Tuesday 26 November 2013

Ritz & Spitz (2013)

Director: Kirby Ann Witte
Stars: Terence Taggart, James Lawrence Sicard, Kelly O'Keefe and Batman
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.
While any film reviewed after SuperFuzz is going to find itself inevitably lacking in comparison, Ritz & Spitz is an intriguing short on its own merits. It's another comedy, though this one's live action (albeit with digital manipulations) and it runs three times as long. Like SuperFuzz, it avoids speech, except for one carefully placed word in the tradition of Silent Movie, but uses other sounds and even unintelligible dialogue for effect. This plays it more traditionally though, as it's also shot in black and white and it adds a score. The crisp visuals also make it feel a lot more modern than an old silent film, even with the focus being on a pair of magicians who fit the vaudeville era well. I wonder how this would have played as an homage to the longer, story based pieces that cinemagician Georges Méliès made a few years into the twentieth century. It would have needed suitable aging effects and a few more intertitles than it has, but that approach may have given it a little more oomph than it has.

Ritz and Spitz are stage magicians, but they're very different. Ritz lives up to his name, being slick and assured in his top hat, bow tie and cape. Terence Taggert has the flamboyant gestures down and looks like he inspires the confidence that the audience apparently has in him. How could a magician fail with a moustache like that? Spitz, on the other hand, can't hold a candle to him and probably couldn't afford one anyway if it wasn't a prop. He's a fundamentally lower class equivalent, appearing like nothing less than a scarecrow in ragged clothes, with tricks that are just as lacking. As Spitz, James Lawrence Sicard is embarrassed to be on the same stage as Ritz, but that could all be a deliberate contrast for a double act. Initially the script serves only to highlight their differences, Spitz sabotaging Ritz's tricks and failing in his own, while the effects are cheats; we don't even see Ritz slicing a watermelon in half with a sword to set up a trick. It's not long though before the real magic begins, as things start to get neatly surreal.

It's the surreality that makes this one work. While what we see could easily be read as a well rehearsed double act, it may just be that everything really does go off the rails in a maelstrom of catastrophe. I'm not sure which it's supposed to be, but it's not really important. What makes it so watchable is how far off the rails it ventures and how Ritz & Spitz attempt to salvage it. Surely it's no mistake that the chaos follows a white rabbit, which Ritz pulls out of his hat but Spitz loses inside his. Without this journey into the rabbit hole of surreality, it wouldn't have found Wonderland and would have ended up too long, too slow and too unlike the silent film it half wants to be. It does drag during the first half but the cinematic trickery gets better and better and the story gets wilder and wilder. The wilder it gets, the better it gets and the second half makes up for the first. At least David Kelly's score keeps us interested while we get there. As a sixteen minute short it's fun, but edited down into a twelve minute short it might be better.

SuperFuzz (2013)

Director: David Towles-Moore
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.
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
I've already reviewed a couple of short films (A Stray and The Worst Best Man) that will be screening at Filmstock Arizona 2013 in early December, but I plan on reviewing the rest too. I ought to start with the pair I saw back in October at Filmstock in the Park, a free public event at the Downtown Phoenix Civic Space. I saw a few notable films that night but the most memorable had to be SuperFuzz, an animation without dialogue from filmmaker David Towles-Moore. It's an energetic affair, to put it mildly, a surreal one and a highly accessible one. It has such universal appeal that I'd be hard put to imagine anyone it wouldn't play well to, which makes its many festival wins unsurprising. It landed awards at Filmstock Colorado, so is now happily circulating round this revolving film festival that travels the four corner states: Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. If it was eligible for prizes at the others, it would no doubt win them. It's hard to say no to a black ninja fighting a psychotic teddy bear.
Yeah, you heard that right. The ninja is Gray and he likes nothing more than relaxing after a hard day's work with some Super Co Chocolate Milk. Given that he's a ninja, you wouldn't think he'd have much of a hardship drinking milk from his fridge, but you don't know about Sevelle yet. That's his teddy bear, a cute and cuddly little critter some of the time and, well, a psychotic and metamorphic beast whenever he gets near some Super Co Chocolate Milk. What are the odds? So Gray has to sneak into his very own apartment, unlock the secret compartment in his fridge and spirit the milk away before Sevelle decides to steal it from him in the form of the clearly insane Mr Fudgems with his own, not inconsiderable, ninja skills. Five minutes later, the end. If that's not a synopsis for the greatest action film ever, I don't know what is. Well, OK, a ninety minute version that never stops being inventive would trump it. It would also succeed The Raid: Redemption as the closest thing to the xkcd ultimate action movie.

Animating the story means that Towles-Moore didn't have to find someone at Arizona State University like Iko Uwais or Tony Jaa to bring it to life. He could do that himself and he did, filling many crew slots all on his own, though with the assistance of a number of others where needed. Everything is pristine but especially worthy of note are his choreography and his sound. I think he uses every part of Gray's apartment in their epic battle, without stretching, and there's hardly a repeated move. Every sound is joyous and there are a succession of them; so many noises without a single word, gradually clustering together as the action builds until they're layered. He also makes room for great little moments, like a perfectly timed squeak. Sure, it's not the most original storyline that ever hit the screen, given that it's basically Clouseau vs Cato, albeit where Clouseau is a frickin' ninja and Cato is a frickin' metamorphic demonic teddy bear, but who cares? It's five minutes of magic. Even the credits are perfect.

Oh, and I may be accidentally timing this perfectly. Happy birthday, David Towles-Moore!

Saturday 23 November 2013

4 Dead Girls: The Soul Taker (2012)

Directors: Mike Campbell & Todd Johnson
Stars: Katherine Browning, Leah Verrill, Mike Campbell, Ashley Love, Tiffany S Walker and Bianca Lopez

I first saw the film now known as 4 Dead Girls: The Soul Taker, as a festival submission when it was still called The Rental. Now, The Rental is hardly a snappy title but at least it doesn't give away, count them, two separate spoilers. What are the odds that this picture is going to feature four girls who are killed by a soul taker? Honestly, this could be the most spoilerific title ever, a full idiotic step beyond John Dies at the End. I remembered The Rental, though not its title, but couldn't remember much more about it than what is given away with the replacement name. It was one of those films that was capable enough to eat up an hour and a half without overt complaints but not memorable enough to stand out from the crowd, something that, by definition, every festival submission really needs to do. It was a bundle of hot chicks, death scenes and plot conveniences, meaning that it'll work well enough in the wild but be forgotten in no time unless a cast member suddenly makes it huge. None have yet.

At least the prologue is clichéd enough to dissuade more discerning viewers from proceeding further. It is so quintessentially clichéd that for a while I was honestly waiting for someone to shout, 'Cut!' and let us in on the secret that this is a horror movie within a horror movie. Unfortunately it doesn't; it keeps on going until we realise that we're seeing a template for the next ninety minutes. I literally can't spoil this picture, as there is nothing here that isn't a given from the new title and the first five minutes in which Becky is chased slowly around a small house by Roger Corman in an Emperor Palpatine costume. She's in full on victim mode, so far into hysterics that she's obviously going to be killed off quickly. He's calm and confident, issuing unending clichés. 'You leave me no choice, Becky,' he warns her, while trying to keep a straight face. 'I can do this all night, he mutters, 'but I prefer not to.' Given that he's played by Mike Campbell, one of the two directors, he doesn't have a choice. 'Give me your soul,' he whispers.

After the title, we discover that he's Devlin Chito and he's the landlord who is about to let the very same house to a quartet of stereotypical giggling young ladies. Well, four stereotypical giggling young ladies who are clearly a little older than they should be but still look good. Two are polar opposites: Lily is as pure and virginal as her flowery name would suggest, while Bianca is happy to bed anything with a penis. In fact, she even has her very own silent hunk to haul in her stuff. That leaves Lori and Pam, who are a lesbian couple; Lori is the blonde, Pam the brunette. Lily is the inevitable link between the four, as Lori's sister and Bianca's schoolfriend. I can buy the former but not the latter. Lily and Lori could easily be sisters who reacted differently to heavily disapproving parents, but Lily and Bianca clearly aren't the same age. The only things they agree on are that they love the house and that Devlin is a creepy dude. 'There's something not right about that guy,' says Pam as he vanishes into a puff of smoke outside.
And so the quartet settle into the house and their stereotypes, which only hint at going beyond sexual preferences. Bianca may be a nymphomaniac but she also freely and knowingly uses her body in order to get men to do anything she wants. Lori and Pam are a cute couple, though Pam has a bitchy streak, perhaps because however intolerant Lori's parents are, we discover Pam can't ever go home. They're believable together, playfighting with popcorn and cushions before jumping in the sack, then pissing each other off the next day; Pam flirts outrageously with Bianca, who isn't remotely interested, all to make her own girl jealous. Lily is the counter to all of them, because she isn't just waiting for the right man, she appears to be icked out by the concept of bodily fluids, not just sex but even drinking out of the same glass as someone else. She also prays for the others as they sit down to eat dinner. It's odd that she be the one to show her bits first; Lori and Pam don't even take off their bras to make love.

