Tuesday 30 April 2013

The Retrieval (2013)

Director: Chris Eska
Stars: Ashton Sanders, Tishuan Scott, Keston John, Christine Horn, Alfonso Freeman and Bill Oberst Jr
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
I have to admit that I had some doubts going into The Retrieval. Maybe my biggest worry was that I'd made it to into a theater at the Scottsdale 101 before I'd normally get up in the morning for the third day running, after two full fifteen hour days at the Phoenix Film Festival, so I was waiting for the tiredness to hit. It seemed like a period western might become the right time, especially as it quickly became obvious that its pace is deliberately measured. I had real concerns too though. I'd noted beforehand that it appeared to be a film about black characters but which was written and directed by a white man. These days that mix either bodes really well or really badly. I also noted that one of the three leads, Ashton Sanders, is a child actor making his debut on screen. That also tends to bode really well or really badly. There aren't many discoveries like Quvenzhané Wallis to be found, but then there are some or we wouldn't know her name.

What I found was that the tiredness didn't hit, kept firmly at bay by acting of a tremendous calibre and a script that was engaging and refreshing in a host of ways. It wasn't remotely like a story I'd seen before, for a start. It's a period piece set in 1864 during the American Civil War that cleverly unshackles itself of whatever baggage the audience brought in with the opening scene. We're set up to interpret the black kid walking across the fields to a house in a sort of Schindler's List way. He's apparently in need and an elderly white woman puts him in the barn with some other black folk that she's hiding. Maybe it's just for shelter, as the wind is already howling, or maybe she's a way out for runaway slaves. When the storm arrives in the more deadly form of men with torches on horseback, we automatically feel for the kid, but we soon discover that he's a rat. He's working for a bounty hunter called Burrell who has come not to burn but to retrieve.

Burrell is the first major character we meet who we expect to be a major character. Prolific actor Bill Oberst Jr commands our attention from moment one, even before he further confounds our expectation by being without prejudice. He shoots one of his own men in the shoulder to stop him picking a fight with a shackled slave, not for moral reasons but merely because it's lost property which he needs to return in good condition. It's about value. As he tells his own man, 'The nigger is worth $600. You ain't.' So we have a white bounty hunter who's pragmatic not prejudiced, with a black kid on his payroll who rats out his own. This isn't turning out to be the race film we might have expected, and that's really the key. While this film has a clear grounding in history, which means a clear grounding in racism, it doesn't aim to demonise one colour and beatify the other, either way around. It simply tells its story and lets us build the undertones in our minds.
The kid is Will, who's gifted with a peach of a story arc. At the beginning, he's working for Burrell, along with his uncle Marcus, and the bounty hunter sends the pair of them on a four day walk to retrieve one particularly dangerous nigger called Nate. I should highlight here that the N word is used a lot, by Burrell and Marcus. It isn't overdone, like Tarantino overdid it in Django Unchained, or for that matter, Pulp Fiction, but it's there nonetheless and it carries whatever connotation the speaker chooses it to carry in the context of the scene. Sometimes it's clearly derogatory, other times it's just a synonym for 'African American', but what's really interesting is who uses it and how. Oberst plays Burrell like Lance Henriksen would play him, a complex and dangerous man who sees things surprisingly simply. He uses the word in a matter of fact way, just like any other, but Will's Uncle Marcus uses it in many different ways, as befits his nature.

Neither Burrell nor Marcus are characters to like, but it's impossible not to like what the actors bring to them. In fact Burrell is so obviously deep a character that it's a good thing that he fades away into the background for a while like a bogeyman, because Oberst would have stolen scenes and that wouldn't have helped the picture. As strong and fascinating as Burrell is, this isn't about him, it's about Will and initially that means it's all about Marcus, as his most obvious role model, the only family he has, his immediate figure of authority. Unfortunately Marcus is utterly not the sort of person who needs to be influencing anybody, as is obvious from the fact that he has Will ratting out slaves for pay. Will's story arc kicks in when they reach that dangerous nigger they're tasked with leading back into a trap on an emotional pretext. He's Nate, a completely different character to Marcus, which of course is precisely the point. Will can't help but compare.
It would be cheap and unfair to suggest the characters initially fit stereotypes, but it's easy to see who would be typecast in these roles if Hollywood ever remade this on a big budget. Nate is very much an older Denzel Washington role, with moments of Morgan Freeman, while Marcus is more like a role for a young Samuel L Jackson. However, it might highlight how unstereotypical they are really by suggesting that Marcus is like Jackson playing a John Pyper-Ferguson character. In other words, he's more like a stereotypical cheap white villain who happens to be black. While it's easy to see those cheap resemblances, these characters refuse easy categorisation because they grow well in shades of grey. Of course Will grows more than anyone, because it's his story, but it's the way the other two build, especially on the journey back together as their strengths and flaws show up at particularly crucial moments, that shapes how his character builds.

It's not difficult to figure out the thrust of that character growth, because Nate is clearly an older, wiser character than anyone Will has ever met, with more experience, more strength and more of an edge. Marcus is more emotional and more rebellious, but less principled, a loudmouth with a streak of yellow. Throw these two adults onto the same road together, that's dangerous because of the war, because of their colour and because of the secrets Will and Marcus carry, and clearly we're set for Nate to become a father figure to the young man who doesn't have one of his own. Perhaps the biggest reason that this film succeeds is that even though we see all this early on, it never becomes predictable. There are points of serious tension throughout as we guess at which way writer/director Chris Eska is going to take his characters in a host of different situations. The ending makes sense but it's only one of many and we don't know which it'll be until we get there.

Ashton Sanders does a solid job as Will, especially given that he was a fifteen year old acting in his first film. It's easy to see that he carries his lines well but, more importantly, he carries his entire body well. Will is a downtrodden young man, stuck doing things that don't feel quite right but with nobody to give him guidance on why. Sanders never smiles, never loses that dropping head that reminds of a whipped dog. The only reason that people aren't raving about his performance is that he's only one of a number of actors who give rave-worthy performances in a powerful ensemble cast. Nate is a gift of a character for Tishuan Scott, who picks it up and runs with it. It wouldn't be difficult to throw a whole slew of superlatives his way for a truly outstanding performance of quiet emphasis, as he ensures that Nate is believably deep but never flawless. However, Keston John plays Marcus just as well; he's just stuck with a more loathsome character to bring to life.
Eska gave himself a difficult task here. He wrote a story rooted in simplicity that warranted simple sets, simple costumes, simple and sparse dialogue, but which carried with it substantial depth. He set all the most important scenes inside Will's head, as this thirteen year old boy comes of age at a particularly dangerous time in his country's history, discovering his conscience during a tortuous mental struggle between what he's been told to do and what he gradually realises is right. Yet all this turmoil takes place in emptiness. There's a lot of quiet here, with only three characters taking up most of the screen time and spending much of it attempting to keep the civil war that's raging around them from noticing that they exist. One particularly memorable scene has it literally ride into their campsite like a flood of horses and guns, but this movie isn't about the storm, it's about the calm at its centre, which is to say Will's quiet struggle with himself.

Technically it's very capable, but it's based more in good composition of frame and clever use of the countryside than anything flash or attention grabbing. The editing is most successful because we don't notice it, the soundtrack too. What remains stuck in my mind is the quietness, albeit a dangerous quietness, against which the story slowly but surely makes itself known. I'm no expert on the historical timeframe, but this seems to be well researched and phrased very differently to the usual civil war story. During the Q&A at the Phoenix Film Festival, Tishuan Scott talked about the reading he'd done as research and how it had deeply troubled him. It's far from a pretty time in this nation's past, but perhaps we don't realise how dark the reality was. Setting this coming of age story against that background, rather than focus on the brutality, actually brings it home all the more because we're looking at the thoughts and reactions more than actions themselves.

Eska deserves high praise for what he did here. He's hardly a prolific filmmaker, writing five films over ten years and directing three of them, but if his earlier work is anything like this, he made his time count. I'm very interested in his previous feature, August Evening, and a long short he shot in Japan in 2003 called Doki-Doki. This wouldn't have been the success it was if he didn't have a trio of outstanding lead actors, so the casting deserves credit too. Scott is the standout, but John and young Sanders do excellent work as well. Most of the rest of the cast are civil war reenactors who worked for barbecue and beer, but they do exactly what they're tasked with doing. No film won more than one award at this year's Phoenix Film Festival except this one, which won three: Best Ensemble, Best Director and the Audience Award. It wasn't as enjoyable as Down and Dangerous, as much fun as Waking or as delicious as Favor, but it was the best film I saw all festival.

