Monday 26 August 2013

Wouldn't Be Love (2013)

Director: Mack Duncan
Stars: Rachel Tullio, Bill Binder and Jon Jahrmarkt
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
There's some substance in Wouldn't Be Love that's worthy of attention, but it's swamped by the sort of technical difficulties that we're conditioned into expecting from films created from scratch in a mere 48 hours. Perhaps above everything else, competitions like IFP Beat the Clock serve to highlight that this is a false expectation and that filmmakers can conquer it, once they rack up enough experience. What's surprising here is that CareFree Write are hardly new kids on the block, even in such contests. They've been making films since the year 2000, many of which were 24 hour or 48 hour films shot for IFP challenges and some of which won awards. Clearly I should go back and watch titles like It's Done, Big Benevolent Wolf and Menagerie of Space, but in the meantime, this one is tough because of the sound. There are sync problems, and there's wildly inconsistent background noise. It vanishes when the score arrives, only to rush back in when it stops again, as if it's filling a vacuum.

In fact, technically it's problematic across the board. The editor missed a 'Rolling!' and the lighting is often dark, albeit much better than the sound. And this is all unfortunate because it muddies a decent script, written by director Mack Duncan from a story he wrote with Bill Binder, who's the leading man. It plays as a meditation on how tough it is for a guy to figure out a girl, at a particularly crucial point in their relationship. Alex sets the scene at the outset by sneaking out of David's place while he's asleep, but he notices and thus we get a story. The neatly ambiguous ending leaves us wondering if they'd be better off had he not woken up or whether everything's about to change. I'd lean towards the former. They have a great time together, but Alex is about to leave for New York and David isn't. Rachel Tullio does a great job as Alex and Binder is pretty good as David too, but it's how they're woven together that shines brightest. If Duncan can clean this up in post, we may even get to see it shining.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Eva's Light (2013)

Director: Glen A Hines
Stars: Lela Alston, Melissa Kennedy, Jon Ray and Deb Blume
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
While Star Babies was so far ahead of the competition at the 2013 IFP Beat the Clock challenge that a win for Best Picture wasn't even in doubt, a few other shorts also made themselves known. Eva's Light picked up a trio of awards too, landing third place and winning out for the story by Glen A Hines, who also directed the film, and Deb Blume; and Jamie Rivera's cinematography. The latter is what stood out to me, as his camera is an ever roving creature that prefers subtlety to flash. The story is less of a script and more of a prose poem, endowed with surprising depth by the performances of two ladies, Lela Alston and Melissa Kennedy, who play the same character. Alston is our entry point as the older Eva, providing narration and the only dialogue as an old lady travelling back through her memories with the aid of scrapbooks and photo albums. We see more of Kennedy as the younger Eva, cleverly conveying a variety of emotions even without the benefit of words.

As befits the poetic approach, the story refuses to be nailed down. It's not about a plot, it's about the rush of life and the moments of magic that constitute memories. Eva quotes her father at the outset by saying that 'every moment of the adventure is the adventure,' and everything that follows is an improvisation on that theme that wraps itself up well. There's a tone shift halfway through that adds considerable depth to the concept too; I particularly like how that was accomplished not by the use of empty spaces in Eva's scrapbooks but by blank ones, emphasising that she knows they're there but has to struggle to remember what they were. I should also highlight Jon Ray, who was an associate producer on Star Babies. He contributed more here, being both good on screen as Eva's brother and great off it as the composer of the elegant score that starts before the film and lasts beyond it, but underpins it superbly throughout. I look forward to seeing more from Mystic Willow Films.

The Anniversary Card (2013)

Director: Sheri H Barbera
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
An Adventure in the Life of Barry Barksworth failed to stand out from the crowd but that's the least of the problems The Anniversary Card has. Perhaps the most obvious and unique entrant in this year's IFP Beat the Clock film challenge, it's entirely animated and what it clearly lacks in technical merit it makes up for in sheer exuberance. It's less of a film and more of a five minute animated gif that leapt through a wormhole in time from 1999. If only there had been a banner ad at the top of the screen, I might have believed this was a Geocities website. All the other components are there: crude artwork and animation, PowerPoint effects a go go and all the expected fonts, not to mention a heartwarming story progression. It would be easy to dismiss it outright, if not for the heart that underpins the entire piece. It's still not great art, but it left me happy that the two halves of Hartman-Barbera Productions found a destiny in each other and progressed to the point where they would make this.

