Monday 30 September 2013

Midnight Daisy (2013)

Director: Asa Shumskas-Tait
Stars: Najarra Townsend, Raymond Stefanelli, Daniel Roberts, Mark Cirillo, Henry Le Blanc and Claire Scott
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.
The winner of the Best Horror Short at this year's International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival was Killer Kart, a ridiculous homage to ridiculous eighties slashers that was played delightfully straight. It was a great film, but had the judges looked past the laughter, this would surely have been the film chosen. It plays perfectly as a short film, only fifteen minutes in duration, but it has enough substance to easily be expanded to feature length, as indeed the folk at the awesomely named Psychic Bunny production company plan to do. It's a lot of different types of movie all wrapped up into one neat package: it isn't the torture porn that the opening scene might suggest, but it is a supernatural movie, an urban legend movie and a ghost hunter movie, with hints at a conspiracy theory movie to boot. What makes it so impressive is that all of this plays out precisely as it should, without ever feeling like the filmmakers had to shoehorn material in to achieve what they wanted.

It starts as it means to go on with a great camera movement. Initially we watch the Revd Billy Mason preach, but then the camera pulls out to show that he's on TV, then back in an elliptical curve until we see that it's leaned up against a pillar in a underground garage and being watched by a young lady on the floor. Her hands are bound with duct tape but she isn't gagged, because her captors want her able to talk. They're initially what you might expect (one threatens her with a knife and another waggles his tongue provocatively in her face) but she isn't. She may have been in the wrong part of town but she's not entirely unarmed. She knows how to summon the help of Midnight Daisy, a 'vengeful spirit' in local urban legend who supposedly comes to the aid of women in distress, women just like her. It just takes a particular symbol drawn in blood and a particular chant, all within the right circumstances. And if this all seems a little deliberate, we soon find out why: Dom and his men are ghost bounty hunters.

I like the concepts in play here. Director Asa Shumskas-Tait aimed at 'a new campfire story', a sort of local ghost myth that's most commonly explained around campfires in horror movies, but he wanted it to have more substance than the usual take where nobody believes the story but the spirit shows up anyway and slaughters everyone. Adding the ghost hunter idea was a good one, a way to tie the new paranormal investigator trend to the tried and tested old urban legends. Dom, the lead bounty hunter, is a fascinating character, with enticing subdermal implants that would stand out all the more if seen in the stereoscopic 3D in which this was filmed. Of course, he plans so well that we know his target is going to shake things up and so she does. This short film is certainly enough to whet our appetite but it'll take the full feature to really define this urban legend, as well as to explore who Dom is and what drives him. I've seen features with less substance than this short; it ought to expand superbly.

Sybling Rivalry (2011)

Director: Tara-Nicole Azarian
Stars: Tara-Nicole Azarian, David Topp and Carrie Marshall
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 was a little disappointed with Sybling Rivalry, but only because it tells a simple tale without a single surprise. Young Sybelle, as outrageously capable as she apparently is, lives in her brother's shadow. She's merely insurance, nothing but 'a spare in case anything ever happened to the heir'. Whatever she achieves, it's not enough to prompt her mother to stop fauning over Kobe, who is utterly aware of the situation and smarmily plays it up, David Topp carrying the role with charm. And so, fed up of being effectively invisible, Sybelle decides to reframe her situation as a challenge. 'Solve a problem,' her mother tells her dismissively. Well, every problem has a solution, right? As you might imagine by this film's inclusion in a horror shorts set, the solution Sybelle finds is a violent wish fulfilment fantasy that many an overlooked young girl might confide to the attentive pages of her diary, but remaining afraid to take such an emphatic leap to the dark side.

From the very beginning, as Sybelle writes in her diary about fear and motivation, musing about how fear can empower a step beyond, we know she's about to do something outrageous. Once we realise what her situation is, it's clear what that something is going to be; from that point, it's just a case of watching the script already in our head unfold on the screen. It's agreeably gruesome, I'll give it that, but it isn't surprising. However, on most other fronts, Sybling Rivalry is a surprisingly capable film. For a start, it was shot in only one day, even though there were obviously multiple setups in each of four different rooms within a single house. That suggests a thoroughly effective shooting schedule and the results suggest a capable crew. While the camera is never still, it avoids the usual pitfalls of handheld filmmaking and attempts a couple of more ambitious angles to boot. The entire film is well lit and the sound is excellent, with a suitable score to back it up. Technically, it's solid.

Most obviously though, the young lady behind the film is clearly a talent to watch. She's Tara-Nicole Azarian, who graduated from high school this year at the age of fourteen. She wrote and directed this film, currently her second of five short films, and she also played the lead role of Sybelle. As befits an overdone character, she overdoes the acting, grounded as an invisible girl but clearly relishing every moment of her dastardly scheme to be noticed, all the more obvious compared to the matter of fact portrayal singer Carrie Marshall gives to her mother. It's grand guignol in suburbia and Azarian plays to the audience more than just through her narration; this could work even better on stage. This is a rare approach for her though, as the fifty plus roles she's played on screen are highly varied and her other personal films focus on social issues: My Name is Anna dealing with anorexia, Cardboard with homelessness and ROTFL with teen suicide. In such company, this is fluff but it's capable fluff.

Sunday 29 September 2013

Steve from Accounting vs The Shadow Dwellers (2012)

Directors: Patrick & Paul Gibbs
Stars: Zachari Michael Reynolds, Rosalie Bertrand, Mary Etuk, Terence S Johnson and Chris Henderson
This film was an official selection at Filmstock 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of all 2014 films.
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.
With an outrageous title like Steve from Accounting vs The Shadow Dwellers, this was never going to be a serious affair, but humour is tough to get right in horror movies. This year's horror shorts at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival did pretty well on that front, Killer Kart and The Root of the Problem especially nailing it. This one is more overt with its laughs, eschewing the subtleties of those films in favour of a Walter Mitty-esque lead character who constantly veers off into flights of fantasy and a ludicrous story that may or may not be one of them. It's never quite clear how many of the 24 minutes we spend in the company of corporate drone, Stephen H Burrows, take place at Kensington Enterprises, his workplace of three years, and how many unfold entirely inside his imagination. The most obvious reading is that only the first couple of minutes are reality: his dressing down because of a rough disciplinary report and his interaction with a few colleagues immediately afterwards.

We have some sympathy for poor Steve. He's stuck in a dead end job in accounting, tasked with little more than carrying boxes; no wonder he starts fantasising about the three hot secretaries who share his lift to the fourth floor. He's lost whatever enthusiasm he ever had and he's got lost in small office feuds like tormenting Earl who may or may not have stolen his chocolate. What's more, he's about to turn thirty without ever having been laid, so it's hardly surprising that his psyche is screaming out for something more or that his happy place turns nightmarish. What's fun is how that happens. He walks out of the lift and stumbles into a satanic cult performing a ritual human sacrifice on company time. His bosses clearly owe their success to a long habit of killing off their own staff; Kerri is just a stopgap until the great upcoming virgin sacrifice the next day when the victim turns thirty. I wonder who that could be? Well, we have twenty minutes to figure out what Steve has to do to avoid that inevitability.

Patrick and Paul Gibbs, who wrote and directed, were well aware of their limitations, as they countered each of their weaker points. Steve's guardian angel clearly has no martial arts training, unlike some of the heavily muscled shadow dwellers like Phil Sevin, so the fight choreography is carefully edited and plays up the humour. So does the dialogue; as Steve escapes his first encounter with Sevin, he hurls feebly back, 'I'm so sorry I ruined your murder party, scary skull man!' The shadow dwellers' chant is backwards talk: 'Sacul! Grebleips! Nosirrah Drof!' highlights Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a more overt influence than any horror movie, emphasised by Randin Graves's epic score. Like that film, this is an enjoyable ride, a desk jockey's fantasy action adventure to counter his failures in life. This framework invites us to forgive a low budget, flawed acting and sync issues and sit back to enjoy the ride. Steve from Accounting is no Dr Jones, but we're more likely to know a Steve than an Indy.