Saturday 27 April 2013

All American Zombie Drugs (2010)

Director: Alex Ballar
Stars: Beau Nelson, Wolfgang Weber, Susan Graham, Natalie Irby, Alex Ballar and Bobby Burkey

Unlike Wild Girl Waltz, a drug movie that really has nothing to do with drugs at all, All American Zombie Drugs revolves around them so completely that it's a rare scene that isn't laced with half a dozen different narcotics at least. As the narration points out as we begin, run of the mill drugs like weed and alcohol hardly got our lead characters, Sebastian and Vinny, through high school. Now they're grown up, at least in terms of age, their only regret is that it's harder to get quality drugs any more. They've done everything there is to do, to the degree that they even enjoy the crap that gets cut into the real stuff; they're both quietly partial to Drano. Yet the narrator also elevates them to a mythic level. They're 'modern day Van Goghs', he enthuses to us. They'll be remembered as heroes. Surely this is where the zombie side of the title comes into play. Either that or this is going to take a left turn into Hunter S Thompson territory. Neither happens.

Sebastian is an obvious and engaging lead. He begins the film stuck in a dream where he's an outrageously attired pimp daddy who can recover from an orgy for a threesome in ten minutes. He's so out of it that he humps everything in sight: pillows, couches, the guy sitting next to him. He only comes out of it when his long suffering girlfriend Kara pours dirty fishtank water into his mouth and even then we're not entirely sure. They don't have a particularly stable relationship, not least because she's continually pissed at him for having sex with other women in his dreams. Their own sex is terrible; either his narcolepsy kicks in at exactly the wrong moment or she gets weepy on acid, though she much prefers mushrooms. It's only the drugs that seem to hold them together. Through all this, Vinny is doing hits from his neverending bong on the couch. He lives with them, apparently, perhaps because he wandered in one day from school and never left.

The humour here isn't sophisticated, as you'd expect for a druggie film, but it is frequently funny with much of the joy lying in the performances. Beau Nelson plays Seb as a livewire, who spends more time humping things in this movie than most pornstars get to do. If he managed to avoid a slipped disc during filming, he's going to be very popular with the ladies who see the result of his work. As Vinny, Wolfgang Weber initially appears to be little more than a straight man for him to bounce off, but he soon acquires his own character moments. As Kara, Susan Graham is a punky hot girlfriend with a Debbie Harry feel who initially seems to be slumming it with Seb but quickly turns out to be a good match for him. These guys do acid like M&Ms; they subsist on such a wide range of drugs that their bodies must be toxic cocktails. It's amazing how little this life reflects in their looks but the three actors bounce very well off each other.
We do wonder where it's all going but a few seemingly disparate moments slowly coalesce into a story within this drug fuelled haze. Seb and Vinny are getting bored with it all, or at least with the drugs they've been doing lately. Everything is 'either an instant headache or death.' Seb's dream morphs into a commercial for a drug distribution company, the largest in America; gradually that idea seeps out into reality as the solution to the quality problems in their supply. However while Seb is dreaming, Vinny is hallucinating the ghost of someone who warns him against it. It doesn't help that when he drops acid at work he sees his unwilling boss, Kara's cousin, as a zombie, and his ghost joins those dots by highlighting that he's doing nothing in his life except the drugs, and thus is becoming a zombie himself. These subconscious hints tell us not only where the story is going to go but also how successful it's likely to be.

The final piece to the puzzle shows up after half an hour: a rich girl goth chick called Melissa who anchors the story thus far; Natalie Irby plays her with a professional Shannen Doherty vibe. She knew Kara briefly in school, bonded through drugs of course, and recently lost both her wealthy parents in a car accident. Kara sees their rekindled acquaintance as an opportunity for Melissa's inheritance to fund their new venture. She initially appears to be all business but she still snorts oxycodone and brings a surprising spiritual angle to the film. Vinny is on acid when she shows up and sees her as an angel, but when she does acid herself she thinks she's a demon. After some exploration of past baggage, she attempts a spiritual clearing on him and here's where we begin to discover the story behind Vinny's ghost. The writing appears to be slipshod and occasionally it is but there's structure here that keeps us moving forward, however many holes it has.

The biggest success of the film is the casting as there's a lot of chemistry between the characters. Yeah, I went there. Beau Nelson is a riot here. He's out there enough for it to not be surprising that he was in a Ross Patterson movie, Darnell Dawkins: Mouth Guitar Legend. It's more surprising that he was in both The Artist and Empress Vampire, two movies that couldn't be any more different if they tried. He's the only actor here who I've previously seen in a credited role, though I'm likely to see Bobby Burkey again soon in a local Arizona film that features a whole bunch of people I know. I was also impressed by Susan Graham and am now intrigued by a long short film she's just made called Quiet. Both she and Nelson are clearly people to watch. Rounding out the key cast, Natalie Irby easily appears the most confident actor on screen and Wolfgang Weber lives up to a part that ends up with a lot more substance than it initially seems to have.
Its biggest problem is that it's never quite sure if it wants to be a comedy or a serious picture. It does a lot better with the comedy, though it's never quite consistent there: it builds through its characters and their dialogue, then progresses to surreality and situation comedy, reaching farce by the finalé. I was surprised to find that the lead characters never lost my interest even though they're the precise sort of characters who usually do and there are many others in support with moments of their own to highlight. I especially found Bobby Burkey an underplayed joy as Spider, a small time dealer. Roughly speaking, the picture unfolds in three acts. The first is solid on the humour but short on the direction, the middle sees the direction arrive but the humour drop off, and the final act ratchets up the humour to ludicrous level in a whole bunch of different directions all at once. It's as if it decided to finally take the restraints off and live up to its title.

For all that it's mostly a comedy, I have a feeling that the real point of the film is its serious side, which arrives with a vengeance at the end. This ending doesn't quite appear out of nowhere, if you've been paying attention, but it still feels like it belongs in a different movie. The first time I saw this, it played like an anti-drug film that masquerades as a pro-drug film for 95 minutes of its 99 minute running time. Revisiting it a month later, it felt a little more consistent in its approach but the last couple of minutes still felt extraneous. I wonder what writer/director Alex Ballar, who not coincidentally plays a key supporting character, really thought he'd achieve with this film. If he was trying to send a message, it's likely to have been lost in the drug fuelled mix that he built so well. It would be a cruel irony if someone designed a drinking game for this picture but it's so well within the bounds of possibility that it would probably include more drugs than mere alcohol.

I wonder if the apparently conflicting messages, the underlying one from Ballar and the opposite one preached throughout by the characters he created, are the reason why it took so long to find a release. It was shot in 2010 in an impressively short ten days, then titled merely Zombie Drugs, but didn't get released on DVD until yesterday under its new title. Given that Amazon only have five left in stock, it seems to have found an audience but I don't know which one. The title alone would be enticing to a couple of audiences, who are likely to love 95 minutes but hate the last 4. I'm intrigued to see what feedback they leave at IMDb. It's possibile that druggies may love it in spite of the ending, but I'm guessing it will do better with indie film fans who aren't part of the drug scene. However they're less likely to see it because of the title and they're more likely to be as confused by the ending as I am. Only time will tell.

Wild Girl Waltz (2012)

Director: Mark Lewis
Stars: Christina Sharp, Samantha Steinmetz and Jared Stern

Strangely, Wild Girl Waltz was at once exactly what its simple synopsis and its quirky trailer claim it to be and something utterly different again. It's clearly the extrapolated product of a single idea but it's less clear how deliberately extrapolated it is. It often feels as if that idea had merely been let loose into the air so the filmmakers, both in front of and behind the camera, could collaborate on its evolution. Director Mark Lewis is also credited as the writer, but I wonder how much here is really his writing and how much it's his ideas improvised on by the three leads as they went. One of the successes of the film, perhaps the most important one, is how real everything feels. I have no idea if Christina Shipp and Samantha Steinmetz knew each other before shooting this film, but it feels like they grew up together as inseparable friends because their chemistry is strong indeed. Jared Stern is the straight man to this pair, but he makes for a comfortable third wheel.

The single idea from which this film begins is that Brian, already having a bad day, gets home to discover that Angie and Tara, his sister and his fiancé respectively, are starting to feel the buzz of some 'goofy pills' they took, as nothing more than an escape from boredom. He's thus tasked with babysitting them until they return to whatever passes for normality for these two, something that I wondered about more and more as the film ran on. They're stable people, not remotely like the seasoned explorers into pharmaceutical chemistry who populate most drug movies. In fact, this is really not a drug movie at all; we never find out the names of the mystery pills that the girls take, we're never told what effects they might have and we're never really sure when those effects run out. While this film could be seen as that rarity on screen, a positive drug experience, and clearly the pills are seen as real, it all works just as well if we pretend that they're merely placebos.

