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Sunday 30 June 2013

Low Tide in the High Desert (2011)

Director: Stanley Ray
Stars: Chris Ranney and Steve Corona
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.
Sometimes just mentioning the location is enough to set the scene. This one's set in Roswell, NM. Now tell me what it's about? Well, you're not going to be far wrong, but Stanley Ray's script has a great deal of charm to it and it's cleverly written as a dialogue driven piece. Almost the entire film unfolds in the form of a conversation between a pair of cousins, Gary and Chuck, who are camped out by a lake. Gary is like a redneck who can reason, while Chuck is mildly retarded. They contrast strongly in almost every way, perhaps the best example suitably being in dialogue during an early exchange. 'You're so unprepared for life,' Gary tells Chuck, who pouts and replies. 'You're such an assface!' The most important difference for this picture is that Gary doesn't believe in UFOs at all, while Chuck believes in pretty much everything: Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, Princess Leia's virginity, you name it. And from that, I'm sure you can tell just where this is going.
Shot in seven days with a mostly student-based crew, this is capably done. For an outdoor shoot, most of which took place at night, the lighting and sound are surprisingly good. When the effects show up, they're minimal but effective. The acting is precisely what it needs to be: Chris Ranney grounds the film superbly as Gary, while Steve Corona overplays Chuck with wild abandon. Chuck is the sort of character that Eddie Deezen would have played back in the eighties, outrageously nerdy and with a whole slew of social issues to suit every occasion. He's the sort of character who you'd hate to be around unless you have a nerdy streak yourself, in which case he would be your best friend forever. Well, until the inevitable argument about something completely meaningless culturally that turns you into mortal enemies. Ray plays in that pond a lot here, stirring up sacred cows in both the Star Trek and Star Wars universes as part of the same sentence.

The dialogue that handles this sort of thing is by far the best thing about this picture. Corona and especially Ranney bring it to life well, but it's the writing that stands out. Stanley Ray, who wrote and directed here, has six short films to his name; he wrote all of them and directed four. Based on what he does in this one alone, he has a knack of writing simply but effectively, not merely as the means of moving his story forward but also to build his characters and engage his audience at the same time. I wonder how many audience members at genre festivals talk to him afterwards, not to comment on his film but to debate him on one of the cultural points he riffed on in it. This isn't the most substantial sci-fi short you'll have ever seen and you certainly won't be surprised at how it turns out, but it's fun and engaging and it sits very well halfway through a set of generally serious short films. It'll definitely raise some chuckles.

The Secret Keeper (2011)

Director: Bears Fonté
Stars: Sara Fletcher, Brad Fletcher, Rosalind Rubin and Ryan Mulkay
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.
Around the time The Secret Keeper began, partway into the Sci-Fi Shorts A set at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, the projector began to misbehave, thus rendering the colours notably off. Given that, even with this hindrance, The Secret Keeper was my favourite short in this set, I'm very happy to report that it looks a lot better when not filtered through a malfunctioning projector. That said, the colours are still faded, as old fashioned as are the clothes, hair styles and feel of the piece. We're never told where we are, but it's some sort of alternate universe 1940s America, with a lot that's very recognisable but things here and there that are completely alien. One of the latter is the mention of the Open Zone, in which our story takes place and from which characters aim to flee. The other is the neat little concept at the heart of the story and which provides its title. Alice, the leading lady, is a secret keeper, which is a profession in this world.

We watch how she works as the film begins, dealing with a client in such a way that invites a clear parallel with another profession. Alice works from home and her client feels nervous in even being there. It's his first time, apparently, and he's not sure how it all works. He's Calvin, but she doesn't need his name. She takes his money and asks him to wait for her in the bedroom. When she joins him, they can begin. No, she's not a prostitute, though she serves a similar purpose, to take care of a mental urge that has a physical manifestation. However, there's nothing sexual in the source of the urge or the way in which she satisfies it, making her more like a confessor, who can relieve burdens and allow people to move forward with their lives, happier with their secrets shared and not festering away inside. There's a literal transference, making Alice akin to a sin eater, but the secret doesn't stay in her; she's a physical conduit who transfers it on again into a glass jar.

I really liked this concept, that merges the world's oldest profession with perhaps its next oldest. There are ties to prostution beyond the clearly outlined parallels, in that secret keeping is hinted at not being a respected profession, perhaps one to which people come out of desperation and doubt, their visit a secret in itself. Yet there are continued parallels to the priesthood too, such as the ritual and litany of the event. 'Share this with me,' Alice asks each client to formally begin the process; 'Go and let the peace surround your soul,' she recites after it's over. This is an enticing concept and Sara Fletcher is magnificent in both aspects, simultaneously carnal and consecrated. Magnetically gorgeous even in dowdy attire, she would surely be the favourite in any brothel. Yet she carries herself impeccably, with a inherently trustworthy, almost holy air, making her a natural confessor. One client calls her a saint, but she prefers martyr.
What makes The Secret Keeper such a great film instead of just a great concept is that there's a strong story wrapped around it, unfolding consistently and believably over an unrushed eighteen minutes. I'm getting close to spoiler territory, so I'll be careful and merely say that another client comes to her with a secret to unburden which affects Alice directly and so tests her integrity as a secret keeper. With both prostitutes and confessors, there's a substantial level of trust inherent in the exchange and that's no different here. While there are clear sides drawn, with Alice the justified heroine, the underlying theme of the piece is Juvenal's old standard: 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?' This literally means 'Who will guard the guards?' but, courtesy of Alan Moore, is more commonly translated nowadays as 'Who watches the watchmen?' The Latin for 'Who will keep the secrets of the secret keepers?' is remarkably similar: it just adds the word 'arcana' for 'secrets'.

This film really has everything. It starts with a great concept, which it fashions into a great story, courtesy of Fletcher and director Bears Fonté. Underneath it all is a great theme which keeps us thinking, not only about what we see but the ramifications of it. The production is pretty solid too, with Fletcher's acting most notable. The other two actors we see a good deal of are Ryan Mulkay and Rosalind Rubin, both of whom do solid work too, Mulkay looking especially right for the period. If there's a downside, it's the lighting. While it looks much better without projection issues, it aims at a muted palette in deference to the forties feel and some scenes play out in light that's a little too dim and with colours that are a little too faded. That's not much of a downside for a powerful short and I certainly now need to track down iCrime, a feature Bears Fonté wrote and directed in 2011 with Sara Fletcher in the lead. If it's half as good as this, I'll be impressed.

A Conversation About Cheating with My Time Traveling Future Self (2012)

Director: Pornsak Pichetshote
Stars: Bobby Campo, Haley Webb and Lauren Kruse
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.
Surely the best title in play at this year's International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival was this one: A Conversation About Cheating with My Time Traveling Future Self. Given that the first short made by writer/director Pornsak Pichetshote was intriguingly called Women Who Eat Meat, I'm tempted to build a time machine just to find out what other films he's going to make in the future. Perhaps he already built one and used it to go back in time to persuade Hollywood producers that the titles they had weren't the right ones. Was it Pichetshote who persuaded Clint Eastwood to rename The Cut-Whore Killings to Unforgiven? Maybe it was he who talked the adapters of a newspaper article called The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night into calling it Saturday Night Fever instead. If he was the one responsible for changing the title of the unpublished stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick's, when Hollywood began to adapt it for the screen, into Casablanca, I'll buy him a drink.