It's framed as a fairy tale to explain the word 'destiny', which is pretty appropriate for an anniversary card sent from a husband to his wife of five years. We're quickly introduced to Sheri and Sal, before it leaps forward to explain how they met and fell in love, all narrated like a storybook for children. The artwork is primitive and the effects work traditional, if capable, with much of the visual design using comic book stylings. While there are some neatly surreal touches, it mostly carries the sort of sugary sweet romantic feel that teenage kids get icked out by. I have no idea if Sheri and Sal have any kids, but I can easily picture a eight year old daughter sighing at how this is the most beautiful thing ever but a sixteen year old praying to Satan to end her parents. It'll be the most beautiful thing ever again when that sixteen year old is eighty and those parents are dead and buried, but to a wider audience, it's just fluff. Kudos for a different approach, but not much more.

Thursday 22 August 2013

An Adventure in the Life of Barry Barksworth (2013)

Director: Kenny Colt
Stars: Cody Loepke, Peter Lane, Jason Halverson and Lolita Gongora
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
I wanted to like this film more than I did. I think what it boils down to is that when they say that it's more about the journey than the destination, that works better in real life than it does in the movies. The adventure Barry Barksworth has is all journey and no destination and it left me dry because of it. Until that point, it's good fun. Barry is a husband and father, a quality assurance engineer with eight years of experience, apparently a success in life by all the usual metrics. However he isn't the happy camper that his wife Trisha is. He wants a change and the day he spends interviewing for a different job constitutes the titular adventure, which is a more subdued but also more surreal version of the worst case scenario films that popped up a lot at the IFP Beat the Clock challenge this year. This isn't as touching or frenetic as Inflated and it isn't as funny or extreme as The Worst Best Man. It's just a guy trying to make it to an interview. What happens to him has mostly happened to most of us.

For a while, everything is done right. Cisco Saavedra does a fine job as Barksworth, channelling Fred Ward in a number of scenes. His wife is cute and his daughter steals a scene out from under him but then it starts to unravel. Rob Edwards is an agreeably inappropriate next door neighbour and Melissa Ann Marie Farley is precisely who you want to see in the car next to you at a traffic light, shaking her hair down and pulling a strawberry out of her cleavage to suck on suggestively. Why does that never happen to me? Oh yeah, I don't drive. Maybe I should start. This is all good stuff but, Farley's surreal scene aside, it's predictable and everyday. It doesn't stand out and that's exactly what a competition film needs to do. I'm guessing that there's more to come that didn't make it in during the challenge's time limit but, as it stands, the ending is weak and not just because there's an audible 'Cut!' just before the last shot. As a five minute film, it's wanting. At ten or fifteen minutes, it might have something.

The Worst Best Man (2013)

Director: Kenny Colt
Stars: Cody Loepke, Peter Lane, Jason Halverson and Lolita Gongora
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
This film was an official selection at the Filmstock Arizona 2013 round of the revolving Filmstock film festival. Here's an index to my reviews of all selections.
Colt Classic Pictures is another local production company I've seen before, though I haven't got round to reviewing Last Call yet. They're immediately memorable to me because of their studio ident, which ruthlessly spits in the eye of my OCD. Yes, that's petty of me, but we are who we are. 'Hi, I'm Hal and I'm a kerning Nazi.' I enjoyed this more than that last Colt Classic film, because it's a neat run through a worst possible scenario that has good humour and better timing. It's not a perfect film, but it's built well on a solid framework and it doesn't do anything wrong. It's competent, period, and especially enjoyable when you factor in that it was shot for a 48 hour film challenge. Worst possible scenarios have been explored before and they'll be explored again, even within this challenge where Inflated covered some of the same ground in a different way. I preferred that as a film but this as a nightmare for its characters. Writers Cody Loepke, Mike Churchill and Kenny Colt have agreeably devious minds.

What would you see as the moment everything seemed most horribly wrong? Well, Kevin is about to get married. No, don't sigh in sympathy yet. He's about to get married in four hours and he's picking up his best man and future brother-in-law, Mickey, who is stuck outside the house of last night's one night stand. He's in his underwear, because she left for work but her boyfriend came home. Mickey's pants are still inside and Kevin's wedding rings are still in their pocket. That's a pretty solid start to a comedy short and the plot unfolds capably from there. It's no great task to visualise how that's going to happen but it's handled well. A couple of the jokes are cheap and obvious but most play out very nicely indeed. There's even great use of both the competition's required prop and line of dialogue, a candle providing the film's prize for best use of prop. It's certainly one of the few competition films deserving of a search on YouTube or Vimeo in a couple of months. You'll enjoy it.

