Monday 28 July 2014

Love a la Carte (2014)

Director: Tim McSpadden
Stars: Aaron Ginn-Forsberg, Chauna Mae, James Ray and Kimber Leigh
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.
Whenever I review a film, I try to figure out what it's trying to tell me because there's usually something burning to get out, whether the movie is successful or not. From the various synopses I'd read of Love a la Carte, I expected it to tell me something about relationships, but it seemed far more driven to tell me about the man who made it, Tim McSpadden. He wrote, directed, produced, edited and shot the film, took care of the sound and even found a small role for himself on screen too, so clearly it's his baby, for good or bad, and it's no stretch to imagine that he put a lot of himself into it. I've only met him a time or two in passing, so don't know him, but this film screams at me that he has a strong sense of humour, but tries too hard to make sure we're aware of that, and that he has a more severe case of ADHD than I do. Both of these aspects are noticeable immediately and constantly reaffirm themselves as the film runs on. I'm not sure how many breaths I took during the hour and a half but I doubt it was enough. It's a busy picture!

Initially, it feels like an interesting approach. We're given a rapid fire history of sex, from sexual freedom to crabs, from Nancy Reagan as president to Al Gore inventing the internet, before we meet Phil Anders and his wife Evelyn, all in what feels like seconds. The editing is breakneck, the narration quirky and the really cheesy credits in Comic Sans, for God's sake, with animated gifs to boot. Much of it appears to be shot like a commercial. Or a cartoon. Or both. It gleefully breaks the fourth wall. It would surely break the fifth if only it could find it. And I find myself talking. With periods. I need to take a breath and calm down. What's important to note is that this initial sequence sets the stage for the film proper, because it's rapid fire stuff, leaping around like a shoal of blue fish and with a host of innovative ways to present material. There are discussions here that take place on the road with apparently deliberately awful rear projection, set up that way for stylistic effect. McSpadden likes stylistic effect and showcases a variety of it here.

While the French girl can't act, the leads are all decent. I've seen Aaron Ginn-Forsberg in a whole slew of films but I don't remember seeing him tasked with carrying a feature before. I learned two things about him here: that he's insanely good at playing a self-absorbed ass and that he looks Scandinavian with a beard. He's well cast as Phil Anders. I've never seen his screen wife before, but Chauna Mae does a fair job as Evelyn, hindered by her character being both tough and tired. They've been married for a dozen years, she's coming up on forty and she's very aware of both of those facts. Their relationship hasn't gone quite the way she expected, even if they live in a dream of a mansion. Their staircase is sprawling, their windows huge. They have a pool. And a bar. And a lobby that's bigger than my house. I'd buy that place for a dollar! I remember this house coming up on the market and drooling at the online images. I can't buy these two remotely affording it, even if they smuggled illegals through the west wing.
As if McSpadden worried that we might start looking at this relationship somewhat seriously, he enforces a lower tone. I think we're supposed to laugh at the inappropriateness of many scenes, like the one where Phil goes to the doctor for a prostate exam and the doctor lights up a cigarette after retrieving his fist. It's all about sex, apparently. Phil needs to have more of it or he'll get blue balls, but his better half is always tired. So, he wonders what he can do about the situation and the answers he conjures up are the ones a man going through a midlife crisis would conjure up. This is where James Ray comes in, looking odd with hair. He's Phil's best friend, though we continually wonder how they get on. Phil wants to screw everyone with legs and Gene tries to talk him out of it. He's less a friend and more of a conscience, but Ray carries the sincerity angle easily so isn't stretched at all here. Unfortunately for him, this is a cynical movie that's looking for truth. That's as easy as finding a marriage counsellor who isn't divorced, right?