Really what matters here are the characters and on that front, this film is a huge success from the very first scene, which really sets the stage for what is to come. Angie is walking down Monument Road when a 'drive by redneck douchebag' pelts her in the face with a milkshake. There isn't any apparent malice or any reason for the event at all beyond that this is apparently the sort of thing that redneck douchebags do, but Angie's reactions are priceless. In most films, this would be the pivotal scene, to which everything would inevitably return, or at least it would provide a character with motivation to change. But those films tend to have plots, which this one refreshingly ignores. Yes, things move forward here and moments like this may be referenced later on, but it's quickly obvious that the events don't matter in themselves, it's all in the reactions. Angie's reaction here is what makes the scene and it combines with other reactions to build her character.
I was surprised to find that neither Christina Shipp nor Samantha Steinmetz appear to have much experience on film. Shipp has performed since she was young but only has two prior film credits on IMDb: a smaller role in a science fiction feature called Either Or and a slot in a short film back in 2008 as a deliberately 'unexceptional daughter'. In the cast notes for Either Or she's described as 'hip and flirty, with a rebellious edge'; the latter was put to excellent use here. Steinmetz's only other credit is for a short film, but she's been praised for her stage work off-Broadway. She looks like a country singer but should be acting in France; French cinema would surely give her a lot of opportunities. Certainly both have such strong but natural presences on screen that they deserve to appear on it more often. It isn't just what they do in the goofy scenes, it's even more apparent in what they do in the quieter ones when we're not really sure if they're still high or not.

Jared Stern appears to be the most experienced of the three, but he's the least enjoyable. Perhaps that's partly to do with his part, which is inevitably going to be the one we like least. After all, who cares about the sober guy in a room full of drunks? It's much easier to get drunk yourself and join the chorus. Brian becomes the babysitter, the designated driver, the sober guy, thus becomes the character who's tasked with reining in the girls and stopping them from having too much fun. As we're having fun watching them have fun, he inevitably reins us in too and so naturally we're not going to like him as much. Fortunately his buzzkill tendencies rapidly decrease as the girls' buzz decreases and the emotional parity of the characters is restored. It's counterintuitive but simply by being the same character throughout, while the girls soar away and return, he's the one who ends up with the most obvious story arc and it's a satisfying one. I still find that odd.

The characters are the first win here, bolstered by the acting of the three leads. The second win is the dialogue, which is written well and delivered well. As Tara picks Angie up from her milkshake incident, she tells her that it looks like she 'got a money shot from Frankenberry'. Angie says that she feels 'like the floor of a movie theatre'. Lines like these ones sparked a lot of laughter from my family and I and I appreciated them in a way I rarely do nowadays. Usually I laugh at well crafted humour, such as the biting wit of the Ealing comedies or the slapstick genius of the silent greats, while I'm less enthused by the modern approach of laughing at characters rather than with them. The writing here is clearly contemporary but it's infused throughout with an older, far more gentle humour that made me laugh with these characters in a natural and collaborative way, as if I was glowing there with them. In many ways I shared in their positive trip.
While the humour is a huge success, the serious moments don't always match up. Brian's first big scene after a quick demonstration of his chemistry with Tara is a serious one, as he attempts to persuade Ernie to pay back the money he's lent him. It's a jarring scene in my memory and would be in the film too if only it hadn't been got out of the way so early. I don't know why it's there; the drama doesn't sit well with the free spirited improvisational feel of the rest of the movie. Similarly moments that bring in other, sober characters tend to feel unwelcome, like attempts to wake us from a particularly enjoyable dream. Kim Gordon plays Mrs Wolverton exactly right, but we're so attuned to the girls at this point that she's merely a distraction, albeit one that allows for a truly outstanding out of the blue moment that almost made my better half spray her computer screen with soda. Only Gary, the bartender, really fits within the world these girls are inhabiting.

There are other problems too. The camerawork is annoyingly jerky at points throughout the film, though fortunately not too many. I was bemused at how agreeably stable it was when shooting from Brian's Dodge while in motion, a trick that many low budget filmmakers frustratingly can't seem to master, but how jerky it became in other non-mobile moments when the camera didn't even need to move at all. There are also periodic scenes where the sound is ratcheted down to nothing and an instrumental takes its place, so that we watch a continuation but from a greater emotional distance. These aren't just filler, but they're closer to it than they should be. At least they preserve the feel of the piece generally if not completely, like unimpressive flute solos in a folk song. I'd have preferred something more substantial in their stead. The framework the film has wouldn't have made that difficult at all though the $10,000 budget won't have helped.

The final flaw isn't a flaw at all but it's mostly going to be seen as one. While this goofy trip is set up clearly, with Angie and Tara taking a pill each and then waiting for effects to be felt, the other end of the journey not only isn't marked, it's ignored entirely. I initially felt disappointed that the movie petered out until the credits rolled, but afterwards I felt much happier about it. While Lewis aimed at the feel of nineties films like Clerks and Slacker, it took me back to the early seventies and the abstract approaches to narrative taken during that period of creative freedom. The gentle decline of what little story this has reminded me of Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, where the point gradually ceased to be until the film literally burned away on screen. The pastoral feel reminded me of Van Morrison's stream of consciousness Veedon Fleece in that it's immersive and elusive at the same time, like a dream. I liked it very much but I may like its memory even more.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Putzel (2012)

Director: Jason Chaet
Stars: Jack T Carpenter, Melanie Lynskey, Susie Essman and John Pankow
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Putzel won the Best Picture award at this year's Phoenix Film Festival in a very tough year indeed. I saw seven of the ten features in competition; five of them had a decent chance at this award and the other two weren't exactly bad either. It sounds cheesy but the biggest winners this year were the people selecting these movies to be screened because they outdid themselves, but the award goes to a feature film and they chose this one. In the heat of the festival, I enjoyed this very much and felt it was a very strong contender; looking back, I'm surprised that it won out over Favor and especially The Retrieval because it wasn't quite as consistent as either and it doesn't say anything remotely new. It's a relationship comedy from debut feature director Jason Chaet with a strong tie to the Jewish culture of Manhattan's Upper West Side, though it remained thoroughly accessible to a goy like me whose exposure to this sort of thing is entirely through the movies.

The Putzel of the title is a person, Walter Himmelstein by name. He works at the family fish store, Himmelstein's House of Lox, and really wants to take it over. It doesn't appear to be a particularly family dominated family business, given that there's a Chinese guy working at the counter and a Russian guy cleaning the place, but it was started by Walter's grandfather and now it's run by his Uncle Sid. Walter can feel the change in the air though and he's waiting to be handed the keys at the upcoming family meeting, but no, it's not to be. Sure, Uncle Sid is moving to Wickenburg, AZ, for reasons even he can't quite quantify, but he never promised to hand over the store, not even to sell it to 'creepy, spineless Putzel'. And so we appear to be at the end even as we begin, but if that's the case, we wouldn't have a movie, so you can be sure that things are going to get shaken up from here on out in ways that prove worthy of a Best Picture award.

The catalyst for much of what follows is Sally, played by Melanie Lynskey. She's a Kiwi actress with an enviable career, having kicked it off at only fifteen as one of the two murderous leading ladies in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, alongside Kate Winslet. After finishing high school, she took a prolific collection of character roles in movies as varied as Coyote Ugly, Flags of Our Fathers and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It's easy to see why she's so in demand, as she grounds this film completely. While Putzel is the title character and the lead role, everything revolves around Sally and every performance revolves around Lynskey's. She's deceptively powerful here, appearing to be almost throwaway, partly because she's always on the verge of leaving wherever she happens to be, but in reality she's the reason everything happens. She sparks the story into motion at the beginning, she keeps its wheels moving and we know it's arrived at the end because she's there.
You'd expect that an enticing young lady would be in the picture to snag young Putzel and help to carry him through his story arc and you'd be right, but not immediately. When she shows up in the store and clearly knows her way around the fish, it's Sid who falls in lust with her. Sure, he's been a married man for decades but he's quickly smitten and he takes to hanging out at the Abbey Pub, where she's working behind the bar, wooing this much younger lady with abandon. It's as Walter attempts to dissuade Sally from her relationship with Walter that their own sparks begin and it's clear from moment one that they would be a much better match than Sally and Sid. But Walter has his own marital conflict too, as he's also married, albeit also split up from his wife, Willa. To complicate matters still further, nobody else knows because he goes to great lengths to hide the split, such as taking the holiday they'd planned to go on and spending it locked up in a local hotel.

There are a number of reasons why Putzel succeeds. Perhaps the biggest one is that the romance is believable. It's realistic, awkward and utterly right, and it remains so even though Sally spends 250 days a year on the road as a dancer and Walter has a phobia of leaving the Upper West Side. So while they're clearly meant to be together, they just as clearly can't be, thus keeping the story well and truly on the tracks. It doesn't bode well for these young lovers, of course, but each and every moment we see that reminds us that there's isn a future here suggests that maybe there might be after all. That's a neat trick to pull and it's one that's rarely successful. Here that's only one of the comedic coups it achieves. There are many good moments, not all of which are tied to Jewish humour. The attempt by a friend of Walter's to seduce Sally away from Sid is hilarious and we don't even see it. There's also one of the funniest sex scenes I've ever seen on film.