'It's never just one thing, but you know that, right?' That's what the narrator tells us, as we watch Stan dance rather suggestively with a gorgeous blonde who is clearly not the dark haired lady in the image on his phone. He's talking about all those little moments we could have played in other ways or those decisions we could have taken differently. What makes this special, as Stan knows already and we're about to find out, as he leaves a guaranteed sexual conquest with this smoking hot blonde, is that he's the narrator too. As the title hammers home, that doesn't mean his inner voice needling for attention, his conscience screaming to be heard or those little angels and devils that show up on shoulders in animated movies to figure out the best plan of action, it's that he's literally the narrator. He's in a nearby room ready to explain. 'I have travelled exactly one year back in time,' he says, 'to tell you to cheat on your girlfriend with that slut in the other room.'
As setups for science fiction stories go, that's a pretty good one. It doesn't quite reach the epic stature of Fredric Brown's Knock, but it's a peach nonetheless. Bring it on, I say. And Pichetshote does. Like any story about cheating, everything here boils down to trust and selfishness, but that usually means the trust that exists (or doesn't exist) between a couple and the selfishness that leads at least one half of that couple to stray. This nine minute short goes a notable step further by making it all about Stan. It may be difficult to trust another person a hundred percent, but how hard can it be to trust yourself? What if 'yourself' is outwardly manifest and has your unlived next year of future lived and outlined so that you can make better informed decisions? Even he might have ulterior motives, after all. Where Pichetshote goes with this is consistently fascinating and provocative. It's rare that I get to see a new twist on the tired time travel trope.

Haley Webb and Lauren Kruse get a little to do here but not much. Almost the entire running time revolves around Bobby Campo and Bobby Campo, the current and future versions of Stan talking to each other in a hotel room, thus proving that capable science fiction doesn't have to have CGI up the wazoo, it merely has to have ideas. Pichetshote describes this as a 'theatre piece that can only be done on film' and I find that a pretty solid way to see it. Given that what we see relies on what Campo does, it's good to see that he does good work here, ensuring that each version of his character is slightly but believably different, not only because a year makes everyone just a little different but to help us keep track of which one's which. Their conversation feels natural because he really is replying to himself, merely a recorded version, which in a way is a microcosm of the story as a whole. Even without a spectacular title, this one is worth coming back to.

Saturday 29 June 2013

Ellie (2013)

Director: Ricky Lloyd George
Stars: Stefanie Estes, Jeff Alba, Barbara Goodson, Bonnie Bower and Robert E Beckwith
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 liked Ellie from moment one, because of the colours. They're lush: natural greens and yellows at an outdoor photoshoot and red indoors at a bar, where the model goes to drown her sorrows. The music finds a way to mirror that in sound. She's the Ellie of the title, of course, and she's not quite who we might think. The first hint is when she introduces herself to the gentleman next to her at the bar and the lights dim, but we discover that she's not human when she swipes the back of her neck to open her belly, so she can empty out three glasses worth of Jack Daniels through a tube in her mechanical innards. Back at the bar, we realise that she's magnetic, both literally, as cutlery on the bar occasionally moves towards her, and figuratively, because the bartender immediately recognises her on the commercial that shows on the bar's TV while she's in the bathroom. That's for Spirit, which could be anything from the abstract beach scene we see.

There's a vast amount of depth here, going far beyond the romance at the heart of the film which sparks up between Ellie and Roger, who feels as suffocated in his job as she does in hers. I found this romance as meaningful as any screen romance between two people who are separated only by convention. I don't know if Ricky Lloyd George, who directed and co-wrote, deliberately aimed to comment on relationships between members of the same sex or different races, but given how much else he's obviously commenting on here, I'd assume that he did. For a story named for and following a robot woman, it's packed to the seams with an exploration of human drives, what we might reference as making us human: the need to be happy and to make others happy, the joy of being wanted and the fear of not being wanted any more, the drive to do what's expected for no better reason than the fact that it's expected. This is an amazingly human story.
Even moving past Ellie and Roger, there's a lot of commentary here about society and especially about the power of advertising, which is a central part of the story. The purpose of advertisers is to convince us what's best, for us and for everyone else, to explain to us in every detail how we should live and how we should act. That's also the realm of another occupation, that of gods. The two merge here in another way too, namely the ability to create life in our own image. There's a lot of debate about ethics in advertising, as it's easy nowadays to enhance reality through magic powers known as PhotoShop plugins, to remove blemishes and improve features, and so create false impressions of reality that can have both positive and negative real world effects. Nina and the advertisers in Ellie go a step further to create 3D models to serve their campaigns, not using graphic manipulation but using robotics. Ellie herself is completely artificial but passed off as real.

And with that, the story goes full circle and asks us that time honoured science fiction question of how to define humanity. What makes us human? How can we measure it? What line can be drawn that uniquivocally divides what is human from what is not? Everything that Ellie does feels human, even though she clearly isn't by any obvious definition we may conjure up. So we have to begin to examine her motivations. Is she doing all these human things because that's how she feels, or is it because that's how she's been programmed, whether literally through code or figuratively through the advertising that aims to program us incessantly from every billboard, magazine and television set. This film, like its thematic cousin, Blade Runner, makes us think not only about the characters we watch but about ourselves too. And in an homage to another classic film, Some Like It Hot, the last line brings us neatly back down to earth. What a wonderful short film this was.

Ontogenesis (2012)

Director: Joanna Ellenbeck
Stars: Joanna Ellenbeck and Patrick Kilpatrick
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.
Perhaps the best way to highlight how consistently good the selections for the Sci-Fi Shorts A set at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival were this year is to point out that Ontogenesis is probably the worst of them. It's far from a bad film; in fact I've seen sets of sci-fi short films where this would have been the best, but it just didn't spark for me, playing a little on the wrong side of the simple vs deep conflict. Otherwise it's a promising piece, with decent actors in front of the camera, competent crew behind it and a thoughtful idea underpinning it all. It isn't as pretentious as the title would suggest, though it neglects, perhaps deliberately, to tell us what ontogenesis actually means. The dictionary says that ontogeny or ontogenesis is 'the origin and development of an individual organism from embryo to adult.' The poster puts it more simply: 'There is no end. Only a new beginning.' The broad sweep of the film applies this to our entire species.

Within that stunningly broad framework, we get little pictures to focus on. Joanna Ellenback, who also wrote, produced and directed, plays Aria, who has survived the end of the world by the time the film begins. What apocalyptic event triggered it is never mentioned, but she's part of a small band of survivors eking out their existence as best they can given the circumstances, struggling against similarly wary bands of survivors in the process. When Aria returns alone from a vaguely outlined mission, perhaps to parlay with one of these bands, she's confronted angrily by Nathan, the apparent leader of hers. What happened to everyone else, he asks? How come she survived? And when she tells him what really happened, he doesn't believe her in the slightest. If what she says is true, why was the she the one let in on the secret? Why not him, the powerful leader who does so much to keep his people alive?

I like the way that Ontogenesis attempts to explore such a broad concept with such a small story, clearly one of many such stories ongoing on this world at this time. Ellenbeck proves capable as Aria, really the leading lady though she's lost in the noise as the picture starts to incorporate wild and beautiful footage from NASA's Hubble telescope website, directed by Oli Usher. Contrasted with the majesty of creation in the form of an exoplanet orbiting Fomalhaut and a space artist's impressions of a vampire star, people we've just met fade from our memories as if they weren't ever there to begin with. Patrick Kilpatrick, a massively experienced actor who has appeared on what might just be every dramatic TV show of the last decade and a bit, makes more of his brief appearance as Nathan, endowing his character with a surprising amount of depth given how long he doesn't get to do it, but similarly, once the space footage takes over, he's lost too.

I'd like to have liked this film more, but while it has a great story wanting to come out, Ellenbeck and her co-writer Joseph Ruggieri can't seem to find a way to phrase it. Instead we're given some good scenes but little to tie them together. The impressionistic bundling of realistic scenes is not particularly successful, though the impressionistic bundling of impressionistic scenes is far better, in a sort of intergalactic Koyaanisqatsi sort of way. Perhaps appropriately, given where the story takes us, it felt like the film had two completely different approaches that were pulling each other apart. Had Ellenbeck chosen either of those, the result would probably have worked better than choosing both of them within a mere nine minute running time. That was only fitting if her goal was to demonstrate how jarring the events she recounts would be, but that isn't the best way to entertain an audience. Ontogenesis is a capable film but it should have been much more.