Saturday 10 August 2013

Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (2012)

Director: Kristy Guevara-Flanagan

It would be the easiest thing in the world to throw out a sexist joke to introduce a review of this short 62 minute documentary (IMDb also lists a 79 minute version). In a sense, filmmaker Kristy Guevara-Flanagan does that to her own film, by kicking it off with a cross section of the public trying to answer questions in the street. Name a superhero? Easy, here's a couple of dozen. Name a female superhero? That's a tougher proposition. 'Catwoman?' one replies, hesitantly. 'Is she a superhero?' In the end, of course, everyone conjures up Wonder Woman, because she was it for decades. The untold story of American superheroines turns out to be that there aren't many of them and that, after a few golden early years, Wonder Woman slowly deteriorated over decades into a waste of space of a superheroine and her stories faded into deserved obscurity. What survived was an image, a symbol, an idea that woman could compete, in every way, with man, any man, and win. She's hope in a sexy outfit.

The title of the film suggests that this is a documentary about Wonder Woman and those rare female superheroes of American comic books, but while there is some history here, it really isn't. I'm no die hard comic book geek, but I'd have liked to have heard more about the origin of Wonder Woman, because what we hear from Jennifer K Stuller on the subject is fascinating. I need to follow up with her book, Ink Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors, a title that could easily have been applied to this film. Put simply, she was created by a psychologist who believed in the superiority of women and who expected them to take over the world and rule it as a matriarchy. He also created the systolic blood pressure test, which became a key component in the lie detector, reflected in the golden lasso. His wife Elizabeth inspired the test and was one of the two key inspirations for Wonder Woman, the other being Olive Byrne, with whom they lived in a polyamorous relationship. Surely there are stories here!

Rather than delve into comic book archaeology, this film mostly looks at Wonder Woman as a symbol. Most obviously, she's important because such powerful female symbols have sadly been few and far between forever, so it's worth holding onto those which have always been there, repurposing them to meet contemporary needs. The choice of people interviewed for the film highlights how the story of Wonder Woman is such a archetypal female one, not only because most of them are women but also because many of them have a particular focus of interest on women in culture, whether it be through contribution or depiction. Some are outright feminist activists and it's not difficult to see why Wonder Woman is so appealing to them. Sure, she had a revealing costume and spent many early episodes being tied up by villains, but she always broke free and she solved the same problems that her male counterparts did but in very different ways, adding traditionally female approaches to brute force.
The way the film is phrased leads irrevocably into feminism. Wonder Woman may be a linking theme here but she's only one of two superheroines we're introduced to. The other initially shows up as just another interview subject, providing insightful commentary, but she reappears just as consistently, if not as often, as Wonder Woman throughout. She's Gloria Steinem, a feminist, activist and journalist, among other job descriptions. She explains early on that Wonder Woman was irresistible to her, just for being the only female superhero in sight while she was growing up, but those words could easily have been spoken by some of the younger women interviewed in the film with reference to her. She's there in historical footage as the film covers the women's lib movement, protesting in the sixties. She pops back up in the second wave of feminism, protesting in the eighties. In between, she co-founded Ms magazine, which survived far past a snidely suggested half a dozen issues. She's a constant.

She also guides the tone of the film, towards both feminism and academia. Most of those interviewed have strong academic backgrounds, including Steinem. Many have written about culture, gender and history, most of those about all three at once. Some also teach; there's a classics scholar here and an English professor, all the way to an professor who specialises in female masculinity. However if this suggests a dry and boring thesis of a picture, I should highlight Kathleen Hanna, whose feminism was sparked when she was taken to a rally in Washington, DC and heard Steinem speak. She was only nine, but it put her on the path to becoming a feminist, activist and journalist too, but far from a dry one. She sang for Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, kickstarted the riot grrrl movement by co-creating the zine of the same name. She even worked as a stripper, married a Beastie Boy and was punched in the face by Courtney Love. Suddenly women's studies doesn't sound quite so lifeless, right?

The film works best as a wake up call, while suggesting that Wonder Woman and Gloria Steinem do likewise. The title suckers us into expecting that there are a whole bunch of female superheroes stuck just outside the mainstream but deserving of attention in a documentary, only to point out that there aren't any and that's a real problem, so the women of the world should create their own. There are hints at why this is, beginning with the genie that came out of the bottle when men were shipped overseas to fight in World War II and women realised that manning the factories was no harder a job than being housewives. Wonder Woman first appeared at precisely this point, in 1941, but was mostly alone for decades. When we start wondering when the film will talk about how that's all changed and that there are strong modern women everywhere in popular culture nowadays, it starts to explain how that's only half true. They may be everywhere but they're not doing the same job.
I surprised myself by getting most interested when a sociologist started deconstructing modern films. Katy Gilpatric, another academic, watches modern action movies and pulls the stats on them. Just as I was happily arguing with the commentators because the world has so clearly changed from the '40s, she challenged my preconceptions. She found that half of the violent female characters she looked at were evil villains and thirty per cent died, often after begging the strong male leads to kill them off as they couldn't cope with the powers with which they'd been endowed. I'm still not entirely sold but I'm really interested in reading her research. When I watch a documentary and immediately want to follow up with the key source material, the film is doing something very right. What I was disappointed with was how quickly some of this was skipped over. I wanted more about how Thelma and Louise led to a resurgence of strong female leads in the nineties, but how they all died off with the century.