The answer, as the title of the film suggests, is Love a la Carte, a website for 'people stuck in relationship quagmires.' By the way, the most surprising moment of the entire film for me was McSpadden not using the word 'giggety' immediately after introducing this website. Instead, he distracted himself by showing us every landmark in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Every talking point in the city is here, from the light rail to the LOVE statue at the Art Museum to the funnel art thing downtown to the bridge over the Tempe mud pond. With Saturn in the sky? Huh? Oh hey, the Bookmans book maze. Even the corner in Winslow, AZ. Monument Valley. The horse ride at Glendale Glitters. I lost track. And yes, that was Saturn. I have no idea what the point of that was, but I enjoyed the stylistic shenanigans that arrived with the website. His pitch to Love a la Carte takes the form of a political speech ('Yes, you can have it all!') and his first dates through it are phrased as a nature documentary. McSpadden certainly has imagination in bucketloads.

Eventually Phil meets Angela Heavens, played by Kimber Leigh, through Love a la Carte, and we wonder who we're supposed to care about in this movie, while McSpadden attempts to distract us with a karaoke version of the theme song. Phil has charm, but we've been firmly introduced to who he really is. 'Who am I to deny these women me?' he asks us. No, we're not with you, dude, even before you turned into Overly Confident Midlife Crisis Idiot. Kimber Leigh is one of the nicest people on the planet, so we automatically want to care about her character, but Angela is also married with kids and screwing around on the side with no regrets whatsoever. Sure, Phil seems to connect far better with Angela than he does with his wife, but we're neither rooting for adultery nor wanting anyone to get back with anyone. In another picture, this might have been the start of a beautiful friendship, but that's clearly not where we're going. All we can assume is that things are going to go horribly wrong somehow, which somehow we want to see.
I'd heard a lot of bad things about Love a la Carte and I can see why, because it's never quite sure what it wants to be. Much of it goes too far, the tone of the comedy never staying consistent. While I laughed out loud at some scenes, there are a whole bunch of supposedly funny ADHD moments that just aren't funny at all. Many of the little gimmicky ideas thrown into the movie like confetti might have been hilarious half a dozen pints into a night, but don't stand up the morning after. Many are ill-advised, adding nothing but a 'Huh?' reaction; Saturn above the Mill Ave bridge is a great example of something that looks really cool but makes no sense at all; the internet meme conversation and the mountie led evacuation fit the same bill. The more insightful parts of the film aren't particularly insightful, while the juvenile scenes are, well, juvenile. The character names we read in the credits are thankfully not brought out within the movie, for the most part. The political bits fall flat. Yes, there's a lot of negative here.

The positive side is grounded in the actors, but I have to admire the relentlessness of the piece, the way that McSpadden kept layering on the humour. The leads do find their way through mostly successfully, though they do struggle with a few of their more dubious lines. It's a very dialogue heavy picture, which these actors have no trouble with. Aaron Ginn-Forsberg does very well, able to find most of Phil's angles, even if they made no sense. This is a great demo reel for him and it highlights how he should play leads more often. Chauna Mae was decent but her role had her play bored, tired and blasé for most of the film, which doesn't allow her to be magnetic. James Ray was fine but he had very little to do. While he played what might be the only sympathetic character in the film, Gene is notably one dimensional. Kimber Leigh impressed too, showing a little more of herself than I expected. Like the others though, Angela is mostly just a prop for Phil to bounce off. And is that four roles for Gary Herkimer? He's only credited with three.

I can see an audience for Love a la Carte, even if that audience isn't me. While many films aim at being cinematic paintings, McSpadden aimed this film at being a cinematic collage. It's far from your average romcom, but while it phrases itself as a meditation on relationships, it's less about the relationships and more about the meditation. It's the sort of feature a decent cast on Whose Line is It Anyway? might have improvised if given the right set of props in the right order. I didn't connect with any of the characters or the choices they made and really don't buy how they all wrap up in the end, but I enjoyed a lot of how it all went down. There's a section devoted to Evelyn Anders that shows up just as we're really wondering where the film is going and it plays so closely to a visualisation of a therapy session that we realise that the picture as a whole does something very similar. I wonder if this is a film to come alive only after the director's commentary track explains where all the elements of the collage came from.