Yet it's not entirely successful. The nuanced and deceptively loose script by Rick Moore, his only credit thus far, deserves a great deal of praise for what it achieves here, but it's also the reason that the story ventures a little over the top on occasion. Moore manages to plant a lot of wisdom here a layer or two below the surface, sourced from Jewish, Irish and American culture, and he's patient enough for it to be imparted through character growth instead of force feeding it to us in caricatures. It's when the caricatures show up that things slip, because they're funny only on the surface. Sid walks that line though actor John Pankow ends up on the right side of it, but Tunch the Russian cleaner has only one joke to tell and he keeps telling it throughout the movie until he becomes nothing more than a raunchy transplant from a Broken Lizard picture. Similarly, Fran Kranz deserves a lot more than he ends up with as a man in a fish costume.
That's not to say that these two aren't memorable, because they certainly provide the most iconic visual moments of the film, along with Hector, another supporting character which is a peach of a part for Adrian Martinez. Jarlath Conroy makes the most of his brief screen time too, as McGinty, Sally's boss at the Abbey, but it's Steve Park who does best in support. As Song, he's less obvious and more substantial; he looks most out of place of all the employees at Himmelstein's but he's nonetheless probably the most comfortable there. I enjoyed his work here and I like it all the more now that I belatedly realise he was also Dr Ling Li in The Brass Teapot, which I embarrassingly saw immediately before Putzel. The two characters are very different in tone but are both patient and stoic, so he did a great job delineating them. Realising that he was also Mike Yanagita, Marge's inappropriately sinister schoolfriend in Fargo back in 1996, raises my respect for him even more.

All these character actors are here to populate the film with background colour and texture. The lead is Jack Carpenter as Walter Himmelstein, who as the title character is surely the one we're supposed to be concentrating on throughout. I was surprised to find that Carpenter is one of the least experienced members of the cast because he does a solid job, playing up to enough of the expected stereotypes to keep the feel of the film in play but neatly avoiding the rest to ensure it stays fresh and accessible. I liked Walter, though I wanted to see more of the fraught relationship he has with Sid and, by extension, with his dead grandfather, and less of his attempts to get past his phobia that keeps him imprisoned within the Upper West Side. Beyond his phobia, he felt far more real than I'm used to seeing in quirky romantic comedies. Carpenter played him more as a character actor than a lead actor, which certainly worked for me.

I feel like I should pull down my dictionary of Yiddish slang and pepper my last paragraph with hip terms, but it would demean this picture which benefits from its cultural setting but deserves to fly far beyond it. Even though the upper west side of Manhattan, neatly animated at points, becomes something of a character itself, the film deserves to do what Putzel consistently can't do, namely to escape its boundaries. Each faux Yiddish review is surely going to do it a disservice by helping tie it back down. The focal points here aren't Manhattan and Jewish culture, they're the refreshing lead performances of Jack Carpenter and especially Melanie Lynskey, and the surprisingly deep debut script by Rick Moore that hints at future greatness. It's too early to haul out Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder as comparisons, especially as the finalé doesn't live up to the build, but I won't be the only one waiting with them in mind. This is a great start for the next couple to build upon.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

The Prospector's Curse (2012)

Director: Josh Heisie
Stars: David Roberts, Johnny Quinn and Robert Nolan

Josh Heisie is racking up a lot of credits in a variety of departments lately, from small indie short films like this one to, well, to SyFy channel movies like Witchslayer Gretl and Pegasus vs Chimera. I've only seen one so far, the decent Abra Cadaver, which he wrote and shot but didn't direct. He debuted as a director with the 2011 comedy, Mail Order Bride, which I'd like to see, then followed it up with this one, an interesting horror piece that wins out with its sense of humour and a quirky period setting. Contrary to what IMDb tells us, this is a short film not a feature and while it aimed for a May 2012 release, it wasn't completed until this year. In fact, Heisie's plan is for it to be one segment of an anthology film, where each chapter is a tribute to a different type of B movie. This would represent both spaghetti westerns and ghost stories, with others covering film noir, slasher and monster movie genres.

Strangely, while I enjoyed The Prospector's Curse, it didn't play to me like a film at all. It felt more like a haunted house ride or a magician's grisly live stage show: lively, energetic and archetypal, not to mention overplayed enough to ensure that even the folk in the back row don't miss out on anything. Watching at home, it certainly feels overdone, as if almost everyone in the cast wanted a reaction from the audience. It's at the pantomime level with one scene prompting me to shout, 'He's behind you!' at the screen before I remembered where I was. I'd love to see this in a theatre with an audience of kids. For all that it's a horror movie, it's the sort of horror movie that children would watch, proudly exclaim how gross it all was and then promptly watch again. The only catch is that I doubt Heisie will be marketing battery operated Cackling Prospector action figures. If that happens, I'm putting my order in right now and I want Robert Nolan to sign it.
Though it's never mentioned on screen, I believe we're in the Yukon during the gold rush, outside a town called Hillcrest. Two of the three leads are on the run and for very good reason. Theodore 'Tubby' Ellsworth is wanted for murder, given that he stabbed Charlie Chickenfeather in the back when he found him with Rosie the town whore. He's a little dense and a lot smitten with Rosie, but he's bright enough to get the hell out of Dodge, or Hillcrest, with his knife left in a corpse's back. Jack Smith is a gentleman crook, a confidence trickster who's outworn his welcome after selling a bottle of snake oil or an Austrian fish whistle too many. Their only wish is to put enough distance between them and the angry mob following them, at least until they come upon an old prospector dying in the wilderness, one with a bag of gold and a map to his strike. He doesn't want to lie dead on Indian ground so they promise to give him a good Christian burial.
You can write the rest of the story yourself because, sure as eggs is eggs, they only have eyes for the gold. They promptly leave him to rot where he dies and what do you think his ghost is going to do? This really isn't about a fresh story, it's about the joy with which this old chestnut is retold and the characterful setting it's placed in this time around. I can totally see a sequel short with Heisie himself playing a summer camp counsellor who recounts his gnarly tale of The Prospector's Curse to jumpy kids around a campfire at night, only for Robert Nolan's prospector to stagger cackling into the clearing and cause delightfully bloody chaos. I'm not used to Nolan overacting, his roles in Worm and Familiar being textbooks of seething subtlety. He's more like a theme park marionette here with an unlimited supply of batteries and a pair of awesomely bugging eyes. He's going to get a reaction out of you, one way or another, and in that he's a fair mirror of the film itself.

For a film that's about the grand experience, rather than the writing or acting, it's pretty spot on. The pace is just right, starting slowly and surely but escalating quickly and running a short fifteen minutes. Heisie wasn't just the writer/director, he was responsible for the editing, which is surely the main reason for that pace, and also the production design, which is excellent. The only thing I expected from the Yukon gold rush that isn't in this film is snow and I'm quite prepared to be shot down for being stereotypical there. Jenn Woodall's costumes are just as solid, meaning that it all looks believable. The camerawork is relatively simple, doing just what's needed but nothing more. Perhaps the music could have been a little lower in the mix on occasion so that we could hear the dialogue better. Some of that is rather fun: 'Two hangings in one day?' asks a local. 'Yeehaw!' It almost invites a rating of, say, ten thumbs up with one bitten off by the cackling prospector.

The Brass Teapot (2012)

Director: Ramaa Mosley
Stars: Juno Temple and Michael Angarano
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
I was looking forward to The Brass Teapot at this year's Phoenix Film Festival, not for a particular actor but just because it looked like it would be right up my alley. The synopsis included 'magical dark comedy' which is a phrase that I tend to leap at, however often it's led me astray in the past. I'm a sucker for this sort of material and perhaps I'm more forgiving than I should be on occasion because of that. If they'd have added 'quirky' to the description, I'd probably have seen it already. It turned out to be an anomaly in a genre of clear hits and misses, as it drew me in immediately with its substantial charm and energy, but began to collapse in on itself a third of the way through and continued to tear itself apart all the way to the end credits. The obvious flaw is Tim Macy's script, which expands on the one he wrote with director Ramaa Mosley for a short film of the same name in 2007. Maybe it was better as a short, maybe it would work better as a different feature.

It starts very well. We're in Laurel Springs, a sort of American everytown, and we're here to follow Alice and John Macy, a young couple who are very much in love but haven't yet found the success they hope and believably expect to find. John sells warranties for TVs over the phone at the Laurel Springs Office Building, as generic a job in as generic a building as you can find in this town. He's a little klutzy but in an enticing way and he's funny to boot. No wonder Alison married him, even though she's a gorgeous young thing who was voted 'most likely to succeed' in high school. She's looking for work after completing her undergraduate degree in Art History, but she's restricted by the tight niche and a lack of experience. And so they're broke, taking it in stride through strength of character but still wondering how they'll cope. Juno Temple and Michael Angarano replace Ben Weber and Traci Dinwiddie from the short film and we're on their side from the outset.

