Monday 30 December 2013

The Phoenix (2012)

Director: Carmelo Zucco
Stars: Alex Cardillo, Jim Bradford, Brie Barker and Howard Rosenstein
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Maybe I think too much about science fiction shorts, but isn't that the point of them? Here's another one that I liked but had problems with for entirely uncinematic reasons. The core of the film revolves around a concept that's gradually easing into the mainstream, that cybernetic technology will improve to the point where we can effectively, for the most part, conquer death. This near future film explores a small human story after that point has been reached, in which 'cybernetics have done away with the fragility of the human body' and little Ben's grandpa, his sole companion, doesn't have to die. He's old and frail and his body is failing, but instead of just giving up the ghost and leaving his grandson alone, he can merely check into wherever and swap out his human shell for a nice shiny metal one, in which he can continue on and, presumably, feel a heck of a lot better while he does so. He isn't rejuvenated, he isn't cloned and he isn't fixed, instead he's replaced, all except his consciousness and his clothes.

Before this happens, we see an old man, presumably actor Jim Bradford, with worried eyes and wildly receding white hair. After the change, after he's risen again like the phoenix of the title, we discover why he was really cast: we're not going to get to experience any more of him than his voice, which is perfect for the task, the sort that we intrinsically want to trust. 'It'll still be me,' he told young Ben, 'on the inside.' Now Ben has to adjust to that reality, as do we. I can totally buy into the concepts thus far, because, after all, we're already doing this to a lesser degree. What are pacemakers, hearing aids or prosthetic limbs, after all, if not primitive cybernetic replacements for faulty or dying flesh? I can also, having lived in the United States for the last decade with their reliance on health insurance, buy into a scenario where the rich get better care than the poor. What I don't buy is those two facts manifesting themselves here in Grandpa coming back in a Tron suit and a huge birdlike helmet with googly eyes.
As the main thrust of the film runs on and this unlikely couple hike into the wilds so Grandpa can toss his ashes into a waterfall and Ben can come to terms with his only relative being the sort of robot we laugh at in serials from the forties, I couldn't get past this. Fine, make his new human suit uglier than the boss of the company that makes them, but why so much so that he can't even lean over without stabbing himself in the chest? This is just tech; you can buy an expensive phone with all the gimmicks or a cheap one with crappy battery life, but both are going to look current generation. None are going to be ten pound monsters with antennae the size of your kid sister. I don't know if I'm alone with this issue, but it was a big one for me. Neat and far more believable little touches like Grandpa's batteries coming in different flavours couldn't get me past it. And that's a shame, because the human side of this story is explored well, if inevitably limited by the film's sixteen minute running time.

There's a great movie somewhere in these ideas, especially now with the controversy over Obamacare prompting Americans to wonder why they're the last civilised country on the face of the earth without nationalised healthcare. Unfortunately that great movie isn't this one, which is relegated to the level of merely being promising. While I can't buy into this particular robot Grandpa, his rather stunning change of appearance does highlight well what writer/director Carmelo Zucco clearly aimed to do, which is to starkly contrast the before with the after to explore how little Ben reacts to the wild change. He asks all the right questions and Alex Cardillo, who plays him, carries a capable mixture of wary adjustment and youthful tolerance. With Jim Bradford's reassuring voice to guide him, it's a safe bet that Ben will find a way to deal. What isn't explored is how long Grandpa will, along with a whole heck of a lot more. I like the way that The Phoenix asks questions. I just wanted more and I don't agree with all the answers.

White Room: 02B3 (2012)

Director: Greg Aranowitz
Stars: Breckin Meyer, Tamlyn Tomita, Rachel True, David Blue, Tony Janning, Milynn Sarley and Doug Jones
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
I wasn't surprised when the cryptically titled White Room: 02B3 was awarded Best Science Fiction Short at this year's International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival. After all, it checked off every possible box. The story by Tory Mell was intelligent, thoughtful and resonating, even though he hasn't written any of the enviable list of films that he's worked on. There are cool special effects everywhere, from the gorgeous auto-retractable seats to, well, let's just say that Doug Jones is in the movie and he's about as visually recognisable as usual. The set is so shiny that it could easily be an iSet with an Apple logo somewhere prominent. The cast are strong, established actors, most recognisable to a genre audience through TV shows or webseries: Breckin Meyer is a Robot Chicken stalwart, Tony Janning was Neil in The Legend of Neil, Milynn Sarley was on Team Unicorn and The Guild, Tamlyn Tomita was perhaps most obvious on Eureka and David Blue was a regular on a couple of the Stargate shows. Only Rachel True is new to the genre. Oh, and it's made by Roddenberry Entertainment, produced by Rod Roddenberry, Gene's son.

What surprised me was that it was only after enjoying the film at the Harkins CineCapri that I learned I hadn't seen it as it was designed to be seen. No, it's not one of those modern 3D movies that serve only to inflate the ticket price; it's a little bit more unique than that. It was shot using a camera system that shoots 360° footage, with the camera in the middle of the set catching everything that goes on, even if characters aren't directly engaged in what's happening. To watch it in a true immersive environment, I can't go to a Harkins, an AMC or any other multiplex, let alone any of my favourite indie theatres; none of them have the required technology. Instead I'd have to go to a dome theatre, where I can effectively sit in the set and watch the action unfold all around me. There are only three compatible venues within 120 miles of my house: a science centre, a community college and a charter school. Of the mere six in Arizona, one is the Lowell Observatory in Tucson. That would be a serious movie night!
Fortunately, the film doesn't require such rare technology to be enjoyed; on a regular movie screen, it plays like a regular movie, albeit one that swaps explosions for tension. It grabs us immediately, with a strange beginning that sets up a mystery and prompts us to ask questions. Six people wake up around a table in what must be a spaceship, given that it's built out of the same moulded white plastic that we know from the movies that spaceships are built from. The colour here comes from the people, dressed in uniform black outfits. They're suitably varied as to race, sex and age; one is even pregnant. They're as confused as we are about what's going on and there's little to help them; merely a gun on the table and numbers over their hearts. One is even missing his glasses. He's the first to pick up the gun and wave it around in a hope for answers. He's number 6 and number 6 is always the first to go, some say. And so he does. It all fades to white, then starts again with the five remaining players. And so on...

For all the the technological hoopla and recognisable faces (or recognisable voice, in the case of Doug Jones), it's the script by Tory Mell that makes this work so well. It feels rather like something we might have seen on a black and white episode of The Twilight Zone, an overtly science fiction exploration of human nature. The initial mystery is ramped up a few times with fresh revelations and we learn much before we're gifted with the why of it all at the finalé, only to realise the true scope of events and how this means that the end is merely another beginning. It's quality writing and it keeps proceedings very tight indeed. The actors are as reliable as you might expect and I wonder how much more depth we'll get from them in a dome theatre where all are on screen simultaneously. If there's a flaw, it's that the theme is a little closer to what Gene Roddenberry aimed to achieve with Star Trek than his son should probably play if he wants to stand on his own two feet. Of course, many might see that as an asset.