While I found a lot of substance here, it wasn't enough. Every exploration of real research backed up with numbers made me want more of the same, but it kept skipping on past and taking a succession of detours into how Wonder Woman influenced everyday people. It apparently attempted to catch up every possible minority subset in its net: immigrant mothers, children with speech impediments, gay men raising money for battered women. These scenes did have their moments, but precious few of them, leaving them feeling for the most part like filler material, which is a dangerous thing when the documentary they're in runs a mere 62 minutes. Cut those scenes out and this would fit well as an hour long TV show with fifteen minutes for commercials rather than a movie. Presumably it's there to highlight to any women watching how awareness can lead to activism, given that the film's website has a whole Engage section of guides, resources and ideas of how to take action.

This approach, which is thinly veiled indeed, gives this documentary an agenda. However valid that agenda might be, it detracts from the impact of the academic side of the film, making us wonder how much of the footage was edited and spun. Interviews with cultural icons like Lynda Carter and Lindsay Wagner are less affected, leaving them open and honest about what they felt they achieved back in the seventies. The historical material is hardly affected, at least as far as I could tell from background knowledge of people like Frederick Wertham and his Seduction of the Innocent crusade. The impact is mostly to those who are drawing conclusions from their research and writing books about concepts like superheroines, people like Stuller, Gilpatric or Trina Robbins, a comic book writer, historian and pioneer who provides a memorable ending to the film. Ninety minutes of their contributions would be an amazing documentary. This isn't that; it's more of a strong teaser of what it could be.

Monday 5 August 2013

War of the Worlds: The True Story (2012)

Director: Timothy Hines
Stars: Floyd Reichman, Susan Goforth, Jack Clay and John Kaufmann

For a whole bunch of different reasons, War of the Worlds: The True Story, the latest in a long line of adaptations of the seminal H G Wells novel, is one of the most fascinating cinematic experiences I've encountered. Most obviously that's because of the techniques used to adapt the source material, but the context makes those even more interesting. Many filmmakers take old stories and turn them into new ones, not least Steven Spielberg, who reworked this very story in 2005 into something that takes place in the modern day with a recognisable star and a gigantic dollop of CGI. Director Timothy Hines, however, got a lot more imaginative in how he approached this film. He kept the story extremely old fashioned, with most of what we hear transcribed verbatim from the book and structured around the original chapter headings, but he told it in very modern ways. This therefore becomes of interest to a rather odd mixture of Victorian science fiction buffs, film restorers and teenage ADHD sufferers.

Analysing what he did makes it all the more surprising that it works for the most part. For instance, he clearly went back three quarters of a century to the infamous and innovative 1938 radio adaptation by the Mercury Theatre, which Orson Welles cleverly phrased as a progression of news bulletins and, in doing so, infamously conned a great number of listeners into believing aliens were actually invading. Accounts of mass panic have passed into our cultural fabric but they were actually less apparent than our need to believe in it. As if recognising that, Hines takes further, much more modern steps. One is into conspiracy territory by telling us that it already happened, exactly as Wells wrote it, but was then suppressed by the government. Another is into found footage territory, as he 'discovered' in 2006 the eye witness testimony of the last survivor in film canisters unopened for 41 years, then matched it up with recently declassified combat footage, newspapers and newsreels to feel like a documentary.

How Hines approached effects is similarly counter-intuitive. Rather than follow Spielberg's example and rock out with CGI, he mostly got physical. 'There's nothing that can represent real as well as that which is real,' he says, so his effects team, led by an artist known as Ultrakarl, went back to old school tech like models, puppets and stop motion animation. The Martian we see in the film was a full scale monster that took nineteen technicians to operate. The creature's ear was manipulated by woodwind musicians, its breathing by subdermal bladders blown into arhythmically. Puppeteers controlled hair and tentacle movement. Even sweating was replicated by piping glycerin through skin pores. Tripods, Martian fighting machines, are articulated miniatures animated through stop motion. Yet all this neat old school tech is then integrated with stock and public domain footage in new school mash up style using state of the art restoration techniques. Again, old meets new.
If this sounds like a lot of work, you'd be right, but this is really the end result to what Hines calls a 'fifteen year journey'. Critics hear the word 'journey' a lot and it doesn't usually mean much, but here it's quite clearly about as appropriate as it gets. What Hines and his production partners survived is a cautionary tale that many could learn from. As he tells it, he financed a $42m adaptation back in the early nineties but was railroaded by journalists with agendas. The 9/11 attacks scuttled his projected vision and left him in 'personal financial ruin'. Once he'd recovered, shot a faithful $25m adaptation and was working on post-production in 2004, he discovered that Spielberg was finishing up a version of the story too and Hines wasn't likely to win out against the Hollywood machine. Most upsetting of all, it was released prematurely by an unscrupulous distributor in what Hines called an 'unfinished skeleton of a production', a three hour workprint of a film intended to be cut down to 100 minutes.

