Monday 26 May 2014

The Public Voice (1988)

Director: Lejf Marcussen

While it was never the original intention, my focus here at Apocalypse Later has gradually become over time to review the sort of films that most people don't review. This is a great example: a short animation from Denmark, released over a quarter of a century ago, written and directed by a man with few films to his name (after this 1988 film, IMDb only lists Angeli, a short musical animation made in 2002). It has no characters and no dialogue, except for a few odd phrases that leap out from the odd soundtrack. Most of its running time consists of one reverse zoom: the camera appears to pull back at a consistent speed for eight minutes. In quick summary, it sounds like not much at all, but it's one of the most amazing pieces of visual art that I've ever seen and it's stayed with me for 25 years, from a time before the internet when I had no way to translate the original title, Den offentlige røst, into English, merely remember the words. Now, Google quickly tells me that it translates to The Public Voice, the name of the painting at its core.

I first saw Den offentlige røst on British television, probably on BBC2 in the late eighties, soon after it was made, as a time filler in between regular programmes. What I recorded on my VCR that caught this up in its net has been lost in time, as this stole my attention instead and I copied it over to another tape. Since then, it's refused to leave my mind, merely laze there unobtrusively until I look at a piece of art and start to think about what it means, when this wakens from its slumber and refuses to let me be. In many ways, to me it has become the definitive statement about art. It's composed of three sections. Firstly, there's a minute where we see a set of paintings from a technical angle, literally seeing not artistry but construction. Next up are two minutes for us to be transported into a single piece that grabs us for an unknown reason and won't let go, perhaps because it's initially contradictory. Finally there's an eight minute journey in which everything we see and recognise promptly becomes something else. This is where our minds are blown.

The film's credits identify the creators of the original material that Marcussen used here as sources, both the lydfragmenter (sound fragments) and billedfragmenter (image fragments), but not the actual names of the pieces. Unfortunately I don't have enough of a background in art to recognise many of them and a little googling doesn't help too much. Given that the third painting we see at the outset, in an exhibition framework, is Salvador Dali's Enigma of Desire, I can only assume that the two preceding it are by Sam Francis and Balcolm Greene. Certainly the styles fit, Francis being an abstract artist who painted colour explosions and Greene also being abstract but more around abstractions of figures or landscapes. After the Dali, we find The Public Voice by Paul Delvaux, a Belgian painter who built imagery out of consistent, if often contradictory, elements. This piece contains his most recognisable themes: classic architecture, trains or trolleys, plants or trees and, most notably, nude women.
The magnifying glass examining these works of art fails to see anything within The Public Voice, so looks closer and launches us into the picture, literally, through the window of the trolley car in its centre and a succession of architectural landscapes drawn in straight lines. It's reminiscent of the relentless zoom that arrived late in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with the moving psychedelic colours replaced by a static blue on black monochrome, perhaps to reflect the origins of architecture in graph paper and blueprints. Then, three minutes in, we reach an epiphany and escape mere structural analysis. Everything changes at this point: the forward zoom is reversed, the blue and black turn to colour and the straight lines become wild and unpredictable. We're invited, as art should always invite, to both look and see, but while the looking is always easy, the seeing is not. We constantly see things but they constantly become something else, all by the camera pulling back so that we see more, eventually returning to The Public Voice.

Intriguingly at the point from which we start to pull back, we see something similar to the initial painting, but it's a sign not a trolley, the buildings are flats and even the women are cutouts. Only the nude figure in the foreground remains a nude figure, but she's still different and she promptly becomes something else: the hand of the man in Wilhelm Freddie's painting, Sabotage. He in turn becomes a speck in the eye of a weird creature, which becomes a man with a flowing beard, which becomes the shadow under the nose of La Giaconda. And on we go. The Mona Lisa is far from the only famous work of art in this collage, the hellscape from Hieronymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights immediately recognisable, but some only look familiar, such as the Moebius-esque figure sprawled on a landscape, the map of Europe, the wild face flying like a flag (Dali again?). Clearly this is a playful, surrealistic piece but with the added transformative element that a painting never has unless we choose to find out for ourselves.

The music is as fascinating as the visuals, but again only identified by artist rather than track. I can only assume from my limited knowledge of twentieth century experimental music that, while the painters are listed in order of the appearance of their works, the composers or performers are not. The most outré of the pieces comes towards the end but, given that it includes recitations from Samuel Beckett's ironically titled novel, The Unnamable, it's surely from Sinfonia by the experimental Italian composer Luciano Berio, credited first. I presume the zoom change is accompanied by Gravity Waves by the Harmonic Choir and the recurring driving piece is surely the Gustav Mahler, leaving Henry Cow responsible for the rest. Berio in particular is a highly appropriate inclusion to the score as he's a composer who invites exploration on the part of the listener, just like this film. Clearly the underlying message is that art, whatever its form, has hidden depths for us to explore, if we only choose to. This film is a wonderful trigger for exploration.

The Public Voice can be watched for free on YouTube, though I would dearly love to be able to watch this from a high definition source. One online source suggests that a DVD may exist of Marcussen's works and that the Danish Film Institute may be a good point of contact. However, Marcussen himself died last year.

Saturday 24 May 2014

Wrecked (2014)

Director: Kenny Colt
Stars: Kenny Colt, Lolita Gongora and Cody Loepke
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.
In reviewing Blue and Conundrum, I highlighted how they were the two clear contenders for top honours at this year's IFP Phoenix Breakout Challenge. Both would have been worthy winners and both are films that will surely be screened often at local festivals, starting with Jerome next month. I stand by that but don't want to give the impression that there were no other films worth seeing at this challenge. While I wouldn't dare to say that it was a particularly strong line up, many entries contained aspects worthy of note, while a few raised an eyebrow or a laugh (or both). However only a couple of others stood out as titles that are likely to have any sort of shelf life. I've already reviewed Running Wild's Belly of the Whale, a powerful film spoiled only by some poor choices towards the end; now I'm covering the other, Kenny Colt's Wrecked. This one certainly shows some seams, but it's also a mature piece that highlights a solid progression from often seen earlier pictures like Last Call and The Worst Best Man.

Put simply, it's the best thing I've seen him do; perhaps not coincidentally, it's the first straight dramatic picture I've seen him do too. Most of what I've caught thus far from either him or from Cody Loepke, his frequent collaborator (and co-writer and screen adversary here in Wrecked), is rooted in horror, comedy or both, but this one's a dramatic piece with a piano score and not a single line of dialogue. Everything we see plays out silently behind that piano, less concerned with building a traditional story and more about inviting us to interpret one from the visuals. While the movie is only five minutes long, there are two clear sides to it. The literal side shows us snapshots of truth, while happily letting us make faulty assumptions. The experimental side blurs that by providing us with the lead character's perceptions of truth that are flavoured through his experiences. Here, the background mostly disappears as the lead's attention shifts internally for him to look back at memories and forward at fantasies.