Much of the early charm comes from their performances, which are delightful. Temple is probably still best known for the modern St Trinian's films but she's growing in stature, coming to this film from a role in The Dark Knight Rises and with another upcoming in Sin City: A Dame to Die For, to mention just two of ten films from 2012 and 2013 that are either out or in post production. She's certainly a name to watch and spending half this film in her underwear is not going to hurt any of her prospects. Angorano has been prominent for long enough to have been one of the last three actors in contention for the role of Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. Luckily for him, he didn't get it. Unluckily he did land the lead role in The Forbidden Kingdom, which meant that we ignored him in favour of Jet Li and Jackie Chan. He also dated Kristen Stewart for five years, which only makes him enviable in circles that don't count. He has done good work too, as he does here.
And so when they're sideswiped on the road because someone sawed off a stop sign, we feel for them. We still feel for them as Alice spies an old lady picking up a brass teapot on the other side of the road, follows her into her antiques store and steals it while she isn't looking. It's irrational and completely out of character but she's drawn to it. Perhaps it's fate, because she discovers a curious property of the teapot: when she hurts herself in its proximity, money appears inside it. I don't mean just coins, I mean big money. Hundreds at once. Stolen or not, it's the answer to their prayers, especially as John is promptly laid off at the same time. Apparently he fails to smile when talking to people on the phone. He must work for the Erich von Stroheim school of salesmanship. He comes home to a nightmare: stuff scattered everywhere and his wife covered in blood. She says she fell down the stairs but they don't have any. And then she lets him in on the secret.

This is a great setup for a movie. No wonder Mosley chose to expand it from her short film for her debut feature. There are so many potential avenues to explore, some obvious, some a little more obscure but even more satisfying, and for a while that's exactly what Tim Macy's script promises. He has John do the honest thing and take it back, only to discover that the antiques store is gone, but then Macy gets truly inspired and has him take it onto The Antiques Roadshow so viewers all over the world see it on television. That means that once Alice and John have progressed through a set of innovative, not to mention painful, ways to prompt the teapot into lucrative action, from a Brazilian waxing treatment to a spanking session, we have other characters thrown into the mix. The humour is lively if not particularly edgy, until a pair of Hasidic Jews break in to get mediaeval on their asses. Then it finds that quirkiness I was so hoping for.

Unfortunately this is also where it starts to fall apart through clumsy writing. It becomes clichéd, convenient and inevitable. Of course they need to do research, but they do it within a mess of a scene that is nonsensical, sloppy and overly convenient. Of course they start spending their new found wealth but there's no attempt at either realism or believable fantasy, beyond John wanting his very own vodka label. It's overplayed and disappointing, losing sight of why the early scenes worked so well by giving us less of the characters we want to watch and more of those we don't. The only saving grace is that Mosley must have landed some sort of lucrative sponsorship deal with an underwear company because the leads spend so much time in a partial state of undress. Juno Temple is rather pleasing to the eye, so I'm not going to complain. I'd assume that Michael Angarano fits that bill too, so the women in the audience aren't going to complain either.
The catch is that the film needs something more to keep its momentum going than two leads in underwear who scrub up well. For every scene elevated by well played comedy, there's another lessened by throwaway stupidity. For every scene that reveals another intriguing aspect to the teapot's power, there's another that wastes it. It becomes as frustrating to us watching as Alice and John's inevitable slow shift to the dark side is to the character who's in the movie as a force for grounding and insight. Eventually we reach Crank territory and find that Macy really doesn't have a clue what to do with the monster he's created. By this point I was actually wishing for a deus ex machina artefact to rewind time and try another approach, but that's another 'magical dark comedy' entirely, more's the pity. If Mosley had landed Bill Murray to play Dr Li Ling of the Theosophist Society, perhaps the script would have stayed magically on track.

I'm probably sounding more negative than I intended to be, but if there's anything worse than a bad movie, it's a good movie that turns into a bad movie. This one was a great movie that turned into a bad movie and that's an intensely annoying change to sit through. By the time we find our way somehow to the final act, the sloppy writing has become so prevalent that it bashes us over the head with its sloppiness. While I knew where the story arcs of certain characters had to go, it still felt unfulfilling and not because of anything in the way they were played. It felt like Macy was just having so much fun writing the script that he lost track of how long it had become and found that he had to wrap it up quickly. It's the same problem that George Lucas had with the prequels to Star Wars: by the time he got to the end, he realised he'd forgotten to set up a transition to the originals, so shoehorned something in. The difference is that they sucked from moment one.

There are some moments even in later scenes that sparkle with humour. I even liked the Lord of the Rings nod that played all the better for not being explained. Both Temple and Angarano play these scenes as well as is possible, somehow remaining sympathetic and engaging characters even as their stories floundered. Even as the script falls apart, there are still viable new potential directions that leap out of it asking us to pick them, but Macy handles them with an acute case of ADHD and jumps from blue fish to blue fish, so none of them satisfy for more than brief moments. Worst of all, the endings aren't surprising. They do make sense and they tie up the plot strands pretty well, but it's clear that Macy's Hollywood resistance was too weak and that's really the big problem throughout. This leaves the gate like an indie film, a great one with everything going for it, but it makes it home as a Hollywood movie, and that's the worst thing that could happen.

Monday 22 April 2013

Favor (2013)

Director: Paul Osborne
Stars: Blayne Weaver and Patrick Day
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
My suspicious nature creeps out whenever I discover a film that is clearly constructed out of one simple idea and flares up further when that idea is a well known and overused meme. That's the case here, as writer/director Paul Osborne based Favor on the tired aphorism that, 'A friend helps you move. A good friend helps you move a body.' In fact that's the precise tagline on the poster and it's also the first scene in the film, as Kip Desmond drops in on Marvin Croat at half past two in the morning because, hey, Marvin 'could always be counted on' and Kip has accidentally bumped off a bit on the side in a motel room. The clichés come thick and fast, right down to, 'It happened so fast.' I'd have had rather low expectations, if it didn't seem so knowing. As it turns out, Favor ratchets up the old and tired into something new and deliciously twisted. What's more, it has not one but two OMGWTF moments that are truly joyous. The first one rooked me between the eyes.

But they come later and I can't talk about them because they're firmly into spoiler territory. First we need to pay attention to what Kip dumps on Marvin because this is a deceptively simple tale. There's always a lot more going on than we might initially expect and we're kept guessing as to who's doing what to whom. Certainly it starts out simple. Kip and Marvin were ninjas together as kids, best friends forever. Now, Kip is panicked and looking very guilty indeed, relatively easy for him as he has a politician's grin and actor Blayne Weaver looks rather like Christian Slater playing Tony Bliar. Kip has been married to Claire for seven years but he's been routinely cheating on her with Abby, a waitress at the diner he eats at. Tonight she wanted more than he was willing to give and she got up in his face and he pushed her and she hit her head on the corner of a cabinet and now she's dead. He has to clean up the mess and all he could think of was his old friend Marv.

He's right because Marv does take care of business. He checks the details first to make sure of an approach. Nobody knows about Kip and Abby. They used different motels every time, she paid on her credit card and he refunded her in cash. She's not married; she lives alone. He always picked her up at the end of her street so her neighbours wouldn't know. It should be a clean clean up. So Marv sends Kip home to his wife and heads off to get rid of the dead body in room number five. Of course, if it all works out that well, we wouldn't have a movie so we know something's going to go wrong and it's here that Osborne elevates his film firmly above the routine. Next morning, as Kip leaves for work, his little problem hopefully taken care of, he finds Marv outside his house. Asking questions. He's been up all night thinking through the details. Did Abby have any pets? When he finds out she has a cat, how can he leave it to die in her house? He can't leave it alone.
Now, this is a really difficult film to review because Osborne lets his script unfold like he's peeling an onion. Every five or ten minutes, he removes another layer and we learn something important and new that makes us reevaluate what we've seen thus far. It's not as mathematically precise as something like Memento but the principle is exactly the same; to a large degree, I can't talk about a lot of what I'd normally talk about in a review without spoiling something that I'd regret spoiling because you deserve to experience these reveals the same way I did, completely blind. So what can I talk about safely? I guess I can highlight that the story progresses in a number of different ways, but perhaps focuses most strongly on how this favour affects the relationship between Kip and Marv. Even there it's versatile, as we see that from a dramatic standpoint, a darkly comedic one and within the framework of a thriller. It's a tangled web indeed.

The acting is solid and revolves almost entirely around the two leading men. I haven't seen either of these actors before but Osborne knows them well and wrote the script specifically for them. Kip is played by Blayne Weaver, who's not only experienced as an actor but as a writer and director as well, often serving all three roles in the same picture. These films, like 6 Month Rule, Weather Girl and Outside Sales all seem to focus on breaking relationships, with dramatic and comedic impact, so he's clearly perfect for this one. Kip turns out to be in advertising rather than politics, but same diff. He looks the part to begin with but he fleshes out the character superbly. Like any salesman, we can never be sure how much of what he's telling us is the truth, if any, and that makes it a fun task to try to figure him out. As he's forced by circumstance to effectively sell concepts to his wife, even she tells him, 'You're not really a conscience kind of guy, Kip.'