Dry Gulch (2013)

Director: Alejandro Alberola
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.
This was a subtle choice by programmer Mike Stackpole to kick off the first Sci-Fi Shorts set at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival. Not only is it an animated film, it's one without a single word of dialogue, the only vocal sound we expect to hear being a scream that escapes its owner's throat in the form of searing guitar. It even starts slowly, but the stunning visual design on display was certain to grab everyone's eyeballs and turn them to the screen. The films that populated two sets of sci-fi shorts this year were of unparalleled quality, perhaps because filmmakers are starting to realise that science fiction doesn't have to equal special effects, and those still playing with CGI are finding it easier to look good. Selections during the past few years have been inconsistent, as the quality of submissions has varied so much, but this year's pleasant surprise of consistency is outweighed perhaps only by the pleasant surprise of variety, this being its epitome.

It's a Mexican film, which is quintessentially science fiction and quintessentially western all at the same time. We're in Chiseler's Burg, which the film's IMDb synopsis calls 'an old town on a dying planet in a long forgotten region of space'. It's quite clearly influenced by the movie Heavy Metal and in turn by the organic work of artists like Jean Giraud aka Mœbius, who had co-created Métal Hurlant, the French comic book whose legacy led to it. Perhaps uncoincidentally, Mœbius, who is still mostly known for fantasy and science fiction work, had started out in westerns with a series called Blueberry. He worked occasionally in film, including concept designs for Alien, which grew out of the legendary failed adaptation of Dune by Alejandro Jodorowsky, with whom he'd created comic books in France, such as L'Incal. The reason I mention all this is that Dry Gulch is clearly so influenced by titles like L'Incal that they could almost be seen as part of the same universe.
If you've ever seen anything drawn by Mœbius, you'll be instantly intrigued by that. Dry Gulch was brought to life by six animators, who share twenty names between them, so I'm not going to list them here, but they channel his vision into a striking world. While we follow a silent story from murder and hanging to revenge, we can't help but bathe in the highly organic visuals: a spaceship that reminds of a giant flying centipede, snow that makes it seem like the stars are dancing, huge mushrooms that serve as bridges. While this is clearly a western, it's fully translated to this alien world. In place of horses there are giant spiked warthogs or huge birds. Instead of carriages, there are hovercars with neatly retracting steps. The sniper rifle looks like a dieselpunk antique. Yet the archetypes are still here and eerily familiar: the wanted poster, the windswept duster and the fire to keep people warm out in the middle of nowhere in the desert.

The music is another archetype, but less traditionally American and more like an Italian prog rock improvisation on spaghetti western themes by Ennio Morricone. The choice to to make this rather universal by eschewing spoken words in favour of themes is a good one, the English words on the wanted poster really as much art as the images they accompany. The lack of words highlights the prominence and importance of the music, by Javier and Francisco Diaz Pinelo, and also underlines that connection to Heavy Metal. I really enjoyed the score, which accentuates the visuals but also survives them, as it would be much easier to listen to this outside the framework of the film than most soundtracks. If I'm navigating Spanish websites appropriately, it would seem that both play for a Mexican hard rock band called Ravenscar, who I will now need to explore. Now all these guys need to do is make more films like Dry Gulch and we'll have a Mexican Heavy Metal to enjoy.

Dry Gulch is available to view for free on Vimeo.

Friday 28 June 2013

The Muse (2012)

Director: Brian Kiefling
Stars: Christina Campion, Kelly Leeth and Kim Huenecke
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.
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.
Here's another film that played two recent Arizona festivals that I've covered. The Muse screened in the Arizona Shorts set at the Phoenix Film Festival and the Holy Moly Horror Shorts selection at Jerome. It's a capable film, but one that clearly grew out of a location and could have done with growing a little more. The location is, admittedly, very cool indeed. The heart of the story is spent inside the basement of the Community Services building at ASU, where the producer and director are both film students. This building used to be a children's hospital and it didn't change much for the film, where it plays an office that used to be a children's hospital. The difference is that, in the story, the very popular, award winning nurse who ruled its roost turned out to have a dark secret. During the excellent opening credits, we follow the newspaper clippings to discover that she was indicted for Munchausen by Proxy, pleaded guilty and committed suicide while on trial.

That's the sort of story that emerges from a location like this, which retains many of its darker fittings, such as its furnace and crematorium. Brian Kiefling, who wrote and directed, gave a tour of the building to some people from a music charity and two of them freaked out. That very night, he wrote the bare bones of the script with 'the hairs on his arm standing up'. Naturally, this solid location for inspiration soon became the location for shooting this short ghost story, which gives a traditional haunting a neat edge and combines it with more modern characters. The premise is a good one and it unfolds in a fair fashion, but it didn't progress far enough from those bare bones to really warrant returning to. It feels a little rushed and could have done with more substance to ground it. We never really find out anything about any of the characters on show, except maybe Margaret Broman, the wicked nurse whose story is outlined in all those clippings.
The film was shot in two days, like many of the IFP films I've been reviewing lately, but it shows. The first scene after the credits has poor sound and isn't promising, but it brightens up when we move out of Katie Johnson's house and follow her to the Muse, where she's interviewing for a job. The interview seems to comprise of showing up, as the first thing her potential future co-workers do is show her the 'haunted house', the morgue of the old children's hospital. Christina Campion does well here as Katie, a lot more believable than the actors supporting her. I particularly liked the little wave she gives as they slide her into a cold chamber, one of those locked drawers they store corpses in. She's just trying to impress them, of course, daring to stay locked inside for five minutes for a bet. The problem is that it soon becomes more because the fire alarm goes off and everyone else leaves. Cue the ghost story part of proceedings, neatly hinted at earlier.

Kiefling isn't your average film student. He's a former cop, who spent fifteen years at ASU in the campus police, but he caught the filmmaking bug when asked to make training videos, promptly enrolling in the university's film school to take it a step further. It certainly wouldn't surprise me to find that the most natural actor in the film, the cop who gets to explain the reason behind the fire alarm to the evacuees, is a real cop. Most of the actors do have capable moments but they often feel like actors otherwise, putting on a show rather than being the characters. The standouts are Campion as Katie, Kim Huenecke as a particularly evil Nurse Broman (though how a nurse who acts like this could get away with years of abuse without raising any suspicion, I have no idea) and Kelly Leeth as a little girl ghost called Celia. We hear her more than we see her but her voice is the haunting bit, however many iconic horror shots Kiefling sets up.

He does that well too, especially as technically dubious scenes like the first one condition us not to expect scenes like the one with the first special effect. It's done admirably, but I firmly believe it carries more of a punch because we totally aren't expecting a well done special effect in a short that starts out with bad sound. Clearly Kiefling has watched a lot of horror movies, because the whole second half is full of the sort of well chosen camera angles, careful composition of frame and solid editing that makes so many horror movie shots iconic, not to mention the freaky score by Andrey Alekseyev. The technique on screen isn't particularly original but it's effective anyway. It all bodes well for what Kiefling might do once he graduates from ASU. A twenty minute version of this would be welcome for a start. Beyond the odd sound issues and some inconsistent acting, it's the length that jumps up and complains. It's a good story but it needs to be given more depth.

The Violation (2013)

Director: Christopher Bradley
Stars: Slade Pearce, Elaine Hendrix, Shayne Topp, Chelsea Ricketts and Beth Grant
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.
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
The Arizona Shorts selection at the Phoenix Film Festival is usually an interesting affair. This year's standout for me was The Violation, an edgy movie written and directed by Hollywood actor turned ASU lecturer, Christopher Bradley. It grabs our attention from moment one, as we realise that we are indeed looking at what we think we're looking at, and progresses on from there, disturbing us while simultaneously asking us why we're disturbed. Given that it was clearly the best film shown, it's surprising to discover that it only made it into the festival on its second attempt and only after some concerted lobbying. Another fan of The Violation is Bill Pierce, who has covered local film for The Examiner since 2010. He championed it at the Phoenix Film Festival and selected it himself to be part of a set of short films he programmed for the Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival, that he called AZ Forbidden Films and which was the highlight of that festival for me and others.