This lead is never given a name, credited only as 'unkempt man', and is played by Colt himself. Unkempt Man is clearly not having a great time of it, trying to lose himself in a heady cocktail of drink and despair from the outset. Why is the question of the day and the answer is one that we figure out gradually, as we come to understand both the truth and the perception. I was especially impressed by how thoughtfully the script was constructed, especially with such a short time in which to let things play out. Visually it's interesting too, a very cinematic piece that would be tough to translate into other media. Parts of it are reminiscent of stage performance, for instance, but the entire picture couldn't be staged without, well, wrecking it. The restrictions of the challenge format work to the film's benefit too, as it would have been easy to let this run on for longer but it wouldn't have helped. It's strong at five minutes, lean and mean and cinematically solid. The longer it ran, the more diluted it would have become.

The script is stronger than the cast or crew, but they're stepping up. No dialogue means that everyone has to sell their characters visually, which leads to things being a little overdone. Colt has to carry most of it, having by far the most screen time, and he's not bad, doing particularly well at sustained seething though a little less well at throwing a believable punch. He shows some subtlety in the final revelation too. The rest of the cast have less opportunity in the spotlight so find that they're only able to provide what the script calls for rather than elevating it with something more. On the technical side, the script proves more ambitious than the crew can quite deliver. They do give it a good shot and make it easy to get caught up in Unkempt Man's story, especially as Colt's editing is a strong point, but they can't quite wish away all the seams in the greenscreen, fight choreography and shakiness. Colt and Loepke keep on improving though and I'm buzzed to watch it happen.

Thursday 15 May 2014

Conundrum (2014)

Director: Kristin LaVanway
Stars: Bill Wetherill, Michelle Palermo, Daniel Blunck and Kristin LaVanway
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.
Usually at IFP Phoenix film challenges, regardless of the general quality of submissions, there's a clear winner. Star Babies and After the Beep were certainly that at Beat the Clock and Mystery Box this year, even if Long Way, the audience favourite at the latter, won the still more prestigious Best Arizona Short award at the Phoenix Film Festival. However, there was that rare creature, a tough call, at the Breakout challenge, with both Blue and Conundrum worthy of winning Best Picture; the fight went right down to the wire. In the end, they each went home with three awards, though Blue landed the two most sought after ones, Best Picture and Best Director, as well as a Best Actress nod for Colleen Hartnett. The most obvious win for Conundrum was Bill Wetherill's as Best Actor, but it also won for its sound design and it took home special recognition for Jason Ryan's cinematography. Had it won as the audience favourite, it would have justly moved on to the finals in place of the inferior Rigged, but sadly it didn't.

It's Wetherill we see from the outset, building himself up to the task at hand, which appears to be to rob the trailer in another man's back yard. Unfortunately for him, he's a clumsy soul and the man on whose land he's trespassing has a shotgun ready to aim. What we get is a showdown, a particularly tense one carried not only by Wetherill, who also wrote and produced, but by Daniel Blunck in support. These two work well together, very believably escalating a situation well into the danger zone, accompanied by a nicely timed set of police sirens. There's a back story, of course, to explain what led up to this point, and we're bounced capably back and forth between the past and the present. This editing isn't always as subtle as it could be, though there are some classy moments, but it all works as a whole and Michelle Palermo is decent enough in support in the flashback scenes for them to not break the tension of the showdown in the present. She's not up to the men's standards but her performance is still strong.

The two films are very different. Where Blue is slow, Conundrum is fast. Both are thoughtful films but in different ways: Conundrum overtly sets up a single moment, asking us in the process both what happens next and how it might have been avoided, while Blue more subtly aims at theme, not only letting us find the answers but the questions too. Conundrum is a very male film, with the female character in support, while Blue switches that round, a more feminine piece clearly focused on the female lead and with her husband playing support. However, there are similarities of note. Both are well written, with deceptively simple dialogue. Perhaps the best example here is a simple but pivotal line that arrives as the property owner recognises the man at whom he's aiming a gun. 'I know you,' is all he says, hardly great literature but highly appropriate for the moment and delivered by Blunck with just the right amount of hesitation and confusion. The characters are also delightfully nuanced, especially for such short films.

These two films ably highlight just what the Arizona film community is capable of nowadays, even when working under the restrictions of a film challenge. It isn't just about one good aspect any more, where a writer might write a great script or a director might bring something to life. Both these films are strong in a consistent manner, both in front of the camera and behind it. They both look good, though they have completely different styles. They both sound good, even though James Alire didn't work on either of them, an especially promising observation. They're especially well acted, an obvious commonality being the fact that both winners and some, if not all, of the supporting players being graduates of Kevin Phipps' Meisner program, which seems to produce the winners of every acting award in the valley these days. Most enjoyable to me is that there's depth to both scripts, the single facet that's perhaps fallen by the way most often over the last few years. The future is certainly bright.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Blue (2014)

Directors: Jae Staats and Jason Francois
Stars: Colleen Hartnett and Michael Hanelin
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
Still best known at IMDb for a feature that hasn't even been released yet, Colleen Hartnett is nonetheless fleshing out her filmography. When filmmakers were asked to stand up and be recognised at the Arizona Shorts set at this year's Phoenix Film Festival, she was representing no less than three selections: After the Beep, Blue and Star Babies. She had another, Perorities, accepted into the Home Grown Shorts set too, but as a director rather than an actor, making her clearly as versatile a lady as she is a busy one. If I dare to suggest that, played together, After the Beep is the best of these four films, I'm not denigrating the others, which are surely an impressive set. Blue is a strong picture too, which is why it racked up a few wins at the IFP Phoenix Breakout Challenge earlier this year, including one for Best Picture over the strong competition of Kristin LaVanway's Conundrum. Hartnett also picked up a far clearer win for Best Actress, by comparison a gimme as she was in a class of her own. Both won for the year too.