Sunday 27 July 2014

Catastrophe (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: David Chan, Ron Bowen, Jim Robertson and John Miller
The fourth picture in the 52 Films in 52 Weeks project continued Running Wild's initial backward journey into time. They started in 1904 with The Sisters and proceeded slowly back through 1896 to 1890, then took a particularly ambitious leap all the way back to 1834 for a Nathaniel Hawthorne story which was originally titled Mr Higginbotham's Catastrophe. It's a particularly interesting entry into the project for a few reasons, the most obvious being that the title proved prophetic. The first of two days allocated for shooting were hammered by rain, not as unusual as you might expect for Arizona, given that late July is monsoon season, but enough to prompt writer/director Travis Mills to improvise some way to salvage his film. Under usual circumstances, he could have merely delayed the shoot but that simply isn't possible when locked into such an ambitious shooting schedule as he'd set up for Running Wild Films in 2013, so he was forced to make the most of it. He ended up turning Catastrophe into a silent movie.

Another interesting angle is that Mr Higginbotham's Catastrophe is a deceptively complex short story, an easy one to adapt to the modern day but a tricky one to get right in all three of its themes. Mills captures a couple of them capably but decides to avoid the third entirely in this adaptation; I'd have liked to have seen it addressed, but do agree that it wasn't viable in a short film that runs just shy of ten minutes. Like Useless Beauty, there's a lot more story than he was able to cram into his running time but, unlike it, he focuses more on that story than the acting, even if we imagine that the rain never forced them to remain silent, so we can actually hear what they have to say. Only David Chan gets much screen time, the rest of the cast taking the roles of talking props far more than characters. Perhaps it's the rain that causes me to see these last two pictures differently. I'd have liked to have seen more to Useless Beauty, but I feel that Mills made the film he wanted to make; I'd like to see him remake this one at greater length.

Rewatching the 52 Films in 52 Weeks pictures immediately after reading the short stories from which they were adapted has been an eye-opener from a writing perspective. Mills's approach mostly seems to be to distil each story down to its theme and then build it back up again in modern day Arizona with characters and situations that feel like contemporary equivalents. So here, Mr Higginbotham, who owns one of those surnames that would prompt jokes in 21st century Arizona, becomes simply Mr Higgins, but what we hear about him stays rather similar. You see, this really isn't about him as he only shows up for the finalé; it's about a rumour that's spreading about him, heard and retold by the lead character. In Hawthorne's story, an ill-looking traveller informs a tobacco-pedler that Mr Higginbotham was murdered the night before. In Mills's adaptation, an agreeably wide-eyed and grizzled stranger tells a fellow itinerant that Mr Higgins was murdered the night before. In each take, the story promptly gains a life of its own.
The most obvious theme of that story is the way that such rumours spread, something that remains very familiar to us today. Sure, in 1834 they would have propagated through people like Dominicus Pike, that tobacco-pedler who trusts what he's told and carries it with him on his journeys. In 2014, they would find new ears far quicker, travelling not by foot but by text and tweet or at least by Facebook post. Hawthorne would probably be horrified to know that, a century and a half after he wrote this, we've finally invented a word to describe this sort of escalation; today we'd call it viral. Mills eschews the technological angle, but I'd be fascinated to see this story retold again but centered around teenage girls and the communication media du jour. Merely updating travelling salesmen and wanderers to homeless people is a simpler, more direct translation and it works well, but what's most interesting to me is that Mills directed more attention to the second of Hawthorne's themes, that of prejudice.

The racial aspect of the source story might not be immediately obvious to anyone reading it today or, at least, not grasped fully. The traveller tells Pike that, 'Old Mr Higginbotham of Kimballton was murdered in his orchard at eight o'clock last night by an Irishman and a nigger.' We might concentrate on the political incorrectness of the latter but in the rural America of 1834, a century and a half before 'African American' was adopted, it was a common term, usually inferring inferiority more than signifying hate. What's more, Irishmen were seen in just as negative a light; Monika Elbert, editor of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, wrote about how the story 'played to anti-Irish sentiment.' The traveller had his reasons for what he said, which this film avoids, but it has to be said that casting his villains as 'an Irishman and a nigger' made it more readily believed. Mills updates the villains to be two Mexican punks, but Michael Hanelin's casting allows the theme to build: the lead is clearly Asian and the only legitimate authority is African American. The mob of extras is notably multi-ethnic, strikingly different from the usual lynching we see in westerns.
Had Mills not found himself painted into a corner by surprising Arizona weather, I feel that he would have done more still with each of these angles. They warranted more running time to be fully explored and I'm sure that at least some of that restriction was due to the rain. I wonder if he ignored the third and last of Hawthorne's themes deliberately or whether that was forced upon him too. It's a combination of karma, irony and a mild sense of the supernatural; it brings the source story to a memorable close but doesn't get the opportunity here because this adaptation is played straight. While I particularly appreciated the performance of David Chan as Barney, the 'wanderer' whose heart is in the right place but whose mouth does a lot more than he expects, I didn't like his final shot at all. Acting isn't a problem here; Ron Bowen is perfect as the source of the rumour, while Jim Robertson looks agreeably affected when Barney passes the news on to him. Chan excepted, the actors merely get very little to do.