The Root of the Problem (2013)

Director: Ryan Spindell
Stars: Alison Gallaher, Ptolemy Slocum, Brea Grant and Chad Jamian Williams
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.
Ryan Spindell, who wrote, produced and directed this short film, clearly likes period settings. His 2007 film, Kirksdale, an International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival selection in 2008, was set in the sixties at a rural Florida mental instutition; this one is a decade older, set in the unmistakeable America of the fifties. He also seems to be building a common theme in his films about helplessness. Kirksdale was full of it, beginning with a young lady being driven to an asylum by a cop who tries to rape her within the first minute. The Window has an old man abandoned in a care home and the title of Bully speaks for itself. Here, the helpless character is Mary, waiting in the dentist's chair for Dr Clayton to pull her wisdom teeth. Spindell does a lot here with very little, happy to let the story wait so he can torment Mary by peppering her boredom with distractions: a noisy water pipe, some bizarre screaming from nextdoor and a fly who we follow into the room through ducting behind the opening credits.

Eventually, as her growing fear persuades her that it's time to leave, Dr Clayton finally shows up, as genial and full of calming jokes as you might expect. Ptolemy Slocum and Brea Grant, as Nurse Su, bounce well off each other in what believably seems like the hundredth enaction of an old routine to politely break down the resistance of their patients. Everything is completely normal, but of course it doesn't take long for Spindell to ratchet up the tension. He starts with a cringeworthy anaesthetic jab, guaranteed to have any audience squirming in their seats, but follows it up with Clayton's recounting of the original tooth fairy legend, all about grues who ate bones and teeth, utterly out of place in the doctor's calming routine so clearly setting us up for something. We're left to figure out how to read it all: as a literal piece or a manifestation of Mary's existing fear, perhaps enhanced by anaesthesia. It could even be a riff on snake oil, sparked by the use of Dr P Q Finkelman's Ultra-Calming Tablets.

Really, of course, it's all the above: it's all about the common fear that many of us have when visiting the dentist, built by a few choice impressions conjured out of the surroundings and given focus by an unfortunate choice of words. Or is it? Spindell is very good at letting our imaginations loose, placing a lid on them to rein us back in to reality and then leaving just a little hint that maybe we were right all along. He also clearly plays on our fear of authority, whether that be the people who run an asylum, a care home or the dentist's surgery we see here. He uses talented effects folk to launch our fantasies but equally talented actors to tamper them back down. Slocum and Grant, both vastly experienced in film and television, are excellent here, while the much less experienced Alison Gallaher does a fair job of staying within our focus of attention while anaesthetised and in the presence of scene stealers. The humour is solid too, even if it begins with an outrageous pun: Mary's appointment is for 2.30.

Saturday 28 September 2013

Game (2013)

Director: Josh MacDonald
Stars: Andrea Lee Norwood, Pasha Ebrahimi, Glen Matthews and Michael McPhee
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.
Josh MacDonald's credits are mostly as an actor, with a long string of roles in short films and features with titles as engaging as Suburban Zombie Christmas, Foam Drive Renegades and, well, Time Farter, but he stayed behind the camera for this, his directorial debut. He also wrote and produced, so even offscreen it's clear that this film, along with the lion's share of its success, belong to him. I wasn't sold on it the first time I saw it, as a festival screener, but it played well on the big screen and it gets better with time, as the craft of the piece shines out. It's a deceptively solid little picture, one that takes the stereotypical, turns it neatly on its head and ratchets everything up a few notches for good measure. Its biggest problem is surely that nothing much seems to happen for a while. I should emphasise that it really does, merely doesn't seem to because two thirds of the film is taken up with a chase that's bereft of dialogue and relies on tension woven around characters we know nothing about.

What becomes clear with repeat viewings is that it's deceptively well crafted. The pastoral flute that bookends the film and the way the piece is shot, especially in the wetlands scenes towards the end, mark it clearly as a throwback to the seventies. Films were slower back then, with more emphasis on character, and that's what we're given as a young lady runs for her life through a Nova Scotia forest, encumbered as she is with duct tape, hand ties and chains. The credits call her a businesswoman but we know as much about her as we do about the three hillbillies chasing her, which is to say next to nothing; what we know we have to conjure out of what we see. They're patient men on the hunt for game, in one of the various meanings of the title. Jubal has a lumberjack shirt, a chainsaw and horrific burn scars on his face; Gabe favours an axe and his running make up, from the lipstick their quarry dropped, shows that he's as scarred inside as Jubal is out. Prior merely has bad teeth and an earring.

On the victim's side, we see that the businesswoman doesn't scare easily, as a beautifully shot scene with a spider ably demonstrates. She also has the gumption to try to free herself with what she finds, which lends us to believe that this isn't going to be quite as simple as the proto-torture porn we might expect. The feel remains quintessentially seventies, evoking both backwoods hillbilly horrors and rape revenge movies. What it delivers remains true as an homage to those genres but adds something very new and refreshing. The last shot, in particular, is particularly haunting. It's a gorgeous ending, with a deceptively peaceful scene sitting above a powerful undercurrent of menace. The pace is measured throughout, with three strong up periods each followed by corresponding quiet down periods, the last of which leaves us ready for more. The editing is by Jason Eisener, of Hobo with a Shotgun fame, and it's as deceptively strong as anything else here. Just make sure to watch it more than once.

Game can be watched for free, with a brief introduction by the director, at FearNet.

Diecons (2012)

Director: Lomai
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.
A highly appropriate way to kick off a set of horror shorts at a genre festival, Diecons is a trailer for a nonexistent feature. It stars the cinematic equivalent of a slasher supergroup, most of those iconic monsters from eighties movies attempting to make a comeback in an era that sees them as camp and doesn't take them remotely seriously. There's only a hint of a story but that hint only puts it in parity with many of the movies to which it pays homage. The puppeteer appears to be a psychiatrist with a Hannibal Lecter fixation, who gets most of the dialogue, perhaps appropriately given that he was one of the few modern monsters to get any (and this is an odd moment for me to realise that most of the great monsters of the eighties were just as silent as those of the twenties). 'They do not see you as I see you,' he pronounces, sliding a new mask over to Michael Myers. If I caught the dialogue correctly, he sees them as 'proud slayers of the degenerate mongols that plague this plane of existence.'
And so you can write the rest of the script yourself. He talks up their collective achievements and how they're forgotten, their legacies bastardised, timely with the Hannibal series and a host of modern day franchise reboots. Pop culture sucks in his view, which is mirrored in the response of one victim who points out that it's all about paranormal activity nowadays (and you can make that genre a movie title if you wish) 'You must let them know who the real icons of death are,' he tells his oversized minions. 'Take your weapons and carve their flesh!' I can't resist quoting this overblown dialogue, which is one of the best reasons to watch this short, but unfortunately the sound quality is a little murky so I wasn't able to catch all of it. That's surprising, as the piece was put together by musicians, Chicago rappers called 21st Century Hip Hop. Even there the horror influence is apparent, as director Lomai surely takes his name from Lo-Mai, the cat/man hybrid in The Island of Dr Moreau, not the Fijian rugby team.