Ironically, because it did so well at this IFP Phoenix film challenge, it was directed by the folk behind the valley's other long running film challenge, the Almost Famous Film Festival, more usually known as A3F. Jae Staats is the founder, president and treasurer, while Jason Francois is his vice president, so between them, they pretty much are A3F. It's great to see these two events, surely the two largest generators of new short films in Arizona, connect and do so in such an impressive way. The flipside was that TJ Houle and Aaron Kes, the program directors at IFP Phoenix, contributed a film, Stolen Afternoon, to this year's A3F 48 hour challenge, landing in the top three for comedy and in the opinions of the audience. Clearly these local challenges are in capable hands, especially if I add that a couple of years ago Kes also made one of my favourite local films ever, La Lucha, before ascending from mere competitor to IFP staff. Let's see what 2015 will bring! It should be interesting.

Daring to choose between Blue and Conundrum is a tough and highly debatable call, as there are strong arguments for each film, but I'd nudge Blue ahead because of its depth and resonance. It appears to be very simple, merely following a couple whose relationship is falling apart to the point where it's going to break unless they can find a way to reconnect. Whether they actually do or not is teasingly up for grabs, but the film invites analysis and interpretation without ever obscuring the general flow, so this is a great choice to watch and then sit back and discuss at your favourite local bar or coffee house. You could start by pondering on just how far the title has its hooks into Alex Whitmer's script. There's a lot of blue here, starting with the mood at the breakfast table as Gavin and Alice eat their cereal. Most obviously, it's the colour of his bowl, as his OCD is offended by her not eating out of a matching one. Hers is white and it's clear that the ensuing argument is about a lot more than just crockery.

When Alice asks, 'You know we're talking about bowls, right?' Gavin is but she isn't. She's talking about them, the fact that their mismatch goes far beyond such a ridiculous detail. Their clothes take sides too; she's dressed in white, but he's wearing a blue shirt. Even his eyes are blue while hers aren't. This is the sort of film where we pay attention to that sort of thing. While the script soon focuses on Alice not Gavin, Michael Hanelin's supporting slot is especially haunting, one of his least ambiguous. 'You're not in this marriage any more,' he tells his partner. 'I don't know where you are.' The lines are believably banal, though deceptively so, but his delivery is what sells them, especially as his eyes back them up. Hanelin makes Gavin look completely lost, unable to fathom how they got to this point but also unable to figure out a way forward. When she asks him to, 'Do something, something that proves that you can see me,' his only response is to leave. And, of course, the focus shifts to Alice alone. And more blue, naturally.

Backed up from here only by the technical side, the neat transitions from Staats (wearing his editor hat), crisp cinematography from Joel Kaye and clean sound from Joe Chilcott, Blue becomes a Colleen Hartnett showcase all the way to the finalé. Already grounded as a character through a set of incisive responses and a mildly edgy show of sexual frustration, she gets stronger as a character even as she shows us her weaknesses. Of course she cries, because it wouldn't be a Colleen Hartnett picture without some tears (surely her tombstone will carry a teardrop and a glass of red wine along with her name), but what else she does will imprint this film over a number of others onto our retinae to compare future performances to. This is one of the strongest roles I've seen her play and I've seen plenty, many of which pair her with Hanelin, certainly the most consistently broken screen couple in local film. If there's a flaw, it's in how quickly it all ends, but that's excusable given the time limits of these competitions and hardly major.

Wednesday 7 May 2014

A Busy Day (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
At a first glance, A Busy Day isn't much at all. It's a split reel film, which means that it wasn't long enough to have its own reel so had to share one with another short subject. Clocking in at just under six minutes, it shared its reel with an educational short about the cartoonist Edmund Waller Gale called The Morning Papers. Six minutes might not sound like much, but given how much Chaplin crammed into his previous picture, Caught in the Rain, it ought to be more than enough to endow it with some substance. Sadly, he didn't endow this one with much of anything, just a love triangle with the unlikely form of Mack Swain in its centre and a sustained burst of slapstick violence. Most of the picture revolves around Swain's wife in search of her errant husband, beating up cops until she can find him and the new girl on his arm so she can beat them up too. If anything, that description makes the story sound too subtle, so perhaps I should rephrase using only words found in action bubbles on the Batman TV series. It's that blatant.

At a second glance, A Busy Day still isn't much, but there are things worthy of note. For a start, you may wonder which role Chaplin might be playing if we're watching two girls fight over Mack Swain. Well, he's the wife, Chaplin spending the entire picture in particularly garish drag. His outfit is outrageous enough that we can surely be thankful we can only watch it in black and white; if it was colorised, he might just look like he's playing a gay pride parade all by himself. Then again, I've seen many worse drag queens than Chaplin and not a one with the raw energy he brings to the table; he's like the Energizer Bunny in Doc Martens here. The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin suggests that it was one of Alice Davenport's dresses, but that book is not without its errors, so whether that's true is open to discussion. Whether it was or wasn't, it's certainly accessorised, the feathers on the hat valiantly remaining in place, at least until the end when they're surely ruined by a notable backflip off a pier into the ocean.

Talking of parades, this is another of those Keystone guerrilla shoots at an organised event, this parade accompanying the dedication ceremony for the expansion of the Los Angeles Harbor in Wilmington, CA. That may not sound too exciting, but there's a fair crowd, if apparently a smaller one than turned out for the Junior Vanderbilt Cup at which Keystone shot Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. That film is the obvious comparison here, not least because it's deliberately riffed on. Chaplin even hauls out some of the same moves to swan around in front of what might even be the same camera, this picture being shot a mere three months after the other one, even with a dozen other Chaplin pictures being made in between. We find ourselves in reminiscent territory quickly: the first intertitle explains that the unhappy couple have 'gathered to see the parade and hear the band play' but clearly Swain's interest is more in the girl with the come hither eyes next to him, so off they dash, leaving Chaplin to follow them into the parade.
As this happens, we can't fail to see both the similarities and the differences between this and Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. Both follow fictional characters at a real event and both start in the audience. The earlier film had the Little Tramp wander around in front of a movie camera annoying the men behind it, while this one has Charlie in drag do the same thing, merely a little more coquettishly. It's a deliberate homage and it's a fair one because it doesn't run on. Chasing her husband, Charlie just finds herself in the right place at the right time and preens herself in the spotlight, before being rudely moved on. The most notable difference is in the rest of the audience though. In the earlier film, folk were watching the races with a few wondering what the strange little tramp was doing, only to shift their attentions during the shooting of the picture. By the end they were watching him and laughing hard. Here, some of them obviously know who Charlie is from moment one and they're laughing in the very first frame.

