Thursday 30 May 2013

Blood Moon Rising (2009)

Director: Brian Skiba
Stars: Laurie Love, Neal Trout, Kent Wolborn, Jose Rosete and Aaron Ginn-Forsberg
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Just in case we didn't figure it out from either the film's title or poster, Blood Moon Rising throws the word 'GRINDHOUSE' onto the screen in such large letters that we can't fail to pay attention. It really is the most important word in the film, because this would be a truly painful experience if you attempted to take any of it seriously. However if you watch it with grindhouse in mind, it's a heck of a lot of fun. In fact, watching it afresh at home, I found that it's a heck of a lot more fun than I remember it being on the big screen, when it premiered at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival back in 2009. That may be partly because I know how outrageous it is now and partly because I know even more people on the screen than I did last time through. I might just have to sit down and watch the director's cut in a couple of weeks time at the Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival. Maybe then I'll be able to locate the last few elusive zombie friends in the film.

If the reminder that this is grindhouse inspired helps us deal with the outrageous plot, which may well include more grindhouse genre elements than any other modern homage, it helps to prepare us for the faux 35mm look too. Brian Skiba, who wrote, edited, produced and directed, clearly had the feel of the grindhouses themselves in mind as much as the feel of the films that they showed. If he could have sprayed theatre seats with puke and urine and deposited a bunch of bums at the entrance to sleep off their drunks, you just know he'd have done it. Beyond some well done aging effects that artifact the screen, he goes as far as skipping a few frames here and there, removing some lines entirely so that lips move silently, overdubbing others ever so slightly out of sync, even including a missing reel so that we can only wonder what might have got left out of such a crazily busy picture. In reality, it never got shot, of course.

The opening scenes before the title are the most believable from an aging perspective. If I didn't recognise local actors like Davina Joy, I could have bought it as an early seventies movie I merely hadn't seen until now. It's set outdoors at a lively party, with all the elements you might expect: cars, drugs, tie dyed shirts, live surf music, enthusiastic tongue swapping. And fast zombies. Joy does pick the right moment to find somewhere to pee, but she doesn't make it out. Only a trio of characters make it out and only one of them alive: Sadie, our heroine, played by Laurie Love. One of the others was a vampire to begin with and the other becomes one by the time it's over. This is that sort of film. You know, the sort that starts out with zombies, only for us to realise that most of them are vampires and werewolves. It's the sort where you start to wonder what you've seen in a grindhouse movie that isn't in here somewhere too and can't quite come up with anything.
So here I need to explain how that's all possible. A few generations back, Tristran was married to Lucy, but he cheated on her with Rachel. Unfortunately for him, while Rachel was the daughter of the preacher, Lucy was the daughter of the Devil himself and she really isn't too happy when she finds out what's been going on behind her back. So she ties them up and curses them as she kills them. Tristan will live on as a vampire and Rachel as a werewolf. The locals of the town of Despair take down Lucy and bury her in the forest, but she'll return if the blood of a family member drips on the earth, she'll reopen the gate to Hell through a lost book that's written in blood and bound in human flesh and she can be stopped only by the willing sacrifice of a virgin. Now, Lucy and Sadie are both played by Laurie Love and Sadie teams up with a comic book nerd and soda jerk called Darrell, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how that will all work out.

If this story sounds a little cramped, trust me when I emphasise that it is. It's often tough to figure out which faction is which and who's really on whose side. Are the vampire bikers with the Devil's daughter or her great-great-granddaughter double? What about the werewolves? Presumably the zombies don't care. The knights are with Lucy. Yes, we have knights. We have aliens as well. I did mention that there's everything but the supernatural kitchen sink in this picture, right? And I may have missed that during a disbelieving blink. I did catch the army of demonic orcs, the dude in a skeleton mask and metal battle armour, and the swordfighting, Schwinn riding Mexican granddad. I caught Ron Jeremy too and he caught a particularly bloody facial from an exploding head that I don't even dare to riff on; you can make up your own jokes there. There's even a severed hand like Thing that scurries about and steals scenes to down home banjo pickin' accompaniment.