Given that this is a fake movie trailer, it has to be judged as if the imaginary feature it promotes isn't quite so imaginary after all. Would this entice potential viewers away from the Hollywood eye candy on offer on the other multiplex screens? Well, maybe. It has a vision that's as fun as it is cheesy. There are fan films out there, like Freddy vs Jason vs Ash, that cover this territory and they're popular with a certain flavour of horrorhound, even if they play parties and cons rather than national theatre chains. Certainly to succeed, they need to be made by fans rather than studio executives, but even Freddy vs Jason made back three times its budget and its ending still prompts discussion whenever its name is dropped. This is definitely on the party scale, as the acting is poor to mediocre, the action is generic (though phrased knowingly) and the technical side is capable at best. After the idea, it's the dialogue that keeps us, as overdone as anything given a mad doctor in the forties. Ed Wood would mouth it all.

Diecons can be watched for free on YouTube.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Rules are Rules (2011)

Director: Rod Blackhurst
Stars: Dave Mays, Alex Perez, Meg Cionni and Stevie Nelson

The other short film I've seen that Meg Cionni made for Tough Break Kid is this one, which is about as subtle as Nice Cock! isn't. It's really a faux public service announcement masquerading as a short film, but the etiquette it expounds in an acutely painful manner is so quintessentially American that, being English, I didn't twig until the punchline. My better half, of course, figured it out early on but enjoyed how it unfolded nonetheless. It surely highlights success when two people listen to the same joke, one gets it quickly and the other one doesn't, but both laugh just as hard at the punchline. I can pussyfoot around which particular etiquette it covers to avoid spoilers or just point out that I should have posted this review a couple of weeks ago, but it's not a difficult thing to figure out if you're American and of a certain age or above. It only has 7,000 views at Funny or Die, compared to the 28,000 that Nice Cock! is up to, so maybe the internet audience is just a little too young.

It's 1.38am in Hollywood and young Dave rings his roommate, to prepare their casa for the couple of charming young ladies he's picked up somewhere who want to join them for a nightcap. Alex is on it, with candles to light, champagne to put on ice and Kenny G's Duotones album on vinyl. What's more, Lindsay and Kara are a vision, but of course there's a catch coming and it's sprung magnificently. The girls, Cionni doubling up here with Stevie Nelson, look great and react well, whether they're called on to look confused, giggle tipsily or act enticing. The guys are note perfect, especially as the realisation hits. Now I want to see Mays and Perez act in something serious; I may laugh anyway in anticipation. I also want to see Cionni in something entirely serious. Supergator and Battle Planet aren't likely to meet that requirement and The Fear Chamber doesn't look promising. I think what I need to see next is The Clearing, a short film still in post-production. Maybe Supergator will do until then.

Rules are Rules is available to watch for free on Vimeo.

Nice Cock! (2011)

Directors: Rod Blackhurst & Brian McGinn
Stars: Alex Perez, Dave Mays and Meg Cionni

As Meg Cionni sadly had so little to do in Buck Wild, which played in Tucson last night as part of the Arizona Underground Film Festival, and because I had so much fun talking with her earlier this year while she was promoting Waking at the Phoenix Film Festival, I felt I should review a couple of short films that she made for a sketch comedy outfit called Tough Break Kid that aren't quite so likely to play film festivals. Well, that and I really want to see how my search traffic spikes after I cover a film called Nice Cock! That's the first one up, if you excuse the pun, and it's about as subtle as it sounds. Then again, Alex Perez and Dave Mays, the guys behind Tough Break Kid, aren't really about subtle; they make commercials, short films and sketches for websites like Funny or Die, so they have to get their point across quick enough for today's ADD generation to notice before they tune into one of the many other options sprawled over the same front page. So... Nice Cock!

Perez and Mays wrote and produced this one and they play the two young gentlemen hanging out at the Harvard House Motel pool, waiting for a girl to descend the stairs to see them. Yes, that's Cionni and, given that she can do enticing in her sleep, her toughest job here is to get through her dialogue without cracking up. I wonder how much the editing choices were set by how much laughter they had to work around on the best take. Let's just say that the film's title is merely the conversation opener and the writers proceed to haul out more double entendres than a six pack of Carry On movies, even though the picture only runs a slice over two minutes. You can write most of the script yourself, if you have the same sense of humour as these guys, but the ending still comes out of the blue. Both actors are rather good at the shocked blank stare, Dave Mays especially. He freezes so well the first time it's called for that I thought he was a cardboard cutout. I wonder if you'll freeze too.

By the way, don't ever google for '"nice cock" festival'; trust me, this film isn't even close to the top and you don't want to know what is. Don't even ask about searching for screenshots. Of course, now I wonder if this review will make that result list. Such are the wonders of the internet age.

Nice Cock! is available to watch for free on Vimeo.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Buck Wild (2013)

Director: Tyler Glodt
Stars: Matthew Albrecht, Jarrod Pistilli, Dru Lockwood, Isaac Harrison, Mark Leslie Ford, Tyler Glodt, Meg Cionni and Joe Stevens

The first thing you need to know about Buck Wild is that it's a zombie movie, but the second thing you need to know is that it's not a traditional zombie movie. Every die hard living dead fan who got pissed at the fast zombies in the Dawn of the Dead remake is not only going to hate this picture, but might just call out a hit on director, co-writer and supporting actor Tyler Glodt too. You see, this is a comedy first and foremost, one that takes quite a few knowing liberties with its chosen genre. Why? Because it can. The chief reason it succeeds as a movie is because every actor in the picture is in on the joke, but they all played their parts straight nonetheless, however far over the top the script painted each of their stereotypes. There are certainly points where it goes too far, but mostly it finds a good balance between stupidity and hilarity. Surely the introduction of English redneck Billy Ray will be the key scene. Crack a smile there and you're in for a treat. If not, you might as well quit and avoid the pain.

Most of the story is completely stereotypical, but then that's the point. The four guys driving down to the Buck Wild ranch in South Texas for a hunting trip are precisely the characters you'd expect. Tom's the nerdy wuss with glasses, Thomas Alexander III to give his full name. He thinks hunting is barbaric but he's here anyway, to hide at the drop of a hat and make everyone else look a little braver. Jerry's the wild man from New York who puts out his cigar in his hand and carries a huge duffel bag he won't allow anyone else to touch. 'He's a bit intense,' explains his cousin, the naïve and straight laced Craig Thompson, who's driving. Craig sees the trip as a sort of bachelor party, even though he hasn't actually proposed to his girlfriend Carla yet. That leaves Lance, his best friend, who makes sure to pack a big bag of special brownies for the trip. He's also an incorrigible horndog and it's possible that Craig may be the only person who doesn't know that Lance has been sleeping with Carla all along.

It doesn't take much to imagine how these characters will all bounce off each other and it's no spoiler to point out that you'll be absolutely right. However, rather than play out as the usual dumb college age comedy, it tones down the sex and pumps up the gore to keep us interested. The Buck Wild ranch is run by Clyde, a backwoods hillbilly who has a hard enough job keeping his slutty daughter Candy from doing everyone in town. That only stops being priority number one when he's bitten by what may or may not be a chupacabra and he starts lusting after live flesh instead. Heck of a time for our heroes to go hunting, huh? Well, to add to the bad timing, they have a run in with Billy Ray and his gang of redneck thugs on the way into town and their place turns out to be situated right next to Buck Wild. Suddenly they find themselves fighting for their lives with kinky rednecks on one side, chupacabra infected zombies on the other and relationship drama brought along for the ride to slow them down.
Any joy or pain you're going to get out of this picture is going to come less from the story and more from the characters and the comedy they generate. The two relentless scene stealers are Jerry and Billy Ray, partly because of how outrageously they were scripted and partly because the actors who play them recognised that and treated it as an opportunity to go truly over the top. Each member of the core cast gets his or her shot at the spotlight: not only Matthew Albrecht as Craig, Isaac Harrison as Lance and Dru Lockwood as Tom, but Joe Stevens as the grumpy Clyde and Meg Cionni as his slut of a daughter. None of them are really able to keep it though, however capably they do their job. Dru Lockwood does best, because Tom is the character that the script allows to grow the most and also because it has him lose the majority of his clothes in an ever-inventive recurring gag. At the start, he looks like the weakest character, but he turns out to be the most substantial.