While Charlie showing up in drag is surely the biggest surprise A Busy Day has to offer, another is that there's precious little of the event that the cameras came to capture. Perhaps the parade just wasn't as exciting as the soapbox derby in the earlier film, but we get nothing of the ceremony, very little of the parade and only a couple of other shots: one of some battleships and one of some small boats heading out into the harbour. For all the effort they made, they could have stayed home on the Keystone lot and shot most of the same thing. It's only the crowd that made the trip to Wilmington worth it; I'm sure they could have conjured up enough extras to flesh out a studio shoot, but we'd have recognised their faces. These folk look like regular Joes, almost all of them wearing hats but without outrageous facial hair. The ironic flipside to that observation is that we can't recognise one of the Keystone actors here: the young lady who conjures Swain away from his wife. Some sources say Phyllis Allen, but that doesn't ring true.

Without much of the event on offer, beyond the laughter of the crowd, and precious little story to capture our attention, we're stuck focused on the energetic action. It's simple slapstick stuff, more so than usual, as there are perhaps only three moves on show and one of them dominates. This is the one where one character puts their foot in the chest of another and pushes hard, so that they fly backwards, out of the frame and into a different one, where they fall over, usually with their legs in the air. It's not a new move, but its dominance here and the frequency by which its used make it seem like it's an Olympic sport and we're watching the highlight reel. Usually the dominant move in these 1914 pictures is the one where a character takes hold of another's face and pushes them over, but that's relegated to a rare spectacle in this one. Even rarer is that good old favourite, the kick in the ass, demonstrated on Chaplin in Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal, but here by Charlie on a cop. The police don't come out well in this picture.
As the title suggests, A Busy Day was shot in a single day: Saturday, 11th April, 1914, partway through the shoot for Caught in the Rain, which ran around it from the Tuesday to the Monday. Apparently, when an event cropped up on the calendar that could provide useful footage, a Keystone crew just loaded up and trucked out to shoot it. A few available actors were a bonus and, hey presto, Keystone had a movie with a fresh background that could fill up a slot in their delivery schedule. It didn't have to be any good, as we find here where sustained action is about all that makes up for the lack of almost anything else. There are precisely two reasons to watch A Busy Day and neither of them has a thing to do with the parade that half-heartedly provides a background. One is the sight of Charlie Chaplin leaping about in drag, sometimes quite literally; he even does the recognisable Ford Sterling leap before running at one point. The other is the sheer level of violence, which is strong and sustained.

Under normal circumstances, I'd suggest that this makes the picture play out like what 1914 audiences were discovering was called an animated cartoon. Like most things in the cinema, this began in France during the last decade of the previous century, but the first true character animation had only shown up a few months earlier, Gertie the Dinosaur's screen debut trailing Chaplin's by only six days. These aren't usual circumstances though, because Chaplin in drag is very reminiscent of an older character, namely Mr Punch (or, indeed, his wife). I'm used to watching early American films and not noticing the cultural connections as I'm English and don't share them, but Chaplin was English too and the Punch and Judy puppet show is a particularly English cultural event, even if its origins are in Italy with the commedia dell'arte of the 16th century. Punch and Judy shows have played in England since 1662, his traditional birthday being the 9th May, only two days after this film was released.

Could this be Chaplin's homage to Mr Punch? His character here is clearly outrageous and over the top, believably descended from the same trickster gods, so ladylike that she blows her nose on her dress. Mr Punch spent most of his time beating up his spouse and a constable, along with whichever other characters joined the highly changeable cast list of a show, and that's precisely what Chaplin does here, merely in the role of the wife not the husband. The most obvious other differences are that there's no baby to treat horribly and turn into sausages, but surely there are limits to slapstick comedies, and no crocodile either, but how they could have had that show up I have no idea. So what we have is what Chaplin could adapt from the Punch and Judy story to the framework of a one day Keystone reality shoot. I'd almost buy that the handle that breaks off the umbrella Charlie hits her husband with was deliberately done, but that's a stretch, I admit. I've heard worse explanations for this one, though, trust me.

Important Sources:
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

A Busy Day can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered. The full version will debut in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1 in July.

Tuesday 6 May 2014

The Last Responders (2013)

Director: Andrea M Magwood
Stars: James Ray, Kamilah Sheats, Raymond Scott, Rick Bell, Adam Abel, Colleen Balestreri, Debbie Overbey, Jim Coates, Sean Worsley and Aida Giurgianu

Here's an interesting one: a new local short in which what doesn't happen seems to be more important than what does. If I suggest that it revolves around a crime scene investigator dealing with the loss of an old partner while training up a new one, I'm sure you'll instantly imagine exactly what it'll look like. Well, you'll be wrong, as was I. This is not some cheap local take on CSI: Miami, thank goodness, though I bet that lead actor James Ray could do a capable impression of David Caruso's sunglasses pose if he has enough to drink. Drea Magwood, the writer, director and producer of the film worked in an ME's office for three years, albeit not in the field, so she's aware of what the people who really do this job are like. She quite clearly felt drawn to bring to the screen something that speaks to the reality of the work, which is neither magnetically glamorous nor incessantly gruesome. Unlike all the shows you've seen on TV, this one's most prominent component, quite refreshingly, is space.

The chillingly but appropriately named Death Investigator is Theodore Davis, played by an understated James Ray. As the picture begins he's at the memorial service for his former partner, Elise. In fact, as we quickly find in an evocative dolly shot backwards from the eulogising priest, he is the memorial service. The church is otherwise empty until Patricia Anderson, his new trainee, calls him out to a scene. Clearly Davis is strongly affected by his loss but Elise's death underpins everything. He's inherently surrounded by death because of his job, neatly highlighted by his working for the Chindi County ME's office, as Chindi translates roughly from the Navajo as 'death'. However, even while doing this, his mind is stuck trying to figure out this particular death and we're drawn into that. We're given few details as to how or why, just hints to be explained in the full feature that will include this short as a flashback sequence. The lack of details endows the film with a sense of mystery, one without a resolution, and that's a recurring theme.
We may be used to TV episodes where the case of the week is always wrapped up neatly before the last commercial break, but I found this far more believable. Who says the answers will always show up? Who says that the folk who attend the scene, bag up the body and drive it back for an autopsy will ever hear them? Even if they come up with good theories from the immediate information gathered, what's to say that they'll ever find out if they were right? The only thing they can be sure of is that there will soon be another scene with another body for them to attend and do their jobs. The scene we attend with them is a telling one. It's a man on the ground in a back yard, recognisably Sean Worsley from that shock of hair, and the professionalism immediately takes over. I can explain that we see photo taking, detail checking, fingerprint capturing, blood sampling, note scrawling, all the minutiae we might expect but that makes it all sound busy. It's the opposite: full of space, as these last responders quietly go about their business.