The technical side is more inconsistent; that the circumstances of production were surely behind some of the less successful aspects doesn't excuse them. Bizarrely channelling Yoda, Mills explained in the weekly webcast that accompanied this project that, 'It's a gamble, filmmaking is.' The rain's first victim was the sound, prompting this movie to become silent. It plays surprisingly well, though I wonder why Mills didn't go all the way and make it black and white too; he did for Useless Beauty. As a silent movie, there should have been less intertitles; they interrupt the flow of the visuals and, while some of the dialogue would be appropriate for a sound film, it should have been ditched for the silent version. The camerawork survived the rain, the handheld camera providing a little sense of urgency without ever descending into shakycam nonsense. It should have been longer, but survives without all the meat it should have had on its bones. Mills feared that Catastrophe would be a catastrophe; it isn't, it just isn't everything it could have been.

Monday 21 July 2014

Malediction (2007)

Director: Kevin R Phipps
Stars: Eric Parks, Mike DeCamp, Catherine Urbanek, Catherine Pilafis and Alexi Melvin
According to IMDb, Kevin R Phipps is most widely regarded for being the director of Grief, even though it hasn't been released yet. Certainly it's one of the most keenly anticipated local features for many years, given the great cast and trailer, not to mention the parties Rangelo Productions have put on; someone is doing something very right in the publicity department. What's ironic is that while Phipps is highlighted as being known for directing a feature that nobody's even seen yet, it won't be his first. In and amongst the various pictures that he's worked on under various different hats, there was another feature, 2007's Malediction. Why he isn't more widely regarded for directing a feature that's been released, played two festivals, the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival and the Phoenix Fear Fest, and won the Audience Favourite award at the latter, is a good question, but IMDb doesn't even list it. Then again, it's only been reviewed once, by Jim McLennan at Trash City, which uncoincidentally runs Fear Fest.

Features that show up early in careers tend to be problematic and this one is no different, but it's still an agreeable picture. The seams are obvious from moment one, at least once we find ourselves in daylight. The opening credits sequence is actually pretty strong, with an enticing use of sound to sucker us in. It's when that wraps up and we're shown two young adults, for want of a better phrase, paintballing a house for revenge, that those seams enforce their presence. The resolution isn't particularly great and there's a whole lot of interlacing going on. There's too much light and the sound needs work. However Sam Tolson points the camera in all the right directions, often from angles you wouldn't expect to see on a movie like this, and moves it in ways that prompt us to wonder if Malediction isn't going to be a much better picture than it technically warrants. What's more, the editing from Phipps himself backs it up, so it's much more likely to be the equipment that's lacking than the people wielding it.