Darrell, the virgin of the story, puts down his comic books when this apocalypse arrives to proudly explain to Sadie that, 'I've been waiting for this all my life!' Now, I want to know what sort of comic books he's been reading to set himself up for this sort of manic monster mash. This one even has a meta level where the various characters in this film locate the town of Despair, only to discover that it's now Despair Studios, authentic western film set, where a crew is shooting a zombie flick only a hop, skip and jump ahead of the real zombie invasion. The script is less a story and more a PCP laced smörgåsbord of influences and it's that constant insanity immersion that makes it such a trip. Certainly there are so many characters to keep an eye on that it's truly impossible to keep up with all of them and we have to give up and let it wash over us like a theme park ride through Grindhouseland. The film works so much better that way when we stop trying to fathom it.
Laurie Love is most obvious by far because she plays both the leading ladies. She knew the movie well, having debuted with the 2007 short from which this was expanded. She only played one role there but, with Brian Skiba, she also wrote, produced and directed the film. In this feature length expansion, she also wrote and produced, alongside others, and even added wardrobe supervision to her list of roles. She must have really liked the idea. She clearly had a lot of fun with her double role, Sadie being a hippie chick next door who progresses from damsel in distress to take charge heroine and Lucy being a dominant demonic succubus. Her filmography looks so similar to Skiba's that it's no surprise to find that they married in 2012. Her latest picture is Crushed Velvet, which is about to receive its world premiere at the Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival in mid-June. It isn't just another Skiba movie, it brings back many of the cast members from Blood Moon Rising too.

While Neal Trout clearly did precisely what was asked of him as Darrell, a nerdy Robin to back up Sadie's Batman, I found his acting overdone even for this deliberately overdone homage. I enjoyed Kent Welborn more as Sam, the biker with outstanding mutton chops who made out with Sadie's friend Becky at the party before being turned into a vampire and getting a new lease on undeath in the process. Trout knows how to pose just right for the camera but Welborn does it even better. The rest of the cast are like a who's who of local Arizona actors. Aaron Ginn-Forsberg gets a long flashback scene as Tristan, the cursed vampire. He provides some needed grounding early on but fades away as the film progresses. By comparison, Rick Dyer is acutely painful in his early scenes as Ruddy, the old Mexican, but he becomes rather endearing. Jose Rosete, the most prolific actor in Arizona, is good fun as Sanchez, wandering around with a mini-cleaver stuck in his forehead.

Mostly though, this belongs to the creators of this sprawling mess of grindhouse influences, Skiba and Love. Perhaps the cheesiest line in the film, 'You'll never get away with this!' serves to sum up their approach. The script resembles one of the many exploding heads we're gifted with, because it feels like a bunch of outrageous ideas were splattered onto a page and then blood was poured on in liberal quantities until any connections between those ideas were lost in the grue. And you know what? That's its charm. Try to analyse this and you'll hurt your brain, but sit back and let it wash over you like a deluge and you might just have a blast. There are great gore effects, good make up work, bad greenscreen and terrible CGI, but it's surely all deliberate. Love calls it 'The Evil Dead meets Dazed and Confused' and that sounds fair. If you like grindhouse, this will be a lot of fun even without a beer but it'll be even better at a drive in with a six pack and a pizza.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Dead in France (2012)

Director: Kris McManus
Stars: Celia Muir, Darren Bransford, Lee Cheney, Kate Loustau, Brian Levine and James Privett

I had a great time watching Dead in France, though I'm not sure precisely what Brian Levine and Kris McManus really wanted it to be. Levine produced, took the lead role and co-wrote, under the pseudonym of Jack Hillgate, with director McManus, who also shot and edited the picture. A quote on the poster suggests it's 'Tarantino meets Ritchie', but that's misleading as the similarities are superficial: sure, it's a story about hitmen, which introduces its disparate characters through title cards and spins them gradually together, but the tone is utterly different. Any Tarantino reference is limited to profanity and gore, as without bad language this would feel like an old Ealing comedy, underlined by the choice to shoot in black and white. There's also a lot of quiet here that suggests a Jacques Tati influence, emphasised by the opening credits, slow pace and its setting on the Côte d'Azur. Perhaps I'm impressed because these influences aren't remotely compatible but it works.

Levine plays Charles, a quiet and polite gentleman who wouldn't even kill a wasp. Except that he's a talented and experienced hitman, who's about to retire after his hundredth job. He's methodical, partly through clearly having OCD, and he looks the part, wearing the requisite Jason Statham lack of hair. For all his skills, though, none of them appear to be social. His superb first scene with Lisa, half confident experience and half social nerves, underlines that. We can't initially tell if he's hiring a prostitute or a mail order bride, but she turns out to be a cleaner, an outspoken Essex girl in a bikini to contrast her boss's relentless calm and traditional suit. Both of them contrast madly with her boyfriend, Denny, a wiry party animal with tattoos and a mohawk but no manners who shows up to do her in every conceivable position in every conceivable location in Charles's house and grounds. Some of these scenes are a little long, but they are at least shot imaginatively.