I find myself torn as to which set fit it best. It felt far more at home in Pierce's AZ Forbidden Films because everything he selected had an edge and the whole set had a sharper edge because of it. However, the varied but generally polite films in the Arizona Shorts selection really didn't prepare us for what Bradley had in mind and so The Violation stood out from the crowd all the more. Shot in four days as a response to the US military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, around the time of the discussions about potential repealment, it constructs a believable, if carefully contrived, scenario where we voyeuristically bear witness to a pair of perverse acts. What's important is that they're really the same act, but society, in its infinite wisdom, has traditionally applauded one but vilified the other. The film leaves us at a point where one character asks why the two are seen differently and another simply cannot answer. The punchline to this film is silence and it's utterly perfect.

What Bradley gives us is a love triangle, albeit not the usual sort of love triangle. Oscar Heim is a seventeen year old from a wealthy family, who looks good in both a pair of swimming trunks and a tux. He 'has a thing' for his sixteen year old neighbour, Tina Dougherty. Pretty standard, you may feel, but then he spends the opening scene of the film feeling up a pillow with her stolen bikini on it. This is the sort of thing that's joked about in every frat house movie ever made, but watching it feels a little more freaky. That's aided by the fact that we watch it through a telescope pointed at his bedroom window by Tina's younger brother, fifteen year old Mickey. He has a crush on Oscar and he soon gets the chance to act out a similar fantasy when the Heims have a wedding to go to and need someone to babysit their house. In only ten minutes, Bradley raises gay prejudice, class differences and sexual coming of age, yet all in such a way that the complex seems simple.
Slade Pearce is top billed as Mickey Dougherty and he does a solid job in the presence of far more experienced co-stars who get an agreeable amount to do even without being the focus. His white trash mother is played by Elaine Hendrix, one of those memorable actors you've seen and enjoyed in at least a dozen movies but can't quite place what she's best known for. That may be Romy and Michele's High School Reunion or The Parent Trap, in each of which she played major support. The other mother in the film, Oscar's mum, is played by Beth Grant, about whom everything I just said about Hendrix goes double. She alternates Oscar fare like Crazy Heart, No Country for Old Men or The Artist with odd films like this, but may still be most remembered for Donnie Darko or Speed. Yet with experience like theirs to compete with, Pearce holds his own and makes this his picture, literally getting the last word, exactly the right one, and letting it float in the air to stay with us.

I first met Christopher Bradley in a coffee shop, of all things, and I hadn't a clue who he was, even after being introduced. He was Chris who teaches scriptwriting and I was Hal who writes reviews of movies, so we ought to know each other. Only partway into the conversation did I realise that this was Christopher Bradley, who I'd never got to meet at the Royale in Mesa, at which we both saw many movies and at which he presented a screening of Waxwork, in which he appeared at a much younger age. Since then, he's proved to be a gentleman as well as an actor, allowing me to screen Black Gulch, a short film he appeared in back in 2003, at the film festival I programmed at LepreCon 39, and coming out in person to support me and do a Q&A. The Violation underlines that he's also a writer and a director of note, this being easily as important a film as it is a good one. It deserves to be seen widely, and more importantly, discussed. If it plays a festival near you, see it.

Thursday 27 June 2013

The Duel (2012)

Director: Robert Garcia
Stars: J P Frydrych, Herbert Steve Hernandez, Craig MacDonald, Chelsea Samuelson, Jonathan Levy Maiuri, Mike Diaz, Nicki Legge and Devon Garcia
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.
This week, Jump Ship Productions celebrates its first birthday. It's been a rather successful year for them, however you want to count it. They made four short films, three for IFP film challenges. Each of those three won multiple awards and automatic inclusion in the IFP finals at the Phoenix Film Festival. In August, at the Beat the Clock challenge for 48 hour films, The Duel ranked third out of eighteen submissions; in November, Titus won Best Film at the Masterpiece Challenge and swept a number of other awards in the process; and at February's Breakout challenge, The Face of Innocence was the audience favourite, again amongst a slew of awards. That meant that Jump Ship provided no less than three out of eight IFP finalists, which is an astounding achievement period, but an especially notable one in their debut year. The Phoenix Film Critics Society voted The Duel the second best IFP film of the year, but I can't help but wonder why.

That's not because this is a bad film, because it isn't. It's a capable piece which I enjoyed and which still makes me smile even after a few viewings. In fact, Jump Ship's lead actor, J P Frydrych, was kind enough to allow me to screen it as part of a film festival I hosted at this year's LepreCon, where it got a lot of positive feedback. It's just that it feels like the least of their opening trio, and apparently their fans agree. To celebrate their birthday, Jump Ship has set up a poll on Facebook and right now, Titus is leading the way as the fan's favourite over The Face of Innocence, with The Duel in third and the new one, Mr Wallace the Great, languishing in last. Titus is certainly the most obvious, a carefully constructed science fiction story that looks great and carries a great sense of isolation. It would be my favourite too, but the ending has grated on me and tarnished its memory somewhat. In comparison, The Face of Innocence gets better with time and familiarity.
And that leaves The Duel, which isn't about what you think, even during the opening scene. It's a geek movie and it's proud of it. The duel isn't between the unnamed hero, inevitably portrayed by Frydrych, and the similarly unnamed villain, played with relish by Herbert Steve Hernandez. They are merely the pawns in the game, or perhaps to extend the metaphor of the title in a particularly geeky fashion, the pokémon hurled into play. The duellists are a couple of patrons of a comic book store, debating what went down when the hero and villain met, whenever and wherever that was. Both Craig MacDonald and Chelsea Samuelson are note perfect, even though neither has another acting credit to their name yet. MacDonald produced and Samuelson was the script supervisor, so they both had a stake in the success of the film and they do a great job. They ground proceedings wonderfully, especially as Frydrych and Hernandez are suitably over the top.

There's a subtle twist and a not-so-subtle twist on top of that, which both play very well, without necessarily making any sense. I can't really argue about it without spoiling those twists, so I need to hush. Really it would be much more appropriate for me to meet you at a comic book store over a box of Detective Comics and argue about it there; would that be meta enough as a critical note? The other flaw is that it feels rushed, as if there ought to have been twice as much footage, but it was a 48 hour film with a time limitation, so that one's understandable. The rest I like: the cast of characters and the way they were played; the sound, lighting and camera movements, even the font used for the credits, though it doesn't scroll well. I love the dialogue, which sparkles, but the connections and twists don't sit right with me from the standpoint of internal consistency. All the Jump Ship films so far have been enjoyable, but I think their signature piece hasn't arrived yet.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Screaming in Silence (2013)

Director: Neil Sparks
Stars: Gabriel Cervantez, Caleb Evans and Jeff Lamar
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've not made it to as many IFP challenge events as I'd have liked, but I've seen a lot of good films and, well, a lot of not so good films at them. This last year, I saw a lot of great films too, certainly more than I've seen from previous years. A few established production companies raised the ante and a few new kids on the block met their challenge. The unfortunate result was that some of the best local films I've seen thus far lost out on prizes and a few others that have won awards in later festivals didn't even make it to the finals. I didn't envy the Phoenix Film Critics Society at all, but they picked this one from the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe to win as this year's cream of the crop. Personally I'd have gone for La Lucha, which made me tear up yet again when it played as part of the IFP finals set at the Phoenix Film Festival, and it doesn't take much for me to rave about The Memory Ride yet again, but I'm a huge fan of UAT and this is a real peach too.