By comparison, Marv appears to be a genuinely caring soul, at least for a while. He certainly takes care of Kip's problem for him, but over time we start to wonder whether he's really the good friend the aphorism would tell us he is. A key exchange of dialogue early on has Kip promise him, 'Man, I owe you big.' Marv's answer is simply, 'Yeah, you do.' It's a throwaway exchange but it sums up so much of where we go, if only you read it in the number of different ways it deserves. I hope it isn't a spoiler to suggest that for part of the film he becomes a bizarre take on What About Bob?, but in a strange way, as if he's Richard Dreyfuss playing Bill Murray's character. Perhaps his name really isn't accidental, as Dreyfuss played Dr Marvin in that film. Is this Osborne's What About Marv? I'd suggest that as great as Weaver is here, Day may be even better, but that's a tough call to make and one that I can't back up without those pesky spoilers creeping back in.
Certainly one of our challenges as those onion layers become gradually revealed is to figure out the real motivations of the leads. It's easy to see it all as an inevitable set of escalations from a fundamentally life changing act that clearly sets the rest of the story into motion like a house of cards, but that does a disservice to Osborne and the depth he gave these characters. This isn't merely dark situation comedy, there's something behind everything, even early on, and Weaver and Day play up their ambiguity. It's not difficult to read it all as a daisy chain of reactions, but it isn't that simple either, because we have to factor in why those reactions happen. Did this or that happen because of remorse or guilt or something like PTSD? How heartless is Kip, the ruthless salesman, and how selfless is Marv, the good friend, especially when we realise, in Kip's words, that, 'We don't exactly travel in the same circles any more.'

As much as this is all about Kip and Marv, and the MacGuffin that is Abby's corpse, there are other characters in this film too. As outside factors, they threaten the ability of the leads to keep secrets secret. Kip can try his best to sell his version of the truth to his wife, Claire, who is a volatile factor throughout, but it's tougher to do that to his boss. Tad Harrison runs the company he works at and he doesn't take no for an answer, especially as he's played by Jeffrey Combs. He doesn't get a lot of screen time but he makes it count and Osborne gifts him a neat horror movie entrance. There's Pinback, a refreshingly bright cop who's exquisitely played by Alison Martin, and Kimber, another potential squeeze for Kip at work, now that Abby is gone. Each of them could be seen as a breeze lightly but consistently wafting towards that house of cards, ready to unwittingly topple the whole thing down in one fell swoop.

And so on it goes, with Kip increasingly besieged by the dark reality of his deed and the inevitable ramifications that must surely follow, struggling to keep a lid on the whole thing while seemingly everyone around him, including his good friend Marv, seem likely to blow that lid right off. Given that I've had to talk around so much of this already, you can be sure I can't talk about that pair of OMGWTF moments except to emphasise how powerful they are. It's a rare thing for a filmmaker to stun me with a moment that comes utterly out of left field but remains nonetheless completely appropriate, but Osborne did that here. When he tried something similar later on, I was ready for him but a good deal of the audience at the Phoenix Film Festival weren't. Reactions like those are like a winning lottery ticket for a filmmaker and Osborne must have left that theatre feeling very good indeed. Even though I had nothing to do with this movie, I did too.

Sunday 21 April 2013

The Ghastly Love of Johnny X (2012)

Director: Paul Bunnell
Stars: Will Keenan, Creed Bratton, De Anna Joy Brooks, Reggie Bannister, Les Williams, Kate Maberly and Kevin McCarthy
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
I've been to a lot of film festivals and I've heard a lot of Q&As, but I've never seen a movie that its own cast and crew apologised for as much as this one. Director Paul Bunnell is a bouncy, eager and enthusiastic soul who clearly loves film. He doesn't just love movies, he loves that film stock feel enough that he collects 16mm and 35mm prints and bought up the last Eastman Plus-X 5231 Safety stock after production of it was discontinued so that he could shoot this in glorious black and white 35mm. He also spent over a decade of his life making this movie, the earliest scenes being shot as far back as 2002 and production stopping and starting again every time funding ran out or he managed to secure more. His cast and crew didn't believe it would ever get finished, but he stuck with it and here it is at last on the big screen. Yet his enthusiasm while presenting it was all for his next film, Rocket Girl, which he promises will be so much better than this one.

For a while, it's actually pretty good. The perpetually hip and thoroughly defiant Jonathan Xavier has been arrested and hauled in front of the Grand Inquisitor for, well, being perpetually hip and thoroughly defiant or some crime like that. The judge stands tall and strong, resplendent in his decorated Devo hat, but Johnny X waggles his eyebrows and manipulates him like a voodoo doll. And so he and his followers are exiled to the planet Earth, with one single hope that 'an unselfish act will bring you home.' A year later they walk out of a cave, a not so magnificent seven looking rather like a gang of juvenile delinquents from the fifties. There are four guys and three chicks, each sex with its own finned out Thunderbird to spin up desert dust. Meanwhile, into some diner in the middle of nowhere walks a bunch of curves called Bliss. She's Johnny's girl and she needs the help of Chip the soda jerk because the lizards are hot on her trail.

It's wild and it's wacky, with characters who are colourful even in black and white. As it becomes a musical, with lots of catchy refrains layered over each other, it feels like a winner. There's a strong Forbidden Zone vibe, with catchy music from Ego Plum, who coincidentally is working with Danny Elfman on the upcoming Forbidden Zone sequel. It's lively stuff, with a host of characters to keep us intrigued: the wicked cool Johnny with three varied stooges and a bevy of beauties with initials on their jackets to back him up, all to take on his dangerous dame who's stolen a dastardly device from him called the Resurrection Suit. All he has left to spark up a confrontation in the diner is an electric glove, but it's enough to keep him on top for now. Caught in the crossfire is King Clayton, a dubious promoter who reacts when the news on the diner TV highlights that Mickey O'Flynn, the Man with a Grin, the King of Cactus Rock, has disappeared.
In short we're thrown into this all at once, rather like Chip the soda jerk, and like him we're tasked with finding it in ourselves to leave our comfortable lives for a journey through whatever musically twisted retro-wasteland Paul Bunnell has conjured up for us. Frankly, at that point, we're all for it, and if we weren't, having the bountiful bosom of Bliss thrust into our face at an empty drive in as she sings a sultry salsa called Hips That Never Lie is enough to persuade us. We're reminded of a slew of cult musicals, only beginning with Forbidden Zone and including The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Repo! The Genetic Opera and Phantom of the Paradise, films that maintain an enthusiastic following however long it's been since they were released. I saw Repo in a packed theatre before the shadowcasters took control and the promise in the air felt like the calm before a storm. For a little while, the same promise hung in the air here, but unfortunately only for a little while.

The point at which the film starts to fall apart is after we discover a dead Mickey O'Flynn on King Clayton's stage being badly manipulated as a puppet. The flashback scene that explains how he died during a business discussion is a long, slow one that doesn't contribute much of anything to the movie except to take all the momentum built thus far and beat it to death. Suddenly we start to notice a whole host of problems that become more apparent as the picture runs on. I honestly never thought I'd say this about a musical but there aren't enough songs. What's more, the best ones are the early ones, meaning that any of the energy generated early on gradually dissipates. Scenes that ought to rage merely whimper, like the catfight. Plot convenience rears its ugly head in a number of ways all at once, not all of which I feel comfortable outlining in a review. A third of the way in is an odd time to throw out a crucial plot twist though.

Perhaps the largest and most abiding problem is that The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is a product of its evolution. Creating a movie by patchwork over a decade doesn't bode well for consistency and having no less than four writers massage the script during that time bodes even worse. Even the title becomes rather meaningless, not only because we can never really be sure what the ghastly love of Johnny X is but because the story gradually ceases to be about Johnny X at all. Even as we discover that Chip is Clayton's nephew and so bringing the Resurrection Suit to him means that it gets handed right over to Johnny, we switch focus to Mickey O'Flynn, rather bizarrely given that he's dead. But hey, the suit is so named for a reason and it inevitably sets up the rest of the film. The only reason that we can't write the rest in our heads is because suddenly Sluggo decides that he needs a rebel moment and turns from Johnny X stooge to James Bond villain.
Early on, Will Keenan was solid as Johnny X, pouting and posturing as if he's a cartoon version of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, a great character for someone who started as Tromeo in Tromeo and Juliet. However he's consistently not fed the material he needs to maintain the persona, so as the film runs on, he simply fades, baby, to black. Instead we watch Mickey O'Flynn, as patchwork a character as the movie he finds himself in. When he's still alive, he's a hybrid of Johnny Cash and Crispin Glover, with plenty of Roy Orbison thrown into the mix and maybe some Grandpa Munster too. After he dies and is brought back by the Resurrection Suit, he becomes either John Wayne as a zombie Bill Murray or Bill Murray as a zombie John Wayne, one or the other. Creed Bratton, best known for the American version of The Office, is fascinating to watch as the King of Cactus Rock, but we continually wonder why we're watching him, even as we forget about Johnny X.