As if we might get the idea that there's some social value in the story, we're given our first outrageous plot convenience just before half an hour in. These girls are all in college, which isn't much of a surprise, but the first evidence of that is when Lori does her homework on mythology that just happens to be all about Choctaw shadow beings, starting with Nalusa Chito, best known as the soul eater. 'That's pretty weird,' says Lily. 'Mr Chito's last name means soul eater.' Well, 'chito' merely means 'spirit', but let's not quibble. We're here to learn exactly what the landlord, who has been watching the girls throughout on camera, is up to. Apparently the soul eater gets its strength from the souls of evil women, suggesting that in enticing ladies to his house and killing them, Mr Chito is merely recharging his batteries. 'Only the death of the innocent renders it powerless,' Lori reads, so we know where the story is going. Lori's question of, 'What is good and what is evil?' is the only real substance to the story.

The unusual thing is that this question manifests itself mostly through the gay subtext to the story, an obvious thing from the outset but one that builds through the first half. Every powerful moment ties to this aspect of the story. We're given a closed environment with four girls, in which the traditional good girl is the outsider. Her sister is gay but devoted and looking at marriage, if it ever becomes legal, while her best friend is straight but overtly uses sex as a weapon. Lily finds that, while she's all family values in her own mind, she can't help but see Lori as good, if fundamentally flawed according to her morality, but Bianca as bad. It's not who you do it with, it's why you do it, almost a manifesto for gay rights. Also, Lori and Pam's relationship is the only real one here, as Lily doesn't have them and Bianca doesn't have real ones. Yet it's framed just like any relationship, with tender, loving moments and tougher ones that ask questions about sincerity. It just so happens that both halves of the couple are girls.
I hadn't realised after my first viewing quite how well constructed this half of the movie is, but it's surely why it got picked up by Breaking Glass Pictures, whose dominant programming strand is LBGT movies. Certainly it's far more substantial than the horror side of the story, which hardly gets much attention at all. That side is thrust emphatically to the fore at the halfway point, where the film morphs into a weird creature without any real focus. It's a slasher movie, but one confined in a particularly enclosed space where there's no doubt who the particularly invulnerable slasher is and why he's doing what he's doing. It's a suspense flick, but it was clear from the first five minutes where everything was going to end up. It's drama, as tensions arise between characters, but none are remotely believable. It's even a torture porn movie, as Mr Chito turns into a sort of manipulative Jigsaw character, but it's a torture porn movie without any real torture porn. Really, as a horror movie, it succeeds only in eviscerating itself.

The actors do a surprisingly good job, given the material and given that none have racked up much in the way of credits. Katherine Browning is most prominent as Lily and she screams pretty well, but this was only her second feature, after the thoroughly awful The Carpenter: Part 1 - And So They Die. This was the first substantial role for Tiffany Walker, who plays Bianca, but she does fine. Ashley Love does better as Lori, who has a feature and a couple of shorts behind her. Leah Verrill gets lots of opportunity as Pam, with her bitchy attitude, and she lives up to it, though she does go overboard on occasion. And that's about it. The only other substantial role belongs to Mike Campbell, who does well at being creepy but not so well at being anything else. His role consists of standing still and speaking in an infuriatingly calm monotone with a grin on his face that makes him appear less like a Choctaw shadow dweller and more like a paedophile priest. 'Another evil gone,' he recites at one point, but without depth.

4 Dead Girls: The Soul Taker isn't getting good reviews, though Greg Goodsell's at Cinema Head Cheese (currently also the only one at IMDb) is hilarious. Unfortunately it isn't really getting reviews, period. It's being consistently ignored, it seems, which is sad because I want to see what other people thought of it and its rather strange approach to horror. It asks a good fundamental question, that time honoured one about good and evil but, even as it does so, it promptly forgets that it might want to hazard an answer. In the end, we're returned to it as we close in on the end credits, but by that point, we really don't care because we've been led down so many clichéd horror tropes that we forget that there was even a hint of a wink at a possibility of some substance. Really what we're left with is that gay subtext that played out strongly and capably for half a picture. If this had been a drama instead of a horror movie, it might have been a lot more enjoyable. As it is, it's merely watchable at best.

The Lights (2013)

Director: J Andy Moreno
Stars: Andriy Ivanov, Dietrich Hodge 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.
I was honoured to be asked to serve as a judge for the IFP Phoenix Mystery Box Challenge and I had a blast making my choices and seeing them count. Some of my picks won out while others got outvoted by my peers, who preferred other entries. One that other judges rated consistently higher than me was The Lights, an admittedly intriguing piece by J Andy Moreno, who had made one of my favourite Beat the Clock challenge films this year, Doubting Thomas. However I had many problems with this, which landed third place amongst twenty entries, not least that it doesn't tell a complete story, setting us up but leaving us with a 'to be continued' note at the end. It aimed for feel over detail but I had problems with some of the details, like the cop with a mohawk who acted well but looked wrong. The acting was inconsistent, Andriy Ivanov strong on the street but less so while being interrogated, as he is to begin and end the film. I'm still not sure exactly what the interrogation means either, so it's all ungrounded.

To be fair, there was much that I liked too, especially on the technical side and I'm not surprised that it won for Best Technical Elements. I liked how Det Terry Janks, the lead, and Agent Andrea Carmen, the lady asking the questions, are initially faceless because of a careful lighting choice. I liked the back and forth between the questions and the flashbacks that partly explain why they're being asked. When we get to the point where Janks discovers why the film has this title, during the investigation of a storage locker belonging to a missing mechanical engineer, the effects are solid, rendering the set particularly claustrophobic. I also liked the monologue delivered by Zein Moreno but it doesn't wrap up the story, it just wraps up the episode. This feels far less like a complete film and more like the introductory part to a web series that may well get much more interesting as it progresses. As a jigsaw piece it's intriguing but unfulfilling; as a big picture it may well be something to see.

The Lights can be watched for free at Vimeo.

Friday 22 November 2013

The Prescription (2013)

Director: Sarah Woodward
Stars: Eric Storie and Corina Smith
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.
Director Sarah Woodward and her Untrained Slackers rounded out the last IFP Phoenix film challenge screening with a enjoyably surreal drama centered around a young couple. That was the Beat the Clock challenge and, as if the intervening four months hadn't happened, they would have got to kick off the current one, the Mystery Box challenge, had the programme not been inadvertently changed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's an enjoyably surreal drama centered around a young couple. The key difference is that where the lead couple are confronted with an embarrassing family in It's All Relative, they become the embarrassing family in The Prescription. Another is that each of those embarrassing family members attempted to steal the show from the leads in the last film, Eric Storie clearly succeeding, but here it's the leads who steal the show from everyone else so completely that it's surprising to see sixteen other names in the credits. Eric Storie is one of the leads this time and, frankly, he steals the show from his co-star Corina Smith, who is perhaps even better but less flamboyant.

They're a young couple who are apparently seriously not getting on. As the story begins, he's slamming the door and she's yelling after him. 'You will never last a day in my shoes,' she exclaims. Of course he gets to find out, because she somehow causes them both to change sex, apparently through the online prescription of Dr Mansbach. Storie makes for a bulky and rather awkward woman, especially in high heels, but then I've seen less coordinated women; Corina Smith becomes a dapper man in a suit and tie and with a neat moustache. Off they go to experience life as a member of the opposite sex, discovering the better and the worse as they live similar days separately, and ending up with the merely different. The message is clear and the ending obvious but we have a lot of fun getting there. The best moment belongs to Smith, who provides a gloriously off comment to a little girl on a bench, but Storie plays it up like he's Jim Carrey in drag. I'm looking forward to more of what the Untrained Slackers will get up to.

Monday 18 November 2013

An American Ghost Story (2012)

Director: Derek Cole
Star: Stephen Twardokus

When any genre starts doing really well at the box office, it's never surprising to see a whole rash of low budget knockoffs following in its wake. Paranormal movies are no exception, but they were hardly high budget to begin with. The Blair Witch Project cost $22,500, which meant that the quarter of a million it grossed ensured it a place in the record books. Paranormal Activity is catching up to that mark from an even lower budget; it cost a mere $15,000. While An American Ghost Story is a little more traditional in its avoidance of found footage and shakycam, following an approach that dates back at least as far as The Amityville Horror and is doing well once again with pictures like The Conjuring, its meagre $10,000 budget doesn't sound particularly small in comparison. The faux iconic cash-in title doesn't help either, presumably aiming to catch fans from American Horror Story rather than An American Haunting, which bombed horribly; the film's original title of Revenant is better and more appropriate.