I can rationalise the judges' decision easily. La Lucha was made by filmmakers who joined IFP as staff members between the time they submitted their short and the time the finals played, so if that film won it could be seen as a conflict of interest. The Memory Ride screened with its original ending, which I hadn't seen before and which notably diminishes the power of the film. But I don't mean to excuse this win. While Mission Control gets better with every viewing, Screaming with Silence hit hard the first time and remains that way however often I see it and whatever it screens alongside. The script by Paul DeNigris, professor of digital video at UAT, is deceptively simple but notably powerful: short on detail but long on depth, if that makes any sense at all before you get to see the film and understand what I mean. I can't really say much about the script, or I'll end up in spoiler territory and, frankly, you deserve to be rooked between the eyes by the twist.
Let's just say that it all has to do with the process of creation, as depicted by an artist struggling with a painting that seems hell bent on fighting him every inch of the way. It knows what it wants to be and that isn't what he wants it to be and I'm sure every creative soul reading this knows what that feels like, whether they paint, write, compose or do anything else cobbled together from sweat, heart and imagination. The deceptive simplicity extends to the technical side; never mind the digital layering of the painting at the heart of the film, which is the most obvious part, notice the foreboding score that bookends the piece, and the white of the canvas moving to the black of the artist's shirt as the film goes literally dark and he fights his demons. Gabriel Cervantez is not flawless but he is excellent and he has some superb moments. Caleb Evans, director of Red Sand, hovers over his painting like a harbinger of doom. The unveiling of the twist is momentous.

At the end of the day, it isn't what this film does that makes it so successful, it's what it doesn't do. Many of the other shorts in competition were about tangibles and there's something about the intangibles, when done right, that always trumps that. Writing about something as abstract as the creative urge is either going to nail something special or fail out of hand, depending on how well it connects to the audience. Adding detail tends to move away from the highs and lows towards the majority of everything in the middle; to adopt the painting metaphor, this is a very impressionistic piece, not a photorealistic image. It's focused enough that we understand thoroughly what's going on but broad enough that the details don't matter, well all but the one that we can't ignore. Maybe what led the judges to vote this above its competition is that it does manage to capture lightning in a bottle, that certain je ne se quoi that takes a foreign language to describe. That's art.

The Face of Innocence (2013)

Director: Robert Garcia
Stars: J P Frydrych, Jonathan Levy Maiuri and Desiree Srinivas
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.
This was my second exposure to Jump Ship Productions, local upstarts supreme. Talk about trying to shake up things in a big way: competitions like the IFP film challenges tend to be dominated by a few local production companies who know absolutely what they're doing because they've been doing it for quite some time now and have a whole slew of movies under their belts. Then, out of nowhere, comes Jump Ship, so named because the various members of the team all jumped ship from other local companies to become this new one. Each of their first three shorts was made for an IFP challenge, where it won multiple awards and did well enough to move on to the year's final where Jump Ship dominated the programme with three films out of eight. The Phoenix Film Critics Society voted The Duel the second best IFP film of the year, but Titus is more daring and The Face of Innocence is probably their most accomplished piece.

It's far more ambitious than any of their other films, including the new one, Mr Wallace the Great, because it really plays like a feature film with all the filler cut out and all the emotional outpouring of the most engaging scenes left in. We watch our protagonist, Jacob Szczpynski visibly suffer as he attempts to track down a serial killer called the Cradle Robber to less than no support from the local police department. He has major emotional attachment to the case, given that his sister was the killer's first victim, but the cop in charge, Det DeAngelo, tells him that he's alienating the task force and should quit visiting the station. Needless to say, he continues to investigate, harnessing his skills as a photojournalist to find that crucial clue that everyone else has overlooked. He finds it too, but that just leads to the toughest, most emotional scenes of all, because every scene here aims to outdo the previous one until the inevitably explosive finale.
I found The Face of Innocence accomplished but a little overblown on my first viewing, but after a few further times through, it's sitting very well with me. There are a few flaws in the internal logic, but they're not enough to get too upset about. The acting is certainly overdone at points, but that works when you watch it as the distillation of a feature and mentally fill in all the scenes that were never shot that build up to those moments. The timeframe the film plays out to could be a day or a year as the imaginary feature could easily contain many scenes in which Szczpynski tirelessly pursues his goal and endears himself to us in the process. He needs to own our sympathy, given where he's going as an anti-hero, and I can totally see that happening, especially as his opponent turns into a caricature of Al Pacino. Surely, J P Frydrych's finest moment thus far is the last shot of this film, which is aided by a perfect bit of lighting.

One of the most annoying things that is said far too often about short films is that they should be made into features. Most short films are fine as short films and should stay that way; what fleshes out six minutes isn't likely to expand well to ninety. This one is the epitome of the exception, the short that wouldn't just work at feature length but feels like it's the key moments of a feature cut down to fit the running time needed for a short challenge film. There's more detail, more emotion and more opportunity here than in almost any short I can think of. What's more, the ending would stand up to a longer build. The more I see Titus, the more the ending disappoints; but the more I see The Face of Innocence, the more the ending stands out as a memorable piece of cinema. It's certainly my favourite Jump Ship production thus far, but the way they're going, there ought to be a bunch of new films to challenge it over the next year.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Love Sucks (2012)

Director: James Politano
Stars: Tony Bafaloukos, Tara McCord, James Politano and Emily Bolduc
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.
Anyone with a bone to pick with political correctness can't fail to enjoy Jim Politano's glorious dips into the pool of offensive comedy. They clearly can't be rated highly on technical merit, on acting talent or on most things that critics tend to rate, and he'll be the first to agree with me there, but he knows how to write a script that gets a response from his audience. That's not a skill that any filmmaker should underestimate, especially after it won Politano the audience favourite award at last year's Beat the Clock Challenge, the IFP competition for films shot in 48 hours. Love Sucks, a cheap looking black and white short film, was up against films as strong as Screaming in Silence and The Memory Ride, so it took the audience's recognition to land it a slot in the IFP finals at the Phoenix Film Festival. It looked notably out of place next to quality pictures from local production companies of note, but yet again Politano had the audience eating out of his hand.

Love Sucks really is a wake up call to filmmakers. I've talked a lot on this site about how Running Wild can crank out quality product in the time it takes most of us to blink and how UAT should be hiring their students out to big studios because they do better work for less money. Over the next week or so I'll be highlighting how Jump Ship Productions leapt into life in 2012 and targetted all those established names; they provided three of the seven films up against Love Sucks in the IFP finals. This year's films were all serious, except this one. Love Sucks was there to shake them all up and it did exactly that. Politano sets up his film in only two shots, then sets up his audience in an extended scene that leads us all down the road of false assumptions and ends up by pissing off every woman watching. Tony Bafaloukos, one of the best ad libbers in the business, needs to not tour with this film or a female audience somewhere will surely lynch him.
It's hard to imagine anyone more contagious than Bafaloukos when being crude. He's an absolute riot, both in this film and its thematic sequel, The Sisters of St Mary's, which does to religion what this does to the equality of the sexes. Here, he's a slob of a husband, who we first see crashed out on the bed on his wedding anniversary like a beached whale. His wife isn't pleased, given that she shows up to celebrate seven years of marriage with booze and Viagra, so, sure enough, the scene following finds them in front of a marriage therapist, played by Politano himself. Tara outlines her romantic first date with Tony, then he blisters into her with an outpouring of chauvinist invective that makes us wonder if Bafaloukos ever needs to breathe. It's almost impossible for an audience member not to react to one or both of these characters and it's absolutely impossible for them to keep quiet when Politano promptly ratchets it up a notch.

This is a textbook comedy script which surpasses the lack of technical quality otherwise. The film is shot in low res black and white, with crude titles, crude music and crude editing. You're not going to hire Jim to shoot your wedding video, trust me. But the script is so engaging that you're likely to find yourself paraphrasing it at work the next day to whoever happens to be hanging out at the water cooler. Politano has fun playing with our expectations and he has no restraint at all when it comes to slaying sacred cows. He doesn't just slay them, he rends them limb from limb. However cheap it all looks, this is the most fun you'll have with stereotypes all year, guaranteed. When you're done with this one, follow it up with The Sisters of St Mary's, which sees the return of both Tony Bafaloukos and Tara McCord, along with my dear sweet wife as a misbehaving nun. If only we had part three of what must surely become a sacred cow slaying trilogy to finish it all off.