The actors are clearly not experienced either so, while Eric Parks and Mike DeCamp are believably cast as decent kids with a rebellious streak, they can't draw us into the characters, instead coming off as decent kids with a rebellious streak playing decent kids with a rebellious streak. They try to be tough, especially in front of girls, but we can't resist wanting to give them a hug. Parks is Jason Cooke, a stubborn young man who's externalising strength after suffering at the hands of his father, now replaced by a nicer guy who's easier to say no to in increasingly lame ways. It's Jason's movie, however much he initially seems to be the quiet guy walking firmly in his more outgoing friend's shadow. That's Van Gerlach, DeCamp's character, who's taller, easier going and better at talking people into doing things that they probably shouldn't be doing. The thing that they shouldn't be doing that we're here to see is something that Jason drives though, albeit for no apparent reason. Maybe it's just something he has to do to take control back.
What we're here to see is #1229, a neighbourhood house newly vacated by a family who had only just moved in. Little Rodney says the place is haunted, so Jason takes Van and their maybe girlfriends, Sarah and Emily, in through a window that night for a closer look. The script, written by Bill Barnes and Kevin Hankins, unfolds slowly and, as delivered by inexperienced actors, often in awkward fashion, but it's here that the film gifts us with a pair of neat horror moments, both of them ambitious for a film whose budget is notable more for what it doesn't have than what it does and both of them successful. First is a camera movement, which shows up as the score finds a memorable Italian horror chord; simply watching a door, it pulls back through Jason's legs to rise ominously behind him, tentatively peek over his shoulder and be ready for him to turn his head and show his profile. The other is a transition, which kicks in after he walks through that door and somehow finds himself elsewhere, with a girl rising to cough blood in his face.

Of course, whenever a movie does something really right, it often turns right round and counters it with something rather wrong. This one throws out a plot convenience, as Jason's reaction to the girl involves him elbowing a hole in the wall, in the precise spot that covers a videotape covered in dried blood, and then follows it up with what Jim McLennan appropriately described as clumsiness. It's a long time since I was sixteen, or however old these kids are supposed to be, but I know for a fact that sleep would not be priority one on my agenda if I'd just discovered a bloody videotape walled up in a haunted house. Screw sleep, I'd be throwing that tape on the very moment I got home! The catch is that if Jason had done that, almost exactly half an hour in, he'd have disposed of the need to work through the next two thirds of the movie because all his questions would have been answered, even the ones he hasn't got round to asking yet. Such a promising film deserved better than these two down points.

With the answers tantalisingly close but ignored for the sake of making this a feature rather than a long short film, we get to explore the supernatural angle that has been hinted at a few times. Sarah woke up early in the film imagining that she was covered in blood, perhaps in a similar way to Jason imagining a girl coughing blood on him; we've already visited a supposedly haunted house, so we know we're going to see freaky things; and rumour suggests Mrs Delarosa at school is a witch and not only because weird questions are her favourite kind. She's into psychometry, which means she can touch an object to pull history from it, a talent that's been useful when she's lent it to police investigations. Laura Durant is the only actor I recognised in this cast and she's a cut above the rest as Mrs Delarosa, with a neat sense of humour that Jason fails to grasp. Asking her about the house, she gives him a book, Communicating with the Beyond. 'It's been looking for a new owner,' she tells him. 'I believe it's you.'
Once grounded, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the rest of the plot, which carries very little in the way of surprises. The only thing that really surprised me was how sidelined Van became as things ran on; while Mike DeCamp grins far too much to be the lead, he's the one kid with charisma. While Van rarely does anything to move things along and the story continually angles towards Jason, it's DeCamp who grabs our attention whenever he's on screen. Parks struggles to keep our attention as Jason, though he does get better as his character is given more to actually do and DeCamp's scenestealing antics are sidelined, but he has to work at it. He's better in his more respectful scenes, but he gets increasingly annoying whenever Jason decides to get pissy, as he often does. Catherine Urbanek isn't bad as Sarah, whose role is also built up as the film runs on, but she's very much in the same category as Parks rather than DeCamp: decent when she's the focus of attention but unfortunately unable to be that too often.

The progression is capable enough and the effects work by Gabriel Espinoza is solid but we can't forget the videotape; it's clearly the key to it all but it's annoyingly ignored. Instead we get to wander through the usual scenes, wondering less about what they'll achieve and more about when they'll give up clawing at clues and let us sit down and watch the frickin' tape. A more experienced cast in a more aware script might be able to distract us, but this isn't that movie. The leads are the kids, who have trouble holding our attention, especially when DeCamp gets sidelined; the adults are firmly relegated to supporting roles, serving to move things along at key points rather than bring in any sense of character. Mrs Delarosa is by far the most substantial and Durant is one of the saving graces of the second and third acts. Perhaps less known for her actual acting than for the resources she's provided to the local acting community over the last decade, she's still given life to a number of interesting characters, this being a worthy addition.