Many may well see this as a fault, but I relished in it. It's a simple scene: a dead body with a knife nearby in the grass. It's a banal suburban back yard, nothing flash. The sun is out, so light is good without a hint of neon to spice up the colour palette. There are no crazy characters crowding the scene, merely a softly spoken cop to welcome them. There's no clever banter as they work, just a believable back and forth as needed. The calm and thoughtful score by Robert Hutchison, Jr is repetitious and politely passive like it's background music to a puzzle game. The only excitement shows up with Debbie Overbey, as a distraught family member, prompting Davis to become literally a shoulder to cry on. And with their work done, they head to the van to finish up paperwork before returning to the office. I appreciated this sequence, mostly because it was so underplayed. Sure, a whole season of this sort of thing would be cancelled in a flash; reality shows are shows, not reality. For once, though, it's so refreshing to see it play out for real.

So I relished in the slow pace, the thoughtful music, the underplayed lead. I appreciated too the lack of resolution, the uneventful routine, the unanswered questions. To be honest, for that very reason, I might just end up preferring this short to the eventual feature, to be shot in 2015, that will bring at least some of those answers. James Ray is always believable playing trustworthy characters in authority and Death Investigator Davis is another one to add to his string. Kamilah Sheats and Raymond Scott back him up well, as does Jim Coates as the boss, but none have the screen time to establish themselves; perhaps in the feature. All that held me back was how technically deliberate it feels. Transitions between scenes, camera movements, choice of shots and the cuts between them are all appropriate, but carry a weight, as if the film was so carefully constructed that the moment is in danger of being lost. A picture with so much delicious space ought to feel looser. Reality isn't quite so reliable.

Monday 5 May 2014

Cujo (1983)

Director: Lewis Teague
Stars: Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Danny Pintauro, Ed Lauter and Christopher Stone
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.
I was an avid reader of horror fiction in the eighties, though I leant far more towards British gore novels than the psychological American books. In the UK, James Herbert had revitalised the genre at the same time Stephen King did in the States and the titles that made the difference, respectively The Rats and Carrie, were the ones that were promptly imitated. However, as I devoured the novels of Guy N Smith, Richard Laymon and Shaun Hutson, I still got to experience the novels of Stephen King, merely through their endless adaptations to the big screen. It seemed like every time he farted in public, someone felt the need to turn the result into a movie and they rapidly worked through his prolific bibliography. There was a point in the eighties, long before Frank Darabont arrived, where it felt like every King adaptation sucked. It isn't quite everything in between Carrie and Misery, because there's at least Stand by Me and The Shining in there but it's close. So experiencing his work by proxy didn't really endear me to it.

I first (and last) saw Cujo during that period on VHS and remember it as being as inconsequential as the rest of them, if not down at the level of a Maximum Overdrive or a Children of the Corn, but I was young at the time and should revisit it afresh as an adult. As I'm watching this time because it screened at this year's International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival with a live Q&A from lead actor Dee Wallace, I also took the time to catch up on her other iconic horror movies to take stock. What I discovered was that The Hills Have Eyes has lost a lot of its original punch while The Howling feels stronger than ever; that her talents are wasted in Critters, but utilised superbly in The Frighteners. What surprised me most is how differently she was used in each of these films: progressing from a nascent scream queen in The Hills Have Eyes to a strong and substantial lead in The Howling, only to be stuck in a pointless post-ET mum role in Critters but eventually resurgent in a neat subversion of what we might expect in The Frighteners.

So how does Cujo fit with these and how does Dee Wallace's role stack up against those others? Well, it's two years after she made herself really noticed by the horror community in The Howling and a year after her biggest film, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, which made her a star. It's too soon to count as part of the slide down to Critters and other less remembered pictures like Popcorn and Alligator II: The Mutation. Cast as Donna Trenton, the mum, as was already becoming her curse, it feels like she was still able to stretch the boundaries of such a role for the moment, as she's not 'merely' the mum that she was in Critters. It isn't long before we realise that Vic, her screen husband and the father of her screen son, is not played by her real life husband, Christopher Stone. He's Steve Kemp instead, the guy she's doing on the side. Perhaps for Steve, it made up for Vic destroying him each week at tennis. Perhaps for Wallace, the role appealed as being a little less wholesome than in ET. The bonus is that her cheating scenes were with her hubby.
Initially, it's played well enough, if obviously enough. It begins innocently with a fluffy bunny, then gets sinister as a large St Bernard chases it. It returns to cutesy as it becomes clear it'll never catch it, only to turn sinister once more as the dog sticks its head into a burrow, barks at the rabbit and sets off a colony of bats. One bites him on the nose and, hey presto, we have a movie. Of course, the dog is Cujo and the bat was carrying rabies, something that nobody in the film seems to actually notice until it's too late. I don't know about you, but if my large and much loved St Bernard wandered home with a large wound on his nose, I might just notice and keep an eye on him to see how he does. If I knew there were bats under my property, I'd have him into the vet for shots in a flash, if he hadn't had them already, of course. But that isn't what the Cambers do. Surprisingly, believability is not a big problem in this movie, as King built his internal consistency well and it wasn't lost in translation. There are certainly moments though.

Talking of moments, there's a telling one soon into the film, because it sets itself up capably. Donna and Vic have a son, Tad, who's at the point where he's conquering fear just to run from his light switch to his bed. This is far more important than the inevitable opening of the closet door, ensuing scream and visit from the parents; it's all to build up to a line from Vic. 'There are no real monsters,' he tells his son, a key line because of where we're going. He's soon going to meet a real monster, though we don't require any text at the end of the film to realise that Cujo is never a monster through his own volition. The poor dog fights his infection valiantly and successfully avoids hurting at least one person he cares about, though it's a losing battle, of course. This rare sympathy that we have for the monster in a horror movie does a lot to elevate the picture, but it's nowhere near enough. There are other components more important to add into the mix too and Cujo just doesn't have all of those.
Two things leapt out at me thematically. One is that it's a very American story, by which I mean that it's populated not only by American characters but by quintessentially American characters; we could easily call them archetypes. Vic is as American as apple pie, as the saying goes. He's an advertising executive, which sixties sitcoms told us was the best profession, while his wife stays home and takes care of their son and the house. It's a big house in a small town with a white fence around it (albeit not a picket fence) and the green of the country surrounding them. They're a two vehicle family: he drives a red sports car, while hers is a more traditional yellow hatchback to carry Tad and the groceries. The people they interact with are small town archetypes too, from the mechanic who's too busy with old work to take on new to the mailman who sends Vic to a really good one outside of town. Of course the cracks are showing. Both the Trentons' cars are in need of repair and, clearly, so is their marriage.