Gradually a number of stories come together. Charles is one, as he aims to follow up his century of hits with retirement, a large yacht and a girl with which to sail off into the sunset. Lisa and Denny are another, as they begin to spin scams of increasing idiocy while they have Charles's place to themselves. Burgess, a retired hitman whose wife is Charles's final job, becomes the third. This introduces a couple of million pounds into the equation to become the MacGuffin of the piece. A further hitman, or hitwoman, whatever the technical term is for a foul mouthed crazy bitch of a professional killer, makes four. She's Clancy, and she's unlike Charles in every way, except for her job, though she's as relentlessly as wild as he's in control. To make it a half dozen subplots we're gifted with Simon and Raymond, a con man and a thief respectively. They're a pair of brothers, small time crooks looking for that one big time score, and they might just have found it.
Naturally, all these characters intersect in inventive ways that keep us guessing as to where it's all going to end up, which turns out to be both believable and appropriate, yet not precisely what we might expect. That might sound like praise for a complex plot, but this film isn't really about plot, as steady and reliable as its storyline is. While Levine and McManus certainly borrowed from early Guy Ritchie movies, they only took the framework, that sort of jigsaw puzzle approach to scripting, but either couldn't or wouldn't cast the quantity of characters needed to obfuscate it substantially enough to keep us truly on our toes. There are a few smaller parts here and there and some of the actors who play them even have key reasons to be in the movie, but for the most part, it's the key folk from those six subplots interacting with each other through plot convenience. Going just from what you see in this film, you might be forgiven for believing that the Côte d'Azur is 95% British.

I get the impression that it started with the characters, and while a vaguely complicated plot was spun around them, it ended with the characters too. It's not that they're particularly deep, though a few have their depths, it's that they're all connected by being Brits abroad, while otherwise not having much in common at all. They're a very diverse and well delineated set of principals and all the actors cast got plenty of opportunity to flesh them out. Levine keeps the deepest character for himself, with the most screen time, but his quiet man routine ensures that most of his scenes are easily stolen out from under him. He gets few great lines and his deliberately subdued portrayal is so underdone that after his introductory scenes, he quickly becomes something of a background, not a background character but a background set, against which everyone else gets to strut their respective stuff. He's the straight man who everyone else bounces off.

If Charles, who we surely care about more than anyone else, for all that he's murdered a hundred people for money, is the most underacted character, his opposite is clearly Denny. Darren Bransford is so completely obnoxious as Denny that most audience members are likely to care about him the least, but he goes hog wild with the character so that we never want to ignore him. Certainly most of the magic little moments in the movie are focused around him: Denny and the door, Denny and the pool, Denny and the cat... It would be hilarious to find that he's really a mild mannered gentleman in real life, because it feels like the advice he was given here was to shove a six pack of Duracell up his jacksie and never stop moving, never stop swearing and never stop pissing off his girlfriend in every way possible. He's like the Energizer Bunny, if the Energizer Bunny grew up in the slums of Liverpool acutely allergic to social graces.
In between is everyone else. Celia Muir, who is technically top billed, is a delight as Lisa. She was one of many actors to return from Kris McManus's previous feature, 2011's Travellers, and it's not surprising to see a director want to keep her. She manages to play Lisa as a slapper of little brain, but somehow enough charm and substance to escape her Essex girl stereotype. Lee Cheney and James Privett are solid as the small time hucksters, utterly out of their depth throughout but blind to the possibility that they won't win out in the end. Only Simon's first scene with Charles is taken to absurd heights, so overdone that it feels like a comedy sketch. Kate Loustau finishes up the major cast as Clancy, an outrageously over the top portrayal almost as obnoxious as Bransford's Denny. However, Clancy has a talent underneath her foul mouthed exterior, one she's more than willing to use. For all her many faults, she's rarely a fool, while Denny is rarely anything else.

With all these colourful characters competiting for our attention, with Charles grounding them all, it can't have been rocket science to throw them memorable moments and lines to work with. Not all of them go to Bransford, including perhaps my favourite, which is gifted to a bit part character, played by Chris Manns, in a flashback. 'You got problems, Big Chris?' he's asked on an intercom, only to answer, 'Yeah, Ian's head just exploded.' While it's not important in the grand scheme of things, this scene ably highlights the very British black comedy which underpins the entire script, as well as the capable and extremely gory effects work, which would have given any horror movie a run for its money if only it hadn't been shot in black and white. Much of it is clearly gratuitous, not that I'm complaining, and the eventual death count would have the antagonist in any slasher movie reeling in envy.

