YouTube at 4pm today so I can experience it again. Bravo!

The film has a web site and a Facebook page. It's also now live on YouTube.

Covet (2011)

Director: Paul DeNigris
Stars: Cavin Gray, Amanda Melby, Kane Black, Cedric Katambwa and Steve Briscoe

Every time Paul DeNigris, professor of digital video at UAT in Tempe, makes another film, I feel a need to track it down. This is the tenth short of his that I've reviewed and I still have his feature film to catch up with, though even he doesn't recommend The Falls, released in 2003. I've also reviewed pictures shot for IFP Phoenix film challenges, including Shine Like Gold, which won out over this one for Best Film at the Beat the Clock Challenge last year. Beat the Clock is a tough concept. Teams are tasked with producing a short film from scratch in only 48 hours: they have to write, shoot and edit entirely within that timeframe. To make it even tougher, they're each given a prop and line of dialogue that have to make it into their film. Covet came second out of 21 films in 2011 and won for best ensemble cast and best use of that required line. It also felt more substantial rewatching it on YouTube than when I saw it at Phoenix Comicon this year.

The required line was, 'As long as it's free...' and the usage is pretty spectacular, even though it's one of the easiest lines to miss because of what's going on when it's delivered. DeNigris and his six, count them, six co-writers, built it into a horror thriller concept that has two crooked cops tangle with an ancient evil. The cops are played by Amanda Melby, who spent six years as the executive director of IFP Phoenix, and Cavin Gray, another regular here at Apocalypse Later. This one means I'm back up to date with his career again, with a review of every film he's been in, a feat I've still only achieved otherwise with Grace Kelly. This isn't his best movie, that being a toss up between Deadfall Trail and DeNigris's Parallax, but he leads it with his grin, playing it half as a capable and deadly cop and half as a backtalking asshat. Melby is more background, tasked for the most part to be wooden but freaky in a sort of Terminatrix mode. She does it well.

Covet is a fast six minute ride that begins with action, as these cops chase a black man with a gun. Pretty routine, you might expect, but once they catch him at a fence and Melby's unnamed character shoots him dead, he glows red and something transfers into her. It's mostly textbook stuff thus far. The chase is all dynamic angles and fast editing. The transfer is straight out of a monster movie, showing nothing but telling us everything. The change in the cop is emphasised continually with every trick in the cinematic toolbook that might be remotely applicable. And on we go, with progression and twists far more plentiful than the running time might suggest until a perfectly shot finalé, with a powerful effects shot that really highlights just how quickly amazing effects can be generated when the right people are doing the work. It's rare for effects in short films with low budgets to work. DeNigris and his UAT crews are emphatically the exception.

That isn't to say this is perfect. It lost to Shine Like Gold for a reason, that film not showing flaws like this one, though Covet is far less clichéd and familiar. The lighting is the biggest problem in this film, as it fails to do justice to a couple of scenes. The colours are oversaturated too and I don't believe there's any deliberate attempt to provide metaphorical meaning. There's even an overlaid digital effect early on that jars because there's a limit to what even DeNigris can do on that front in 48 hours. The story is weaker too than it would be had that writing crew had longer to work on it, the whole 'crooked cops' angle being underdeveloped and hard to even notice in the grand scheme of things. The successes are in the solid ensemble acting, the dynamic drive of the story which blisters along and especially in Paul Rosario's editing, which is one of the chief reasons for that. For a 48 hour film, it's excellent. For a film, it's still pretty capable.

Covet is available for viewing on YouTube.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

The Middle Toe of the Right Foot (2011)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Jason Wiechert and Johnny Ortiz

Hey, it's October already, so here's a Travis Mills review to kick it off right. I picked this one after being impressed by Johnny Ortiz in The Lakeside Killer, because I noticed his name in the credits here too; but it's also a contemporary adaptation of a classic short story from the public domain, an approach with which Mills is about to go hog wild, aiming at one such per week for the whole of 2013. In this instance, the original author is Ambrose Bierce, who wrote this story in 1891, the same year as his masterpiece, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. It's a cludgy story, not just for its 19th century American verbosity but because of the awkwardness with which it gets going. In his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, H P Lovecraft called it 'clumsily developed' but with a 'powerful climax'. I mention this because, rather bizarrely, Mills does exactly the same thing in his loose adaptation: it starts out clumsily but tightens halfway through and ends superbly.

Where Bierce had three young gentlemen in discussion on the porch of a village hotel, Mills has three young preppies chatting in a coffee shop, but the conversation is the same: girls who have deformities and how worthless they are. They're suitably grating with their dismissive comments and colour coordinated polo shirts, but they seem to be reciting rather than reacting. It feels like each of them was shot separately then edited together, and it's all rather fragmentary. It's when one of them notices a stranger overtly listening in that it starts to gel into place. That's Ortiz in a hoodie and, while the camera still continues cutting annoyingly back and forth, we're also given a focus. Mills forgoes the supernatural elements of Bierce's story in favour of a privileged secret society, which may well have been the only viable way to end up with a duel in the 21st century. The stranger recognises their pins and knows their rules and he wants that duel.

What follows diverges from the source story but escalates agreeably nonetheless until an ending that doesn't attempt to match the original but is perhaps still more satisfying to our sensibilities. It really is a 21st century adaptation, right down to its knowingly playing to a different audience. Jason Wiechert, playing the lead, seems hampered by his dialogue at the outset, but reaches a higher level when confronting Ortiz, as the stranger, who matches him. Nick Markovich and R J Serra, as the other preppies, similarly improve from awkward early dialogue to a suitably tense preparation for the duel. This scene is handled really well by everyone involved and from there the tone is manipulated superbly, more like a piece of music than a film: bravura into tranquillo, then crescendo, with a spot on choice of giallo sounding music to accompany the closing credits. Now I'm wondering whether the opening was deliberately dissonante. Maybe, maybe not.

But hey, find out for yourself: Mills has uploaded it to YouTube and Vimeo.