However, substance really isn't a driving force here, overdone comedy is and that's exactly why Jerry and Billy Ray are here. Jerry can't be taken seriously in the slightest, but he's a riot of a character that simply cannot be ignored. He quotes Nietzsche. He sharpens his knife in the middle of the night. In the dark. He injects himself to sleep. He trains in the nude early in the morning. With nunchucks. The only catch is that Jarrod Pistilli, who has surprisingly few credits to his name, can't quite hide how much he is obviously enjoying the part. He's trying to be Corey Feldman 80% of the time and Steve Buscemi the other 20%, especially vocally. He calls everyone 'boss'. If Jerry can't be taken seriously, Billy Ray is a step further. Mark Leslie Ford wears a hat with long feathers sticking out of it, alligator shoes and the sort of feather boa that a blaxploitation pimp might wear wrapped around his neck. He even carries a grenade on his key ring, but he's the host of a cable TV hunting show. With a British accent.

That first scene unfolds as a conflict between the pair of them over the use of a gas station pump, an imbecilic concept that works best as a demonstration of how over the top this film is going to get. Any audience members who get past it know precisely what they're in for and accept the lack of realism; not that a horror movie driven by chupacabra infected zombies was ever likely to be realistic, but you get the point. It's a testament to the talent of Dru Lockwood that he manages to keep his weak character somewhere in our realm of attention, because Ford and especially Pistilli, who has far more screen time, spend the entire picture doing anything they can to steal our attention back to them. Ford can do it just by calling himself a 'bad ass' (two words, not one, in his cultured British accent), while Pistilli has to resort to outdoing his previous exaggeration scene after scene. Frankly, it's a testament to his talent that we don't want to kill him half an hour in and he actually becomes rather endearing.
Beyond Jerry and Billy Ray, the most obvious things in Buck Wild are the movie references. Glodt and Albrecht can't resist throwing a whole host of them into the script, sometimes outright and sometimes through more obscured homage. The best example of the former is when Jerry and Craig argue over Lance, who is obviously not in good shape. Rather than dealing with him, they indulge in an escalating argument about Michael Corleone instead. They're in the middle of a zombie apocalypse and they're fighting about Andy Garcia. For the latter, one rescue scene is clearly a simultaneous homage to both Pulp Fiction and Deliverance, followed soon after by a pie to the face, demonstrating that it isn't just recent material getting the nod. Albrecht, who plays a naïve hero here with only a little substance, is clearly not quite so naïve when it comes to film history. He and Glodt refer to everything from The Road Warrior to 300 via The Boondock Saints. Well, that one loses them a little credibility in my book.

The only surprise is that the Braindead reference, a relatively obvious one given that this is a zombie comedy, doesn't go as hog wild as the source on the gore front. That sort of thing is reserved for other scenes; this is certainly the movie for you if you see killing a zombified priest with his own crucifix as humorous in a delightfully dark and twisted fashion. It needed more of that sort of thing and less of what Lance gets up to in the surreal scene that most obviously jumps the shark. As I mentioned earlier, there's a lot here to piss off zombie purists and that scene will have them throwing things at the screen. Those purists might enjoy how these backwoods folk react to zombies, which is frankly hilarious, but they'll have a few problems with the internal consistency. There's no real attention given to the outbreak's cause and the internal consistency seems to be rather lacking. Control certainly comes and go with abandon, which doesn't help the flimsy back story.

Perhaps that just wasn't a focus. Try to analyse this and it'll fall quickly apart under its own weight in gags. We end up following the jokes and wondering who will get a shot at stealing a scene from Pistilli or Ford. Dru Lockwood comes closest, with his disrobing antics. Albrecht is watchable with his Nathan Fillion charm, but he's too quiet to mount a challenge. Joe Stevens deserved more opportunity as the host of the apocalypse, in more ways than one, but he isn't given too much. Meg Cionni, who was such a delightful little pixie in Waking, is the precise opposite this time out, as sexually in your face here as she was distant and enticing there. This demonstrates her range, but doesn't give her much chance to grab our eyeballs because as soon as she's on screen, she's gone again. Tom, who kills a man with a fish here, calls Jerry 'a little over the top, don't you think.' Clearly he's also talking about the movie and, as long as you're OK with that, you'll have a blast going Buck Wild. It's a top ten trip.

Sunday 15 September 2013

It's All Relative (2013)

Director: Sarah Woodward
Stars: Corina Smith, Dennis Frederick, Jackie Rich, David Flores, Rick Grove and Eric Storie
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.
The final film screened in this year's marathon IFP Beat the Clock challenge for 48 hour films at the Phoenix Art Museum was a memorable way to end the evening. It certainly had the most appropriate title, a neat double meaning, that explores how everyone's relations are embarrassing when bringing home a partner. The cast clearly had a blast shooting this and I wonder if the picture's ineligibility for competition came about because they were laughing so much they had to do multiple takes. It would make for a good story, even if it isn't true. It's phrased as a joke, with a minute to set it up and four to improvise the punchline. That first minute is black and white, as Anna tries to persuade her boyfriend Petey that meeting his parents isn't going to be the nightmare he thinks it will be. 'My family's nuts,' he tells her. 'I always fall back into their crap.' He's right too, but that's how we get our film, a neatly twisted extrapolation to deliberately ludicrous degrees of a reality all too commonplace.

Director Sarah Woodward and her wonderfully named team of Untrained Slackers, clearly had a blast shooting this, which perhaps explains why it's a little out of control. While it keeps threatening to go hog wild into hallucinogenic territory and thus be told even more from Anna's perspective, it doesn't ever let itself. Instead it relies on a set of delightfully expressive performances from the actors tasked to put on face paint and extras and act like animals. Jackie Rich is most notable as Petey's rabbit of a mother, Mrs Warren, but Eric Storie steals the show when he wanders in as Tony, a haughty cat who waltzes in and out again precisely like one of my cats does so often. The dialogue they're given isn't bad at all, especially all the comments about how small Anna's hips are, but frankly the actors go far beyond that here. Watch their outrageous routines, then remember back to when you first met your partner's parents for the first time and realise how accurate this parody really is.

Drink (2013)

Directors: Stephanie Joyce and Ravi Devineni
Stars: McKenna McFadden, Rene Schlimm, Damian Reese, Rhonda McFadden, Artie Johnston, Tyler Reese and Haley Reese
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.
After Inflated and Star Babies, anything with flaws was going to fall a little flat, which is unfortunate as Drink is almost a good movie. There's a lot of good here, a lot of it a little more complex than might be expected for a 48 hour film, but it doesn't quite come together in the end. I'm still trying to figure out quite why it doesn't, but it doesn't gel the way it should. The idea is certainly a good one, as a couple of strangers sit together at Lux Coffee Bar and wonder about their imaginary relationship. It's all small talk, with no grounding in reality, just to pass the time, but they're not the only ones wondering. Their barista clearly wonders too and offers them a little more attention than would seem appropriate. One neat approach Drink takes is to merge the two imaginings together, not as a communal thing but for cinematic effect. The editing needed to make this work is sharp and the musical theme that underpins it all is decent too, if as fluffy as the conversation. It flows very well indeed.