I have no idea how well Dead in France is going to do, but I'm guessing that it won't do as well as it should. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I've watched it twice, but I tried it out with a couple of lads from the next generation and they didn't even finish it. I'm sure the pace is part of it, much slower than they would expect for an action movie. The odd mixture of subtle character building and dark comedy with outrageous profanity, violence and gore may not have sat well with them either. The many easy comparisons like the quote on the poster are valid but none of them give a fair idea of what the feature as a whole really feels like. Sure, there's a lot taken from Guy Ritchie, but it's far from a Guy Ritchie film. It's just as far from a Tarantino movie, an Ealing comedy or a Jacques Tati picture, but there are just as many elements from those here. Maybe: written by Tati from a story by Ritchie, directed by Charles Crichton and produced by Eli Roth. Yeah, it's that unconventional.

Thursday 9 May 2013

Black Gulch (2003)

Director: Michael Strode
Stars: Christopher Bradley, Stephen Taylor and Joshua Miller

Michael Strode has a full decade of credits to his name, but they're not generally in the roles you tend to see referenced in reviews like this. Instead he seems to have collected those colourful job descriptions that people who read long scrolling credits wonder about. You know the ones I mean: he's been the gaffer and the best boy and the key grip, all important technical positions within the electrical and lighting departments. Well, here's where he notched off some that we actually talk about, like writer, producer and director. Given how solid this short film is, it's only surprising that he hasn't reprised them more often, but this is his only film as a writer and director and he's only produced one other picture since, a post-apocalyptic vampire musical from 2005 called Sacrifice. Given that this little film is vastly superior to most of the horrendous movies getting churned out by the ton nowadays, I wonder why he hasn't made another short on his own terms.

Clearly he and his crew knew what they were doing because there's a notable amount of control from the very beginning. In quick succession we're shown where we are and who we're supposed to be watching, while we're introduced to other pertinent details through colourful dialogue. The where is a van speeding through the desert to the town of Black Gulch, while the who is Everett, the leader of a bunch of crooks who are about to take down the Savings & Loan. Strode sets it up superbly. While Randy rattles on nineteen to the dozen because he's nervous and his mouth runs faster than his brain, his uncle Everett stays icy cool until he's called on to throw out a quotable line. 'Relax, friend,' he tells him in a suitably deep voice, 'We got your back.' That's when Chase, the tough guy, and Tom, the thinking man, look at him as if in wonder because he's obviously as green as they aren't, a fourth wheel in a team of three, but it's just as obviously Everett's show.

And so they pile out of their fake plumber's van in Black Gulch and race into the Savings & Loan, to find the last thing they expected: absolutely nothing. The lights are on but nobody's home. It's their lucky day, you'd think, and sure, the tills are full of cash with nobody to stop them waltzing away with all of it, but if it was as simple as that we wouldn't have a movie. There is something in Black Gulch and, as they say, it ain't no man, so we watch Everett and his men hunt it down as it picks them off one by one. There's a lot here that you'll have seen before in other movies, but it's superbly handled by the cast and crew and there's a neat little twist coming that's telegraphed in little cues here and there if you're paying attention. The dialogue is full of eighties cool, especially when it comes to Everett but, frankly, the story rings true and clear even if we watch the entirety of it with the sound on mute. That's how textbook its construction is.

After debuting in a fun but routine slasher movie called The Initiation, Christopher Bradley built a great run in cult movies as the eighties ran into the nineties, films like Iron Eagle, Waxwork and a personal favourite of mine, Sonny Boy, but he was confined to smaller roles. Only in 1992 with an indie remake of Mad Dog Coll and its sequel did he find the lead, but this fifteen minute short film is enough to demonstrate that he could carry it. Sure, this isn't the most original characterisation in the book, Bradley borrowing as much from Tim Thomerson as from Kurt Russell, with moments of Bruce Campbell never hiding too far below the surface, but it's exactly what's called for. Black Gulch has a very eighties feel and so he plays Everett like an eighties lead, all macho loyalty and cool one liners. Word is that Strode made this with the aim of expanding it to feature length. If so, that's where Bradley's work could have really shone.