Sunday 29 December 2013

Flashback (2013)

Director: Steve Petersen
Stars: Walter Koenig, Judy Levitt, Tom Biagini, Shannon Murray and Karla Osella
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
The science fiction shorts at this year's International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival were notable both for their consistent quality and for the emotion they drew out of the audience. Films like Ellie, Restitution and The Secret Keeper nailed both the science fiction aspects of their stories and the emotional ones. It may be that Flashback is the most emotional of them all, mostly because of the searing performance of the lead actor, Walter Koenig, who proves here that he deserved a much bigger role to play in Star Trek. It revolves around our personal connection to new technology, another common theme running through the festival selections, especially All I Think of is You, Restitution and Iris. The new technology here, the Flashback Device that Koenig's character, Dr Joseph Griffin, creates, is reminiscent of the slow glass of Bob Shaw's superb short story, Light of Other Days, but with control given to the user. Griffin dedicates his life to perfecting this device, only for irony to strike in the cruellest fashion.

As befits a story about a gadget that allows people to relive moments of their lives, we're whisked back into the lives of the Griffins, Joseph and his wife, Greta. We watch them as a young couple, decorating their house with all the possibility that the future can hold, but Joseph is already distracted by his work. His boss suggests that he has the potential to change the world and he believes him. We soon find that he manages it too because, back in the present, he's living on Mars with his perfected device selling in the billions. The catch comes in how he got there. Even as a young man he tells Greta that he loves his work more than anything and we see her understanding of that, in her eyes as the truth of it registers and also in the moment he flashes back to with his own device, of her leaving him as an old woman. It hasn't been a good life for her, living it alone while he works, so she leaves just as he finds the time to spend with her and regret that he can't do it any more because she's gone.
Koenig is magnificent here, his eyes full of sadness and regret, as he interrupts a TV interview to flash back to Greta leaving him again. 'Is there anything I can do to get you to stay?' he asks, knowing full well that there isn't because she only exists in the memory that his device provides him with. At least it's clever enough for him to converse with it, but that's little solace for him. The ironies are palpable. The time he spent developing the device stole the opportunity for him to spend valuable time with his wife, only for her to leave and force him to use his own gadget to relive what might be the only moment of time he captured before she left, which in turn nails home again and again what he could have had but lost through dedication to the device. It's an ever decreasing circle, which we can see in Koenig's eyes and hear in his broken voice. Here is a man who has achieved wonders, lives among wonders and has given wonder to billions, but he's a broken man because of it all.

The biggest problem Flashback has is that it's only six minutes long. Apparently there is an intention to expand it to feature length, which I'd dearly love to see, but there's precious little information available online about this goal. It deserves more time to breathe, to draw the characters out, even if that's only by expanding to, say, twenty minutes. Koenig gets the most screen time but there's surely a lot more to Dr Griffin than we see within that. Judy Levitt is excellent as the elder Greta, but again there's so much more possibility to the character than just a repeated exit in Griffin's repeated flashback. Their younger versions have possibility too, Tom Biagini and Shannon Murray believably ready for the world. Murray in particular gets that one moment but not the opportunity to make more of it. I have no doubt that, given the ironies that Steve Peterson shoehorned into the six minutes he had, he could layer it more with the flexibility of time. Here's to hoping we see more of Flashback.

At least we can continue to flash back to Flashback again and again through YouTube, where the film is available to watch for free.

Sunset Day (2012)

Director: J A Duran
Stars: Ramon Novell, Jordi Llordella, José MarÍa Blanco, Laura Motos, Robetra Pasquinucci, Roser Boladeras and Ariadna Minguell
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
I wanted to like Sunset Day more than I found I could. I love the concepts in play and the ramifications that spring from them, but it felt to me like they weren't explored as well as they could be, in favour of a safer and lesser approach. The key idea is similar to the old time travel trope where people go back to a critical point in time to change that one seemingly insignificant event that will alter the course of history and prevent a particular future. You know it from The Terminator and Twelve Monkeys. Well, this is the same thing in reverse: a shadowy organisation known as the Corp has a mysterious ability to see far enough into the future to identify when the apocalypse is going to happen, here codenamed Sunset Day. They send an agent to make that insignificant change and deny that potential future its chance to unfold. Great, you might think. Well, insignificant changes may not feel insignificant; would you crash a train, killing 236 people, if you knew it would delay the end of the world for only 18 days?

That's what our hero does at the start of this film, explained through the deep and resonant narration of David Seys. What's more, it's the 36th time he's saved the world. In a nice touch, the apocalypse is a constant foe to the Corp. They can't just save the world and be done with it; they have to keep doing it, time after time. There are so many ramifications to this great idea that a whole feature could easily be dedicated to exploring them. Surely trust would be a major concern. How could each agent sent on such a mission be sure, absolutely sure, that they were doing the right thing? Just one shred of doubt would be enough to cause psychological torture. Surely the knowledge that they will be called upon to do the same thing again next week would be enough to spark that shred. The conspiracy angle is vast too; shadowy organisations inherently attract conspiracy theories anyway, but the Corp wouldn't just be a gift to the tin hat brigade, it would be a conspiracy to everyone who worked for it.
Yet those angles are mostly jettisoned in favour of a very personal story. We learn about our hero, how he was brought into the fold as a child and how the friend he lost in an explosion comes back into his life and changes his thinking. It's not a bad direction, but it's a far safer one than director Josep Antoni Duran and his co-writer, Ferran Grau, could, or even should, have taken with their script. I wanted so much more from their story, given that the film itself had so much more to back it up. We visit more than one time, as we see our hero, credited as Owl, as a child and an adult, but the look of the film is believably dated, not just through costumes and sets but by the use of a wonderful orientation video that takes the form of a cartoon. There are neat hints at history, like the Hindenberg disaster being a means to avoid Sunset Day. The CGI is too crisp and artificial but it's suitably spectacular and it's ably backed up by Roger Costa's excellent score. Technically, this is mostly an accomplished piece.

The acting is also solid, even from the child actors like Ramon Novell and Laura Motos, who play the young Owl and his unnamed friend at the orphanage who he believes he loses. They're only tasked to act physically, as the fifteen minute running time is entirely devoid of dialogue, possibly because the piece unfolds well as an almost silent film with narration and possibly to aid international distribution. This is a Spanish film, but just as silent movies could easily swap out intertitles for each market, this could easily swap out its narration and a fewother details and reach a whole new country. Sunset Day also comes in a Spanish language version and it wouldn't surprise me to see other languages follow. I wouldn't mind seeing that original version to see if anything was done differently, but I doubt it. What I really want to see is a longer, tighter, more complex, story that attempts a lot more than this one and covers a lot more background. Sunset Day gives us a fascinating world; I'd like to explore it.

Saturday 28 December 2013

Golem (2012)

Directors: Patrick McCue & Tobias Wiesner
Star: Cyrena Dunbar
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
If Quantum was torture for physicists, Golem is torture for technologists because it raises the potential that once a computer becomes more intelligent than those who built it, it will diverge from us in ways that we cannot predict. This animated short is a beautiful thing, notably organic in its visuals, but it's an overwhelming and almost inpenetrable one, especially without the necessary background, which, in the most puzzling choice of the filmmakers, Patrick McCue and Tobias Wiesner, is not provided. We're told that Golem is an adaptation of a novel by Polish philosopher and science fiction author Stanislaw Lem, but not that it's told by a computer. The book Golem XIV riffs on one of his regular themes: the inability of mankind to communicate with truly alien intelligence, the title character here being an artificial intelligence created for military purposes which becomes conscious and quickly outstrips its creators, initially lecturing but eventually ceasing communication altogether for no provided reason.