It plays pretty well from the outset, as Paul begins recording notes on the haunted house he's moving into, even while surrounded by moving boxes. 'Day one in the Browning house,' he states. 'No activity thus far.' He's here because he aims to write a book about supernatural phenomena and the best way he can come up with to make it viable is to rent a supposedly haunted house and get the experience first hand. It makes sense, in a twisted way, but it does lead to a host of the sort of moments in which we cringe at the stupidity of characters in horror movies. 'All right, house!' he dares it in a particularly good example. 'Show me what you got.' Like that's ever going to end well? That's what he wants. The freakiness of the approach soon makes itself apparent when his girlfriend Stella arrives. The first thing he does is show her old photos of the house and the family who lived and died there in a mass murder suicide, then asks her to decorate the little boy's room like the photo to make the spirits more active.

Stella clearly isn't sold on the whole concept, but Paul is blind enough not to notice how unhappy she is from the very beginning. 'It's horrible to think they all died in here,' is her immediate response and she gets less enthusiastic from there. 'Can't we just enjoy our first night together?' she asks, but she can't even distract him with mild seduction attempts. He's eager to get down to work, while she's reluctant, clearly hoping that nothing whatsoever happens but just as clearly fearing that it will. He's consistently and calmly persevering, which is cute but an active buzz killer, both to us and to his girlfriend, who's a second thought in his mind behind the potential of the place throughout. When his friend Sam arrives the next day, almost his first words are to ask if Stella has left him yet, because the eventuality is that obvious. At least Paul's calmness is refreshing, this playing sincerely, without any of the camp idiocy of the usual college kids or the dumbness of ghost hunters out of their depth.
For a microbudget picture, this works pretty well for a while, especially given how few people made the film happen. The cast is small, numbering a mere half a dozen and for long stretches it's just Paul; the crew is similarly tiny, with many cast members doubling or tripling up roles behind the camera. Stephen Twardokus is a capable lead; Paul is too driven for us to really care about him but, given that limitation, I appreciated his performance more than I expected. He also wrote the script, co-edited it and was one of three producers. The other two are Jon Gale, who cast the movie and played Paul's landlord Skip, and Derek Cole, who's all over the credits like a rash: he directed it, shot it and co-edited it. What's more, he also provided the most important prop, the house, which is really his own home and which was lived in at the time. All the night scenes were shot silently because his wife and kids were busy doing whatever they felt like doing in the other rooms at the time.

I liked the traditional approaches that these filmmakers took. They avoided the easy shakycam option and shot this capably and professionally. It's certainly no art film, but the cinematography is surprising in its effectiveness. The effects are also well done, even though they avoided CGI and overt gimmickry. Their simple nature was refreshing but also often underwhelming in the face of inevitable comparisons with the usually CGI assisted shocks of other paranormal movies. The lofi nature of the effects doesn't help the film move on either, especially as they don't begin until twenty minutes in. A strong downside is that it's a very deliberate, often slow, film and it does drag at points. H Anton Riehl's piano score both helps and hinders, as it's low and slow and plays to that pace. I liked the creepy feel, which reminded of the Tori Amos cover of Slayer's Raining Blood, but it's never able to perk up the pace. When that works, the score helps it work; but when it starts to drag, well, the music helps it do that too.

The most important moment for me was when Stella left. I knew she would from her first couple of lines and everything she said underlined it, but it still happened a lot sooner than I expected. Liesel Kopp got second billing in what was fairly the second most substantial role, but her leaving so soon made it so obvious that it was all about Paul that I reevaluated what was going on. And what's going on is that An American Ghost Story isn't a paranormal horror movie, not really; it's a character study of a driven man who just happens to choose this subject for the book he wants to write. If we choose to watch this as a horror movie, it works but barely; the shocks are decent but not unexpected and there's nothing to see here that we haven't seen many times before. However, if we choose to watch it as a drama about Paul, it works much better. It's about the clash between what he wants to have done with his life and what he eventually finds he's capable of, along with the risks he takes to find out.
The setup for this side of the picture arrives a quarter of an hour in. When Sam asks Paul about all the clippings he's put up on the wall about the murder suicide, he affirms that he really believes in all this stuff. He's naïve, of course, and he has apparently no background in the paranormal, but he believes and he believes that believing is all that matters. Every approach he takes is because he believes it's what he's supposed to do, not because he knows it'll work. There's something driving him and we find out what it is that night as he talks with Stella in bed. He's thirty and he hasn't done anything with his life, so he's acutely feeling his age. 'I want to prove to myself that I can actually finish something that I start,' he confesses to her. The final piece is when he suggests that Sam needs a girlfriend who'll take care of him like his mum did, as he's subconsciously stating that he needs that too. If that isn't Stella, it certainly isn't the gap she leaves when she moves out. He's presaging his own doom.

And so, for all the trappings of a paranormal horror movie, all the expected genre conventions and the inevitable shock moments, we're watching Paul not the ghosts of the Browning family under the sheets that covered them when the cops found them. Even the more effective ones are as much about Paul as they are about the paranormal (the best is a double whammy built from an incredibly simple scene of him looking under a bed) because we're never required to share his belief. We can simply buy into his conviction that he has to achieve something and his willingness to jeopardise everything he has to get there, including the very person he claims to be doing it for. 'I want to be somebody you can be proud of,' he tells Stella in that early scene, before she inevitably disappears from the story and he fails to see that his reason for doing this has gone with her. Stephen Twardokus does a good job at portraying Paul as a man only half realising that and perhaps driving himself crazy in the process.

I liked An American Ghost Story for this exploration of a man attempting to do the one thing that might give his life meaning, only to find that it may be an impossible task, yet continuing on regardless. As a horror movie I found it only fair, though it does punch far above its weight given the slight budget. Many of its aspects played out depending on which reading we take. For instance, it gets very dark, literally, because of how Paul utilises lighting. From a horror standpoint, that might aim to make it more spooky but really it just makes it more dark. As a metaphor, it plays much better as a mirror of Paul's perhaps irreversible journey into darkness. What you get out of this may eventually depend on what you expect from it. Expect The Conjuring and you aren't going to be impressed. Expect a modern take on Heart of Darkness and you might get something out of it, with its journey into a man's soul where he finds 'the horror, the horror' at its end dressed up in a modern paranormal framework.

The Sound of Running Water (2013)

Director: Suzanne Steinberg
Stars: Sheena Ware, Chelsea Claire, Sandy Penny, Peter Ross Stephens and Dawn Nixon

Obviously a socially aware movie from its earliest scenes, it's no surprise when the dedication pops up at the end: 'This movie is dedicated to those who are mentally ill and living on the streets.' Suzanne Steinberg, who wrote and directed, takes a confrontational approach to this topical subject, illustrating themes through the encounters one young lady has over a period of a single night. She's Sophia and she's searching for her mentally ill mother, who has disappeared, though why she's searching we're never quite sure. Sure, she's concerned, but that's not all of it; often she seems to be searching more for understanding as for her actual mother. How could this situation have arisen? What fault could be assigned and what blame thrown? Was it anything she did? Crucially, while Sophia asks questions, she finds that answers aren't forthcoming, at least not to her satisfaction, and I'm not sure the film has a conclusion. It certainly raises an issue, but it doesn't offer a solution or even an explanation.

I'm not sure about the title either. Steinberg has said on the film's Facebook page that she wanted to draw a comparison with running water because it cannot be held; 'it always finds a hole to run through and into.' Perhaps the title is her way of expressing that mental illness is often obvious but still difficult to define, any suggested explanation finding that hole to run through and escape. Maybe it's describing Mary, Sophia's mother, who is an odd and uttainable target for most of the film, almost a MacGuffin, as she's clearly of importance to Sophia but not to us because we're not given any connection to her. That could be a statement in itself, about 'those who are mentally ill and living on the streets,' because, like a waitress Sophia clashes with, we make judgements about them without having any actual knowledge. Sophia doesn't seem to have much either, as there's no science in how she searches, no detective work; she just searches. And what any of this has to do with sound, I have no idea.