It's not entirely his film, as you might expect when he's co-starring with a 6'10" stuntman known as Big Dave with a wicked costume and some neat moves, and he's not the only one stealing our attention. I kept waiting for Stephen Taylor to trip over his own tongue as Randy with his mile a minute mouth, but he made it through intact. Joshua Miller, only eleven years old, is superb as a kid called Simon, the lone survivor of whatever took down the town. Of course Everett, the tough bank robber, takes him under his wing for he's not bad, he's just drawn that way. To me, Bradley's biggest competitor for our attention though was the film itself, as it stole mine with the way it was constructed. Other than a few clearly greenscreen scenes, it's technically spot on, with everything done for a demonstrable reason: every angle, every zoom, every pan, every cut, every camera movement. Watch on mute and learn the trade. If only all textbooks were this much fun.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

The Story of Luke (2012)

Director: Alonso Mayo
Stars: Lou Taylor Pucci, Seth Green, Cary Elwes and Kristin Bauer
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.
As the Special Jury Prize at the Phoenix Film Festival was being awarded to Lou Taylor Pucci, for his leading role in The Story of Luke, he was also starring in the number one movie in America, The Evil Dead. Nailing both indie and mainstream cinema at the same time is a pretty good sign that you've arrived, even if it took a decade of hard work. It has to be said though that this film is rather well titled: not only is it the well defined story of a character named Luke, it's not a heck of a lot else. There are capable actors backing up Pucci, but the stories of their characters are either completely ignored or ruthlessly severed just as we get interested. The Story of Luke is, well, it's the story of Luke and Luke is the sort of special character, a high functioning young autistic man, who either fails horribly or wins awards. Pucci is excellent enough for it to be the latter, though I doubt that the film will last in people's minds like some of its more Oscar-worthy equivalents.

We join Luke at a rather troubled time in his life. To be fair, his entire life has been troubled; his mother left when he was four because she couldn't deal with a special needs child and he has no idea who his dad is. He's been living with his grandparents ever since, but now Grandma Maggie, the most important person in his life, has died and his life is about to change completely. What's notable immediately is that as much as Luke is autistic and isolated from reality, he's also higher functioning than Grandpa Jonas, who's inappropriate and in dire need of care. The pair stay with Luke's Uncle Paul and Jonas wears out his welcome immediately: he grabs Aunt Cindy's ass and offers her a twenty, pees himself in her car and craps himself in a restroom because he forgot to pull down his trousers first. He also insults everyone deliberately; Luke only does it because he's honest and doesn't have the social skills needed to know when to keep quiet.

And so off goes Grandpa Jonas, his story running only a little longer than Grandma Maggie's and she died before the movie began. That's an unfortunate trend in this film; it's so strongly about Luke that we pay attention to anyone else at our own risk. Sure, it's his story and he's set up to be a fascinating character from moment one, walking to Maggie's funeral with a pair of mismatched shoes and a suitcase, only to stand up and scream during the service, but he's promptly shifted into a new world and tasked with finding his own way. Paul and Cindy are a dysfunctional couple with a pair of dysfunctional kids, Brad and Megan, so routinely dysfunctional that we expect the cliché: that all they each need to shake them out of their respective problems is the presence in their lives of someone special like Luke. It's the expected thing because that's what all the other films about special people do and, at least for a while, it's what this one does too.
First up is Aunt Cindy, who's scarily up tight. OK, Grandpa would have got on anyone's nerves but she gets on everyone else's nerves, to the degree that her manicurist fires her as a customer. It has to be said that Kristin Bauer does psycho bitchy better than perhaps anyone, so I don't have a single problem with her performance, but it apparently takes a single one sided conversation with Luke to turn her around. I don't buy that. It takes a similar amount of inaction or at least mild action on Luke's part for him to start to change every other member of the family too. You'd think they'd package him up in a bottle and sell him at the pharmacy. I wonder if all these scenes were writer/director Alonso Mayo's way of getting all the clichés out of the way so that Luke could move forward to experience an original story of his own. If so, it worked but it marginalised most of the stars in the process. Kristin Bauer and Cary Elwes? Forget 'em. This is the story of Luke.