The lesser elements aren't as bad as the stronger elements are good, but there are a few of them. The most annoying is surely the fact that this barista appears to deliver empty cups of coffee but nobody notices, including herself. The most frustrating is the inconsistency. The main section features quality acting from Rene Schlimm and Damian Reese as the non-couple, while McKenna McFadden grins far too much at the camera as their barista. She persists into the final section and improves no end, with substance replacing the smiles, but her foil is almost inaudible behind the music. I liked the last line, which presumably explains why this film was made, but it ought to have had more grounding to back it up, especially in Lux with its preponderence of typewriters as ambient background. This is a really good idea and it's mostly put together well. It just doesn't quite work yet. If Filmnasty Productions has more time available than the 48 hours allowed for Beat the Clock, this could become a worthy short.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Inflated (2013)

Director: Sterling E Smith
Stars: Brian Klimowski and Sonja
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.
Of all the 22 submissions to this year's IFP Beat the Clock 48 hour film challenge, this was perhaps the most overlooked. While Star Babies was a clear winner in almost everyone's books, I'd personally rate Inflated the runner up, well ahead of Eva's Light, Doubting Thomas and The Neighbors, with a notable drop off to everything else. I should mention that the latter two films weren't eligible for competition, which explains why they didn't win anything. I can't explain why Inflated didn't. Perhaps the message didn't get through to the judges as, without it, the story would appear to revolve around a cheap plot convenience which would notably lessen it. However, it's really the key to the film and an underlining to its message. Watching afresh, it plays even better, and I can easily see this becoming a companion piece in my mind to last year's most underrated IFP film, La Lucha, which is also a deceptively simple but beautifully emotional piece.

For most of the running time, we follow Brian Klimowski through the parks and streets of Flagstaff in chase of a party balloon that is drifting inexorably away from him through the northern Arizona sky. That director Sterling E Smith manages to keep this from becoming boring is a bonus, with nice dolly shots and a varied set of glimpses of Flagstaff, until we find a grounding for it all towards the end of the film. As agreeable as these visuals are, except a pointless moment of pointing, it's the metaphor that lies behind the chase that's important. This is a love story, but it's also a story about love, which is not the same thing. Scott's helium balloon is an avatar for love itself and the script medidates on the idea that searching doesn't always lead to finding but giving up sometimes does. The ending, as brutal and as brutally funny as it is, leaves us with a laugh and a question, to ponder if Scott learned what was important from the adventure that led him to that point. Who knows?

Almost everything is done very right here. It's shot in sharp black and white, with a decent amount of style. Many of the shots are composed not only to show us a well framed image but to set up decent movement within them, something many filmmakers miss. The scene where Scott gives up the chase is a good use of technical limitation, as the balloon slowly fades into the sky. Klimowski is a believable protagonist, an everyday Joe whose dreams should be about to be fulfilled but instead are drifting out of his grasp. His frustration is decent, his pain even better as he delivers the required line. Sonja, who has no surname but plays Aria, the film's other character, gets very little screen time but does quite a lot with it, grounding the story well. It's that story though, by Smith and Brandon Hancock that shines brightest here. It's a shame that their film didn't win anything at Beat the Clock. At many IFP events, the audience can vote on a favourite; we couldn't here, but this would have been my pick.

Inflated can be watched for free on YouTube.

Deep Love (2013)

Director: Christian Cota
Stars: Erin Greanice and David Waner
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.
Given that IFP Beat the Clock is a 48 hour film challenge, I was impressed by the ambition shown by a few of the competing filmmakers. That doesn't mean I was necessarily impressed by their movies, but aspects of them were worthy of note. Deep Love is a good example. It's not even close to being a good film and it has a whole slew of flaws that can't be avoided. The highly derivative story follows a happy couple through a destructive spiral of drug abuse, prostitution and death, bringing absolutely nothing new into the mix. The dialogue is terrible enough that the bad sound in many of the talking scenes is rather welcome because it means we don't have to hear most of it. It starts with a boy bringing home a surprise for his girl. She doesn't recognise the bag of coke for what it is, but knows precisely what to do with it. 'I'm going to trust you,' she says. Only David Waner makes it above mediocre on the acting front, though maybe the actors would have done better work had they been given better material.

However, for a pretty poor film it's a great demo reel for an editor and Tony Perea's work on that front is a rather notable saving grace. He was saddled with the same derivative story as the actors, so he's only able to turn this into a five minute rerun of Requiem for a Dream, just without Jennifer Connolly or her double dildo. However, while the story is little more than a cheap knockoff, Perea's editing is much more reminiscent of the real thing. He only seems to have made a couple of films, but I'm now looking forward to the horror anthology Death by VHS a little more, now that I realise that he did some of the editing on it. As one of three editors on that movie, I wonder if his work will stand out from the others. While Perea is really good here, it's hard to find much else to praise. The story does at least progress consistently from a beginning to an end, which puts this above a few of its competitors, but that's the best I can come up with.

Comforting Shadows (2013)

Director: Jeff Grunow
Stars: Lara Van Lith, Julie Van Lith, Gary Herkimer, Timothy Helmstadter, Raymond Scott and Shari K Green
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.
Many of the best films at this year's screening of IFP Beat the Clock challenge films came towards the end. Star Babies, the clear winner, played 20th out of the 22 entries, right after the most overlooked and underrated of the evening, Inflated. Last up was the wild comedic romp, It's All Relative, which was a riotous way to finish. It wasn't all sunshine and daisies at the tail end of the bill though, with Comforting Shadows only gaining credit for its ambition. Beyond being a 48 hour film challenge, Beat the Clock comes with a number of other restrictions. The usual ones we focus on are the required prop and line of dialogue, as the best entries highlight great imagination in how those are used. However, there's also a choice of genre and Jeff Grunow was the only director ambitious enough to make his 48 hour film a musical. I have to admire the size of his cojones in doing that, as making a film in 48 hours is tough enough already without having to put it all to song. Unfortunately, I hate musicals.

Maybe part of why I dislike this one so much is because of that built in prejudice, which I should add is far from an absolute; there are musicals that I love. However, mostly I think it's because it's so clearly a rushed job, the most obvious 48 hour film of all these 48 hour films. It doesn't help that the sound is hardly pristine. The piece opens with horrendous static, which we only gradually realise is partly the storm raging outside young Lara's house. She's scared, of course, but she somehow finds comfort in the various toys that come to life in front of her and attempt to sing. Three are helpful: a fairy called Bambi, a soldier called Jack and a cowboy called Willie. The fourth is a jack in a box played by Gary Herkimer, who channels the Joker far more clearly than Raymond Scott channels Woody from Toy Story, which he's apparently supposed to be. There aren't songs, merely poorly sung dialogue poorly set to music. The only opportunity here for the actors is to not put it on their resumes.

Friday 13 September 2013

Doubting Thomas (2013)

Director: J Andy Moreno
Stars: Andriy Ivanov and Zein Moreno
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.
Doubting Thomas wasn't eligible for awards at the IFP Beat the Clock challenge this year because slow upload speeds meant it missed the deadline. If it had been, Zein Moreno would have had a solid shot for the Best Actress award, as her performance stayed with me throughout the remaining screenings and far beyond. I'm not quite sure that she's left yet! Really she's only in this film as a prop, to freak out the leading man in ways the other shock moments can't deliver, but she steals every scene she's in. He's some sort of paranormal investigator, booked into the San Carlos Hotel in downtown Phoenix to prove it has no ghosts. 'Haunted?' he says when he arrives. 'Yeah, right!' Andriy Ivanov isn't bad as Thomas Harper, though he could have been better. It's just that Moreno is outstanding as Annabelle, who's right there waiting for him to arrive and who greets him eerily by name. He gets more screen time than she does but she dominates the film, even when she's not in it.