It's a tribute to the dedication of Hines and his more honest and loyal partners that War of the Worlds: The True Story was even started, let alone finished and released to critical acclaim. That journey took them down a tough road indeed. I haven't seen the 2005 film, titled H G Wells' The War of the Worlds, but reviews were not kind, putting Hines in the unenviable position of getting consistently worse press than the Asylum mockbuster released in Spielberg's wake. In a clear attempt at damage limitation, he released two further versions, a director's cut in late 2005 which knocked three quarters of an hour off the almost three hour running time and a 'special final cut edit' a year later called The Classic War of the Worlds which pruned it further to just over two hours, with new scenes added, others reedited and many effects reworked. It's tough to delineate reviews between these different versions but they still weren't kind. Trying to pick up those pieces and assemble a worthy movie that stayed true to Wells's original vision is a task perhaps best left to masochists, but Hines stuck it out and it clearly paid off.

What he gives us does require some suspension of disbelief, in a similar way to the Welles radio take, but the rapid fire editing helps on that front. The Mercury Theatre only had an hour to tell its tale, so anyone paying attention could quickly poke holes; real news reports can't provide an accurate count of bodies a mere minute after the beginning of a battle, after all. Similar holes can be poked here; it's a stretch to believe that Hines, having discovered that the Martians really did invade England in 1900, was able to locate declassified film footage to illustrate that fact. Surely the destruction of London, the capital of the world at that time, was far too big for governments to suppress and if they could, it's not likely that they would have left film footage to be declassified decades later at just the right time. The key is whether we find the idea that The War of the Worlds is really a 'seminal alien invasion memoir' delicious enough that we can look past the unavoidable fact that it can't all be translated like that.
For my part, I love that idea enough that it isn't just strawberries, it's strawberries with cream, served during Wimbledon. Most of the footage plays out believably, real war footage including destruction on a scale that even Spielberg can't compete with. I could smile knowingly each time something happens that, even in a best case scenario, Hines couldn't have found footage for. Who was shooting video in the cellar in which Wells was stuck for a couple of days with an insane clergyman? I wonder how many audience members are so attuned to reality TV and the surveillance state that they take the presence of a floating camera for granted, even in 1900. After all, in The War of the Worlds, Wells made a whole slew of predictions that came to pass in his future, from tanks, chemical warfare and laser beams to total war, blitzkrieg attacks and the stubborn creep of alien plantlife. Why not omnipresent cameras too? Sometimes the old classics are as important for what we read into them as for what they say.

And so we watch the journalist Bertie Wells (the 'H' in 'H G' stood for Herbert) recount the adventures we know so well as real life events in interview footage shot in 1965 when he was an old man. 82 year old actor Floyd Reichman does a solid job as Wells, effectively reading sections of the book but in such a way as to bring life to them as memories. He omits much, of course, and jumps back and forth a bit, but generally close to the original material and often exact. Jack Clay is an interesting choice of actor to play Ogilvy, the astronomer who first shows Mars to Wells through a telescope and who later finds the meteor on Horsell Common that gives birth to the first Martian cylinder. While he's an actor with a great deal of experience, this is his debut on screen. Off it, he studied under Lee Strasberg and taught many names we recognise, including Kathy Bates and Stephen Tobolowsky. Once the Martians begin their rampage, though, we don't pay too much attention to the acting. There's too much else to watch.