Trying to find a life for himself outside this family while rigidly obeying all of Aunt Cindy's rules is where Luke's story is going and this is a lot more successful. As unintentionally annoying as Luke can be, Pucci succeeds in making him rather endearing. A great deal of it has to be the way he channels a young and nerdy Johnny Depp physically but Jim Parsons vocally. Partly it's his socially awkward honesty, which works like an inner voice that's usually kept silent. Certainly this is one key way that he shakes up the family he comes to live with, exposing that they're all hiding from reality and suggesting that all it takes to set them back on the road to recovery is to confront them with it. Partly it's his delightfully odd balance between constant unsurety and strong will. He simmers with a subdued panic but has the guts to confront his fears, routines and OCD, turning assumptions of how things have to change into absolutes, however absurd they happen to be.

One great example is Maria. She's a receptionist at the job agency he visits to look for work, the only way he'll be able to move into a place of his own. Prompted by his grandpa's inappropriate comments, he asks her out. She turns him down, but he equates that rejection with his lack of work so strongly that getting a job in his mind equates to her saying yes. It clearly isn't going to happen, but his delusion is so believable and so recognisable from reality that we find ourselves rooting for him nonetheless. However, we're soon about to be caught up in something else, the transition of the picture from comedic drama to dramatic comedy, with the arrival of Seth Green who says things like, 'Humanity is evil!' and, 'To the dungeon, halfwit!' He's Zack, the boss from Hell in an inappropriate way that's shocking to Luke, who's stuck interning for him, and hilarious to us. And it's not politically incorrect because Zack's obviously special too.
The Story of Luke is as its best when it's telling the story of Luke. The movie was released during National Autism Awareness month, appropriate because it gifts us with a believably autistic lead who is nonetheless the most endearing character in the film. He's special to us without that term having to hold a double meaning. I found the ways in which Mayo wrote the character and Pucci played him far more human and engaging than anything I saw in Rain Man, which won a brace of Academy Awards. Perhaps it's because Rain Man was never about Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant, at all; it was always about his shallow brother, Charlie and how Raymond changed him. By comparison, The Story of Luke is all about the autistic Luke, who isn't a savant but whose autism is high functioning enough to allow him to interact with the world, albeit in a different way to the rest of us. It's the various Charlies in his life who we can happily ignore.

The only other character who really gets a fully painted story arc is Zack, who calls normal people NTs or 'neurological typicals' and studies their mating rituals. Seth Green is hilarious as Zack, who is so outrageous that he highlights how easily acceptable Luke's social faux pas are. The catch is that he's such a comedy character that it's hard to take his dramatic side seriously. Pucci is able to walk that fine line, but Green can't manage it. Everyone else is set up, used as a prop for Luke to build off and then callously discarded. While I was happy for this to extend past the expected, I also wanted to know more about the other characters in his life. Kristin Bauer is wasted as Cindy, even with a couple of strong scenes early on; Cary Elwes doesn't even get that much as Paul. The kids are shown to us in scenes that make us want to discover why they're like how they are, but none of that discovery ever shows up.

Really, this entire family is relegated to being a set of walking props, just as the characters who show up later in the story walk into Luke's life, establish something important and then disappear again. A few of them are massively important, but only in how they affect Luke. They're all either unimportant on their own merits or Mayo refuses to allow them to show why they have their own importance too. Of course, their one dimensionality is only highlighted by the superbly nuanced three dimensions that Luke is given. Throughout, the film felt like an animation of a beautiful and colourful painted character walking around in a black and white world. I could go out on a limb and wonder if that's the point, that Mayo is turning the tables and showing us how a withdrawn autistic character could see himself as black and white in a world of colour, or how we erroneously see that through prejudice, but I don't think so. I think this is just emphatically the story of Luke.

Thursday 2 May 2013

Waking (2013)

Director: Ben Shelton
Stars: Skyler Caleb and Meg Cionni
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.
Waking is one of those movies you leave with a warm feeling deep inside, as if part of the universe has just fallen back into natural alignment. It's not perfect, though it is a highly enjoyable picture. It's not always happy, though it makes up for it in the end. It's not even particularly ambitious, as it plays it straight throughout, ruthlessly refusing to follow up on hints at different, more complex, readings. But what it does, it does very well indeed, and standard descriptions are going to fail to do it justice. It's a romance, you see. With a light hearted tone, an element of fantasy and a sense of destiny. Now, be honest: how many guys reading this immediately tuned out? Well, you should all start paying attention again. This isn't a chick flick and it isn't an unrealistic romcom featuring someone who used to be in Friends. You don't have to see it on the Lifetime Channel with breaks for tampon commercials. You can actually sit down and enjoy it with your girlfriend. Honestly.