The other theme is trust. Vic and his partner Roger built a particular ad campaign for Sharp Cereal that's all we see on TV, but a mass panic breaks out as a red dye problem causes customers to believe they're bleeding internally. Vic highlights how they made kids trust the cereal's spokesman, the Professor, only to let them down. His wife is betraying his trust by screwing around on him, even though she freely admits he's a great husband. Surely they can trust the school Tad attends but, when Donna picks him up, he has a cut on his head. He fell off the swing, he says, and he may well be telling the truth, but we're doubting everything at this point. Of course, the same thing applies to Cujo. We're set up to trust the huge lovable beast that adores kids, but he turns into a sort of four legged slasher. All these archetypes scream out to be trusted, like a Norman Rockwell painting, but we're being shown the underbelly or the dark side, why nobody can be trusted. Think about it a little and you'll realise that it's a very pessimistic story.

I might have appreciated that more if the characters were well defined but, however much the actors try to flesh them out, we really only see the bones. We're shown two families, the Trentons and the Cambers, who are the owners of Cujo, but every member of each is shallow without any background provided to explain their actions. Donna's cheating on Vic, but we aren't given any reasons why; all we know is that she is. Similarly, Charity is scared of her husband, Joe Camber, the mechanic to whom Vic takes his car, but we aren't told why, just shown that she is. We can guess, of course, but we aren't given anything to really build that guess on. So Joe's a great mechanic but a poor human being? So Donna's sleeping with another man but wants to stop? So what? Without background to build their character motivations, what we really have is just a set of stage directions that empty the stage by the midpoint. It's only then that what we all remember about Cujo actually begins: the siege of Donna's Pinto by a rabid St Bernard.
By the halfway mark, almost everyone in the already sparsely populated cast has left the film, either by car, lottery ticket or rabid jaws. The second half begins as our memories might have expected the whole film to begin, with Dee Wallace driving that yellow hatchback up to Joe Camber's place to be fixed, with only her son and her sweat moustache for company. Cujo's there as soon as they arrive, ready to try to climb through their windows or scramble through the windscreen, and so the siege begins. If it took far too long to get to this point, at least some great cinematography shows up with the tension. There's a wonderful shot of the car, with a slow pan back to first emphasise its isolation and then to highlight that Cujo is watching, ending by moving around the dog from the back to the front to demonstrate just how scarily far the rabies has progressed. The cinematographer was Jan de Bont, a talented and experienced Dutchman over a decade before he would become the director of action flicks like Speed and Twister.

The second half is much better than the first, though it's inevitably sparse. Fortunately the time is spent with the three characters we care about most. Donna is a cheating wife but she has at least stopped the affair and owned up. Dee Wallace sells that and makes us care; the frustrating lack of background is the script's fault not hers. Tad is an innocent already trying to deal with fear, only to find himself caught in a terrifying ordeal. Danny Pintauro, only six years old at the time, fills the role superbly, especially powerful when he's scared, as he is for much of the second half. His seizures are very believable indeed, down to the fact that he did bite Wallace's fingers during one of them, prompting a very real reaction. Of course, then there's Cujo, in the form of five different St Bernards, along with one Rottweiler, a mechanical head and an actor in a dog costume. Cujo is believable too, even if he does wag his tail a little too often. The make up works and the scares are very impressive. The catch is that there aren't that many of them.

The film did well at the box office, ending up the fourth highest grossing horror movie of 1983, although it's not really a horror movie. The first half is drama and the second half a thriller, though it's even more of a riff on a theme without any real substance to give a foot up to what could have been. Reviews were mixed at the time and haven't got any better since because it needed to be much more than it ever was. There are some solid acting performances, especially but not only from Wallace and Pintauro, who went on to be a regular on Who's the Boss? In fact, most of the cast are better known for television work than films, only Wallace and Ed Lauter primarily remembered for movies. The one thing the film did right was to fix the ending of King's novel, which he himself wishes he'd have written differently. Unfortunately, it makes it right only to promptly add another scene that's just a pointless cliché. So my memories weren't too far off. It's better than Maximum Overdrive and Children of the Corn, but that doesn't make it great.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Caught in the Rain (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain and Alice Davenport
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
Looking back with a century of hindsight, we know that Charlie Chaplin was one of the most versatile of the world's filmmakers. Biographer David Robinson wrote that, 'If he could have done so, Chaplin would have played every role' and, in a way he did, acting them all out for his actors to imitate. His great films, years away from being made at this point, highlight this ambition well. Beyond starring in City Lights or Modern Times, for example, he also wrote, produced, directed, co-edited and composed the scores. From 1918 to 1952, he shot all his films at the Charlie Chaplin Studios, where he could take as long as he liked and break from production for as long as he wanted. Distribution from 1923 to 1952 was through United Artists, a studio which he had co-founded in 1919 and still co-owned. Rich enough to work only when the muse struck him or his notorious perfectionism drove him, he became the template and the epitome of the sort of filmmaker that the French critics would name an auteur.

When he started at Keystone Studios in 1914, of course, none of this was the case. He tried and failed to persuade his directors to change things, but they either couldn't or wouldn't understand what he aimed to do. Only with the spat that followed his refusal to follow direction from Mabel Normand while shooting Mabel at the Wheel did he get the opportunity to put his money where his mouth was, literally, and have the sort of control he wanted. Studio head Mack Sennett saw the money coming in from Chaplin's acting and decided to allow him some more creative freedom. This new trust wasn't immediate but moved him towards what he wanted over a couple of pictures. He got to sit in the director's chair for Twenty Minutes of Love, though Joseph Maddern did too. He wrote Caught in a Cabaret, but Normand directed. Only here could he finally play the roles of writer, director and lead actor on the same film, without having to share any of them. As such, it's one of the most important pictures of his career, if not one of his best.