This leads me to believe that this isn't really about Mary, it's about Sophia. She's a constant throughout and the film derives its tone from Sheena Ware's powerful performance. Most scenes are less to do with Mary and more to do with how Sophia feels about her; one entire scene has precisely nothing to do with Mary, only working as insight into Sophia and her flagging dedication. For a while, I wondered how deep Steinberg was going, whether it was Sophia who was mentally ill and sharing her illness with us. If true, it would suggest that most, if not all, of the other characters, including Mary, are part of her delusion. It may even be that Sophia is Mary, revisiting a younger version of herself. Who knows? Such are the side effects of making a film about mental illness, especially one shot in black and white that tells its story in monologues. Is that a soliloquy or just crazy talk? It's all about the interpretation. For the record, I think it is a simple story told straight, but I'm prepared to be wildly wrong.
The monologue approach means that this is very much a film for its actors, however arty it decides to get at points. There are some interesting angles but I'm not sure why some of them were chosen, why we get so many close ups of half a face or why some shots are deliberately blurry. Mostly the camera moves or cuts to keep us focused while a character, usually Sophia, is blazing through another speech. This works well when she's alone, such as a scene where she rages alone in a tunnel. She looks really confined, as if the walls are closing in and losing her in the shadows, while dark sounds of the city at night provide the soundtrack, full of cars and sirens; this is a 28 minute short with no score. It's less effective in a diner, where Sophia is surrounded by space, the sound unfortunately picks up the air conditioning and her solo performance becomes a dialogue with an annoyingly judgemental waitress. Like she was ever going to get a tip? I don't think so.

Sheena Ware does a capable job here after a shaky start. Her first conversation is probably her weakest and it doesn't bode well, but she drew me in strongly as the picture ran on. This is her only IMDb credit, which does suggest that she's only going to get better. Chelsea Claire is already getting better; this is certainly the best I've seen her act thus far, far better than her turn in Pizza Shop: The Movie and with much better delivery than she had in The Midnightmare. I'm looking forward to seeing her in We Three, but I wonder if acting may always play second fiddle to her work as a model, because on that front she's astounding. Sandy Penny, last seen in Cowboy Zombies, is decent as the waitress but the role called for someone much older than she is. Dawn Nixon, who appears to be in every Arizona feature of the last couple of years, joins the film late as Mary, but her part, which could and perhaps should have been the most overt, fizzled away. In the end, it was all always about Sophia.

The Sound of Running Water can be viewed for free on YouTube.

The Midnightmare (2013)

Director: Maurice Anthony
Stars: Chelsea Claire, Aaron Leupp and Lauren Rose Franco

The cheesy title and the creepy expressionistic visuals of shadowy hands reaching out for a sleeping body as the film opens might suggest that this is a horror movie. Ensuing scenes might back up that assumption, surrounding as they do a conversation between a woman who disposes of bodies for a living and another who's morbidly interested in what she does. The intensity of Chelsea Claire, who plays the latter, might put that beyond question, as she retreats into herself to a truly scary degree, reminding of Brad Dourif early in his career. Really though, this is a psychological thriller and while Claire looks wonderfully tormented, her voicework is notably overdone. Bizarrely, that may play to the story's advantage, adding to the disorienting effect that the patchwork editing aims for and succeeds in finding. This is a trip suitably cut up into fragments and reassembled in nightmarish order, so that we learn what's really going on only gradually and even then in a hallucinatory fashion.

Clearly Danni is a troubled creature and not only by the external things that we see. Sure, she seems to be haunted by her dead fiancé, but she's far more haunted by herself. She's wracked with regret, guilt and grief, all bundled together into a toxic cocktail that's clearly driving her crazy. She's taking a lot of different medications. She chain smokes. She buys a gun. We have no clue what order any of this is happening in, but it's all there and it surely can't be good. Most notably, she apparently can't sleep but the dreamlike skips and stutters raise a suspicion that she's asleep all along and we're just watching her nightmare unfold. When the sound goes out of sync fifteen minutes in at a crucial point in the film, as she has her first actual conversation with Wesley, her dead fiancé, I wondered if this was a happy side effect, hardly the intended goal but something that helps disorient us even further. Unfortunately it also led me to rationalise a plot twist as a continuity error.
And that really wasn't good. This plot twist is really the single moment where the jumble of imagery that writer/director Maurice Anthony has whirled around us for fifteen minutes comes into focus and nails home how seriously troubled this young lady is, so my mistake, however understandable it was, shattered the impact of the piece and left it a confusing mess. Only after a couple of further viewings to figure out what I was missing did I realise my mistake and everything came clear. This sound issue hadn't been fixed when The Midnightmare screened at the October edition of the Arizona Filmmakers Showcase at FilmBar in Phoenix but I presume it will be by the time the picture is seen widely. At least I hope so. 'That's why I need you,' Danni confesses to her friend Brynne partway through the film, 'to help make sense of everything that's getting muddled through my head.' We need her for the same reason, and once the sound is back in sync, I have a feeling she'll do that job well.

Visually, it's an enticing piece, as it would have to be with this highly impressionistic approach. There isn't a consistent flowing story and it's an open question as to how much of this is real and how much is taking place in the head of the character we're watching. We're bounced back and forth to events that take place over a period of maybe a year. Some are repeated, initially shown completely out of context but later clearly; some are initially heard but not seen, then shown again with visuals; others merely make no sense at all until we're given context later in the film. The events they surround are particularly traumatic ones, especially to someone who's already damaged goods, and the story spun out of them is a good one. It's a very cinematic piece too, one that wouldn't work in print but which springs to life with this sort of cut up technique. It's interesting as it is in its flawed state, but it may well be highly impactful once its painful sound issues are resolved. Hopefully we'll find out soon.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Pizza Shop: The Movie (2013)

Director: George O'Barts
Stars: Robert P Bielfelt, Cian Patrick O'Dowd, Brett Buzek, Chelsea Claire Breibart, Kathy Blaze Jefferson, Bhavin Patel and Debbie Overbey
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
I despise insanely short reviews, because they usually mean that reviewers either can't be bothered or they're trying to hide that they never even watched a film. I call such things 'Shit Sandwich' reviews, after possibly the most famous example of the breed, a fictional one in This is Spinal Tap. The funny thing is that that review would almost be appropriate here, though 'Shit Pie' would be closer. It's a gift of a film to Shit Sandwich reviewers, as writer/director George O'Barts begins very deliberately with a scene that's guaranteed to empty seats. It's a test, a challenge and a burst of blistering honesty all in one swell foop and it'll separate the men from the boys. Many won't make it to the five minute mark and they'll pray that it doesn't traumatise them or haunt their dreams. Anyone who stays has passed the test and deserves all they'll get from then on; most of them will laugh at the delicious wrongness of it all. And any reviewers lost by that point will be driven to writing a Shit Sandwich review.

The most obvious would be, 'He went there,' because quite clearly, O'Barts did. A lot. 'Whatever the line,' one might say, 'Pizza Shop crosses it. Gleefully.' Another could be: 'Name a taboo. Pizza Shop breaks it.' Even more simply, I'd expect to see: 'Yes, they just did that.' One joy about this polarising picture is that even those who love it wouldn't find it difficult to say so in snappy soundbites. 'Pizza Shop goes where other movies fear to tread,' would be honest. 'The best Troma picture not made by Troma,' would be an easy comparison, as would 'Poultrygeist without the chicken' or 'Pizza Shop is a live action Viz cartoon.' Reviewers with turns of phrase might conjure up, 'Will piss off anyone older than you are,' or 'Guaranteed: Not FDA approved!' More clichéd souls would go with, 'Just when you thought it was safe to go for a pizza,' or, 'You'll never order pizza again,' or even, 'Be afraid. Be very afraid.' I really should google to see how many of these have been actually used already.

Now, anyone who's spent more than five minutes at Apocalypse Later knows that my reviews aren't Shit Sandwich reviews, as I'm more likely to list the ingredients for you, so after having written a full baker's dozen of them, I'll settle down and give you my take on this memorably haunting adventure into microbudget cinema. I first saw this at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival, then again as part of the monthly Arizona Filmmakers Showcase at FilmBar in Phoenix. Just two viewings was enough to allow it to find a spot in my brain and resurface at inappropriate moments. For instance, we ended up at Domino's after Steampunk Street VI because the all you can eat Chinese buffet was closed, and I couldn't help but sing 'Pizza Shop!' during each break in conversation like the frequent Batman style transitions here. Now I have to wonder if the folk working there had seen the movie, and if they did, what might have ended up on my Philly cheesesteak pizza. Hey, it tasted good to me.
Of course, I have to start with that opening scene, with the full knowledge that anyone who wouldn't make it five minutes through the film isn't going to make it past four paragraphs of my review either. Unsurprisingly given the title, we follow a man delivering a pizza. He seems rather happy, though he doesn't get a tip, and even the narrator chimes in to wonder why. He promptly rewinds the film so we can see what happened before the delivery and I'm sure your twisted minds have already figured out where we're going. Sure enough, Mr Jones is a notoriously cheap customer and Jason recognises that by working on a very special topping for him. In the bathroom. The camera doesn't just venture in to show us Jason squeezing hard, it ventures all the way in to show him fish the resulting turd out of the bowl, pop it into a blender with '#1 Customer' stuck on the front and hit the power. Even the narrator pukes up. I'm sorry,' he tells us, 'I can't do this. You'll have to go on without me.'

