Tuesday 12 November 2013

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.

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