Like the book, this film is told by the Golem XIV AI in the form of one of its lectures. It's a deep talk, one which covers so much ground that it's exceedingly difficult to keep up. In the end, we surely fail to do so and the narration by Cyrena Dunbar becomes nothing but white noise to accompany the eye candy. I've lost the plot every time through, though repeated viewings do help. I also know that I'm not alone; when I talked to other audience members after its screening at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, they reported the same effect. Initially it's relatively simple, as Golem XIV recounts a tale about rats in a labyrinth, probability ensuring that at least one should escape it, even if not through its own talent. This quickly becomes an analogy for the human race and the process of evolution, which allows us to choose our own fate. So far, so good, but it continues to expand outward, explaining how we limit ourselves by imposing religion and culture. At some point this discussion of rationality gets too obscure.

While I'm not qualified to say whether this philosophising has meaning or not, it clearly ceases to do so to most viewers within this film's framework. Those ambitious enough can watch and rewatch to figure out if they can fathom it all; everyone else can at least enjoy the audiovisual treat, which continues on unabated. The visuals begin with what looks like slow motion footage of the sun, though it's computer generated and morphs into less recognisable and more abstract forms. Presumably the tendrils are the thoughts of human beings and the ice cages reflect how we bind them. Eventually we're led backwards into a mechanical structure, presumably Golem XIV itself. The score is an ambient electronic piece that is pleasant to the ear with its gentle pulsing beats, courtesy of composer Cliff Martinez. Dunbar's soft voice becomes another instrument, playing along with it. I applaud the filmmakers for their ambition and I'm not going to ask anyone to dumb their work down, but I can't help stating that this lost me.

Golem can be watched for free at Vimeo and YouTube.

Quantum (2012)

Director: Joseph Carlin
Stars: Jeffrey R Ayars, Frank Halbiger and Mike Sokolowski
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
A lot of people avoid science fiction films, especially Russian ones or short ones, because of a general assumption that they'll be called upon to think, as if that would be a bad thing. It does mean that they miss out on a lot of great movies but it also means that they safely avoid what they hate and fear: the possibility that an idea might take root in their head and throw their safe, boring lives out of whack. It could be said that Quantum, a short film from writer/director Joseph Carlin and Transfixion Films, is the epitome of what they fear, as it's all about taking an idea, releasing it into your skull at high speed and letting it ricochet around until you drive yourself batty. Its story is effectively torture for physicists, the sort who can paint themselves into a corner, all the while meditating upon what a corner really is and whether it still exists after they close their eyes. It's based, of course, on the infamous experiment of Schrödinger's cat, but with a number of enhancements to make it cinematically viable.

For a while it's tedious, as we just follow a man on a long walk into a library, the glitchy soundtrack and odd angles not adding much to proceedings. We just want to know why a man, before we're even given opening credits, placed a gun to his chin. The walker, Tyler by name, holds the key because everything ties to a study he wants to perform. He tells Robert that he aims to 'push the limits of quantum theory, human understanding' and Brandon that 'by the time we're done, we'll have lifted the veil of reality as we know it.' It's an odd experiment, as we expect from his voice which is half soporific college lecturer and half persuasive used car salesman. That voice is the principal reason why we buy into some of what follows, because the logic is dubious, even though it's rivetting. In most films, the quick bout of Russian roulette that we're treated to would be the drama that underpins the story, but this is not most films. In this one, it's just the beginning, as the participants then argue about what the result really means.
Inevitably, the more we think about this one, the more it falls apart on us. I'm a realist: If I shoot myself in the head and survive, then I'm alive. However, because this story is is inextricably rooted in quantum theory and the characters are students of the subject, we can't help but watch from their perspective. In other words, if Brandon shoots himself in the head and survives, how can he know whether he's alive or dead? How can Robert prove the outcome in numbers written on the white walls of the box like room in which the study took place? Here's where the true value lies, as a clear vision of what most of us tend to see in quantum mechanics: men in white shirts torturing themselves over whether black is white or vice versa. All three of the actors are believable in this, even though they're completely different otherwise: Jeffrey Ayars is an infuriatingly calm Tyler, Frank Halbiger a quintessential nerdy genius as Robert and Michael Sokolowski a less disciplined wildcard as Brandon. The film relies on them all and they deliver.

Mostly, of course, it relies on the story, which is a clever little bugger that's careful to make itself about the characters' interpretation of quantum theory rather than about quantum theory itself. That way we stay sane while they don't and we follow proceedings clearly even without a grounding in the subject. After all, quantum theory tends to trump cryptography as the archetypal example of the science most fundamentally inaccessible to the layman. At least we know cryptography works, even if we haven't a clue how. This approach is why Carlin could get away with such a minimal set; most of the film unfolds in a closed room with white walls and almost no props because everything is conjured out of words. The budget ran around a thousand dollars, most of which went into building that room. The beauty of a film that revolves around a cryptic thought experiment is that it keeps us thinking and it's the easiest thing in the world to think round in circles. I bet the three of them are still in that room doing just that.

Quantum can be watched for free at Vimeo.

Friday 27 December 2013

Split (2012)

Director: Miguel Gonzalez
Star: Seth Gandrud
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.
There's a lot of ambition in the script for Split, written by the film's director, Miguel Gonzalez, who has a habit of making short films with overly generic titles that take forever to track down on IMDb. Out of five titles, three have Roman numerals behind them to distinguish them from others of the same name that were released in the same year. The film he's working on now is the sixth Torn of 2013; at least this was only the second Split of 2012. Sadly its ambition doesn't pan out and it becomes as generic as its name, feeling as schizophrenic as its lead character, Tom Lundi. We figure out that he has at least two distinct personalities pretty quickly, but while the story is presumably all about the fight between them, it never really gels together. The Tom that everyone knows is the boring Tom, an accountant who likes numbers and is good at his job, so routine that it fits that his surname is a day of the week. Yet the other Tom is a more forceful character, one who's apparently blackmailing the mayor, even if he's not sure how.

He starts the film in memorable fashion, with a gunshot wound in his chest and a phone in his hand, so he can talk to the 911 operator and the story can get moving in mysterious fashion. It's a great start to the film and it doesn't hurt that Tom is played by Seth Gandrud, the closest the Arizona film community has to Brad Pitt. I'm not sure how boring we can buy Lundi as being when he's played by Gandrud, but he does seem to be sleepwalking through life, apparently oblivious to his cute wife and his neat house. It's time for an intervention but that doesn't come from work colleague Michael, who wants to take him shooting, it comes from himself, the other personality that decides it wants to change his life. The film's title doesn't just suggest Lundi's split personalities but the split directions that they're taking him. The end, of course, reveals which personality wins and which direction he takes, and that's all good, but it's not that simple. It leaves us with as many questions as it gives us answers.