Jeffrey Vance highlights how it's 'not an ambitious effort' by detailing how it 'draws upon past successes'. He's absolutely right about the latter, but I'd happily debate the former a little. It's clearly not ambitious in the risk-taking sort of way, but the overriding impression I got from Caught in the Rain is that Chaplin threw everything but the kitchen sink into the picture. It's like a compilation of everything Keystone did, not only what Chaplin did for Keystone but what anyone did for Keystone, with every ounce of fat taken off the bones and then the bones made to dance for the Little Tramp. In a way, it's Chaplin's idea of the ultimate Keystone stew, based entirely on the ingredients he'd seen thrown into the pot during the four months he'd spent at the studio, including those that he'd brought with him from the vaudeville stage. Once that heady stew was brewed to what he saw as perfection, he added a few new little spices he felt might add to the mix. With hindsight, those are the tasty bits in a lively, but very familiar, old dish.
Because there are so many ingredients, it's a challenge to provide a succinct recipe. It begins in the park, as so many silent comedies do, whether Chaplin's, Keystone's or both. Mack Swain and Alice Davenport are a married couple, but while he's off buying a box of chocolates for her, Charlie gets in between them by cosying up to her, albeit not without her invitation. This sets up a spat between the couple which runs through the entire film. There are some capable gags and stunts here, though Davenport rather obviously sets up the one with the rose. There's nothing new here, except perhaps the appearance of the character of Ambrose, which Swain would go on to play for seven years. He isn't credited as such, as there were no credits to these early Keystone films, but I can't find an official debut for the character and this one plays consistently with the ones he'd play under that name starting later in 1914, often partnered with Chester Conklin as Walrus. The moustache seems the same and who can argue with Keystone facial hair?

With the park out of the way, Charlie naturally finds a bar, as he so frequently did. Any excuse for him to play the drunk once more was a good excuse at Keystone and this is little more than an excuse. We don't see him get drunk, just drag himself by the ear into the bar, then stagger out again, through a swinging door, to emphatically light his match on a policeman's jacket. By this point, we're checking off Keystone tropes as those of us paying attention have seen all of these moves before. What's new can be found in the editing, which is a far more sophisticated creature here than I'm used to seeing in Keystone pictures. What would normally be long, slow scenes are cut down into quicker, shorter ones. They're crosscut too so that for much of the picture we see two different stories unfolding alternately. The result of these two approaches is that this is a one reel film that contains material enough to fill two or three. Such careful editing speeds up the pace to play so quickly that it causes havoc with taking notes.

So we've played in the park and Charlie's got drunk, so it's no surprise to find that we promptly shift to a hotel. The next discernable segment unfolds in a hotel lobby, as did the long opening scene in Mabel's Strange Predicament, the first time the world saw what Chaplin could really do. The bulk of this hotel lobby scene is one of the centrepieces of the film, as the 'tipsy hotel guest' turns everyone in a peaceful room into participants in a slapstick routine that runs a short forty seconds. It's relatively simple and, to be fair, the choreography is obvious, but it's handled superbly nonetheless. These folk merely want to go upstairs. Charlie tries it at a run but slides back down again. If one can fail, so can two and four and then, with everyone sober safely out of the way, Charlie can fail once more solo just to highlight how this is all about him. This centerpiece is a good microcosm of the film as a whole. Everything here has been done before, but it's executed well and so quickly that we can hardly blink before we're onto something else.
Of course with the downstairs scene wrapped up, now we shift to the upstairs scene. As you'll recall from Mabel's Strange Predicament, and any number of other Keystone comedies set in hotels, this means a lot of slapstick situation comedy where people end up in the wrong rooms. Chaplin doesn't merely have one character sleepwalk for a while, he has two: first himself, maybe more in a daze than a sleepwalk proper but the effects are identical, then the wife he tried to flirt with at the beginning. Of course this couple are staying in the very same hotel on the other side of the hallway. No coincidences are too outrageous for a slapstick short! You can write most of these scenes yourself, but Chaplin does add some neat touches to them too. One has the couple pause their bickering momentarily as the maid brings in a pitcher of water, then resume full force as she leaves. Another involves the set up for the final Keystone must: thrown out of the window onto the balcony, Charlie is mistaken by a trigger happy passing cop for a burglar.

Enter the Keystone Kops, who have never moved so fast in their lives because the editing has become so fast paced that we can hardly keep up with the progressions. As I pause to take a breath, I wonder what I might have neglected to mark off the Keystone checklist. Charlie leaving the bar is almost hit by a car, so falls down in the road, the scene over so quickly that if you blink, you might just miss it. There's a strong scene that has Charlie undress for bed, in his cups throughout but in gradually fewer clothes. He wipes his boots with his cravat and his forehead with his collar, all while trying but failing not to fall onto and off of the bed. The Little Tramp isn't living on the streets here but he's still not doing particularly well. A neat touch has him stop at his socks, as there isn't enough of them to remove, and put a boot under his pillow. When Davenport sleepwalks into his room and tries to pick his pocket, he has his trousers join the boot. Another neat touch has him try to open a door with a cigarette, always a handy prop for the Little Tramp.

It's often said that Keystone shorts never had scripts but Simon Louvish included examples of what they did have in his book, Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett. It's clear that they were scripts of sorts. They're almost stream of consciousness lists of gags, but structured with stage directions in prose that outline what needed to be shot. Before Chaplin, these work well as synopses of the films they would become, but they don't work that way for Chaplin's pictures as he added something less tangible to the mix; they miss his nuances of personality that make us laugh even between traditional gags. This would surely have one of the longest synopses of any Keystone one reeler, because it could easily be seen as a 'greatest hits of Keystone' sort of picture, merely with all new footage. However those old hits aren't what resonate, it's those little moments that Chaplin was adding: the ear, the pause, the socks. To hindsight, his point is clear, but how much it became so in 1914 this project still aims to discover.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Simon Louvish - Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett (2003)
David Robinson - Chaplin: His Life and Art (1985)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Caught in the Rain can be watched for free at YouTube.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered. The full version will debut in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1 in July.

Saturday 3 May 2014

Foster, You're Dead (2013)

Director: Kyle Gerkin
Stars: Jake Moss, Michael Hanelin, Shellie Ulrich, Colleen Hartnett, Michael Coleman and John Hartnett
This month's Running Wild review brought a whole slew of surprises with it. I was surprised to realise it's a science fiction film, perhaps a first for this prolific production company, even if it's of the sort that has no spaceships, aliens or ray guns; their genre material leans towards noir, with some 52 Films/52 Weeks entries dipping their toes in horror. I was surprised to find that it's adapted from a short story by Philip K Dick, as I haven't read it. Worse still, I don't own it. I only have three of the five volumes of his Collected Stories and I'm missing the third, The Father-Thing, which contains this. Just to rub my nose in it, it's also in the new editions of volume two, Second Variety, naturally the other one that I'm missing. It was first published in the third of Frederik Pohl's long-running paperback anthology series Star Science Fiction Stories, though my copies only start at number twenty. Its copyright renewal notice references the May 1955 issue of Worlds of If, but my British editions don't start until 1960. Clearly my library is lacking.