If you made it all the way to this paragraph, you're likely to get at least something out of this picture, possibly a lot. You won't be surprised to find that the technical quality isn't spectacular, though we're able to see and hear everything throughout. There's back and forth editing, odd focus problems and it often feels like it was shot in natural light. The leads are clearly not experienced, even those who have gone on to better work since, like Chelsea Claire. Their timing isn't always good; in some instances it isn't often good. Many of them grin a lot as they deliver their lines, which may be appropriate for Pete but generally isn't for anyone else. Perhaps this helps in an unlikely way, by constantly prompting us to wonder what they know that we don't. You also won't be shocked to discover that the pizza shop in Pizza Shop is called Pizza Shop and the key sets are as generic as that might suggest. You won't be blindsided by the juvenile humour that perpetuates the piece, because that never goes away.

The key to enjoying the film may be in trying to figure out where it's going to go next and how far it's going to go as it does. Certainly the script doesn't continue with the same level of cinematic ingenuity that the early rewind/narrator combo promises, but it never skimps on the taboos and there's a great deal of fun in watching people watching this film, so that you can see their reaction to the next 'OMG! WTF! No! She's not... he's not... OMG! WTF!' moment. Some watch Pizza Shop through their fingers as if they're afraid they won't be able to deal with what might happen next but their curiosity won't allow them to avoid trying. Most of the film is built like a pizza, layer upon layer, by adding new sketches. A lot of these scenes are long jokes where we realise the punchlines quickly but the script takes a while to catch up, though the relentlessness is part of the charm. O'Barts is a pixie who continually sets us up to imagine the worst, wonder if he'll find any restraint, then gleefully discover that he hasn't.
As sketch based as it is, a coherent bigger picture does gradually emerge and that's why Pete is the lead. Jason is one of the slackers at Pizza Shop, along with Vick and a pair of brothers, Fred and Todd, but Pete is the go getter who drives everyone else nuts. He isn't just infuriatingly cheerful, he's also naive enough to fall for obvious pranks (such as delivering a large stack of twelve inch Big Meat with Serious Sausage pizzas to a gay bar called the Cockpit) and he's clueless enough to take the Pizza Shop training video seriously. It's an outrageous affair that goes further with double entendres than even the Carry On folk ever did, as Pizza Shop founder Richard Head ('You can call me Dick') explains to new hires about the process of FISTING, which is fortunately an acronym. Jason cleverly gets rid of Derek, the new guy, because he's too much like Pete and, as Vick says, they 'can't take two Petes'. It doesn't take too long for him to focus on the original and there are no depths too deep to plumb.

I should praise Robert Bielfelt for making this story arc viable. Initially he makes Pete as annoying to us as he is to Jason and the Pizza Shop crew but, without changing who he is, he gradually becomes a sympathetic lead and, in joining his side, we realise that there is some substance here beneath all the icky toppings. The film does slow down during the second act, but it's Pete who brings us through it to see how he and everything else will change during the third. This is Bielfelt's only film, something not unusual with these leads; most of the cast haven't made another movie and most of those who have only played tiny roles in local films. Cian Patrick O'Dowd's only previous credit was as a party guest in Paranoia, Brett Buzek had a small role in Sacrifice, which I really need to get round to reviewing, and a couple of others. Bhavin Patel is up to six pictures, including a bit part in Queens of Country. The only actor to start here then get busy is Chelsea Claire, whose credits now span three different IMDb pages.

Any recognisable actors are down in the supporting roles, stealing little scenes with a vengeance. The boss is only visible in the training video, but Gary Herkimer has an absolute riot with it, clearly in full knowledge of how outrageous it is and having trouble not laughing his way through. One of his busty assistants is played by Honda King, whose performance in I Don't Even Know Your Name deservedly won her the Best Actress award for all last year's IFP film challenges. Debbie Overbey, mostly known for running the zonie.com resource site for the last fifteen years, clearly collects oddball acting roles as bag ladies, prostitutes, hippies and wild, creepy or vomiting women; I'd love to see her demo reel and her naked beer bottle trick here would be a great addition to it. Kathy Blaze Jefferson was in four features that screened at Jerome but none of those roles could have been as outrageous as the one she plays here as a nymphomaniac who drinks chocolate syrup neat.

Small but memorable performances aside, this isn't an actor's movie; neither is it a technician's film nor a scriptwriter's picture. It's a deliberate exercise in bad taste that succeeds as well in a game of taboo bingo as anything John Waters made with Divine. I can't remember seeing a film with a more brutally inappropriate prank and I've seen enough eighties movies to be an honorary member of a fraternity. I'm unable to think of another picture that includes serial killers, rape and adult diapers. I doubt O'Barts has met a bodily fluid that isn't tied in his mind to food production and, given that he worked in the industry for 22 years, I shouldn't ever eat out again. This is like a live action Viz comic strip done for gits and shiggles, what John Waters might have conjured up if Troma had hired him to direct a Carry On movie back in the late seventies. And if you're still reading, you have a good idea whether this is a film for you. It surely isn't for most people, but the few will wear out their DVDs.

Pizza Shop: The Movie can be bought from the Cole O'Barts website store.

Thursday 14 November 2013

The Greatest Lie Ever Told (2013)

Director: Cody Everett
Stars: Carrie Fee and Cory Brox

Having reviewed Dust Jacket a couple of days ago, I felt it appropriate to follow up with an associated new film, The Greatest Lie Ever Told, made by the same people wearing different hats. Kenneth Miller, who directed that film, steps back here to merely produce, while Cody Everett, a producer last time, steps up to direct this one. Where that was an eighties genre throwback, this is a modern comedy, the two films as unlike each other as could be comfortably imagined, but I did note that they're set in the same fictional universe. In fact they may take place at precisely the same time, as Skip Sammons is on the TV at one point talking about serial killers. I'll have to keep my eyes open on future Cool Wave pictures to see how they tie together. Other notable commonalities are that Charles Peterson shot and produced them both and Carrie Fee appears in them. Her role in Dust Jacket could be seen as a dream scenario for Cassandra, her character in Peterson's Sex and Violence; maybe this is her nightmare.

Certainly she makes us very aware of every bodily fluid that didn't arise in that film, which may set us in good standing for where Everett, who also wrote the piece, plans to take us. The opening scene is a deceptively calm and peaceful one, with soft piano jazz backing a young couple drinking in a booth at the Armadillo Grill, but it's not a happy moment; we're about to find out why Cory Brox wants to break up with Carrie Fee. I should point out that those are both the names of the actors and the characters they play here, an interesting approach given what we're about to see them get up to in a succession of flashbacks. Brox does well in his first IMDb credited role, especially given that he's mostly tasked with being a prop for Fee to play with, as she dominates proceedings in astounding ways,. Let's just say that if she ever had a single ounce of fear about doing something embarrassing on screen, she won't have to worry about that any more. It's all behind her now, in some ways quite literally.

And I really can't say anything more about what happens without venturing into spoiler territory, even though that's probably not a big deal. This is quite obviously a one joke movie, with a punchline that's telegraphed in the picture's title, but it's told well enough that it has us laughing and cringing all at the same time after half a dozen retellings. While the material is completely different, it reminded me of the jokes that Ronnie Corbett used to tell on The Two Ronnies, where the joy was never in his usually terrible punchlines but in the way he rambled hilariously towards them. Here the joy arrives as much from our anticipation of what Fee is going to do next as in the discovery that yes, she just did that. In fact, this is one of those movies that you'll watch in shocked amazement, then play all over again just to confirm to your disbelieving brain that you did indeed see what you think you just saw. By the fifth or sixth time, you'll be calling people into the room so that you can put them through it too.

Strong Arm of the Law (2013)

Director: Paul Vernon
Stars: Tobias Tolnay, Tony Booth, Brandon Dorssom, Steve Dorssom and Mary Tisdale

Paul Vernon, who wrote and directed this short, was the most unlikely character I met at the Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival this year. With a programme heavily biased towards local Arizona film, I was expecting to meet a lot of local Arizona filmmakers, but Vernon hails from back home in the old country. He's a Londoner by birth but he lives further west, not so far west as you might expect from the gunslinging setting of this film, just far enough to see it premiéred in his new home last month at the Southampton International Film Festival. That's a long way from Jerome, but he shot it entirely in Arizona, making good use of countryside that simply isn't available back home. The western town we see at one point is the Gammons Gulch set in Benson, AZ, an hour east of Tucson, which I really need to make a trip out to see. The rest was mostly shot around Camp Verde and at a ranch outside Dewey-Humboldt. No footage was shot in Jerome, but it would be great to see this there next year.