Gandrud is great here in the tense scenes, one of them feeling like Clint Eastwood playing Jack Palance. Unfortunately he's less good in the everyday scenes, perhaps inevitably because the boring half is, well, the boring half. It's nigh on impossible to play a boring man in an interesting way that doesn't stop him being boring, but it can be done better than Gandrud manages here. It makes us root for the dominant Lundi throughout. Bizarrely, Miah Gonzales is the complete opposite; he's solid in the everyday scenes as Michael, but sorely lacking in the tense ones. Jamie Jurju has little to do as Mrs Lundi and the pair of cops who interrogate Tom couldn't be more inconsequential. And so, with the technical side capable, if never spectacular, it comes down to the story, which deserves credit for its ambition if not its eventual mixed bag of success and failure. At 25 minutes it feels too long, but the script could easily have been expanded to feature length. It just needs a firm direction and it doesn't have one.

Cordones (2012)

Director: Bob Marquis
Stars: Kaleena Newman and Stephanie Mello
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.
An odd but enjoyable silent short from Arizona Filmmaker of the Year Bob Marquis, Cordones wins out as a fun, fluffy piece about individual freedom but I have a feeling it aimed at being a lot more than that and didn't quite hit the mark. Like the story, the title has a double meaning. Most obviously, 'cordones' is Spanish for 'shoelaces', props which are populated throughout the film in such an emphatic way that they become MacGuffins; they keep most of the characters in work at a factory which manufactures the things but they also become the spark for those who want an escape to find it. We're never quite sure what part of the process these workers are responsible for, but they're clearly menial labourers, which reminds of the other meaning of the title, that of 'cordones industrial', a sort of union that challenged the Chilean government to adopt workers rights. Certainly this factory is a bleak place, where workers are dressed in drab grey and given numbers for names. It looks like the opposite of fun.

And, against expectations, fun is where this goes. It may all be set up as an authoritarian nightmare of a workplace, more of a prison with its unspeaking workers watched carefully by Kane Black, who patrols their table like a hawk, but everyone's a willing prisoner, it seems. Kaleena Newman, the engaging lead character who goes by the name of Siete (or 'Seven'), is one of these. She labours under mind numbing tedium by day, but then drives home in her cute yellow mini as if she's as free as a bird. Careful editing and use of repetition suggests to us that she does nothing except shower, work and sleep, but the sun is notably out as she drives home, so perhaps her routine is self imposed. When one of her colleagues, Cuatro (or 'Four') exhibits signs of imagination, painting a pair of aglets red, she's not taken out back and shot or hauled off to a gulag, she's just fired. She sets up a stall to sell her own laces by the side of the road and, in so doing, acts like a beacon for Siete to wonder about her own future.

Newman is endearing enough, even without the benefit of speech, for this to raise a smile and applaud her escape from boredom, but the substance is fleeting. There isn't enough for us to ever be sure what Cuatro escapes from or what she achieves: is this a contrast between conformity and imagination, the confines of a sweatshop and the freedom of the open air, being a number in a faceless corporation and being your own boss? The last film Bob Marquis directed from a Jessica Marquis script was a lot clearer in its intentions: Awesome Guy: A New Identity had a very similar story, about a man who left behind a set of societal expectations and became his own man. Maybe this is merely the female equivalent with Newman taking the Mario Guzman role. If so, she does great with producer Stephanie Mello also worth watching in the smaller role of Cuatro. The men aren't given much to do here, with talented actors like Black and Michael Hanelin tasked only to be part of the status quo. Maybe it's just one for the girls.

I should add, after my review, that context may be a key factor here. Cordones was an entry into the IFP Phoenix Masterpiece Challenge in January, 2012, to round up the 2011 challenge year. It won a number of awards, including third place overall, behind Winding Road and The Fall, as well as Best Actress for Kaleena Newman and Best Editor for Bob Marquis. Masterpiece is all about interpreting a piece of art at the Phoenix Art Museum and Marquis chose a piece from the children's area that highlighted seven key elements of self-expression. I'm not sure what they are but they're apparently all depicted as symbols within this film. Certainly there's self-expression in what Cuatro, and eventually Siete, does, with smiles only showing up when that happens. This suggests that Cordones is all about imagination fighting it out with conformity, with the setting merely being an intriguing one that suggests at a lot more than just a setting without actually providing it.

Monday 23 December 2013

Another Chance (2012)

Director: Barbara Gross
Stars: Mare Nubson and Sharon Newman
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.
It would be a difficult thing not to choke up at this little tearjerker, but then that's much of the point, as it's very much a film with a message. It even starts out with a woman crying, as she parks her SUV over two handicapped spots to let her dog out. We don't see where, but in the morning we discover that it's a Humane Society animal shelter. This lady has apparently tied her dog to a pillar for Susan to discover in the morning as she shows up for work. Out the window goes any sympathy we might have found for the crying SUV driver, to quickly attach itself to the dog, an old girl that Susan decides to call Chance. The pair bond, in part because, as Susan says, 'nobody wants an old dog, just like nobody wants an old broad like me.' I was expecting the story to continue with the parallels, but it doesn't; it has a one track mind and that's focused on its message, which is that old dogs rarely get adopted, which in turn means that in many shelters they're put to sleep, an unfortunate euphemism in this scenario. They're killed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this story about a shelter that kills its old unadopted dogs after six months was shot at a no-kill shelter, the Humane Society in Wickenberg. After all, no shelter with a kill policy is likely to let a filmmaker like Barbara Gross wander in with a camera to shoot a short message film that aims to highlight to as wide an audience as possible how much this sort of behaviour goes on. It ends with a page of statistics to highlight how many animals enter US shelters every year and how many are killed. It's no spoiler to point out that it's most of them, even discounting age. When it comes to older animals, it's almost all of them. 'Give an old dog or cat another chance,' it pleads before the end credits roll, with the backing of strings to make it all the more plaintive. 'Adopt a senior.' I couldn't agree more, which is why it's sad that I find the film annoying. It didn't have to play things up as much as it did. Those strings weren't needed. Susan's boss didn't have to be such a bitch. The message stands up on its own.

Technically, it's capable but never high art. The picture quality isn't great at points and there's footage here that should have been chopped to make a leaner, tighter picture. Who cares if Susan eats peanut butter on her toast? We need to get her to work so we can move on with the story. Chance appears to be a lovely dog, who doesn't get enough screen time. Fortunately Mare Nubson does as Susan, as her performance is the foundation on which the entire film is built. I have no idea if she's really a dog lover off set but we can totally buy that she is, that all those dogs she cares for are really hers because she does a great job. The problem is that it relies on her too much and, instead of creating a subtle story to draw us in, it tries to jerk our tears any way it can, even if it hurts the consistency of the story, and it cheapens itself in the process. It's odd to find myself arguing with a film whose message I agree with, but that's what I found. I hope it finds a large audience but that it doesn't annoy them too.

Another Chance can be viewed for free at YouTube and Vimeo.

