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.


Unknown said...

Thanks Hal for the review. We had an awesome team for this project, and everybody put in a lot of hard work to make a film we are all really proud of. We appreciate your feedback and are pleased that our you enjoyed our film (even though you liked Blue just a little bit better :)...)

Daniel Blunck said...

Very rewarding to read such a positive review, as Conundrum was my first film. Thank you for the review, Hal.