The reason that Running Wild can adapt Philip K Dick, the well known source for Hollywood blockbusters like Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report, is that this story is in the public domain, yet another surprise. Apparently, while the renewal notice references that Worlds of If issue, it isn't actually in it, so negating the copyright. This surprise generates another one, namely that if most of Dick's stories from 1952 to 1963 are in the public domain today, as SFF Audio have researched, why are low budget film production companies not adapting these easily filmed stories more often. Dick wrote science fiction, but his work often doesn't require effects. His best stories were less about extrapolating the future by subtly changing a detail of the world we live in and more about highlighting that existing detail in an odd and insightful way that invariably rings truer over time. This 1955 story explored consumerism and Cold War paranoia but it works as well looking at terrorism, security theatre, school shootings and vendor lock-in.

Another welcome surprise is that it's over 25 minutes long, which means it doesn't have to skimp on its treatment. The only catch is that, while it grabs us well, it refuses to escalate its pace, so that it's a little slow at points. It opens strongly, if we discount my initial misunderstanding of fifth grader Mike Foster's dazed look in class. I thought he was daydreaming about Mrs Cummings, because what twelve year old wouldn't lust after Colleen Hartnett with her hair in a severe bun, but he's really just anxious because of how out of place he's becoming in a patriotic and militaristic United States. He isn't doing well in knife design or breath suspension classes, but he could surely get over those limitations if only his dad wasn't an anti-P. That's the tough hurdle. Being an anti-P means that they don't support the Defence Fund and they don't even own a gun. Mrs Cummings is shocked at the discovery. 'How are you going to defend yourself,' she asks, 'when there's an attack?' Note the 'when' not 'if' in that sentence.
As with each of the entries in Running Wild's 52 Films/52 Weeks project, this is not merely an adaptation from the public domain, it's a translation to contemporary times, though I have a feeling that they didn't have to change much here. Dick wrote the original story after reading a newspaper headline. Apparently, the President, presumably Eisenhower given the timeframe, had 'suggested that if Americans had to buy their bomb shelters, rather than being provided with them by the government, they'd take better care of them, an idea which made me furious. Logically, each of us should own a submarine, a jet fighter, and so forth.' So the original story focused on bomb shelters, turned into commodities by the military industrial complex and upgraded each year. To feel more timely, this adaptation focuses instead on guns, powerful assault rifles that otherwise follow the same path. Mike's dad refuses to buy into this lock-in for rational reasons, which has made him and the family un-American pariahs in their community.

Just like another gift to low budget filmmakers, Ray Bradbury's The Pedestrian, it means that we watch a character who is normal to us, suffer in a world that looks like ours but differs only in the extrapolation of something that already exists for us. In The Pedestrian, a writer is sentenced to psychiatric treatment for walking and being a writer, now deviant behaviour when everyone else is perpetually glued to their TV screens. In Foster, You're Dead!, Mike Foster has become ostracised by other kids because he belongs to an American family which doesn't own a gun, a concept they can't understand in their fear of imminent terrorist attack. While some, especially those of us born outside the US, have trouble grasping America's love affair with the second Amendment, it's a fact that there are towns where ownership of a firearm is already mandated by law. Kennesaw, GA is one example, with an exemption in the ordinance for those 'who conscientiously oppose maintaining firearms'. This story could easily have been set there.

Probably the biggest success of the film is the casting of Jake Moss as Mike Foster. Given that the story revolves around him rather than his father, it would fail if Moss wasn't up to the task. Fortunately he is, though I don't believe I've seen him in anything else before this. We see his frustration, not only in his words but in the silences that underline his inability to even own up to why he feels so out of place. The kid just wants to belong but he finds that he can't, not because of anything he is or does but because of what his dad believes. Every one of us surely remembers the power of peer pressure in school, so must see how tough Mike's situation is, even if it shouldn't be. In 1955, when Dick's story was published, the obvious equivalent to 'anti-P' was 'Communist'. As The Harvard Crimson wrote, 'In the fifties, the most effective sanction was terror' and 'Without a chance to clear his name, a witness would suddenly find himself without friends and without a job.' Clearly Mike's father isn't going to stand up for long.
While Moss is excellent as Mike Foster, the remaining key cast members, all capable Running Wild stock players, surprisingly can't back him up as emphatically as is needed. Michael Hanelin is capable as Bob Foster, his dad, the decision maker who he surely sees as the root cause of his problems, but he's not as emphatic or ideological as he should have been. Bob rationally rejects what everyone else accepts as a way for other people to make money, very reminiscent today in Microsoft lock-in or the peer pressure of iPhone upgrades, but even agreeing with everything he said, I didn't buy that he'd back it to the degree that he apparently has. Similarly, while Shellie Ulrich glares magnificently as his similarly isolated wife, her inevitable explosion is nowhere near as cathartic as I know she can deliver. The ever-reliable Michael Coleman is much too nice as the salesman at the Fosters' local gun shop, as he dearly needed a slimier edge. Only John Hartnett really found the right note to play in the smallest of these supporting roles.

It isn't Travis Mills calling the shots this time round, for a change. During 2013, while he concentrated on the 52 Films/52 Weeks project, he encouraged others to direct Running Wild films. Most prolific and most successful, given how After the Beep has done, is Kyle Gerkin, whose input Mills suggests I didn't cover enough last time I reviewed one of his films. He's right, because I didn't call out quite how effectively he made Belly of the Whale. That film built wonderfully with a great sense of place and feeling of tension that was unfortunately wiped out by some bad decisions at the end. The sad thing is that what he did so well in that film, which I didn't highlight, he didn't do anywhere near as well here. What's most ironic is that I found the frequently back and forth camera distractingly weak, when After the Beep was so utterly magnetic without a single camera movement. It's ironic too that I'm highlighting Gerkin here in what is surely the weakest of the three films of his that I've seen, though it was his debut as a director.

While he brought tough directorial decisions to After the Beep and consistently strong vision to Belly of the Whale, his biggest contribution here was his script, along with, presumably, the choice of source to adapt it from. As my rambling suggests, I adore the idea that a local production company working on a microbudget can bring a Philip K Dick story to the screen and Running Wild's successful track record of adapting public domain stories to contemporary settings makes it the perfect choice. Gerkin's script is solid, neatly updating Cold War antiquities to fresh modern equivalents. The opening classroom scene does everything it should, but it struggles to keep its passion alive. This should have been a biting film, but it relies too much on the audience finding its own particular engagement. I've seen Hanelin, Ulrich and Coleman blister both on stage and on film. They needed to blister here too and Gerkin needed to make them. It's a worthy script but it aches for a more passionate telling.

Foster, You're Dead can be viewed for free on Vimeo.