To be fair, it's not all her, as this part was a gift. Annabelle's success is partly how her look is so neatly severe, how she says 'Mr Harper' like a hypnotic mantra and how she's framed so freakily in hallways that may or may not be in our world. Her appearing and disappearing act merely adds to the effect, as do cleverly accomplished shots like the one where the light plays on her face or the one where she's lit by candle in the dark. The pulsing soundtrack helps too, as does the apparent lack of anyone else in a 128 room hotel. Mostly, though, it's her and I'd very much like to see her in something else to see her range. She also isn't the only good thing about this film; in addition to all those aspects that helped her, there are other well timed shock moments and a beautifully shot ending. For a 48 hour film made by a cast and crew of four, this is pretty amazing stuff. That fact surely forgives the odd editing hiccup and camera issue. This isn't perfect by any means, but it's a gem of a competition entry.

Doubting Thomas can be viewed for free at Vimeo.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

The Key (2013)

Director: Ivana Kat
Star: King Jonathan
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.
Certainly the most visually striking film in the IFP Beat the Clock challenge this year, it's an intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying piece. A topless man with a muscled physique meditates within a circle of candles and finds himself by a river. He's still topless but he's wearing a silver cape and he dances his way down to the water, from which a mysterious veiled woman emerges with an apple for him. If this sounds like the story of creation as performed by Gorgeous George, that's not far off because there's no explanation given at all. Presumably the unnamed character played by King Jonathan is attempting astral projection, but why that prompts him to flounce around fluttering his shiny cape I have no idea. I'd suggest performance art but it's over at the river when we find ourselves in symbolism territory. That side of things carries on until the rapid fire end credits and perhaps would also be considered performance art, if only the moves had covered a wider choreography than just coughing.

I have to admire the ambition of Ivana Kat, who edited, produced and directed, because this isn't the sort of picture that tends to get produced for a 48 hour film challenge. I'm happy to see something a little more experimental submitted for competition and this certainly stood out from within much less ambitious company. Jonathan certainly has the presence to pull something like this off and the setting he's given in which to do it is just as visually striking. Unfortunately, if there's depth to the symbolism, I'm at a loss to explain it. Certainly I can't delve too far here without finding myself in spoiler territory, but the only obvious explanation is the really obvious one that ties to one man using astral travel to seek knowledge in some sort of arcane realm, with the prop of the title acting as both a metaphorical and a literal device. If that's it, it's pretty straightforward, even if this is a five minute short. However, if it isn't, I really don't haven't a clue. It's striking and memorable but I still don't know what else it is.

The Desert (2013)

Director: Ryan O'Connell
Star: Chris O'Connell
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.
Here's another IFP Beat the Clock entry that falls firmly into the category of 'worst day ever'. This one's slightly different from the others in that its calamities are generated by the lead character rather than just experienced by him. He doesn't have a name but he's not the brightest bulb in the pack and he's able to create a worst possible scenario just as well as the supporting characters do in The Worst Best Man or An Adventure in the Life of Barry Barksworth. He's also whiny enough for it to grate, though the film isn't long enough for him to become truly annoying. As the skimpy story begins, his Candy Crush game is rudely interrupted by a text from his brother, Brian. 'I really need your help,' it says, but that's it. So off goes our knight to the rescue, or so he thinks. He's hardly a knight and he's dim enough that he probably can't even spell it. Like Mr Bean with a stream of consciousness voice, he stumbles along from calamity to calamity until a resolution decides to join him.

Chris O'Connell is decent enough in the lead role, as frustrating as it is to watch him flounder, but he's overshadowed by pretty much everything else. We have no sympathy when he decides Brian has got stranded in the desert searching for the Lost Dutchman mine, so drives out only to strand himself with a blown tyre, no spare and no reception on his cellphone. Rather than feel the tension as he hitches a lift from a sinister driver, we relish in the performance of Mike Watkiss. If I tell you he's reminiscent of Michael Rooker, with impenetrable wraparound shades and a deep voice that leans towards Nick Nolte as he points out that the desert is 'a great place to dump a body', you'll get the picture. He's a riot and I wanted more of him. Fortunately there's other good stuff to come. While the camera gets annoyingly jerky in the desert, the sound is bad outdoors and the twist is hardly essential, there's some fun colour play, a nice silhouette and a great snot shot. For a 48 hour film, this one has imagination to spare.

Friday 6 September 2013

Adventure! (2013)

Director: Bonnie Sowle
Stars: Brandon Slezak and Jose Hurtado
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.
The best thing about Adventure! is the way it alternates action with inaction, especially given that its action is fast paced, rapidly edited and well timed, while its inaction is so slow as to be pretty close to stopped entirely. This whole start/stop concept could have gone horribly wrong, but it's done stylishly enough to make it a playful romp with a similarly playful conceit. Two slackers slouch around playing video games until one tells the other that they should go on an adventure. 'Dude, what are you?' his friend replies. 'Ten?' But he goes anyway. It's a pretty short adventure as adventures go, because the first third of the film is a montage scene of them getting ready, most of which has nothing whatsoever to do with getting ready; such is the quirky humour in play here. When they set off, they don't exactly have a lot of stops until they end up eleven hours later back in the situation that opens the film. 'This isn't what I meant by having an adventure!' one screams. But does it work for us?

Well, at this point in a long batch of IFP Beat the Clock submissions, all completed within 48 hours, it was a breath of fresh air. While the story is lacking, the sense of fun pervades the film like air, starting with the shock of the opening scene and the reaction of the title card. Then nothing, then something, then nothing and on it goes. Brandon Slezak and Jose Hurtado obviously enjoyed the heck out of the shoot and Korbe Canida makes a captivating cult temptress. Yeah, that should spark some attention. I should add that it's not as good as I'm probably making it sound: it's inconsistently lit at points, it took me a while to figure out the opening shriek and I'm not convinced any of it makes the remotest sense, but I don't think the folk at Toast Productions care. They had a blast making it and their enthusiasm rubs off on us. It recounts the sort of adventure that the heroes will tell their kids one day, but their kids won't believe a word of it. Even if it's the gospel truth. PS: Fluffly the Cat almost steals the show.

Piece for Resistance (2013)

Director: Paulie Jorquera
Stars: Mauricio Gonzales, Chet Worthington, Mason Alford and Carlos Soto
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 can't quite figure out whether I like Piece for Resistance or not. It feels like an easy film to ignore, as the bulk of it concerns itself with what happens before a story rather than the more interesting stuff that goes down after one shows up. The action is nothing but setup, the dialogue merely banter and the characters are broadly drawn, so that we're low on detail but high on impression. The 48 hour challenge limit is very apparent in the sound, as the dialogue often sits a little too low in the mix to make it past the music without us having to strain. The acting is variable, but still appropriate for the context, as the film revolves around four friends from high school getting together after six or seven years apart and wondering if a story is ever going to join them. These guys really do feel like they're four friends from high school, alike enough to have chemistry but different enough to highlight why they didn't stay in touch and don't seem like they'd even get along without such a history.

Yet this one has stuck with me, even a couple of months after the IFP Beat the Clock screening in July. Behind the cigar smoke, beer and male bonding, there seems to be something more substantial in play than initially appears. I just haven't figured out what it is yet, beyond a spark that becomes the story just in time for the end credits. Perhaps part of it is how the Ground Zero team snuck in a disco ball, the required prop. Here, it's a relic from high school, just like the four guys, as well as literally a throwaway idea. Nick, the inveterate party animal of the group, tosses it to a friend like a football, who in turn throws it on, each time accompanied by a question or comment. It's a good idea and it drives things forward, even if it's not in a discernible way. Similarly, the use of the required line is obvious, given the circumstances, but still nonetheless perfect. I'm thinking I'll come down on the side of liking this one. Just don't ask me why. I'm still not sure.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Those Who Forget the Past (2013)

Director: Jon Brown
Stars: Savana Kate Martin, Nikki Hicks, Jacob Morris and Nick Zaludek
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.
While The Disco is in the Details couldn't find a story, Those Who Forget the Past had a surprisingly substantial one but couldn't live up to it. After the rapid fire opening credits, with a stylish font and some intriguing music, we're thrown right into the action. A young lady crouches over the body of her dead boyfriend and swears that she can fix this. Apparently she can too, as her dad conveniently has a time machine sitting in the house, but she forgets about it for a whole week until an older lady tells her not to use it. Yeah, I got confused here too. Who is this woman, who can enunciate as well as the rest of the cast members can't? Why is she in this story, why does she know about the time machine and, if she doesn't want it used, why does she even bring it up? Of course, Ellie (or whatever the lead character's name is, as it got mumbled) is going to use it, and given the title, we can be pretty sure that we know how well it's going to turn out.