Clearly it's a story that matters to Skyler Caleb; not only did he write it, sourced from a dream no less, but he also plays the lead role of Ben. No, that dream didn't play out for real the way that it does here, but then that's life; this is a movie, a 95 minute gift from the dream factory. It follows its own rules, ones that only Ben seems willing to believe in, and if that isn't a great definition for a love story, I don't know what is. You see, something fundamental isn't quite right in Ben's life, even though his girlfriend is moving back from Chicago to be with him. She's starting a new job; he already has one, working for her dad. These are stereotypical happy scenes, especially at the beginning of a movie, but they're deliberately just a little off. It isn't just that Ben is a little klutzy, it's that he isn't as enthused about it all as he should be and as he thinks he should be. He and Amy are good people but they don't appear to think on the same level. The chemistry isn't right.

The fact that Ben's mind isn't in the right place is underlined in bold red ink in the pivotal scene in the park. He's riding his bike to work because his car won't start, but work and everything else are promptly sucked out of his mind when he catches sight of a young lady who's sitting on the grass reading a book. He immediately crashes, both physically and mentally, but while he recovers his breath and his dignity soon enough in her charming company, the incident and especially the girl remain stuck in his mind. More importantly, they remain stuck in his dreams where they build the story and set Ben moving along a rollercoaster of a story arc to a date with destiny. Now, Park Girl is certainly a vision to behold, the ethereal Meg Cionni a shoe in to steal anyone's breath; but he's not only dreaming about her, he's dreaming about his childhood and the little girl he grew up with and played with all the time. You won't win a prize for guessing that they're one and the same.
I like these dreams because they follow dream logic. Director Ben Shelton refuses to give us the moments we're conditioned to expect, those clichéd moments where eyes close slowly so that we can be sure we're not in Kansas any more. Instead he throws us straight into Ben's dreams, which we only realise gradually because of how they unfold. For instance, during one conversation with Park Girl, she reveals that she moved to Sacramento, even though she's clearly talking to him in the very same park in which they just met. He must be dreaming and rationalising the disconnect away in that recognisable way that dreams mash up mutually exclusive events. By this point, we can't even be sure that the first meeting was real, though I presume it was, or if all those scenes with them as kids are real, though I presume they were really dreams. What we know is that Ben can't stop dreaming about Nadia, for that's her name, and he's been doing it for a very long time.

What makes this romantic instead of creepy is that we quickly discover that while Ben dreamed about Nadia, Nadia also dreamed about Ben. These aren't the dreams of either of them, they're the dreams of both. They grew up together in dreamland. That's the fantastic conclusion that we and Ben both reach when Nadia gives him her phone number in a dream, he rings it the next day and reaches her voicemail. Of course, we have a whole slew of questions at this point. Are we to take this as a straight romantic fantasy, or is something else going on? Is Ben exploring his doubts about his relationship and his future through therapy? After all, he works with Amy's dad, who is a therapist, sitting on his sessions. His mother is a therapist too. Is he regressing to his childhood under hypnosis? Is he even real, or merely a therapy session for Eddie, the patient we see? Is he schizophrenic? Is he clairvoyant, being visited by Nadia's ghost? Oh yes, I had questions.

I wonder how Waking would have played if Caleb's script was more interested in complexities like these. The neat way Shelton takes us in and out of dreams suggests that it could have become a delectable layer cake of different readings. I'm looking forward to watching it again with hindsight to see how many of those layers are there and whether those readings are viable, but my first run played out as a straight romantic fantasy rooted in a few simple but engaging ideas. Firstly, the girl of your dreams could be literally the girl of your dreams. Secondly, it could go both ways: you could be the boy of her dreams too. Thirdly, and most importantly for this story, what would you do if you realised for a fact that the girl of your dreams was real? What would you give up? How much would you give up? What if you have a girlfriend who cares about you? What if you just got engaged to her? What if you work with her dad and hope to take over his practice one day?
I liked Ben, as klutzy as he is. He's like a human tumbleweed, ending up wherever outside forces leave him, vaguely content with his lot but never really where he should be. Skyler Caleb ought to have understood what Ben needed to do, given that he created him and wrote his story, and it's his film throughout, whoever else he gets to share it with. Tara Erickson does a good job as Amy, an awkward part because she's tasked with being desirable but not too much; being a believable girlfriend for Ben but not enough to stop him retaining a girl of his dreams. I liked Steve Moulton too as Ben's best friend Mark. He's suitably large and brusque, just right as a straight man, voice of reason and sounding board all in one. He shares a couple of great scenes, albeit unimportant ones in the grand scheme of things, with Alison Haislip, who leapt into the public eye last month with her excellent reading of the infamous Delta Gamma sorority e-mail.