Second Chance (2012)

Director: Lee Quarrie
Stars: Kevin Herrmann, Jim Coates, Jonathan Medina and Nikki Hicks
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 Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Lee Quarrie's short comedy seems to have attracted many chances. It played the Home Grown Shorts set at the Phoenix Film Festival this year, alongside Another Chance, which was neither a sequel nor a prequel but a completely unconnected short from Barbara Gross. Then, as if to generate every possible confusion, it played the Love Shorts Baby! set at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival with Jon Ray's Second Chances, which isn't a sequel either, even though it has an actor in common, Jim Coates. What are the chances for an actor to go from Second Chance to Second Chances within a year and yet find them unrelated? Actually, it's not that unlikely, an IMDb search suggests; everyone must get a second chance in the movies. As this pair of films allowed Coates to restore an older lady's youth and win the lottery, I'm sure that he's not too upset about it. Quarrie can't be either; this Second Chance won her second place at the A3F 24 hour challenge in 2012 and she was awarded Best Director too.

More pertinently, what are the chances that Second Chance is any good? Well, it turns out to be a fun romp, if a predictable one, that sets itself up well and sticks in the mind because of its neat little twist, perhaps all the more neat because most of what comes in between is predictable. Coates shows up at the outset, to deliver bad news to Johnny, played by Kevin Herrmann, in the form of divorce papers. He doesn't take it well, but that's understandable. 'Let's avoid the drama of a face to face confrontation' is a rather tacky way to receive such news, though it's surely a darn sight better than realising that your Facebook status changed. I like the percussion music that follows Johnny around while he tries to deal with his situation, as if it's stuck in his head to stop him from sleeping. I'm sure he doesn't get to do a lot of that, especially as his husband Kurt is played by Jonathan Medina, a quality actor constantly in demand for gay roles locally. Sadly we don't get to see much of him. Neither does Johnny.

It's once the news has been delivered that it starts getting generic, as Johnny goes through all the steps you might expect, from the sad and sympathetic ones to the bitchy and vindictive ones. Lee Quarrie's script, adapted from a story by Judith Eisenberg, plays it rather safe, maybe to aim at a verbal reaction from the audience, shouting support for Johnny. The most surprising it gets is the constant presence of Stan the deliveryman, whose immediate shoulder to cry on eventually progresses to an overt shot of him as a substitute shrink. It's capably done, with decent acting and decent backup from the technical side, so it's no hardship to slide on through this middle section, but it isn't surprising in the slightest. Its biggest flaw is that it's short on imagination, which is odd given how well it begins and how well it ends. The ending is what really makes it shine, because it's touching and appropriate and it wraps the piece up far better than I expected it would. I wonder if the ending was the spark that generated the rest.

Second Chance can be viewed for free at Vimeo.

Sunday 22 December 2013

A Beautiful Waste (2012)

Director: Jon Kasbe
Star: Steve Duncan
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.
Steve Duncan is a historian and urban explorer and he would see the two as interchangable. I've read a lot about people who explore the places around us that civilisation has forgotten, both in fiction and non fiction and I find them fascinating. The pictorials that they publish, often pseudonymously, are amazing things to see because they contain things that are amazing things to see, whether that's routine sights empty of the usual clutter or just completely unexpected beauty in places where nobody sees it. What we see late in this film falls into the latter category, all the more unexpected because it's found in the sewer systems under New York. As the tagline for this documentary short would have it, 'Most people don't spend their Saturday nights in New York's sewers. Steve Duncan isn't most people.' We can thank our deity of choice for that because he, along with filmmaker Jon Kasbe, brings us a moment of movie magic here, setting us up for it but never letting us imagine the scope of its grandeur.

The film follows Duncan into the New York sewers, and for a while it's merely interesting. He explains a sense of awe in experiencing true silence in New York City. He shows us a natural stream that was there before the city was, but which is still making its presence known. He talks about such natural things in man made environments in such a way that we feel a connection to the past, which seems to be much of what drives him. 'They're still there,' he says of the things that the first settlers saw. 'They're hidden away and invisible,' but only if we don't know where to look. And here's where it gets special. Duncan is a man who knows where to look. He takes equipment down with him into the depths: a camera, a set of lights, a tripod. And he takes photos in the dark. 'What do you think? Would it make a good picture?' he asks the cameraman who sees what we see, which is to say nothing. Then we see the result, which is a rook between the eyes and then some. I stopped breathing for a moment.

With magic on the table, the rest of the film is far more routine. We only see Duncan, so we only hear a single perspective. There are no other interviewees to quantify how valid that is, so we're forced to trust it. We only see him in one place on one adventure, so we glimpse only a fraction of what he talks about. There's no overlay of maps or old photos to back up the historical data, so again we're limited in scope. Really, this is an experience. It sets us up to be disgusting and, sure enough, we watch Duncan wade in effluent to get to where he wants to be. When it's set us up enough, it hits us with a shock moment that matches what we know from horror movies, but rather than throw horror at beauty, it throws beauty at horror. And once done, it settles down and wraps it up, before letting Duncan walk away, as if this was a one time tease that will stay with us forever. Fortunately it isn't. There are more short films from other directors at Duncan's website, Undercity, along with other similar material. History can be addictive.

A Beautiful Waste can be viewed for free at Vimeo.

Keeper of the Mountains (2013)

Director: Allison Otto
Star: Elizabeth Hawley
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.
I first saw the documentary short, Keeper of the Mountains, back in October at Filmstock in the Park, a free outdoor screening of short films at the Downtown Phoenix Civic Space. I'd heard about its subject, Elizabeth Hawley, and had read a little about her, but I hadn't seen her on video. To see her and hear her speak was to underline everything I expected of her, but with emphasis. She's an old woman, 89 years young, but one who refuses to kowtow to anyone's perceived conventions. To suggest that she's her own person is an understatement. She's more like a force of nature than a human being, yet it was fate which perhaps led her to the role she has unofficially kept for more than five decades. To describe her is impossible, but she's somewhat like the classic images of a teacher, librarian, journalist, lawyer and judge, all wrapped up together. What she does is to maintain the archives of the Himalayas, with every climber dating back to Sir Edmund Hillary and beyond falling under her purview.

I don't know how much filmmaker Allison Otto captures Miss Hawley and how much this lady's emphatic presence reaches through the camera to stamp itself directly on our conscienceness, but I was shocked to realise later that this is a 25 minute film. As leisurely as it sometimes feels, it really races onward at a rate of knots, perhaps because the camera rarely strays from Hawley herself. Her no nonsense attitude and staccato speech ensure that we're always hearing just the facts, ma'am. We can't help but believe that we're listening to something important and, for the most part, we are. It's almost a challenge to be as sharp a listener as she is a speaker. We do encounter climbers during the film, but only briefly and in Hawley's company, so it's nigh on impossible to focus on them. Those of special note, such as Reinhold Messner, the first man to climb Everest solo or without oxygen, are relegated to the end credits, where we can concentrate on their words and memories better.

It's difficult for me to figure out why Hawley fascinates me so much, as there are a few reasons. In fact, perhaps that's why she fascinates me so much. This film ably illustrates each of them, through careful questions or just simple observation. A famously private person, she gave Otto some insightful history and even backed it up by reading some of her letters home from Khatmandu in the early sixties, where she'd ended up as a reporter for Time and stayed as a reporter for Reuters. She's a strong woman, one who understands who she is. She flouts every convention, not only those that would frown on a young lady travelling around the world in the late fifties. She speaks her mind without fear. In short, she's who she wants to be and she has no unfulfilled wishes before she dies. It's magnificent irony to realise that this ultimate authority on Himalayan climbing has never tackled a mountain herself. She's a character, pure and simple, and this film ably captures that. I only wish I could watch it for the first time again.