Love Sucks can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Mission Control (2013)

Director: Brandon Nazari
Stars: Serenity Starr Foreman, Miah Gonzales and Melissa Masters-Foreman
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.
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.
I first saw Mission Control at the IFP Breakout Challenge screenings in February, where it won four awards including Best Picture. I liked it but with major reservations, as it felt like an overdose of cute. Even during my first time through, I had flashes of it on NHK or some Japanese TV channel with a cartoon logo over the bottom right hand corner featuring a sailor suited schoolgirl flashing a V sign with her fingers and a speech bubble reading, 'Kawaii!' Since then, it seems to follow me around, selected by what seems like every local festival, along with the eight it won a submission to for winning this challenge. It played twice at the Phoenix Film Festival, as part of the Arizona Shorts selection, then in the IFP finals where it won third place of all the year's challenges, after The Duel and Screaming in Silence. Last week, it also played at Jerome and each time I see it, it gets better, but without ever losing that cuteness factor.

I think what I missed the first time is a single line of dialogue, which grounds the entire story, but I noticed it second or third time through and it played differently because of it. We start out in the bedroom of a young girl with an infectious grin, who's engrossed in the Apollo 11 launch playing on her TV. Of course she's not going to stay there when her mum tucks her in, she's going to get up and surreptitiously start drawing up plans for a mission to the moon of her own. The rest of the film outlines the three days it takes her to get ready to go. The theme that writer/director Brandon Nazari picked for the IFP challenge was, 'If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.' That line of dialogue I missed, while Astronaut Serenity Dexter is building a cardboard rocket and inviting people to show up to her launch party, is, 'I know it's a lie, but mum told me that to do the impossible you have to believe the impossible.' That's a crucial line to keep things real.

Nazari keeps things moving well, with an appropriately uplifting score and use of Apollo mission commentary. The technical side of things is so good that we simply don't notice it, caught up in the grin that young Serenity Starr Foreman maintains throughout. I don't how old she is, though I'm sure it wouldn't take too many fingers to count her age, yet she's the standout on screen. It doesn't hurt that she's the focus for almost the entire six minute running time, but the camera certainly likes her and her enthusiasm is infectious. It's no surprise that mum and dad play along with her plans and make sure there are plenty of people to see her launch. The biggest flaw to me was that her fancy dress audience is conspicuously not her age. Surely a girl with this amount of charisma would have many friends, but I do understand that wrangling them on set would be a nightmare. Then again, if that's the biggest flaw, Nazari doesn't have too much to worry about.

Monday 24 June 2013

Ripsaw (2013)

Director: Steve Dorssom
Stars: Brian Taylor, Eric Mulvaine, Micha Kite and Steve Dorssom
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.
Here's something of an oddity: a documentary which I enjoyed a lot but can't really recommend to anyone else. Ripsaw is the name of a band, an obscure power/thrash metal band who played in and around McPherson, Kansas during the late eighties. They're so obscure that not only have I never heard of them (and through gigs, zines and demos, I was active in the underground thrash scene at the time), but they're not even listed at the thorough Metal Archives website. Therefore all I have to go on is this documentary, which suggests that Ripsaw achieved some local success playing alongside name bands like Manilla Road, but split up around the time they recorded their debut album, which may or may not ever have been released. Why would we get a documentary on Ripsaw, you might ask? Well, I wondered the same thing throughout the scant 62 minutes it runs and I'm still wondering that long after it finished.

The obvious answer is that Steve Dorssom, Ripsaw's drummer, felt like a trip down memory lane after all four bandmates met up at a Death Angel show in 2012. He also caught the acting bug from his son relatively recently, racking up credits over the last couple of years in films like Brian Skiba's .357: Six Bullets for Revenge, so presumably felt the urge to debut as a writer/director on a very personal project. I wonder how much catharsis it provided for these former bandmates, who split up for the usual sort of reason: they were simply too young at the time to cope with the strain of living and working with each other 24/7. Egos clashed, words were said and everything that had been achieved up to that point went down the toilet. It's always a sad reason for music fans who want more out of a particular band, but it's still more sad for the musicians themselves, who get to look back at what could have been and can't really put a finger on why it didn't happen.

Any success that Ripsaw has is generic, because the band aren't well known enough for anyone to follow them into the film and they aren't substantial enough to carry it. Unless you were one of the girls who kept the Ripsaw house well stocked with groceries back in 1988, you won't find nostalgia in the band itself, and that restricts the potential audience to a massive degree. While there are some cool photos and live footage from back in the day, there's absolutely no input from anyone outside the guys in the band: no family, friends or fans, not even any musicians who were part of the same scene and played with them. Any such names that come up are restricted to mentions in interview footage with the band members and even this is explored through only two sets of interviews, both apparently shot in a day at the Sheraton 4 Points in Tempe: one set of individual interviews in the bar, then a collective interview out by the pool as the sun goes down.
What I found was that, without attempting to denigrate this particular band, who I'd happily have gone to see live then or now, their personal reminiscences and stories are so relentlessly generic that they could easily be transplanted to a thousand other bands who were doing the same thing at the same time. While that sounds utterly negative, it ended up being the saving grace for me: Ripsaw became Everyband and a lot of nostalgia was sparked as my memory translated personal stories of this particular band into similar stories of similar bands I knew in the second generation thrash scene on the other side of the pond. After all, with very little attempt made to bolster the core interviews with supporting material, this is nothing more than a recorded reminiscence: four guys who once meant the world to each other getting together way down the road to talk about old times over a copious quantity of alcohol. It's a school reunion for a band.

While the opening narration ends with the inevitable words, 'This is their story,' it really isn't. We never really learn that much about Ripsaw, perhaps because there isn't that much to learn. They were a thrash band made up of friends from high school who had all moved on to different cities, but connected again through old school technology to become a band. It might seem impossible to younger viewers, for whom the entire world is immediately available via smartphones and the internet, but these musicians wrote and recorded songs individually on audiocassettes, and sent them to each other through the mail. That's snail mail, not e-mail, as this was 1986, back in the technological dark ages. After spending a year as 'a penpal band', a great description I've never heard before, these four friends finally got together in one place in the summer of 1987 to jam and Ripsaw was effectively born.

For the record, in addition to Dorssom, the guys in the band were Brian Taylor, Eric Mulvaine and Micha Kite. Taylor was the vocalist and rhythm guitarist, Mulvaine played bass, Kite handled lead guitar duties and Dorssom backed them all up on the drums. They played live whenever possible, they hosted epic parties at the Ripsaw house and in time, they even recorded an album, courtesy of Kite's grandma, who had been saving up to buy him a used car but was persuaded into paying for studio time instead. And that's about it, as there's nothing to back up the stories they tell. One image is an article on the band, but I couldn't tell if it was published in a fanzine or a local paper, but that's it for press. Lots of old photos are strongly reminiscent of the era but there's no context to build from. All we really have of Ripsaw to take away from the film are a few live numbers from old gigs, obviously recorded on VHS for posterity.
They sound pretty good, to my ears something of a mix of Testament and Death Angel, but there are many influences in play. Taylor and Kite cite the expected thrash groups, Mulvaine adds old school bands like Rush and Led Zeppelin, while Dorssom includes Guns n' Roses, Whitesnake and Tesla. I should add here that this sort of content was interesting to me, but left my better half dry. The same went for the scene stories, because she wasn't part of that scene. While I was at thrash gigs diving off stages, she was seeing hair bands and local stars like Stevie Nicks. Every live song played was a song I hadn't heard back in the day and happily caught up on, comparing it to bands I knew and fitting it mentally into a bigger picture, but to her it was just material she didn't listen to back then and doesn't listen to now, especially during the extended instrumental breaks which I was particularly happy to hear, such things rarely making it into documentaries.