I'm not sure how Paul will take this but the weakest link may be his source material. That's a country song of the same name by Aaron Watson for which this serves as an extended music video a dozen years after its release. It's not a bad song, but it tells a predictable story and so hamstrings Vernon's ability to dramatise it. The good news is that he doesn't do anything flash, merely brings the words to life for us to see, at least in the nine minute Ranger's Festival Edit. There's also a Director's Ultimate Edit, which extends the story to twenty minutes; while it adds a neat twist, it's a notably lesser piece for a whole slew of reasons. The nine minute version is the one to see, told in simple vignettes which accompany the story song well. The camera zooms and movements are a little obvious but they're capable; it's fair to call the sure and steady editing appropriate for a story inevitable enough to end with a ride into a sunset, getting suitably more active and emotional only during the gunfights.

Because the song plays behind half of the film, there's not a lot of dialogue for the actors to play with but that fits the archetypal nature of the story. Steve Dorssom looks good as a Texas ranger fishing in a creek, once again supporting his son Brandon; the last couple of times I've seen him he was behind a drumkit playing for Ripsaw or Born of Fire, so it's good to finally see him act. He's not in the film for long though, as an outlaw rides up to shoot him dead before he can grab his guns, prompting his son to become a Texas ranger himself in order to seek and find vengeance. Anyone who's heard the song will know how that plays out, though frankly anyone who hasn't heard it can safely guess it anyway; westerns have never been known for innovative storylines and this one was old by the time sound came to film. However Vernon, obviously a big western fan because he credits the horses, treats the time honoured material with deference and lets it all unfold as it if was the first time.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

The Cabining (2013)

Director: Steve Kopera
Stars: Mike Kopera, Bo Keister, Angela Relucio, Melissa Mars, Luce Rains, Richard Riehle, Mark Rademacher and Chuck Saale

I can't help but admire the cojones of Mike Kopera, both for what he tried to do with this film and for what he actually did. What he did was write, with a writing partner, a horror picture in which he stars as a writer, who writes, with a writing partner, a horror picture which is clearly awful. It's torn apart by their community college screenwriting group, who reflect its title, Bloody Hell, in their reaction to the script. 'I think I wrote this screenplay in eighth grade,' one suggests. It's 'total derivative trash,' adds another. 'We've seen this a million times,' one says and he may not be exaggerating. It's not hard to believe them because we're given a brief imagining of what it might look like, while Todd and Bruce write a scene for class. 'Bethany and her friends,' they begin, 'are in a cabin in the woods playing strip poker...' You can see how awful it'll be, whether they leave in a gratuitous boob shot or not. 'It would never sell unless your uncle produces it,' one student states, which is precisely what they're aiming at.

Todd, Kopera's character, and Bruce, played by Bo Keister, who had a brief role in House of Good and Evil, aren't particularly promising. They're both unemployed, for a start, with nothing to cover the long overdue rent. All they have is dedication. Well, Todd has dedication; he's someone who wants to write, dearly, while the laid back Bruce is someone who wants to have written. He's having far too much fun not worrying about anything to actually do something. Somehow he persuades Todd that they should use what little cash they have left to book some time at an artist colony called Shangri-La, where they can polish off a script good enough for Todd's uncle to finance. Sarge, played by Richard Riehle, last seen in Lonely Boy and FDR: American Badass, wants to finance his picture but another nephew wants to record an album. Their script has to be better than Bloody Hell, he tells them, and so off they waltz to Shangri-La to 'surround themselves with beauty'. It gets even worse than you're expecting.
There's a lot here about the process of writing, enough so that we can't help but watch it with Kopera as much in mind as the character he's playing. As we watch Todd find a way to turn out pages, we also watch Kopera turn out Todd and the pages from which he develops. At least we're as involved in the process as Bruce, who's mind translates 'artist colony' into 'party' the moment he arrives. 'I wrote ten pages today,' he announces at one point. 'Well, Todd wrote them but I was in the room.' The catch to all this is that we're never quite sure exactly what Kopera was trying to write. While he clearly wrote a film about writing a film, that isn't all he did. The movie in the movie is a horror movie and reality at Shangri-La starts to mimic that, which only helps the creative juices to flow all the more. However, the events that unfold are phrased less like a horror movie would phrase them and more like a whodunit would, but without much suspense. Yet the whole thing, not just Bruce, is obviously a comedy.

It's as a comedy that it succeeds best. Todd is uptight and nervous, while Bruce is so constantly laid back that he's practically lying down; the strong contrast between these writing partners is played up early and often. Bruce also gets the majority of the memorable lines, while long suffering Todd plays straight man. While there's some drama to their actions, the comedic writing and the delivery of the actors easily trumps it. The other artists at Shangri-La serve mostly as props for them to bounce off. The retreat is run by Monroe, a lounge Shatner with an Adam West voice, and his personal assistant, Lacey. Lacey is roughly what you'd expect but Monroe is a real treat of a character for an actor with surprisingly few credits to his name; Mark Rademacher is a suave joy in the part, playing it as if he's perpetually two glasses into many. He's an engaging and infectious host and he deserved a bigger part to play in proceedings.

There are four other guests. Bruce immediately hones in on Celeste, a multimedia artist from France currently working in clay, but she's more interested in Larson, a singer/songwriter who never gets a musical number. Todd doesn't try to schmooze, but Mindy hones in on him. She's a serious humorist working on a collection of short stories; their collaboration soon become the focus of the story as the non-productive Bruce moves further and further into comic relief territory. Rounding out the four is a wild bearded dude called Jasper, all dressed in cat burglar black. He's a great deal older than any of his fellow guests and he doesn't associate with anyone, just flits around and appears out of nowhere whenever it's least expected. Monroe describes him as a 'genius in found art,' but he's clearly a few sandwiches short of a picnic and we just know that bad things are going to start happening the first moment we see him. He's like an older version of Dick Miller's character in A Bucket of Blood.
And, of course, it's no surprise to find that bad things absolutely start happening. In the morning, it's Lacey who has vanished. They eventually find her down on the beach, impaled on a tree stump, dead as a doornail. What's important here is that this tragedy comes with a surprising byproduct. It's Bruce who sees it as opportunity, helping with the realism that their teacher suggested they find, but Todd is the one who starts churning out pages, possibly good ones at that. At this point, we're becoming more than a little confused as to what we're actually watching, but we are engaged and smiling while we're doing it. Mike Kopera and David Silverman couldn't seem to make up their mind about whether they wanted to make a slasher or a whodunit, a drama or a comedy, so they take a little from each of the above to throw into a blender and come up with something we can't help but attempt to deconstruct. Is this all a dream? A lesson? A metaphor? A gag? How about a trick like April Fool's Day?

To find out, you'll need to watch The Cabining yourself, but the one thing that Kopera's brother Steve, who directed the picture, couldn't get into their genre bending movie was suspense. I enjoyed all the banter and was genuinely interested in what they were trying to do, but I didn't once get caught up in the gradual progression of chaos that descends upon Shangri-La to prompt the artists in residence to react vaguely and spur Todd into writing a decent script. It often felt rather like an episode of Scooby-Doo, merely with better jokes and less sandwiches, one written by Stephen King during another bout of writer's block, where he ends up turning out a story about turning out a story with a mild veneer of horror to make it viable to stay on the regular shelf in the bookstore. All of this is my verbose way of suggesting that it's the sort of film that's fun to watch while you're more focused on figuring out why it's fun to watch and less about what's actually going to happen.

What stands out in hindsight is the script, but I'm still trying to figure out whether it's a good one or not and I don't believe I'll get there until I can fathom exactly what the Koperas aimed to accomplish with what looks like their first feature. Certainly I loved the dialogue, which is often comedy gold. I'm fond of their characters too, which are easy for the actors to have fun with, easy for us to delineate and perfect to throw into a closed environment with an escalating set of murders. Watching is rather like sitting back at a murder mystery dinner and enjoying the show. I liked the way that it was half a script and half the way a script comes together. What I'm less sure about is the lack of enough focus on one tone to make it dominant. I'd suggest it's a comedy above all but not enough so to stop us watching it as other genres as we go. Maybe we should get tipsy like Monroe and enjoy the ambience, or maybe we should see what Kopera's screenwriting group has to say about the finished product.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Dust Jacket (2013)

Director: Kenneth Miller
Stars: Kat Bingham, Pete Kelly and Anne Gentry
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
This film was an official selection at the 10th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
My possibly imaginary memory of seeing Fidelia as a festival screener aside, I first saw it in the horror shorts selection at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival this year, which is where I also first saw Dust Jacket, even though it had played the Phoenix Film Festival a few months earlier as part of their Home Grown Shorts selection. It's another strong and well recommended local short, this one made by debut director Kenneth Miller, with assistance from Charles Peterson, who shot, edited and co-produced the film and supervised its digital effects. Their filmmaking collective was well represented at Jerome, both in person and on screen, as may be highlighted best by pointing out that Carrie Fee's first three films were each screened in completely different tracks: Sex and Violence, Clint and Dust Jacket. Her fourth, The Greatest Lie Ever Told, from another co-producer of this film, Cody Everett, didn't arrive until after Jerome, but I'll be reviewing it here shortly anyway. It's just as good but it's completely different again.