Elegy for a Revolutionary (2013)

Director: Paul Van Zyl
Stars: Brian Ames and Martin Copping
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.
While watching Elegy for a Revolutionary, a quintessential South African story rooted in the struggle for freedom and the ethics of violence, it seemed all the more timely because of the recent death of Nelson Mandela, for many years the leader of the African National Congress or president of South Africa. After all, he served 27 years in prison for doing exactly what the characters in this short film do: perpetrating acts of sabotage in a concerted campaign to overthrow the government and so end racial segregation, the policy known as apartheid. It could have been far more timely, however, for Paul Van Zyl, the South African filmmaker who wrote and directed. While he deserves respect for making the film at all and for doing so when he did, I'm sure his Indiegogo campaign to fund it would have done far better a year and a half later, when the world's attention was, for a brief time at least, focused on South Africa in shared mourning for a man who perhaps did more than anyone to change it.

The characters we meet are attempting to change it too, even though they're white. Donald Quick and Jeremy James are university friends who abhor apartheid and take part in demonstrations against it. They're apparently based on characters in C J Driver's 1969 novel, Elegy of a Revolutionary, itself based on real experience in the South African underground of the sixties. We're not told which demonstration changes Quick and James, but we assume it's the Sharpeville massacre, during which police opened fire on unarmed protestors, killing 69 and injuring 180, but also prompting the founding of a military wing of the ANC, by Mandela among others, whose activities landed him in jail. Quick and James follow a similar path, deciding that they must join the ANC and fight for what they believe in, albeit through deliberately non-lethal acts of sabotage. The story explores the conflicts they find in that choice, between law and a higher moral duty, and in particular whether violence has any justification in such a fight.
At 23 minutes, it condenses the source story substantially, dropping the lead characters from six to two, but it still packs a lot of thought into its running time. The strongest scenes focus around loyalty, as our heroes, if that term is appropriate for people who are, in the truest sense of the word, terrorists, realise that friends and cause can becoming conflicting loyalties. I can't go much further without venturing into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Quick and James take very different routes and there are great ironies in how those routes are perceived by others. Not only are we asked to question their actions and decisions, we're also asked to figure out who the hero is and who the traitor. The ethical minefield they find themselves traversing makes that identification difficult. In many ways both of them are heroes and both are traitors too. Most writers would do much for a story that contains so much depth and conflict. Van Zyl gives us clear pictures with no ambiguity woven in; the complexity is all in our interpretation.

Brian Ames and Martin Copping are strong as the leads, giving decent performances throughout with a few excellent scenes each. Perhaps each have lesser scenes too, but they're not helped by the budget. The most obvious downside to the film isn't in what the actors do, it's in how obviously few of them get to populate many of the scenes. While we're not sure how much time passes, it's not a short span, yet we're given only one prison guard, only one cop, only one judge. Surely, in urban South Africa under a tyrannical government, there would be many of each but the budget didn't stretch that far. It's notable too that most scenes are quiet, not from an absence of score but from an absence of background noise. This is the quietest prison I've ever seen. It's apparent enough to give the film a stage feel, as if it was written for a small space and cast accordingly. At least the players are consistently up to the task, but the story was always going to win out. It's a timeless one that shouldn't need to be told. But it does.

Saturday 21 December 2013

3 Men and a Goblin (2013)

Director: Julie Van Lith
Stars: Gary Herkimer, Tim Helmstadter, Patrick Giglio and Bill Wetherill
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.
For a while, 3 Men and a Goblin is just three men and it's a whole bundle of fun until that goblin makes his inevitable appearance. These three are old men, even if they're played by spring chickens like Bill Wetherill, Tim Helmstadter and Patrick Giglio with their hair artificially whitened, and they're a blast as they call each other dumbasses and retell old stories with new details. For a few minutes, this is a riot with ostentatious dialogue delivered with class. It's something of a letdown to discover that the required line of dialogue was something as banal as 'What the heck are you doin' here?' Writer/director Julie Van Lith, with help from Helmstadter, added far superior lines like, 'She was a sword swallower and the love of my life,' 'I ought to slap you till Jeopardy starts!' and even, 'It's OK if you're a back door bandit; ain't no shame in that.' If they got back together for a full ninety minutes of material like this, it would be a sight to see. The challenge would be to have Wetherill laugh so hard he'd fall out of his wheelchair.

Unfortunately just past the halfway mark, the goblin shows up and the film jumps the shark so acutely that I'd be hard pressed to think of a better example. A naked man chases down a hallway on all fours, a goblin appears in negative to spout like Yoda and we're given, get this, an intertitle that explains a plot that's just arrived without being asked. Sure, it sets up a funny ending, but it's really not needed; it could have all been told without the goblin and it would have worked just as well, if not far better. It's almost worth it just to see Wetherill kiss a goat, but... no, it's not worth it. In the end, like the men and their remembered lady loves, we're stuck watching the terrible outcome of what could have been great fun. Their dialogue substitutes for ours. 'Oh, my eyes are on fire!' one cries, before they add in unison: 'Take it back, goblin, take it back!' Hear, hear! Three Men and a Boat needed the boat, but 3 Men and a Goblin would have been far better with a boat instead of a goblin. Now I want 3 Men: The Web Series.

Zombies of Capitalism (2013)

Director: Mikey Campbell
Stars: Kevin Hornsby, Jackson and Jacob Thompson
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
This may be the most half hearted, pointlessly stupid, waste of a zombie movie I've ever seen and I've seen a heck of a lot of them, given that I've been wading through submissions to horror film festivals for years. A few years ago, zombies wrested the crown of subgenre du jour from vampires, partly because everyone knows a bunch of friends willing to slather on latex for a day's shoot and partly because you don't need acting talent to play a shambling corpse. One of the better reasons that zombies took over the world is because you can write any story you like in a zombie apocalypse and send any message. The walking dead work great as metaphors, so it seemed like every week brought a new one. George A Romero started it, but everyone else caught up and we saw zombies representing gays, blacks, slaves, even domestic help. This film wants to have a metaphor but can't be bothered to think one up. There's a visible point where the cast realise that the Emperor has no clothes and literally bury faces in hands.

Admittedly, director Mikey Campbell and writer Jacob Thompson were saddled with a prop without much potential: a political book. That they found one to include is the biggest success of the picture, but their imaginations apparently deserted them. The best use for it that they could come up with is for one survivor of the fresh zombie apocalypse to decide that it's the best weapon he can find in a garage. It's not even a hardback; he'd have been better off with the fuzzy dice in the car. And then, as if there was no chance of a single imaginative idea anywhere in the room, they make it an instant cure: the merest touch from Gotcha Capitalism and zombies are completely cured in seconds! Seriously, a team made up of people from a community college cinema society couldn't imagine anything more substantial to fit into a zombie movie framework? At least we can see and hear what's going on. Everything's in sync. The opening title is even pretty cool. But the bad smell on this one doesn't come from the zombies.