I have to give Jon Brown and his team credit for attempting something so complex in a 48 hour film challenge. It's ambitious and it's ballsy. Unfortunately it's also not very good. The dialogue is poorly written and poorly delivered, except for the friend's admirable enunciation. The sound is decent but there are a few flaws, the lighting no different. The set meets the need but doesn't stand out, just as the props do what they have to but no more. That time machine looks rather like a vertical heater or fan, certainly good enough for the brief glimpse we get but not enough to imprint as cool. The story may have a neat framework but it's not painted very well, with a bunch of holes and questions to sit with us. They're also thrown out at rapid speed, as if to suggest that we skip over them, but some of the other moments drag. This one could be worthy, but it'll take a great deal of rethinking, rewriting and reediting to get to that point. Maybe if we just trigger the machine instead...

The Disco is in the Details (2013)

Directors: Shane Sandler and Brian Weis
Stars: Jordan Taylor Strom, Tiffany Vo and Tony Calenti
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.
No less than 22 teams submitted short films for the IFP Beat the Clock challenge this year and all were screened at the Phoenix Art Museum, including the half dozen which were ineligible for awards. That's a lot of pictures to work through in a single sitting, especially when the filmmakers only had 48 hours to build their entries from scratch and not all of them managed to do it well. It was here, ten films in, that the set started to drag a little, initially because four writers at the Incoming! team couldn't find a story. For the Beat the Clock challenge, the benevelent overlords at IFP required that each submission feature one of two props, either a candle or a disco ball. A surprising number of entrants managed to track down the latter, but few had good ideas on how to use it. Here, it's a pure MacGuffin, the central point for every character but something that we really don't care about. It's just found and improvised against, but not as well as Who's Line is It Anyway? contestants manage with less preparation.

Put simply, a young couple move into a new house, where they talk to each other and to the camera, while trying to put up with their roommate and the disco ball that he discovers in a box. At least their antics are agreeably odd and surreal. The best has this third wheel standing there rubbing his nipples as the couple make out on the couch! That pesky disco ball somehow travels everywhere, even into the shower with the man who might be its master or its slave, I can't really tell. There's fun to be had, but it's all in the moments and the result doesn't stand up as anything more than a vaguely related set of odd gags. These folk deserve credit for conjuring up a freaky use for a required prop, and they clearly have some twisted imagination to their names, but they couldn't find a way to transform a few ideas into anything that even stands up on its own, let alone anything meaningful. It wasn't the worst entry this year but it doesn't have anything except some surreal oddness to recommend it.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

The Neighbors (2013)

Director: Tommy Schaeffer
Stars: Michael Alvarez, Kyle Gerkin and Shellie Ulrich
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 was really interested to see what Tommy Schaeffer was going to conjure up as a director, given that he's an Energizer bunny of an actor, one who's just as bouncy when he's off camera doing his regular work as a sound guy. This is perhaps the last thing I'd have expected from him, as it's the opposite of frenetic; it's a slow, composed trip into the dark side of writers Kyle Gerkin and Amy Maliga. Running ten minutes, far too long to qualify for the competition it was shot for, its slow pace is a key part of its charm. 'It's always important to create the right atmosphere,' says a mysterious man in black lighting candles in a dungeon, with the neighbour couple of the title tied up back to back in front of him. That applies not just to what he's doing but to the film he's in as well. So it's slow and drawn out, to match Michael Alvarez's monotone as this odd protagonist. The score, composed by Schaeffer himself, adds to the feel too, sounding like fingers on wine glasses as these neighbours drink their drugged wine.

Hardly surprisingly, the story is an odd one. It sets itself up to be torture porn, gets notably freaky as Carl, the neighbor that Kevin and Justine have come to meet, explains just how much he knows about them, and then refuses to play ball with our expectations. Carl is a scary bundle of inappropriateness, underplayed superbly by Alvarez, the real focus throughout, even though he's the only character not represented in the title. Kyle Gerkin and Shellie Ulrich have their moments as the neighbours at Carl's mercy but the film loses some of its slow but sure momentum once their captor leaves the screen. To be fair, it's partly because they can't move but, to be brutally honest, they're not as interesting as he is. He's an enigma, perhaps to be taken literally or as a manifestation of their consciences. Maybe the way his dungeon is neatly revealed to be just a bathroom reminds us that first glance isn't everything here. Some oversaturated lighting counters the excellent sound, but it's the thought that wins here.

The Date (2013)

Director: Cody Carlson
Stars: Matthew Branscome and Ashlyn Torman
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.
When thinking about what has to be done to create a film from scratch in only 48 hours, it's easy to concentrate on the obvious challenges, such as writing a script (especially when given limitations or requirements to follow), or making sure that everything shot can be seen and heard without issues. Yet there's so much more that needs to be done to present a completed picture and this piece from director Cody Carlson and GCU Brick Squad is a good example of that. The story, about a boy on his first date with the dream girl he's admired from afar for far too long, is almost ignorably routine; the moments it illustrates are those that are quintessentially special to those living them at the time but rather mundane to anyone who might be watching, such as us. It's capably done, but it's nothing to write home about. Yet that's not to say that The Date is a rather mundane film, as it's notably solid when it comes to the things we don't usually think about.

Two of those bookend the piece. The opening scenes provide the superb, deceptively simple trailer, something that IFP challenges require to be submitted alongside each film. It combines deceptively simple narration, editing and music with subtle movement, all to tell us precisely what this short is about. It's note perfect for thirty seconds. The last scene unfolds at a good location, something that has to be plucked out of the air once the framework for a story comes together. This one works as a setting for the couple on their date and, with a neat turn of the camera, works for a final shot after they've walked off screen. In between, there are some solid little touches to spice up the mild story, simple things like having the girl go to the boys' bathroom by mistake or a brief dream sequence to accompany a fart joke. Yes, there's a fart joke here, but frankly, it's the best moment of the film and I'm not saying that in a condescending tone. It makes the story, both for us and its characters.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Biology 101 (2011)

Director: Christopher Smith
Stars: David Welborn, Noelle DuBois, Deborah O'Brien, Emily Bicks, Moñey MacTavish, Morgan Peter Brown and David Alan Graf

I should open this review up with apologies, recommendations and disclaimers. Director Christopher Smith gave me a DVD late last year and I enjoyed it very much, but I haven't got round to reviewing the film until now, partly because it's unreleased and so unavailable for potential viewers to see. It's sad to see that, another ten months on, it's still unreleased but I'm happy to see that it's screening at FilmBar in Phoenix next Saturday night as part of Dark of the Matinee's monthly Arizona Filmmaker Showcase. So, my apologies to Chris for taking so long to review and my recommendation to you all that you go to this event to see for yourselves what I'm talking about here. Hopefully distributors will do the same! As for disclaimers, I had no involvement with this, Smith's debut feature as a director, but I enjoyed being an extra in his second, We Three, which has just wrapped principal photography and for which my better half handled set photography throughout.