The second half of the film would be a complete train wreck, if only there weren't a host of magic moments to enjoy liberally sprinkled amongst the dreck. As good guys turn bad and bad guys turn good, weak characters become strong and strong characters become weak, all with apparently no explanation, we start to despair. As plot conveniences, questionable decisions and unfathomable script directions multiply, we wonder why we're still watching. But we can't stop watching Mickey O'Flynn, whatever inappropriateness he's getting up to. We certainly can't resist Cousin Quilty, a quirky talk show host played by the wonderful Paul Williams. He was originally cast as O'Flynn, but couldn't dedicate the time needed so was thankfully shifted over to Cousin Quilty, a gift of a part for him that he nails to perfection. The costumes, sets and dialogue occasionally get it very right. 'The party isn't started,' says Clayton to his girl Lily, 'until I see the whites of your thighs.'

It's entirely clear where this film went wrong, not just to us but to the people who made it. If Paul Bunnell had secured enough funding to make this in one shot, whether back in 2002 or in 2012, it would likely have been a riot, if not the cult favourite it obviously dreams of being. If it had been written by one writer, instead of being rewritten by four, it would surely have had more coherence and consistency. The actors did their best, but these conditions were tough. Keenan isn't fond of his work here and he does vanish from our attention after a strong start. He raves instead about De Anna Joy Brooks, who does the same to a lesser degree. The first twenty minutes would be a great short for them, but the feature isn't theirs at all. A film with this imagination and flair, with Keenan, Williams and Bratton, not to mention Kevin McCarthy in his last screen role as the Grand Inquisitor, should have resonated but now I want to forget it and go see Rocket Girl instead.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Down and Dangerous (2013)

Director: Zak Forsman
Stars: John T Woods, Paulie Rojas, Ross Marquand and Judd Nelson
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Of all the features I saw at the Phoenix Film Festival this year, Down and Dangerous was the only one I saw twice. The first time turned out to be the world première and the theatre was sold out, so I got to look up at the screen from the third row. I enjoyed it anyway, but when I got the chance to revisit it a few days later from a much better seat, I jumped at the chance. I also wanted to see if it played as well once I knew how it all went down and for the most part it did. Rather than lose impact with knowledge of the plot in hand, it felt more like an old friend. In fact it felt more like a very old friend, as if this was an eighties picture I'd loved as a teenager and was returning to after a couple of decades. It's theoretically contemporary, without any particular focus on time, but the excellent electronic score by Deklan, which kicks in before we have visuals, transports us to the eighties immediately and the style of the film remains compatible with that throughout.

It's not a great film, for reasons that mostly tie to budget, but it's certainly a good film, one that I can see myself returning to again and again over the years. The one flaw not sourced in budget is inherent, namely that the hero is a drug smuggler. Sure, he's an ethical smuggler, who conjures up imaginative schemes that allow everyone involved to be able to walk away, even if caught red handed. Sure, he's up against guys who are notably worse than him. Sure, the whole point of the film is to spin a fictional tale about a factual person, Zachary Swan, whose brief career smuggling cocaine was documented in the book Snowblind. Swan, who was 'uniquely principled for this line of work' was the father of Zak Forsman, who wrote and directed this film. Clearly, it's a story he needed to tell, but nonetheless it's really tough to sell a cocaine smuggler as a hero. Fortunately the drugs are something of a MacGuffin and could have been pretty much anything else.

I've mentioned budget a few times, so I should dig a little deeper on that front. Forsman raised his budget on Kickstarter, exceeding his $30,000 goal and eventually spending more like $40,000 on the picture. That's not a lot of money, especially when the obvious comparisons are with Michael Mann pictures like Manhunter and Heat. No, it's not in the same class as either of those films, but it's worthy of comparison and it cost a fraction what they did. I also enjoyed it a heck of a lot more than Public Enemies and that cost $100m. This really is a Michael Mann movie on a thousandth of the budget, exactly the sort of film that I've been jonesing for since the digital revolution promised an unending stream of low budget movies to challenge their bigger budgeted cousins. The stream turned out to be more of a trickle, but every once in a while someone who hasn't been noticed yet turns out to have the skills to make something big and the soul to make something worthy.

Forsman's success here starts with his script, as the various plot strands are all built around a set of characters who we want to know more about. It's a complex story but not too complex, starting by grabbing our interest, building through character and location, then ending up with those plot strands tied up neatly in time for the credits after a quick hour and a half. The characters are well defined and easily delineated and we want to know more about all of them, not only the leads but many of those who don't get an opportunity to shine too as the story doesn't have time to stretch as far as the bit players. Unlike many drug films, this one drew me in, perhaps because it's really about people. The only catch to pulling us in this deeply is that the writing does get sloppier the further away from the focal points we get, that second viewing highlighting a few issues with characters on the fringes that aren't immediately obvious unless you have sharp eyes.
The key plot strand follows a character who goes by the name of Paul Boxer. It isn't his real name, which he keeps private even from us, but it's the one he's using as he sets up his latest scam. This is an intriguing affair, one which goes a long way to securing our interest for the duration. He slips a winning ticket for a fake promotion into a box of tampons in a grocery store, waits for the phone call and sends a couple of girls on a cruise up the coast from Ensenada. Naturally, they're entirely unaware that the gift bag he gives them is full of cocaine, cunningly concealed in tourist trap gifts. Meeting them on their return to the States to take photos, it's a simple trick to replace those gifts on the sly with empty equivalents. If the ingenuity of this approach doesn't grab us, Elliot Reid is there to ensure it. Boxer usually works alone, but this scam needed a partner and Reid fit the bill. Unfortunately he tries to sell his cut of the drugs to a hitman and is nearly killed for his trouble.

Clearly the game is getting more and more dangerous, as Reid isn't the first of his colleagues to be shot by this particular hitman; he's just the first one Boxer manages to save. So, a pitch by a DEA special agent called Arturo Rezendes to help take down Rafael Garza, the Mexican drug lord behind these hits, eventually resonates enough for him to switch sides. We can't be sure exactly when it happens, as it presumably isn't when he's offered 12% of whatever's seized at the end of the operation, but it does give us a bad guy turned good guy taking down a drug lord, avenging fallen colleagues and earning enough money to retire on, all with one final run across the border. What may sell it to him is romance, as Garza's girl turns out to be Olivia Ivarra, the girl he should have ended up with long ago but whom he lost because he can't trust anyone, not even with his real name. It's apparently a small world in the smuggling business.

Of course, it isn't enough to write a story that's fundamentally rooted in characters if you don't have actors who can bring those characters to life. Forsman's next success was with his casting, because each of the key actors proved to be more than capable. In fact, the weakest link may be the film's most famous actor, though not through any fault of his own. With the film entirely shot, Forsman wanted to add a big name to the project and the net he cast pulled in Judd Nelson. As Boxer's incarcerated mentor, he appears in two brief scenes with his protégé but that really isn't enough to do much more than achieve the goal of the exercise, to add his name to the cast list. What impressed me most about the casting is that I've seen a number of these actors before in smaller roles but, with one exception, I'm far more likely to remember them from this film. They each make their presence known as part of a solid ensemble cast but don't steal the show.

John T Woods is most prominent as Boxer and it's good to see him playing a leading role. The last time I saw him was in Ray Karwel's sci-fi action thriller, Time Again, in which he was stuck playing the entire LAPD in support to Angela Rachelle. I liked that picture, which had a great deal of heart, but it struggled to escape being seen as a 'low budget movie' and failed, even with $125,000 to play with. Down and Dangerous had a mere third of that but transcends its budget immediately and emphatically to appear a much bigger film. After the festival, I followed up with Mega Snake, in which he has a lot of fun in another prominent supporting slot, demonstrating his range with a much looser performance. He does well with Boxer's contradictions, ably appearing to be both a nice guy and a bad guy, which is a neat trick to pull off. Perhaps he could have been darker, to reflect his trade, but that would have lessened his stature as the hero of the piece.
I've seen his leading lady before too. Paulie Rojas was a memorable water nymph in Folklore, the quirky fantasy picture that screened in competition at last year's International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, the sister of the Phoenix Film Festival, in which Down and Dangerous was in competition this year. Even with her brief performance in Folklore, it was impossible not to compare her to the Audreys, Hepburn and Tautou, and the same comparisons sprang out immediately here too, as a very different character indeed. Rojas is a pixie who has mastered the classic skill of knowing how to pose just so while making it seem entirely natural throughout. She works well with Woods here, though they do share a cringeworthy, if fortunately brief, moment in the finalé that really ought to be cut. I'm surprised to find that I haven't seen her biggest picture, as Dorothy in Dorothy and the Witches of Oz last year, alongside many household names. I'll have to remedy that.