While press for War of the Worlds: The True Story has been generally positive, often very much so, in stark contrast to its maligned predecessor, some of whose dramatic scenes were cannily repurposed into archive footage here, some criticisms have been raised. I don't buy that the attacks on London by tripods make the film feel long; personally, I felt it rattled along at a solid pace, aided by an amazing three and a half years of editing. To me, it was a short 102 minutes and I wanted more. However, I'm more sympathetic to the suggestion that the techniques on show eclipse the story. That rapid editing does its best to move everything along and wash over us like a visual overdose, but it's likely that this film's viewers are going to have an interest in cinema beyond just the latest blockbuster and it's this audience who are going to be most distracted by the impeccable technical work that went on to make this seem like authentic footage. Watch this and you'll swear that there were tripods in World War I.
I love the old school footage. It's done very well indeed and I expect to watch a few times over just to examine this aspect of the film. Susan Goforth, one of the film's producers who also plays the young Bertie's wife, is an experienced effects tech and she and others have explained in detail some of what was done. After archive footage was carefully selected, it had to be 'stabilized perfectly where effects were combined and then returned to the original shaky and flickery state.' To add to the complexity, 'virtually every shot was reframed, panned to redirect the viewer's focus in service of the story' and 'carefully processed to support the memories Bertie Wells was recounting.' 'Many hundreds of pieces of war footage were split screened or blended into other war footage,' says Hines, 'then composited with heat-ray wielding mechanical alien fighting machines in the same shot.' The depth of how they matched up aging in a whole slew of ways is fascinating to read, going far beyond standard filters.

To say the stock footage is well integrated is understating the case. The slavish devotion to detail is admirable and it pays off. We're given an array of material in sepia, black and white and even colour, to keep us both alert and interested, as well as to raise the believability factor. Only the recognisable bits lower it back down. I found both C Aubrey Smith and Shirley Temple, though I must have blinked when Judy Garland was on screen. That's Battleship Potemkin during the staircase scene, and Hitch's The Lodger for newsboys in the street. Military historians would certainly have a field day deciphering the variety of source material in evidence, not only to identify where it came from but also what was actually original. The magnificent tripods approaching London across the Thames and striding through the city were clearly added in for this film but so capably that we could well be forgiven for believing it really happened. And isn't that the point of this film?

At the end of the day, how well it plays to each viewer is going to depend on that. When Hines plays that angle up, he's echoing the sort of hype that every director throws out when he has a new picture looking for viewers but, in this instance, he's also echoing a hope that isn't merely financial in origin. 'It's absolutely true,' he says. 'It really happened. There really was a war between Earth and Mars. Or at least you will believe there was after you see this movie.' If we do, then this is a peach of a picture that will stun us with believable imagery, exhibited with an Erich von Stroheim attention to detail, like newspaper articles that we see for fractions of a second but are fully written in the style of the day. If we don't, then the plot holes are going to become more obvious, along with some dodgy moustaches, accents and fonts. I'm aware of the latter, but I'm on the side of the heat ray, the Martian cylinder and, not least, those awesome tripods. Where were your grandparents when the Martians invaded?

For those of you reading in Arizona, Timothy Hines has kindly allowed me to present War of the Worlds: The True Story in a mini-film festival I've programmed for CopperCon Revolution at the Windemere Hotel in Mesa. This event is open to the public and free of charge. It starts at 8.00pm on Thursday, 8th August and this feature will follow a ninety minute set of sci-fi short films and a short break. I hope to see you there.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Psychic Says (2013)

Director: Winter Kane
Stars: McCauley Harlan, Jamaal Alexander and Krissy Kapp
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
Sound was a recurring problem in many of this year's IFP Beat the Clock submissions and that became obvious first with this one. Later films had even worse sound and that was unfortunately exacerbated by the projection. I've presented sets of shorts before and I understand how they come with different sound levels and often wildly different sound quality. It's tough to screen that. Nonetheless, the sound wasn't good here, with a constant hiss under most of the film. It disappears when the lead character, who feels sick and believes the internet when it tells him that he's cursed, skypes with a psychic; all Madame Medilia's scenes are as crystal clear as her accent isn't. It cuts in and out as our protagonist works through a bucket list of tasks she has him do during his potential last 24 hours of life, because the score ably replaces it. It's annoying and it's what you might expect to hear in a film created from scratch in a mere 48 hours; it's a compliment to Beat the Clock regulars that it almost felt surprising.

I enjoyed this a lot more than I did the last Flight in the Eye production I reviewed, another IFP film by the name of Babble. That played less like a film and more like a piece of performance art. This is just as surreal but in a more cinematic way. There are a couple of really good shots, one making great use of a sunset and another taking solid advantage of a park bench with an appropriate inscription. It doesn't quite gel together, whether as a literal story, some sort of fever dream or even as an acerbic commentary on the gullibility of the youth of today and how everything found on the internet is clearly true. Mostly it plays as some good ideas jumbled together into a less good film because writers Winter Kane and Emma Grove had to write it really quickly and Kane then had to direct it to completion in a very short timeframe. I'm not going to remember the unnamed lead. I'm not even going to remember Madame Medelia. However I'm pretty sure that bucket list is going to sit in my brain and germinate.