Thursday 19 December 2013

Those That Play Your Clowns (2013)

Director: John Broadhead
Star: Mike Ostroski
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.
Those That Play Your Clowns couldn't be much further from El Western if it tried, even though it shares a 26 minute running time and suggests from its first moments that it's going to be funny. It does have a few cleverly funny moments, but it's no comedy, it's an increasingly serious drama that carries a strong punch. Mike Ostroski dominates as the lead character, George Hill, to the degree that it'll be a struggle to talk about anything except him, but he doesn't look like much as the film begins. He's a ragged man, one who struggles out of bed to make a 10.30am children's party, to which he manages to be late. He's apparently a pretty good clown, but we figure out before he even leaves his bedroom that he's really an actor who happens to play a clown pretty well, even if it wastes his talent and his degree in performing arts. He puts on the role of Pompey the clown along with the outfit and make up, but it's killing him, not only because paying the bills means he misses another audition for Hamlet.

Most tragic is that he knows that it's killing him but can't seem to find his way out of the rut. Talk about method: he's become a tragic character even as he dreams of playing the most famous of them all. The quality of the production is high; it may be a little long and we may see Hill wallow a little too much, but it grows strongly. Even as we wonder where it's going, why he's still in clown make up as he gets drunk at the bar where other actors wait to hear who was cast in Hamlet, we start to realise that, to Hill, there are no other actors. That extends to Ostroski, because every other character here is really there only to be a prop for him to work with. The moment where this becomes clear, almost exactly halfway in, turns out to be when he interrupts another actor, so proud of landing the role of Laertes that he recites lines for his friends, with a bellow of, 'You're doing it wrong!' Everything stops, to roll into the supreme irony that this drunken clown tells him, 'You're making a fool out of yourself.'

Ostroski is magnificent here. He's doesn't just play George Hill, he plays an actor, a thespian at that who has been King Lear four times, but an actor playing a clown. What's more, he's descended to the point where he's an actor playing a clown playing an actor, turning down roles that reflect what he's become and, in so doing, unwittingly distancing himself from the roles that he knows he deserves. And, in the end, as he realises it, he delivers his tour de force to what audience he has, while imagining that he's delivering it for real. The film's title comes from Hamlet, from the part that we hear Hill perform and it's highly appropriate for the story in which it sits. This is no Shakespearean adaptation, but it does bring the words of his play to life through characters he never wrote in settings he never created. It's a clever script, one that takes a couple of viewings to realise just how many layers it has. But in the meantime, letting Ostroski wash over you is hardly a bad way to spend half an hour before he exits stage left.

Those That Play Your Clowns is available to watch for free on YouTube.

El Western (2013)

Director: Ivan Malekin
Stars: Karl Beck and Leoni Leaver
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.
There's a moment early in El Western, an Australian riff on the sexual stereotypes in spaghetti westerns, that made me laugh so hard I nearly broke myself. El Bandito, a Mexican outlaw as feared as his generic name suggests, arrives in the frontier town of Rosebud. We know he's a dangerous hombre because he lights a cigar with a stick of dynamite and we know that he's an immoral one because he carefully steals an apple from a young boy, takes one bite and throws it away, just because he can. The rotter! Anyway, an elegantly dressed young lady sashays out of a wooden building and into the dirt road; as she catches sight of El Bandito, she drops her basket and shouts out his name, prompting everyone to scatter. And I do mean everyone. Including the boom operator, who looks as terrified as the rest of the townsfolk. I do hope this magic moment was a deliberate one, not an unnoticed goof, because it made the film for me, less than a minute in, while the opening credits are rolling. Everything that came after was just a bonus.

As you might expect, the story is built around the town figuring out how to get rid of their new outlaw, given that their sheriff promptly up and quits on them. I'm sure you won't be too shocked to find that they don't have a clue, especially if I point out that if the town elders had hired Roscoe P Coltrane in his stead, he'd have fit right in. The Dukes of Hazzard is certainly the source of some of the humour, but El Western borrows from Mel Brooks, Monty Python and the Carry On team too. The mayor is most natural in the setting, as a quintessential comic relief western sidekick, one upgraded to mayor to provide more opportunity to look idiotic on camera. While he's the brightest of the three elders, he can't tell that the cowboy he swears in as sheriff is his daughter, the very one who he just turned down for the same job five minutes earlier. Danielle just doffed a cowboy hat and lowered her voice; actress Leoni Leaver may not be a girly girl but she's feminine enough that this turn of affairs shifts us into pantomime territory.
And that's where it stays, as Sheriff Dan and El Bandito meet and promptly fall in lust. They're set up for a shootout the next day but that just leaves more time to struggle with their sexual urges, especially as both of them are supposed to be men. It's the humour that carries this, because the acting is not stellar, much of it deliberately. Leoni Leaver does what she's asked to do as Danielle/Sheriff Dan but she's stuck looking wistful for most of the film, rather than acting. It doesn't help that she fails badly in drag, clearly a good looking woman rather than a mildly feminine man. Karl Beck is clearly far too cuddly and nice to be the big bad El Bandito; I bet that more people run to him than run away from him. Everyone else is a caricature, with Tom McCathie's overblown mayor the best of the bunch. I wonder why he wasn't played in drag, with or without those terrible teeth, because he could easily have been this pantomime's dame and McCathie could have stolen even more of the show than he does.

Perhaps it's a little long at 26 minutes, but it could easily be spun out to an hour and a half pantomime performance on stage (for adults only) with a host of distractions thrown in to keep it all fresh. The only loss in that transition would be the location, which is a good one. El Western was shot on location at the Kattemingga Ranch outside of Melbourne, where Ponderosa, the Bonanza prequel series was shot. More tellingly, an Aussie TV show called Snowy River: The McGregor Saga was also shot there, complete with its very own overlooked character called Danni. I wonder whether that was a deliberate riff. After all, it was a successful show (it starred a young Guy Pearce, among others) that was based on a classic poem by Banjo Paterson, The Man from Snowy River, which is famous enough to feature on the $10 banknote down under. That sort of background feels right for this affectionately playful riff on history, standards and archetypes. This is Spaghetti Southern: The Adult Pantomime. All it needed was a song or two.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

The Hedge Sculptor 3000 (2013)

Director: Adam Mariner
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.
IFP Phoenix's new Mystery Box challenge certainly seemed to be just that for many teams: a challenge. Rather than provide the usual required line and prop for each team to use, it asked them to write their own to put in a hat and draw out at random. Adam Mariner may have cursed this concept as he realised what he'd been given, but it turned out to be a blessing as his film must have written itself. What would you come up with if you were tasked with making a short film featuring a pair of shears and the line, 'Is my vagina supposed to look like this?' If you're picturing a forty second infomercial with a bubbly blonde Kiwi in a flesh coloured bodysuit, you did precisely what Mariner did and it really is as funny, albeit also as predictable, as that seems. Unfortunately the credits only list the first names of those involved, with no roles to join them, so I have no idea who the young lady on screen is who makes the material shine, but she's perfectly cast for the role and she does a great job.