I'm less familiar with the actors supporting them, though they do well here. Ross Marquand is the most prominent, having acted opposite a number of Oscar nominees, and he's believably sleazy as Henry Langlois, the hitman who has quite a history, though not enough to suggest a tie to the phantom of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois. I have to wonder though, as names are important in this film, with Boxer owning many but keeping his real one a secret, some sourced from those pledging larger amounts on Kickstarter and at least one being an admitted homage, Gabrio Ugarte a take on Peter Lorre's character in Casablanca. Luis Robledo, who's made at least one previous film with Marquand, A Lonely Place for Dying, gets less to do as a DEA special agent but he's refreshingly capable and honest while doing it. Ernest Curcio is also notable as the drug lord, Rafael Garza, though he only has a few previous credits and isn't given much background.

After the script and the actors, Forsman brought in the style and it's truly astounding how much he brought, given that he only had a six man crew. The Michael Mann comparisons aren't merely because of the subject matter and the soundtrack, they're obvious in the way the shots were set up and the use of architecture and locations. The opening scene, with Langlois shooting a drug dealer dead at a major crossroads in Los Angeles, the surrounding traffic routing itself around the obstacle without caring why it's there, is quintessential Mann, playing with the city as a character. Deklun's score merely underlines that comparison with emphasis. The film was shot in 36 days at 24 locations, which massively aids that big budget feel. This is far from set bound; we're out and about experiencing the big picture in two countries. The only location to disappoint was Garza's compound, an appropriate building but one which deserved more henchmen and more stuff.

Second time through, I realised how there's less action in the film than there seems to be, as the sustained tension and the impressive editing by Jamie Cobb keeps things moving at such a pace that it builds in our minds not just on the screen. The physical fights are quick and efficient and I liked them very much. Woods works some like he's Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak and immediately moves on like he's Tom Hardy in Warrior. The gunplay is better when it's framed well, the hits and chase far more believable than the scene at the border, which stoops to an old cliché as an homage. The tone is what's surprising here. This remains accessible, never becoming an ordeal like drug films often do, never becoming nasty even with a brief torture scene and never losing its direction to distractions. No, the Mormons are hardly going to praise it but combining a strong story, a strong score and strong editing with a strong set of performances makes it a very strong film indeed.

Friday 19 April 2013

Still Mine (2012)

Director: Michael McGowan
Stars: James Cromwell and Geneviève Bujold
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Still Mine, originally released as Still, was one of the features I was looking forward to most at this year's Phoenix Film Festival. I comment often about how actors traditionally fare badly as they get older but how that seems to be changing, perhaps influenced by the continued prominence of big stars like Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. Some of my favourite movies of the last few years have been focused around elderly actors given a shot to show what they can still do. Usually, as with Lovely, Still, the coincidentally titled highlight of a Phoenix Film Festival a few years ago, the stars are big names who simply rarely get the opportunities they deserve; in that movie, Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. This one, however, has a leading man who isn't used to being a leading man. He's James Cromwell, who you'll recognise as an able supporting character in over fifty films and even more TV shows. He's backed up by Geneviève Bujold, like him an Oscar nominee.

It isn't merely that Craig Morrison, the 87 year old man at the heart of this story, which is based on true events, is played by a 72 year old actor who deserved a leading role years ago; it's also that he's also a stubborn son of a bitch, who knows when he's right and is happy to play along with bureaucracy only so far. There was no way I was going to miss this one; I might need it as background material if I end up having to live it for real in a few decades time! As we discover from the earliest scenes, Morrison is really up against it. We first meet him in court, to which he's been summoned for no fewer than 26 building code violations and he could well be facing jail time. What we don't know at this point is why, because we'll discover that in the long flashback sequence that constitutes the body of the film. We're clearly brought in at the same point as the judge and we're given the same story he is on which to build our judgement.

Initially we're given character, not only through the story of the baseball he got both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to sign when he was a kid, but through the funeral he goes to in Fundy Bay two years before the opening scene. It's another reminder of death to a couple who are growing old. Craig and his wife Irene appear to be in good physical shape, keeping active and busy at their farm in St Martin's, New Brunswick, but they're hardly spring chickens. While Craig jokes about planning to beat the odds, Irene is seriously worried about dying and he has to pay attention, as we soon discover that she's losing her memory. It's still subtle, as we find when they encounter a herd of cows on the road and she doesn't realise that they're theirs, but it's getting worse. We're never told if it's dementia or Alzheimer's or what, but the effect is the same. When she leaves an oven mitt on the stove and nearly burns their farm down, he has to take steps.
The thing is that, like Emmanuelle Riva's character in Amour, she won't give him any options. She won't go into a retirement home and she refuses to 'shuffle into the ground'. Their seven children have ideas and we hear some of them from those who live closest and have most influence, but Craig searches for a solution of his own and eventually finds one: if their house isn't suitable for a woman whose memory is failing, then he'll build one that is. He has a perfect plot of land over the road that overlooks the bay. He has the skills, having been trained in carpentry by his shipwright father. He has the material, his own forest of old growth spruce that he can fell and cut himself. He certainly has the time, as he's gradually retiring from business. Perhaps most importantly, he relishes the challenge of a new project. 'Age is an abstraction, not a straitjacket,' he tells one of his sons, meaning that he still feels capable and isn't that all that matters?

The only thing he hadn't factored in was bureacracy. He's already experiencing it, as we discover when the guy who buys his strawberries won't buy them any more because his company requires them to be delivered in refrigerated trucks, but it's about to get a lot worse. He begins as he plans to go on, digging the foundations and building the framework, but gradually people start talking to him about the legality of what he's doing. Initially he's skeptical. 'Why would I need a permit?' he asks. 'It's my land.' He's a good man though and doesn't want to break the law, so he goes to the city and pays his $400 fee. Unfortunately from here on out, he finds himself battling red tape and one bureaucrat in particular who gradually makes it his purpose in life to stop Craig in his tracks. The frustrated builder attempts to play along, but his efforts are quickly outpaced by new issues and before long he gives up entirely, tearing down stop work orders and continuing to build.

It's far from difficult to see how a worthy story builds from these foundations, puns not intended. Craig is a simple man, albeit an educated and capable one, and he has a simple challenge with a simple answer. On one side, he has a wife who's getting worse every day but who he's promised not to send to a home. On the other, he has a perfectly suitable new home for her that's getting better every day but which is threatened by legislation that he doesn't understand. The building inspector continues to find fault and initially we have some sympathy for him, but it doesn't take long for him to become clearly bureaucratic, sticking to the letter of the law instead of the spirit. He won't accept wood that isn't stamped, though he knows that it's of higher quality than any other building project in town. He won't accept joists that aren't engineer approved, though he admits they're easily good enough. It's just that when he says jump, Craig doesn't ask how high.
James Cromwell dominates the film, though with able support. Craig's family are clearly of good stock, caring enough to help whenever needed but also caring enough to leave alone until asked, quietly keeping each other appraised of the situation instead. They're all hard workers; it may be that not a one of them appears in a scene where they're not either working or helping. Effectively they're there when they're needed but they step back otherwise and that goes just the same for the actors who play them. The picture's story revolves around Craig and so Cromwell is rarely off screen. He relishes the opportunities given him both by a lead role of this substance and a lead role, period, and he pours himself into the part, right down to a brief nude scene when we realise that Craig still showers outside. His Oscar nomination was for Babe, but he's been nominated for or won awards for eight different films. It's no surprise to find that this is prominent among them.

The only time Cromwell doesn't dominate is when Geneviève Bujold is on screen, because while the film's story revolves around Craig, Craig's story revolves around Irene. As good as Cromwell is everywhere in this film, Bujold steals every scene that she's in. To be fair, she has a gift of a part in this French Canadian housewife who's losing her memory. It's the sort of character that makes us watch her, not merely to see what she's going to do next but to see what she's not going to do next too. Craig is who he is and Cromwell brings that powerfully to life. Irene isn't just who she is, she's increasingly who she used to be instead, moving forward in time as her mind moves back. One telling scene has her disappear, only for Craig to eventually find her on the beach smoking a cigarette. She forgot that she gave up smoking fifty years earlier and can't even remember where she found the pack she's now working through.

Michael McGowan, who wrote and directed, deserves much of the credit for this picture, which did everything it aimed to do. It's a small town story that stays on focus and keeps distractions at bay. It has well defined characters who change believably with events until the flashback reaches the beginning of the film and we discover how it all plays out in the end. It has no artful pretensions of being anything more than it is. Though there's not a lot of complexity here, McGowan impresses more as a writer than a director, each memory I have of the film being related to character rather than style. As a director, he was responsible mostly for bringing out a superb pair of performances from his leads and a host of solid performances from his supporting actors. It's a surprisingly easy ride, given the material, that doesn't surprise too much, not attempting to be a Canadian Amour, but it proved a highly enjoyable one, especially to a cantankerous old soul like me.