Bizarrely, the recording quality of those old VHS recordings is better than some of the brand new interview footage. There's background noise both inside and outside the hotel, occasionally more than I'd have liked. The light is fine to begin with outdoors, but it deteriorates rapidly until we're almost watching four talking silhouettes. The only footage with decent sound is where Dorssom presumably filled a few gaps in the story later on by his fireplace. He does make an effort to piece this together into something substantial, but there's so little here to work with that it's a thankless task. Mostly he just adds in chapter headings in the form of questions that were answered during recorded conversation. It's capably done but, perhaps inevitably given the amount, much of it is unsubstantial. Who really cares what they drank in 1987? Well, Kite might. He does seem a little worse for wear here, but then maybe he was; the interviews were all shot in a day, after all.

Unfortunately the question I'd have liked answered most is the one answered least, namely what they all went on to after Ripsaw fell apart. Only Mulvaine really answers it, as he joined the army. Taylor is still playing, as is Kite, but I'm not sure what or with whom. It's easy to imagine that Kite is playing blues guitar on street corners, based on this footage alone, but research tells me that he recorded albums with other bands like Psychic Pawn and Born of Fire. We don't even know if these four hooked back up and played together after this. I'd certainly like to have seen that and it would have been a great way to end this reunion. Without it, it feels like it's missing an ending, a personal touch that would have made it more about Ripsaw specifically than a generic band from a particular era. At the end of the day, this was a trip down memory lane for me, but a bigger one for the band, who are the real audience. This film was really made for the four people in it.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Unconscious (2012)

Director: Stephen Joel Root
Stars: Eric Schultz, Matt Wilson, Sydney Tolchinsky, Laura Burt, Kenlynn Shields, Kriss Victor, Tony Sutera, Will McDonald and Donovan Wood
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.

When Stephen Joel Root introduced Unconscious at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival, he felt the need to apologise in advance for his lack of budget. He wrote it, directed it, produced it, edited it, scored it and shot it, and surely took care of anything else it needed too, so it's undeniably his movie. He shot it on weekends over three years and there's nothing in it that screams money, but there's little that leaps out as cheap either. I can see and hear everything I need to, for a start, which alone ranks this above at least 75% of microbudget movies. There are odd moments where cash would have been beneficial, such as to brace static cameras on wobbly theatre floors, but none are annoying. Well, maybe Hop's beard. What Root ended up with is a characterful piece full of local charm, which he wisely played up on the film's DVD cover. 'Shot in Flagstaff,' it proudly proclaims. 'Starring actors from Flagstaff. Written and directed by a guy from Flagstaff.'

As you can imagine, not all those actors from Flagstaff are particularly great, but there's much to praise here that sits above such concerns. For instance, as the film began, I wasn't concentrating on the slight graininess in the picture quality, I was being impressed by how sharp editing tied the sound to the visuals from the very first frame, the cuts matching the sound cues. I quickly enjoyed the neat idea of having a pair of burglars communicate in sign language to keep quiet, prompting some subtitling that ventures hilariously into the surreal as one finds a copy of Ulysses by James Joyce and highlights its literary merits through hand gestures. Having them search a room whose tenant is passed out on the bed in a Jim Beam-induced stupor is a clever nod to the film's title, while what they find fleshes out his character while he's still unconscious: by his bed is a stack of self help guides for writers, while in his typewriter is a page reading 'Chapter 1. I've got nothing.'

As you can imagine, he's our lead, Raymond Hopajoki by name, though generally known as Hop, and he would dearly love to be a writer. Unfortunately he's having a hard time of it. 'I can't write,' he tells Andy, his younger, cruder friend, in the first of a pair of cruel ironies that make this script work so well. The second is no spoiler, given that it's outlined on the back of the DVD cover, and it's that this wannabe writer who can't write proceeds to write a bestselling novel that he doesn't remember, because he wrote it while suffering from a brain injury caused by a typewriter falling on his head. That key scene is handled pretty well. He falls off his chair, cracks his back and pulls the table to get up. Root telegraphs what is clearly about to happen with both suspense and dark humour. Hop wakes up in a restaurant with a glass of orange juice, a bad beard and a bestseller under his belt called Sucker Punched that he doesn't remember in the slightest.
I really like this starting concept, spawned from the realisation that drugs kill rock stars but make the music better, and I like the way that Root brings it to life. The film is a primarily a comedy, but it's also a drama and a romance, even when reading it straight. An alternative reading goes a lot deeper psychologically into the writing process itself, but I'd need to watch again to see how well that take plays out. Let's just say that Bobby Ewing is not in the shower during the final scene to point out that everything that happened after Hop got hit by the typewriter is a dream, a fantasy, imagination, an alternate reality, or a potential future, so let's leave such speculation to the brief black and white interludes that clearly unfold while Hop is unconscious. That happens more than you might expect. After all, this is a film with dialogue like, 'I'm your best friend. I know what's good for you. Let me hit you in the head with a baseball bat.' You'll have fun figuring out why.

The comedy works well, especially as much of it builds cleverly through recurring gags that keep our eyes open. Even the very last lingering shot, which I won't spoil, ties to to a couple of these. I was kept consistently amused, even if Andy's sense of humour doesn't ever make it past the level of 'your mom' jokes, and at times I laughed out loud. What's more, the humour builds through the characters and the situations they're placed in. Perhaps because he didn't have much money to brighten up the screen with flash, Root had to make his characters interesting to us and he found mixed success with that. Hop is particularly well written; he's the sort of everyman that we surely all know but don't even think about. There's nothing interesting about him at all, at least on the surface. Getting to know him in this film, discovering what really makes him tick, makes him very interesting indeed and, while Eric Schultz is fine in the role, it's the writing that stands out.

The supporting characters are less consistent. Matt Wilson does well as Andy but he's the opposite of Hop, obvious and memorable but without any substance or depth. We probably all have a friend like Andy and they'll probably come immediately to mind when we see him. Similarly, Bobbi Jo, the girlfriend Hop lost two years earlier but can't get over, is a one note character who we'll recognise from our own lives. She's the epitome of the annoying hanger on who somehow never goes away even though we can't believe that any friend of ours would put up with her. Laura Burt is capable in the role but it really doesn't call for her to do much. The other two ladies we meet are far more interesting and substantial: Sharon and Maria. Sharon is a film critic so naturally interesting (like I'd say otherwise), who happens to be in the next seat at a movie theatre when Hop is confronted with Bobbi Jo and tries to pretend he isn't still stuck on her. Maria is Andy's girlfriend.
That's how we meet them, anyway. Relationships are flexible things in this film. We find out about Hop and Bobbi Jo in the very first scene after the opening credits and meet Sharon in the next one after that. You'd think we're being set up for a love triangle, but Bobbi Jo arrives with the General, Hop and Andy's boss in snow shovelling and softball and who knows what else, and things become much more complex from there. I actually tried to map this out, because I had a vague impression in my brain while watching of this being a love pentagram or a love star of David, but it's not quite that mathematically precise. It's more like the sort of web that a spider spins when it's on caffeine. Anyway, Sharon has a lot of character and she's introduced right before the typewriter incident as someone with potential to shape the story, so Kenlynn Shields has a lot more than Burt to explore. Sydney Tolchinsky has even more depth to play with as Maria, but we take longer to find that out.

I don't know if Root wrote the script after being hit on the head with a typewriter but, if he did, I'd recommend the process to everyone. Clearly this isn't going to become the Great American Novel or top the New York Times bestsellers list, like Hop's novel in the film, but it's written better and with far more thought than I expected it to be. After all, this is a feature written by someone who practically served as a one man crew and it quickly becomes obvious that it's anchored so deeply in Flagstaff that it's unlikely to ever escape it. None of the actors have other IMDb credits, though many have stage experience, so neither the lack of Oscar winning performances nor the reliable quality of their work are surprising. Occasionally, a nuance here or a burst of emotion there show that some have potential beyond simply meeting the need at hand. Perhaps Root's next feature will give them the opportunity to grow on film.