There's so little here that it would be easy to imagine nobody else did anything but her, but it isn't just the model and her lines, however well phrased and delivered they happen to be. The technical folk only had to match the style of a cheesy pitch and cheesy pitches aren't particularly renowned for their magic cinematography or their stunning sound. They tend to be more about pointing the camera in the right direction and keeping out of the way so that the model can do her job. That's what Mariner's crew do here and it works fine. The artiest they get is to start in black and white and the cleverest they get is to set up some neat pixellation to avoid censure by the networks, even though it's completely obvious that the model is less naked than anyone watching. Of course this means that the shoutouts are for people not shining, which is an odd scenario for a critic to find himself writing up. This was never going to win anything except best use of line, but that was always pretty safe. It's a fun wrap up for a set of shorts.

The Will (2013)

Director: Mack Duncan
Stars: Jermain Byers and Clifton Gray
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
The CareFree Write entry for the Beat the Clock challenge earlier this year was Wouldn't Be Love, which felt like a good film lost under the weight of serious technical issues. Their entry for Mystery Box has the same feel, though both the positive and negative evened out a little. There's much to like here, but it's less of a film and more of a vignette, tailored of course for a film challenge. The story is the strong part once more, with some agreeable quirks and decent dialogue leading up to a strong but admirably subtle little twist at the end. The downside is the sound, though it's mostly just sync issues this time around. In between is the acting, which runs the gamut from wooden or overplayed to strong or delightful. When I reviewed Wouldn't Be Love, I noted that I should go back to find some of the award winning shorts that CareFree Write have made. I haven't done that yet, but this film underlines why I should, because I like what they're doing, just not necessarily how they're doing it on limited timeframes.

The story here happens in the month between the reading of a will and the allocation of assets; to fit in the required running time, we only follow one of the three surviving relatives of the deceased, Gertrude Elizabeth Merryweather. That's a shame, as I'd like to have seen the other two stories that are told only in hints. There are riders to the will; each of the three beneficiaries are given a suitably macabre task to fulfil. Roger must spend 30 days in a haunted house, Jessica must find Aunt Gert's killer and avenge her death, while Gary must safeguard a cursed object. It's a monkey, a child's toy, to which he's handcuffed for the entire thirty days, and his cursed misadventures comprise most of this short. It goes precisely as well as you might expect, but there's still time for substance. Jermain Byers shows some charm as Gary, but it's Clifton Gray who steals the show as the dry lawyer. Unfortunately he only gets to bookend the piece, but he does it well enough to haul us in and leave us wanting more.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Happily Ever After (2012)

Directors: Yonni Aroussi and Ben Genislaw
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.
As different an animation as could be imagined from Highway Duel, the only common element this film shares is its lack of dialogue. Instead of a battle of mechanical vehicles unfolding against a backdrop of unspoiled nature, this one's battles are very human and take place in manmade settings, mostly a new home in the big city that turns into an old one as we leap through the decades. We show up as a young couple very much in love are about to move into their first home. They look rather like the Simpsons might have done had Jim Henson created them: animated muppets with huge eyes and slitted mouths that give the animators a lot of breadth for play with expressions. They're accompanied by the sort of smoky jazz that would benefit from an overlay of dark Tom Waits poetry, appropriate because it's light and hopeful but with hints that maybe it won't stay that way for long. Sure enough, as the new man of the house prepares to walk into it, he pauses to ponder on his possible future and wonder if it's worth it.
The design of Happily Ever After is immediately engaging, but it's how directors Yonni Aroussi and Ben Genislaw play with progression that is most successful. We watch as Rani and Keren, the young couple (both names seem to be female, so I don't know which is which), are hurled through their life together, but however good the what of it is, the how promptly trumps it in a consistent manner. Whole decades flit by so quickly that we don't even see them, while other skips forward are much shorter. Conception to imminent childbirth is literally a blink of an eye, after which the parents to be are immediately hauled up to dance on the strings of their puppetmaster newborn who's controlling them from his crib. There's a lot of that sort of metaphor here too and it's cleverly done, often as part of the segue from one scene to the next. I like how metaphor merges the literal with the fantastic, such as when the moon is pulled from the sky and laid on the grass as a blanket for a sexy escapade.

That's an early hint at the surreal nature of some of the metaphor. The most overt one is the trip to the supermarket, where the register racks up the seemingly unending cost of the future as the couple are hurled down the conveyor belt to battle manifestations of the oncoming costs in a mad rush that's half nightmare and half game show. There's a lot going on here, trust me. The clear message of 'don't blink or you'll miss something' is aimed simultaneously at the lead characters and at us, both as viewers and as similar participants in the mad rush of life. For all the magic that's conjured up during the bulk of this flashforward vision, for us if not Rani and Keren, the real magic comes at the end with a brief, touching moment that will surely prompt us all to reflect on our own life, love and commitment. Did we make the right choice? Are we on the same road into the future? Most importantly, was it all worth it? One thing is for sure: this short, voiceless Israeli animation is.

Highway Duel (2013)

Director: Auburn Hodgson Setlogelo
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 is an odd one. It's an animated short that may just be all about the feel, attempting to recapture the excitement of car chases in the desert. If so, it does a pretty good job, avoiding such distractions as characters and plot for the familiar abstractions of fast cars and motion blur. This is a fetishistic piece through and through, more akin to a Fast and Furious movie than the inspirations cited in the synopsis, like Duel and Knight Rider. The style may be older school, but this is never about the drivers, it's always about the cars. There's no Jason Statham here, let alone a Steve McQueen. We do see people, briefly and rarely, but they don't matter in the slightest and have no meaning. They're not who we're supposed to watch. We're supposed to watch the blur of a red muscle car and a police vehicle chasing each other in a timeless battle. Drivers are replaced as the decades pass. Cars may be replaced, part by part or all at once. Only the chase remains consistent, along with the mountains and cacti who get to watch it live.

If the film succeeds with its mythic placement, it fails with its story. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what's going on here, because the obvious interpretation breaks halfway through. Initially, it's straight forward enough: that red muscle car fills up with gas in the Mohave Desert in the morning as the sun is coming up, then pulls out, apparently to chase a truck but perhaps just to chase its own demons. When a cop car follows it out onto the highway, we know that a chase is about to begin and, sure enough, it does. It's halfway through that I lost track. Both cars skid off into the desert, avoiding a truck, but when they get moving again, it's the red car chasing the cop. In 'cat and mouse' chases, it's the cat always chasing the mouse, never the other way around. I'm sure there are ways in which that could be played with, but not in an animated short that's deliberately bereft of background detail. Maybe it's meant to be so archetypal that only the chase matters and none of the details are anything except cool.
In between that success and failure is the animation style, which is a little mixed. Initially it feels rather like machinima, created with a video game engine. It looks good, if compressed so that colour gradients aren't as high resolution as they could be. As the chase begins, the backgrounds are more like a comic book for the cars to be animated through. The motion blur behind the title card is magnificent, while it looks it was done with coloured pencils for most of the rest of the film. There's an agreeable pastel feel to the colour palette that's appropriate, given how remorselessly the sun is drenching the desert. My biggest concern with the animation came with the big crash at the end. That's some sort of magic paint job that escapes that animated stunt without an apparent scratch. Auburn Hodgson Setlogelo wrote and directed and I'd be interested in seeing what she comes up with next, whatever software she uses. It's always great to watch animators develop their style and this appears to be her first credit.