Dust Jacket is more of a thriller than a horror piece, but it fits well in both genres. After an artistically shot pre-credit sequence, in which what appears to be a dismal aerial seascape turns out to be the worn trunk of a Galant that a cop lifts to expose a girl's corpse with the words 'Red Menace' carved into her belly, we follow a young lady and discover that we're not alone in doing so. She's Ginger, for obvious reasons, and she's just shopping for her evening meal, but there are a couple of guys clearly watching her from the moment she leaves the supermarket. What follows is something of a textbook on how to generate suspense, from Miller's neatly droning, pulsing score through slightly unnerving camera angles and careful editing to the unfolding of key background on radio and TV. If the cast didn't all have completely unremarkable hair, this could easily pass for something made in the early eighties, like a lost John Carpenter short. Miller could have added gimmicks to make it look like VHS.

There's a lot that's good about the film. The tension is maintained all the way to the end, which is a strong and powerful one. I particularly appreciated the lack of dialogue; this is far from a silent movie but nobody in the main body of the story says a word until the credits are about to roll. What we hear is associated but abstracted; there's a DJ and a newsreader on the car radio as Ginger drives home and there's a true crime author, Wendy Wassinger, being interviewed on a TV talk show once she gets there. The acting is solid, albeit archetypal; Miller, who wrote as well as directed, leads us deliberately into assumptions and the actors do absolutely nothing to dissuade us from them. In many ways Miller steps back in his writing hat so that we can write his story for him, but he's ready to step back in with a good shock or surprise at the right moment and he does pick a perfect one in which to do both very capably indeed. You can't trust what you hear on TV, right?

There's very little that's bad. The worst thing in my eyes was the cover of Wendy Wassinger's book, Great White Sharks, which certainly wouldn't prompt me to buy it. I was more impressed by the lady pitching it, the elegant Anne Gentry, who delivers all her lines well except her first one, which would be Wassinger's stock response to the same old introductions on talk shows and so is suitably wooden. Pete Kelly impresses too as Skip Sammons, the believably inappropriate talk show host interviewing her but all too ready to make it all about him. It seems strange to highlight them over Kat Bingham, the girl who rarely leaves the screen and whose plight we follow from the very beginning of the film but, without a single line, she's as much part of the set decoration as she is an actress playing a role. She's a standard prop for a serial killer movie, one that merely happens to walk, and we instinctively know her place as well as we know that of anyone or anything else in the movie.

And that leads me to the title, which was the only confusing aspect to this picture for me for a while. Why is it called Dust Jacket? Surely it isn't to highlight the dismal cover to Wassinger's book. Maybe it's some sort of euphemism for redheads but googling doesn't back that idea up. So I'm assuming it has to come down to that play on expectations, where Miller sets us up to make assumptions about where he's taking us and then consistently refuses to put us straight. Surely it's shorthand for the old truism that you can't judge a book by its cover, or perhaps its dust jacket. Perhaps Miller sees himself less as a writer here and more of a cover artist, painting a picture that happily misleads us. It's never about the characters or even the story, it's about the ability of a filmmaker, or indeed the painter of a book cover, to use their art to take us wherever they want us to go. We are hapless pawns, unless we see the little details which they have to feed us. I just hope that Miller feeds us more pictures.

Fidelia (2013)

Director: Candace Rose
Star: Gina Carrizoza

This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Gina Carrizoza is hardly your usual horror movie lead. That she's female is only one factor; she's also Hispanic and as much older than me as I am older than the young and vibrant leads whom you might expect to front a horror short. Her casting is as refreshing as her performance is solid. As the Fidelia of the title, she owns this movie and, in doing so, sends a clear message to the filmmakers of this heavily Hispanic area that it's well worth writing for and casting outside the usual demographic. Carrizoza's is not the only unexpected credit here; I was also surprised to find that Fidelia marks the sole directorial credit for Candace Rose, at least as far as IMDb is concerned. With her husband, Roze, she co-founded Gas Mask Films, which produced Speak No Evil, and the MindPlate.tv website where that movie can be streamed, along with many local shorts like this. She co-wrote his feature, Deadfall Trail, and she's a long term professor of Film Production, Directing and Screenwriting at Scottsdale Community College.

Of course having the credentials doesn't make you a filmmaker; making films makes you a filmmaker. It's good to see that she did as good a job directing this as she did with other roles on other films. It's a ghost story, which could easily fall on whichever side of the drama or horror line you prefer. Carrizoza is a widow, Fidelia del Toro, who may be going senile or may be tormented by the unsettled ghost of her husband Tomás. Ryan, her son, who gives the impression that he's dealt with this by proxy for far longer than he'd have liked, clearly believes the former and wants her to leave her family home for the Wilmington Retirement Community where medical professionals can either cure her or keep her safe while her mind deteriorates, depending on how optimistic you are. Everyone else around her is of the same opinion, which in a ten minute short only constitutes a neighbouring couple and their young son. Is she really as nutty as a fruitcake or is the deceased Tomás del Toro still in residence?

This film succeeds best at imparting the feeling of helplessness. The title character is clearly a strong woman who is struggling to deal with the death of her husband; it's no stretch to imagine that she's in a struggle with her own mind too. This story could easily be read without any supernatural overtones, as a metaphor for aging and lonely parents whose children don't come to dinner very often. It's even better as a ghost story though, because we're then led to wonder about Fidelia herself, whether she's dealing with guilt about something or whether she's drawn against her better judgement into helping her husband's ghost. I could swear blind I saw this film as a festival screener a few years ago but in a different cut that made certain aspects more overt, but maybe I'm dreaming or merging memories, as I do see a lot of screeners. Whichever way we choose to read the film, Gina Carrizoza is outstanding in the lead, a suitably beleaguered woman struggling with what her life has come to.

It does a little less well from a wider standpoint. With Carrizoza so dominant as Fidelia, the neighbours don't get much of a look in. Roze, Katrina Matusek and Gabe Jacques do exactly what they're tasked to as the regular family next door, but they feel shoehorned into Scott Tank's otherwise effective script, interacting with Fidelia rarely and conveniently and without really adding anything of note after their very first scene. I wonder if this would have been tighter with a stripped down cast of two, just Fidelia and her son Ryan, played capably by Cesar Garcia. Each simple but effective scene of mounting terror is diffused somewhat by neighbours lounging by the pool and that isn't a needed contrast. Technically everything is at least adequate and often freakily effective, including solid special effects that refuse to overshadow Carrizoza's performance. They all surround Fidelia though, never the neighbours. I've now seen this a host of times and it still plays very well, but all the goodness is in Fidelia's house.

Fidelia can be watched for free at MindPlate.tv.

Cathedral Canyon (2013)

Director: Paul Davis
Stars: Winsor Harmon and Noelle Wheeler
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
I first saw Cathedral Canyon in a car park. It wasn't just any car park, of course; this one sat on top of a mountain a mile up in the Black Hills of northern Arizona, overlooking one of the various copper mines that made the town of Jerome famous. The event was the inaugural Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival, at which Cathedral Canyon won for Best Arizona Feature, but the location resonated. The film, fictional but grounded in real events, pits a shady businessman against a reclusive sect, so almost everything is cloaked in secrecy. It all unfolds in the spaces between where we expect things to happen, in those transitional places like bars, restaurant booths and, well, car parks. A car park at night was the perfect place in which to be introduced to its secrets, ones that should be shouted from the rooftops, and that tone certainly flavoured my viewing. Recently, I saw it again, in a regular movie theatre with a bucket of popcorn in my lap, and it played even better. Now I was in on the secret and I could delve deeper.

That businessman is Ryan McBride, an engaging character played by Winsor Harmon, whose chiselled jaw and soap opera looks are perfect for someone occupying the dubious ground between organised crime and corrupt city officials in Phoenix, AZ. He really is a soap opera star, best known for the 1,528 episodes and counting that he's shot as Thorne Forrester on The Bold and the Beautiful, but he was so impressed with what husband and wife team Paul and Diana Davis were trying to do with this project, that he came onboard as a producer as well as the face of the film. It's easy to talk crap about soap opera actors, especially those whose twenty years of experience have been spent on only five shows, but as Diana highlights, soap opera actors don't have it easy: they get scripts the day of shooting and they don't get to do it over again. To stay on the same show for 1,500 episodes says a lot and Harmon does a solid job providing the grounding for this, his debut feature. Like McBride, he's reliable.