Like the acting, the technical side is capable and does what it needs to, rarely becoming flash. It's the script that stands out above all that, perhaps appropriately given that it's rooted firmly in the process of writing. Beyond the long nights, driven focus and varied response ringing very true, the little details are worthy of mention. The best stand up comedians often pepper their routines with little moments that by the end provide emphasis for the final punchline; Root does that a lot here, with Hop running into cars, Sharon dishing out slaps, Andy answering the door in outrageous attire and Maria being unable to finish a book, though she's always reading. The surreal black and white interludes shot at a local theatre are wild, especially the full blown Mexican dance number. There is also enough for a repeat viewing. Hop sees mystery movies in Flagstaff by asking for a number six. If I asked for a number six and got Unconscious again, I wouldn't be disappointed.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Music City USA (2013)

Director: Chris McDaniel
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.
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.

Important note: after talking with director Chris McDaniel at and after the Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival, it became clear that this review is of an early version of Music City USA. The film still isn't complete, but the version that screened at Jerome was notably different from the one I reviewed. While I haven't seen the longer version and so can't yet update my review, it is clear that some of my key concerns are addressed. For a start, it's 25 minutes longer, which addresses one concern. McDaniel also states that the film's goal, as defined in the opening narration of the version I saw, is not present in the longer cut; there's a lot more flood footage; and there are many more interview subjects. I'll endeavour to watch the current version and update my review accordingly, but in the meantime should note that this review reflects a early version of a work in progress that won for Best Documentary at Jerome.

Selected to screen at both the Phoenix Film Festival and the Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival and with a solid selection of country stars old and new interviewed on screen (one glance down the IMDb credits is enough to impress), Music City USA ought to have been a decent documentary. I even like the poster. However, while there are certainly interesting moments here and there, it can only be viewed as a disappointment. For a start it only runs a scant 62 minutes, including the end credits, which would have been short for a B movie at a drive in back in the sixties, let alone a feature film nowadays. The impressive set of interviewees cycle through quickly, so we discover a few very familiar faces who tell most of the stories on offer. Quite a bit of the footage is reused at odd points too, so we often feel like we're in trapped a loop. Worst of all, it proclaims its goals at the beginning of the film, but then promptly ignores them for the most part.

The title of the film comes from a common nickname for Nashville, Tennessee, famous worldwide as the home of country music. For a while, the film lives up to its title but not its goals, because it explores for twenty minutes the history of the city and its connection to country music and music generally. Some of this is worthwhile material, especially to someone who might have an interest but not a grounding in the subject, but it's hardly going to tell a country fan anything they don't already know. Ricky Skaggs tells us quickly that the roots of Music City date back to 1925 when a Nashville radio station, WSM, began broadcasting a show called the Grand Ole Opry, an hour long barn dance that's still running today. For ten minutes, everyone else agrees with him, not adding a heck of a lot to the story in the meantime. The Mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean, does bring up the Jubilee Singers from Fisk University who sang for Queen Victoria, but that's about it.

The rest is pretty obvious. Once the show was in place, musicians came to play on it. Then came the songwriters and the studios and the publishers and more musicans and the whole thing began to feed itself. There are odd nuggets here from people who matter and it's good to see key visuals like shots outside the Ryman Auditorium, 'the mother church', in and amongst the talking heads, but mostly it's the same thing repeated in different voices from different mouths for ten minutes at a time. Also, there's music behind those voices that's often too high in the mix, meaning that it's hard to hear some of the commentary. It's like trying to follow a conversation in a noisy bar; we strain to hear what's being said, but sometimes our toes tap too much and we lose focus. It's fair to say that this is less of a problem later in the film but it's annoying early for a while, surely enough to turn some viewers away, especially as the film isn't doing what it says it would.
The thing is that this isn't a film about Music City, USA, at least not specifically. It's a film about a disastrous two days of torrential rain that caused massive devastation across a number of states in June 2010, and the work that was done to clean up the city afterwards. Two days of rain isn't much, you might say. Well, it was a lot of rain. Some areas received more than nineteen inches in just two days and the Cumberland River overflowed the flood control barriers the US Army Corps of Engineers put in place in 1937, deluging Nashville in what has been described as a 'thousand year flood'. It's sad to say that I had to look a lot of this up later, as director Chris McDaniel didn't get to it until twenty minutes in, a third of the running time gone, then skipped over much of the factual detail. To be fair, at the beginning, he narrates that, 'I made this film to document the role the entertainment community held throughout this tragedy,' but that comes even later.

The film is broken up into six chapters, averaging about ten minutes each. The point of the film, in McDaniel's own words, is chapter four. By that point, we're halfway through and we've been told why Nashville attracted musicians, how diverse its music is and a little about the flood. Sadly it's the flood footage that's most interesting and it suggests that if only McDaniel had obtained a lot more of it, he'd have had a more substantial movie. Shots of a prefab school building floating down I-24 are truly surreal and certainly grab our attention. As most of the audience won't know what a lot of the iconic Nashville buildings are, the commentary that accompanies this disaster footage is illuminating. Even when there aren't images, it remains fascinating. I'd never heard of Soundcheck Studios, but every story about it adds impact: Peter Frampton lost his entire stage set, Lorrie Morgan lost her entire wardrobe, historic guitars and equipment were destroyed.

And eventually we get to the part that the film has been building up to: the response the floods brought from the people of Nashville and, in particular, from the many musicians who pound out its heartbeat. Taylor Swift donated half a million bucks. Garth Brooks donated the proceeds from nine or ten sold out arena shows. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill hosted benefit gigs, which were a regular feature of the Nashville scene for a while. Others hosted telethons. Everyone pitched in, from the little guys to the big guys. Larry Gatlin highlights 'the community coming together and helping one another.' Well, this is what McDaniel felt warranted a feature film and I'm not going to disagree. I'd like to see a documentary on this and I say that having already watched this one. Sadly, this section is the weakest of them all, with none of those big stars on camera talking about what they did and why and those we do see simply agreeing with each other. It's anti-climactic.
Surely I'm not the only viewer who wondered for a full twenty minutes when the flood was going to show up, then once it did, wondered why it disappeared so quickly. If what hit Nashville was a thousand year flood, what we get here is a thousand seconds of talking about it, surrounded by a lot of filler material that has nothing to do with floods at all. Had the film focused itself around the city of Nashville, it would have been more successful because it wouldn't have disappointed. It would still have been weak, as we may have focused on meaningless little details, like why one of the Lunabelles and two of the Oak Ridge Boys seem happy to stand in front of the camera with their bandmates but never open their mouths, why Julie Roberts looks like a deer trapped in the headlights or why there's so much push to highlight the diversity of music in Nashville when 99% of the musicians interviewed are country artists.

Given that it is focused on the flood, it's notably disappointing. I learned a lot about this disaster not by watching the movie but by reading up on it afterwards. Music City USA mentions that lives were lost but it doesn't point out that there were 31 of them across three states, 21 of them in Tennessee and 10 in Davidson County which includes Nashville. It doesn't mention that the rain was accompanied by instability that helped generate a number of tornadoes that followed in its wake, killing another five people in Mississippi and Arkansas. It pushes the meme that Nashville is up and running again, cleaned up in a month by the community that banded together after the event, but doesn't point out that 52 counties asked to be declared as major disaster areas by the federal government and at least 30 were so acknowledged, accounting for 31% of the state. Tens of millions of dollars were raised in relief by the community but $1.5b of damage was done.

If what I learned about the flood wasn't learned from this film, what did it teach me? Not a heck of a lot, to be honest. I learned a little about the diversity of styles in the home of country music, but I'd have liked to have seen a lot more of Hank Williams III or Familyman Barrett from the Wailers. I was suitably impressed by the flowing white beard of William Lee Golden from the Oak Ridge Boys and even more stunned by the outrageous sideburns of Fred Young of the Kentucky Headhunters. I discovered that Pam Tillis obviously has a painting of herself in the attic that's growing young in her place, as she doesn't look a day older than she did twenty years ago. I learned that I'd like to see a lot more of Larry Gatlin, who provided a healthy and enjoyable sense of humour to this film. It was drummed home that everyone in Nashville agrees with each other, down to an apparently honest mayor. Most of all though, I learned that you shouldn't bother watching it.