The title here has a double meaning. Bill Pollard teaches biology as the head of science at Thatherton Community College, where he tries to impart anatomy to students who clearly don't care. However he also has a more personal interest in the subject, specifically in the anatomy of an internet model, Dani Darling, with whom he has become obsessed. The opening credits show us why, as they're backed by a succession of scantily clad shots of Dani, seductively posing for a camera that swoops in, out and around as a surrogate for our eyes and imagination. Yet, having set us up to think about sex, the film promptly places us into his bedroom where that's the last thing that's going to happen. 'Not tonight,' he tells his wife, Diane, for the third Thursday in a row. Their romantic spark has almost gone out, not because of exhaustion but because Dani Darling is Bill's new online substitute, neatly highlighted by her caressing him through the reflected glow of the screen against his face.

Of course, a middle aged man ruining his marriage through a porn obsession wouldn't make a thriller all on its own, so this one is quickly escalated. This webcam girl could be anywhere in the world, with her connection to Bill abstracted through the distance of the internet, but it's all brought into focus as a new girl transfers into his class. She looks immediately familiar to him, but the tattooed eyes on her lower back and the little frog charm on her wrist that he bought for her remove any doubt. The girl he knows as Dani Darling is really Marissa Weaver who has abruptly become his student. Suddenly this story has the potential to run in a hundred different directions all at once. Where it chooses to go is a mixture of slowly tightening suspense and clever humour. It's obvious that this isn't going to end well, as Pollard finds himself subconsciously stroking himself during a midterm only twenty minutes in, but where we're going to end up is wildly open. This is far from formula material.

It's here that Biology 101 really finds top gear and it does so with a vengeance. Initially the low budget kept our expectations similarly low. The credits, like the cover of the DVD, are decent but simple, the early scenes would have benefitted from better lighting and the key convenience that sets up the plot could easily be seen as cheesy. Pollard is fundamentally a middle aged nonentity in a routine job and a routine marriage, so any opportunities David Welborn might find in the role clearly haven't arrived yet. Only Noelle DuBois has been given a chance to shine thus far, tasked with portraying both the spicy Dani and the bored Marissa and finding a way for them to be believably the same person, which she does capably. She's certainly easy on the eyes, but perhaps not to the degree that we follow in Pollard's footsteps by falling in lust with her on the basis of some sultry still shots and some topless webcam gyration. Again, any potential to the character is still to come. We've just had setup thus far.

Yet there's clearly substance here that's creeping into the mundane setting and subtly waiting for us to notice. Mostly we notice during this midterm scene, as Pollard's mind believably blurs fantasy and reality, struggling to come to terms with a strange situation. That cheesy plot convenience is actually perfect, as it must feel like the beginning of a porno to Pollard, who's been objectifying Dani for some time and surely can't resist doing the same to Marissa. To him, it's literally a dream come true, but a nervous one with every potential to go horribly wrong and turn into a nightmare. Translating porn into reality is a surreal concept to begin with, but especially so for a middle aged man with no sex life but a daughter who he hasn't really noticed in years but suddenly can't help realising is almost as old as his virtual obsession. It all comes to a head, pun not intended, during the midterm, where his imagination runs wild and takes over for a few superbly constructed minutes of trainwreck.

The technique here is astounding for such a low budget movie. Well chosen camera angles build a neat claustrophobic tension as we wait for the inevitable moment when someone finally notices what he's doing and raises the stakes of the story. The editing merges mundane reality with sexy fantasy, a heady mixture whether that fantasy is webcam memories or Pollard's imagination running wild in the moment. The pace and score heighten as the scene progresses, mimicking both Pollard's increasing disconnect from reality and the sexual act he's imagining. Clever digital manipulation also allows his libido to run wild, so that he sees sexual material in everything: test questions, warning signs, even a poster of Albert Einstein on the classroom wall. This is what a mid-life crisis must feel like, a growing disconnection with everything except a wish fulfilment fantasy that might just have manifested itself in an omnipresent inviting little package.

Watching afresh, I felt as entertained by this picture as I was unnerved by Welborn's performance and the realm of inappropriateness his character becomes mired in. There are mild technical issues, of the sort that often populate microbudget films, especially debut features as a director begins to assemble the core crew that will stay with him for years. Many films like this come across as ends in themselves, allowing ideas to reach the screen and scratch a particular itch. Such filmmakers rarely make anything else, happy that they've made their movie. In so many ways, this feels like a beginning, as Smith and his partner-in-crime, Liz Bradley, put on record where they're at as filmmakers and set a benchmark to beat with subsequent releases. The professionality I saw when I played an extra on the last day of the We Three shoot merely underlined that. These folk have both the bug and a vision and my thinking is that Second Feature Productions will improve with each film they make. I look forward to seeing that.

Certainly there's a film that can act as a target for them and that's Absentia, the epitome of what can be done without a substantial budget. Bradley, who co-wrote this movie and provided its art direction and wardrobe, was a PA on Absentia, so got to experience what that crew could do in person. In fact, I first met her because of Absentia, hanging out after its screening at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival with director Mike Flanagan and star Morgan Peter Brown. That was the first time I'd met them too, but Bradley and Smith had worked with Brown before, in a short film called Piggies, which Smith wrote and directed and Bradley produced. Brown appears here too, as a chipper colleague of Pollard's at Thatherton who has a thing for microscopes. He's an absolute delight, Marty Figueroa as utterly unlike his role in Absentia as could be imagined. I really liked him in both films, though his character has little grounding here, serving mostly as a counter to the serious progression of the plot.

There's another recognisable face here too, namely David Alan Graf, a prolific actor who's racked up over 170 films in under a decade and a half. Many of those are cheap and cheerful productions that have little to recommend them, but he's one of those actors who are always watchable regardless of the quality of the film he's in. He plays Pollard's boss here, Mr Duke, but he doesn't get much to do, mostly just serve as a prop for Welborn and Brown to bounce off. Brown gets almost all of the fun moments, a constant presence in the background even though the story doesn't call on him to do much except defuse suspenseful moments with a bouncy rejoinder to something utterly unrelated. It's telling that I wanted to see more of Brown in both Absentia and Biology 101, but realise that his part in each film was as substantial as it needed to be for the stories at hand. He wasn't the focus in either: Absentia was about his wife's search for closure, while Biology 101 is about Pollard's mid-life crisis.

I do wonder how much Figueroa could have become in this story, just as I wonder how much all the other characters could have become, beyond being merely what they mean to Pollard. Perhaps the script revolves too much around him, but a hilarious blackmail scene highlights how this really isn't a traditional thriller, erotic or not, and more of a portrait of a man who has completely lost his way and isn't even sure if he should struggle to find his way back. Every scene about Dani or Marissa is really about what each half of that pair means to Pollard, just like every scene with Diane or Hannah or Dani's tech guy, Shawn Delacruz. Even more traditional elements, like violence, blackmail or sexual coercion take a back seat to his journey as a character. There's a scene late in the film that actually serves to defuse in one fell swoop what enables most such thrillers to function. It's hilarious in the context of this story and it's even more hilarious when considered more widely.

I hope that Biology 101 gets an opportunity to find an audience. It certainly deserves one, not just in the local Phoenix area but on a much wider scale. Sure, it's only 75 minutes long and it doesn't take the usual direction so you aren't likely to see this on Skinemax or HBO, but it's a worthy and different approach to a tired subject with a solid lead performance and a few good ones to back it up. Brown is a character actor to seek out and Graf is always reliable, but Noelle DuBois makes herself very known here and Emily Bicks does a solid job as Hannah. More than anything, the odd little touches here and there with the camera, editing or writing make this one stand out from the crowd. Maybe We Three, a more overt comedy feature about a threesome that goes wrong, will find Second Feature Productions a distribution deal and this one will seem like a gimme after that. I'm very much looking forward to Second Feature's second feature. And their third. And their fourth. And...