Best of all, Meg Cionni is utterly perfect as Nadia. As a small bundle of delight who clearly has fairy blood somewhere in her family tree, she's a believable dream girl, never an easy part to cast. She does a great job in the ways you might expect, but she also somehow does something immensely important in a way I still can't quite fathom. In most films, Nadia would be the point, the focus of our attention as well as Ben's. Do you remember the two nerds in Weird Science​? I don't; I never saw past Kelly LeBrock. Here though, we follow Ben as he follows Nadia. She flits in and out of his dreams and thus our story, but somehow she never lets us lose track that she's a destination and we have to follow Ben on that journey. I don't know how Nadia can be so magnetic but not steal every scene she's in. It can't come down to screen time; it has to tie to the way Cionni plays her, as if she's real but not real all at once. Whatever it is, she absolutely nails it.

Bizarrely, she's the only member of the top billed cast who I've seen before and I didn't remotely recognise her from an upcoming horror movie called Buck Wild. She's not remotely like this in that film, but I'll have to wait for its release so I can compare her work; either that or I'll torture myself with Supergator in the name of research. With a dozen films and a few TV episodes to her name, she's more experienced than most of the cast, though the therapists have her beat. Jean Smart, who plays Ben's mother, is on what seems like every TV show known to man and she has a trio of Emmys for her work, a pair of them for Frasier; in any other company, Tim Daly, who's Amy's dad, would be the most experienced TV actor on the cast list. He was only nominated for an Emmy, for his role in The Sopranos. At the end of the day, this is Skyler Caleb's film though. He's known as an actor more than a writer, but the latter is the more important role here. I hope he writes again.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Itty Bitty Bang Bang (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Amber Michelle, Travis Mills and Jonathan Medina
A new month means a new Travis Mills review. I've already reviewed the one that screened at this year's Phoenix Film Festival, The Memory Ride, and actually in a better version than played there; the version available online omits the completely unnecessary ending that really lessens the film. I'm also running out of titles that have IMDb pages, though there are plenty more without to work through. So here's Itty Bitty Bang Bang, not the burlesque dancer from Seattle, but a slightly less risqué short film created for the 48 Hour Challenge at A3F, the Almost Famous Film Festival. It's not deep but it's lively enough to please and it certainly pleased the A3F judges, who listed it among their 20 top films for 2013 (of 47 submissions), highlighted Amber Michelle's acting and ranked it first for its use of two of the three required guidelines: a prop (a ring that had to be put on or taken off during the film) and a required line of dialogue ('I can't believe it worked').

The concept is incredibly simple, even for a short film that clocks in under four minutes including credits. A young couple played by Amber Michelle and Mills himself are having trouble with their relationship but find a surprising solution. They love each other, as she tells her flamboyantly gay friend Freddy, but the passion has gone. Freddy knows the answer, he says, and gives her a box that will make all the difference. 'This little thing will solve all of your problems,' he tells her and, of course, he's absolutely right. We see what's hidden in the box at the same time as our young couple, but we recognise it for the cockring that it is. They haven't a clue, so they spend as much time as has elapsed thus far in a variety of attempts to figure it out. To underline how simple the approach is, this whole section unfolds as a set of vignettes without either dialogue or sound, but with the backing of a suitably bouncy instrumental by the Lovelost.
And that's that. It feels so inherently simple that it's easy to dismiss on the grounds of being well constructed fluff, though there is a neat depth to the fact that while the ring itself may indeed be the solution to this couple's problems, it isn't necessarily only through its intended purpose; they pretty much solve them by accident merely trying to figure out what it's supposed to do. Beyond Michelle's acting and Mills's bookshelf (I can never avoid trying to figure out what's on shelves in movies), as well as Jonathan Medina's delightfully hammy turn at the beginning, this one wins out by just being bouncy. It's the sort of film you throw into the middle of a set of more serious shorts to wake everyone back up again. The only things serious here are Mills's beard and the book he's reading. He has his nose in Jean-Paul Sartre while she's getting a cucumber facial with a gay BFF; I do believe I can see what went wrong here! Well, now we know how it gets right again.

Itty Bitty Bang Bang can be viewed for free at YouTube or Vimeo.