There are a whole slew of shenanigans ongoing as the story begins, most of them centered around a new real estate development, into which McBride is putting his own money. He's tired of the shady life and wants to go legit but, as we find, it's not only not that simple but there's no such thing as legit, as the people running these shenanigans also run the authorities. We soon find that for a crook, he has a lot of heart, meaning that if he can't be the hero, he can at least be the antihero. Sure, he wheels and deals percentages of drug routes, but he also takes down a dealer for hitting his kid and hands over a wad of cash to the boy's mother to help them get out of the rut. It's no surprise that when he drives past a fourteen year old girl in the middle of nowhere, this old softie does the decent thing and takes her home, however much bribe money he has in a briefcase behind his seat. This little moment is the one where the two threads of the story start to tangle together and set us on an inevitable path.

The other thread ties to the city of the title, which sits just on the Arizona side of its border with Utah and which houses a polygamist cult, ruled with an iron hand by Prophet Eldridge Smyth. His word is law, right down to who marries whom. Little Ruthie Hedaya, the fourteen year old that Ryan McBride attempts to drive home, hates it there because she's far too independent for such a narrow minded community; she has the temerity to want to read books, which are banned in Cathedral Canyon, and she hates her two new mothers, those whom the Prophet ordered her father to marry after his wife died. We're given glimpses into Cathedral Canyon from the very beginning, but only brief ones for a while. We do get to venture into town later to see some of how the Prophet runs his community, but I'd have preferred more of the religious side of the film, even if it meant a longer picture as the gangster side is tightly constructed and would, for the most part, suffer from cuts.
And the religious side is why this film exists. Just as the film is a true story with the names changed to protect the guilty, the town of Cathedral Canyon is a real place, the similarly alliterated Colorado City, under a new name. Colorado City exists precisely where its substitute does and, with Hildale, its sister city on the Utah side of the border, it constitutes the Short Creek Community, founded in 1913 by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a breakaway sect of Mormons who wanted to continue practicing polygamy after the mainstream church excommunicated them. Polygamy was outlawed in the US by the Morrill Act in 1862, a law upheld by the Supreme Court in 1879, but it took until 1890 for the Mormons to officially disavow the practice. Disagreeing fundamentalists splintered away and secluded themselves into remote communities like Short Creek a long way away from the authorities. Many are still there, protected by lucrative construction contracts with major players.

And this irked Diana Davis, who learned about Colorado City from a fellow parent at her son's school, Mike Watkiss, who had been reporting on the sect for decades. His documentary, Colorado City and the Underground Railroad, won him both a regional Emmy and an Edward R Murrow award and it was very timely; in 2005, when it was broadcast, the Prophet of the sect, Warren Jeffs, had been added to the FBI's most wanted list and was on the run. The litany of charges against him only grew as time passed and further revelations were made. He was caught in 2006, went through a number of trials in a number of states and was eventually convicted for sexual assaults on children as young as twelve. He's currently imprisoned in Texas, serving a life sentence plus twenty years. The story isn't over as he's still his church's Prophet and he's alleged to still be running it from behind bars. Documentaries and fictionalised accountings like this one continue to be made and continue to be important.

Diana Davis was clearly driven to produce this film, which her husband Paul wrote and directed, but it was a tough slog. This was her first picture and she freely admits that she wasn't remotely ready for the task, though I'd suggest that the most important quality any film producer can have is to be able to complete projects and she's demonstrated that quality with this one. It certainly isn't without flaws but it's a complete film that plays well, albeit better on a second viewing because of the complexity it hurls at us on the first. We're tasked with watching a lot of characters in each of two worlds, the shady underworld of Phoenix movers and shakers and the closed community of Cathedral Canyon. Most are thrown on screen early on, so it's often a tough task to keep track of all the machinations in play and the characters behind them. With knowledge of where everything ends up, it makes a lot more sense on a repeat viewing, where the careful construction of the story is far more apparent.

The production was beset with problems, initially having a seven digit budget sourced from New York, where Davis had done a little acting, but that fell through with the economic collapse. Various name actors were attached but fell away with the budget, prompting Harmon to volunteer his involvement, even flying out on his own dime. Another name actor with years of experience on The Bold and the Beautiful was eager to be involved with the project; that's Lorenzo Lamas, who's briefly visible in one scene substituting for another actor who hadn't realised a Father's Day trip would miss a day's shoot. He was originally going to direct but was then unexpectedly signed up to compete on Bailando 2010, the Argentinean version of Dancing with the Stars, and then just as unexpectedly not kicked off for a few weeks, enough to miss almost all the shooting schedule. I'm sure his continued support was much appreciated and we do see him on screen but Paul Davis was responsible for the direction throughout.
The most apparent problems on screen may tie to less forgiveable issues, possibly courtesy of Paul Hudson, the film's director of photography, whose unorthodox contributions to film can be fathomed rather easily from his less than stellar entry on the RipoffReport website. How much he affected the final picture is open to interpretation but certainly editor Scott Robert, along with director Paul Davis, did a lot in post-production with what may not have been enough. Some of the movie's most notable issues revolve around footage that frankly isn't there, especially early on where more was needed to accompany the deluge of characters. I wonder if the general bias towards the McBride thread of the story over the religious side in Cathedral Canyon might tie to this too. As what made it to the screen, even with these apparent flaws, is coherent, lucid and consistent in its drive forward, Robert and his editing work clearly deserve a great deal of praise.

Much of the on screen talent is local, the most obvious and successful being Noelle Wheeler and Jose Rosete. Wheeler, whose name appears with Harmon's before the title, would have been excellent as little Ruthie Hedaya, a strange bundle of inquisitiveness and fear, even if I hadn't realised how old she is; she's highly believable as a fourteen year old girl, though she's really approaching double that. Her performance is fundamental as she has to personify the innocence that is preyed upon by the Prophet; without it, the film would not have been remotely as successful. Rosete's role is less important but he nails it just as well. He's McBride's sidekick, Johnny Elmore, frequently seen but less substantial. He meets the tough task of playing contrasting opposites, both as a strong and capable man stuck in another's shadow and as a career criminal whose loyalty we somehow trust. In smaller roles, Michael Alvarez does well as a petty crook, as does Annie Boon as the more severe of Ruthie's 'aunts'.

From further afield, the more obvious supporting actors are reliable, especially Michael Crider as a city councillor with delusions of grandeur, David 'Shark' Fralick as one of the Prophet's favoured and Kurt Andon as one of the key cogs in the Phoenix graft wheel. These are experienced actors who show that with strong work here, but the most memorable supporting role in the film belongs to someone who had never acted before and demonstrates that too. It's clear that Tim Hajek is no actor but he's note perfect as Prophet Eldridge Smyth and it's his face that stayed with me most from my first viewing. If one of the goals Paul and Diana Davis had was to highlight how the Prophet could be both believably dominant over his congregation and yet clearly slime personified to the audience, Hajek delivered. He is haunting, with a creepy monotone delivery, a posture that screams arrogance and eyes that don't blink enough. I felt slimy just watching him.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the cast is this successful. Shanda Lee Munson does well as a reporter except when she doesn't and that description of inconsistency fits a lot of the actors lower down the credits. Like Munson, many have good moments but they have bad ones too; some have more of the latter than the former. Most annoyingly prominent in her inconsistency is Cielle Fouquet as McBride's golddigging girlfriend, Marguerite. There are times when she's spot on, especially while she's singing, and she succeeds in finding a tone that's all controlling even when it appears to be subservient, but many of her lines are wooden and fall flat. This is especially unfortunate, given that Marguerite does little to move the story onwards. It's her scenes that would be easiest to do without, in favour of more in Cathedral Canyon itself. At least we're gifted with one particularly powerful scene there, which the audience very audibly appreciated both times I've seen the film in public.

The story of Prophet Warren Jeffs clearly hasn't ended since his incarceration and this fictionalisation isn't going to be the last. The danger of unbridled religious freedom is a tough subject to broach in a country that was founded by a persecuted religious minority, but it's an important one. This film does well in demonstrating how a cultish compound like Colorado City functions while avoiding an easy fall into a 'won't someone please think of the children' diatribe. It also succeeds by avoiding the clean cut hero type in favour of an antihero, clearly explaining that even characters far shadier than we are can see where the line must be drawn and contribute to the fight against wrong, even at personal cost. If Ryan McBride can do it, says this film, then why can't we? It's no accident that Cathedral Canyon was made by a production company named MoviesMakingADifference LLC. Let's hope that people will get their opportunity to see it and their opportunity to make a difference too.

Colorado City and the Underground Railroad can be viewed for free on YouTube.