Escape from Zany's Baking Company (2013)

Director: Shawn Esplin
Stars: Teri Frost, Dipak Panchal and Adam Anderberg
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
If they didn't provide a great film, Studio Gaijin did at least provide a great opener for this year's IFP Beat the Clock challenge. This is about as quintessentially Arizonan as it gets: a local film made by a local production company about a local restaurant and its owners. Well, let's just say 'inspired by', as every name here is changed to protect the guilty and to avoid a lawsuit on the grounds of fair use and in the holy name of parody. This clearly isn't about Amy's Baking Company in Scottsdale, a restaurant which provided a legendary pair of episodes for Gordon Ramsey's reality show, Kitchen Nightmares. We're not watching Amy and Sami, the certifiable owners whose epic on screen meltdowns inspired a set of internet memes. We're here to see the entirely fictional characters, Zany and Hammy, who run the utterly unrelated Zany's Baking Company. The unavoidable catch is that parody tends to work by exaggerating reality and trying to parody a parody is a difficult task indeed.

The script by Andrew Keil would be best described as crude, over the top and horribly structured, if it wasn't so accurate. That highlights the other obvious flaw, that to effectively parody an hour and a half of reality TV and the subsequent insanity that followed it, all in under five minutes, is impossible. Keil and director Shawn Esplin give it a fair shot, but it's quickly obvious that the jokes require passing familiarity with the original material on the part of the viewer; without that, a lot of them will fall flat. With the script hampered by reality (pun not intended), it has to ratchet it up a notch and it does do that, though the outrageous acts that Zany and Hammy end up committing would be easily believed of Amy and Sami too. Teri Frost, who co-produced, is great fun as Zany, as egocentric as Amy but not as self deluding. Dipak Panchal is quietly hilarious as Hammy, but it's the dialogue that sells both of them the most. Hardly essential, this is still good fun and a great way to kick off a competition.

Saturday 3 August 2013

Star Babies (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Jane Fendelman, Michael Coleman and Michelle Palermo
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
If Escort Driver was disappointing, Star Babies turned out to be anything but. A co-production between Running Wild Films and 5J Media, it played late in the IFP Beat the Clock challenge for short films shot in a mere 48 hours, and immediately stamped its presence on the competition. From the first shot, it played as if it was slumming it from the next league up and it only got better. 24 teams entered Beat the Clock this year and 22 submitted films for screening at the Phoenix Art Museum last Friday night. 16 of them met the eligibility requirements to be in competition and Star Babies unsurprisingly turned out to win for Best Film. Michelle Palermo also won as Best Actress and Running Wild's regular sound man, the apparently infallible James Alire, took home yet another trophy to add to what must now be quite a collection. His work tends to be so seamless that we don't even notice it, except when one of his films plays alongside those of others and then its quality is as noticeable as noticeable can be.

While Star Babies was the only viable winner from this selection, it actually succeeds on a few levels. On the most obvious, it's a well made film on every front. It's shot well, acted well and written well. It zooms along with never a dull moment, the twist being as neatly accomplished as it was telegraphed. Technically, it's yet another emphatic reminder from Running Wild, who are now almost two thirds of the way through 52 Short Films in 52 Weeks, that they can make good films quickly. Most production companies will never make 52 films, let alone in 52 weeks, but what to them would be an insanely ambitious challenge is merely becoming another project to Running Wild. Mills and his crew are apparently so on top of it that they can finish up a feature, The Men Who Robbed the Bank, for a premiere this month at Tempe Pollack Theaters and not just take time out to make another film for a 48 hour challenge but to win it too. The absence of key competitors doesn't lessen that achievement.
While viewers new to Running Wild are likely to enjoy Star Babies, those familiar with their growing body of work are likely to enjoy it even more. It could even be suggested (and yeah, I'll do just that) that there's an additional punchline behind the twist that's there as an in joke for regular fans. There are two actors who work together at Running Wild so frequently that their roles are becoming less the characters they play in individual films and more an undercurrent running through those characters over a wider body of work: Michael Hanelin is Travis Mills's everyman and Colleen Hartnett is his lady of unattainability. We thought they'd get together in Friday Nights Alone, but it didn't happen. Maybe they got together in The Memory Ride, but the story ends before we know for sure. Both are in The Men Who Robbed the Bank, but I haven't seen it yet so don't know if they even share scenes. Mills shook all that up here hilariously with a pair of cameo roles for Hanelin and Hartnett.

What may be most hilarious is that the punchline stands out despite those cameo appearances having no impact on the drive of the film. Its stars are Michelle Palermo and Running Wild perennial Michael Coleman, who play brother and sister, Mike and Michelle. Yet, while they are absolutely the focus and they do their jobs very well indeed, their screen mum, Jane Fendelman, ruthlessly steals the show out from under them every time she's on screen. Equal parts mother, angel and new age hippie love child, she's a delight from the moment we see her first. She swoops into the house in a rainbow of a dress, throws, 'Hello, my darling star babies, how are you shining today?' into the air and exits stage left. It's such a quintessential sitcom entrance that I was actually shocked by the absence of a laugh track. She never lets up when she's on screen and I don't think there's a new age buzzword that she missed. It's hard to pick a favourite, but her use of the Higgs field in conversation particularly tickled me.
What little story there is revolves around Mike and Michelle trying to set each other up with others and getting increasingly frustrated when absolutely nothing happens. This provides a great opportunity for Seth Gandrud to pretend he's in a romantic slow motion montage and Stacie Stocker to play a damsel in distress, but it's an even better opportunity for the story to emphasise where it's going. Palermo and Coleman don't even have to do anything to help it along, just take advantage and add nuance to their characters, before the script lets them in on the big secret that everyone else twigged at the outset. It isn't a subtle story, but it's lean and emphatic and it's hard to find a flaw in it. The first Travis Mills film I reviewed, Shine Like Gold, was also a Beat the Clock winner and much of what I said about it applies here too: 'slick and polished', 'simple but effective', 'full of palpable technique'. The difference is that this didn't leave me dry. It's uplifting without trying to be and it'll piss off all the right people.

Escort Driver (2012)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Frank Gonzalez and Jessica Bishop

I got so engrossed in reviewing the excellent science fiction shorts from this year's International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival that I lost track of time and forgot to review a Running Wild film to kick off July. Well, now it's August so I'll make up by reviewing two of them, a brand new short that dominated this year's IFP Beat the Clock 48 hour film challenge last Friday night and an older one. Escort Driver is the latter, a 2012 short that ventures somewhat literally into the dark world of film noir. As the very name of the genre suggests, film noir is all about the dark side of life, something writer/director Travis Mills explores a lot in Running Wild films. Here, as he does often, he appropriates tried and tested film noir themes and techniques to tell a timeless story, but this time out he also mirrors the dark theme in the lighting. It begins and ends at night and appears to have been shot outdoors in natural light; in other words, for a full quarter of the film, we have to struggle to see anything and don't get very far.

The sound is fine, so we hear Frank Gonzalez set the scene with narration. He does a decent job of it, explaining that he's the escort driver of the title, Rudy by name, who works as chauffeur, bodyguard and jack of all trades, a great character for a film noir. What it boils down to is that he drives hookers from john to john, sits in the car and reads science fiction novels while they do their thing. I expected a line from him like, 'It ain't much, but at least it's work.' It didn't ever show up but Jaime did. She's a prostitute who's working through her time of the month, against the express instructions of her boss, because she needs the money. The moral of the story seems to be that ladies of the evening are just as unpredictably crazy as any lady while they're riding the crimson river, as it's colourfully described here; they're merely more dangerous because of the nature of their work. Rudy discovers that as he goes to collect payment; the john is dead on the floor because Jaime took offense to his fetishes.

While the lighting is dismal outside, whether deliberate or not, it's not too much better indoors, as the two argue about what you might expect. I appreciated that Jaime is lit with very red light, to match her lipstick and her trade, but otherwise it's inconsistent. Rudy is shot very strangely, so that we rarely get to see him. Perhaps that's the point, to keep such a shadowy character literally in the shadows, but it doesn't help us as viewers when we see the back of his head more than we do the front. It almost felt like Gonzalez had it firmed up in his contract that we wouldn't ever really get to see him. Surely it's a good thing for Rudy that if neighbours saw him as we do, they'd never be able to give a description to the cops, but it's not as good for Gonzalez. I don't know if Mills deliberately aimed to shoot this film as if metaphorical descriptions were step by step instructions but it doesn't help the end result. Visually it's disappointing and it isn't helped by a very green wall looking rather like a greenscreen goof.

The story is a little better, as the whole thing unfolds fairly enough. There's a nasty touch that doesn't feel entirely warranted, but it does fit the tone and serves up some karma. It's the motion of the story that feels odd, as almost everything is fundamentally static and uncinematic in nature, rendering it an original screenplay that would work better on radio than it does on film. The editor had almost nothing to do here, just cut back and forth between characters at odds with each other and ensure the timing stays in place, which it does. At least the acting is decent, if not particularly outstanding. I found it interesting that I preferred Jessica Bishop's turn as Jaime, but my better half preferred what Gonzalez did as Rudy. I'm not sure why in each instance. Certainly I found what they did with their voices better than what they did with their bodies, but that may not be their fault, as the sound quality was so much better than the visuals. In the end, this is just another chapter in Mills's fascination with film noir.

Escort Driver can be viewed for free on YouTube and Vimeo.