As if to highlight that there's a decent film ready to erupt from the stifled script and stifled performances of Malediction, it comes good at the end. The finalé is by far the best part of the picture, even if it's less about what happens and more about how it goes down; when we finally reach the point where we figure out what happened in #1229, Phipps hits us with it from a number of perspectives all at once, a powerful way to wrap up a promising but generally unfulfilling film. It underlines that there was a lot of vision here, sadly far more than could ever have been brought to life by the resources they had to work with, whether human or mechanical. Clearly this is a beginning film, one to set people on the road to bigger and better things. I'm not too surprised to find that the actors did little, if anything, else, while Phipps went on to far more substantial budgets, but I'm surprised to not find Sam Tolson's name on anything else; maybe it's a pseudonym. Now, when will IMDb let this festival award winner be added to allow due credit?

Saturday 19 July 2014

Useless Beauty (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Jonathan Medina, Keylor Leigh and Michael Hanelin
It feels to me that Travis Mills chose a story like Useless Beauty very deliberately for his third entry in the 52 Films in 52 Weeks series. It's a bulkier creature, for a start. The original story by French author Guy de Maupassant has a word count half as long again as The Sisters and The Kiss combined and this modern adaptation does likewise; its running time of over fourteen minutes outstrips the ten that The Sisters and The Kiss ran between them. Yet it's also a far more focused story, with a smaller cast of characters than either of its predecessors; only two characters, a well to do couple, dominate the story, with another pair showing up in the third act to wax philosophical about the lady's beauty from a distance; Mills combines the latter into a single neighbour and wisely drops all that pontification. This approach means that the majority of the film belongs to Jonathan Medina and Keylor Leigh, who are given the opportunity to act, something that the casts of The Sisters and The Kiss mostly didn't get.

Useless Beauty was originally published in French in 1890 and, while it's forward looking, it reflects very much on attitudes of the time. The lead couple are the Count and Countess de Mascaret, aristocrats who begin the story by ordering their driver to take them in their horse-drawn carriage from their mansion to ride down the Bois de Boulogne. Their drive, however, takes a sinister turn. The Countess politely rails at her husband for caging her in motherhood, the seven children she bore him in eleven years functioning as his means of control, blocking her from achieving her social ambition. Even as she lets out her anger, he's still in charge, being the man in the relationship, so she finds a way to wrest that control from him, taking him to a church and swearing before God that one of those seven was not his. She won't tell him which and the lack of knowing torments him for years until we reach the final scenes and find the truth. Or maybe not. De Maupassant leaves his ending open for interpretation, as Mills so often does.

In adapting this nineteenth century French morality tale to 21st century Arizona, Mills changes up quite a bit. The Count and Countess become a multi-racial couple, Randy and Judy; Medina is of Hispanic blood and he'd look pretty crazy with 'a big red beard', while Leigh is a young African American lady with frizzy hair and a stud in her nose. Judy has just discovered that she's pregnant with her fourth child, short of the seven the Countess had carried. While I had sympathy for the Count, whose faults may only appear so to our position of hindsight after a century of moral progression, Medina plays Randy as an outspoken male chauvinist pig. Interestingly, Mills shot this one in black and white, with enough contrast that it's difficult to tell where Judy's hair ends and their couch begins, perhaps highlighting how to Randy she's literally become part of the furniture. While the Count uses lines like 'you belong to me' and physical strength to emphasise his position as master, he's not as offensive as Randy, who has all the lines you'd expect.
You know the ones: if she didn't want another kid, she should have used protection; if he gets mad, it'll be her fault; he won't be responsible for his actions. Even talking to his neighbour, Bobby, played by Michael Hanelin with a restrained look of astonishment, he highlights how he will have to suffer through the next nine months, never wondering what she'll be going through. He'd rather not do that. He doesn't want her thinking about being a supermodel, going back to school or getting up on stage and singing. He'd rather she stay at home and look after the kids, not that she's great with them but because, 'She's not good for much else.' He even repeats that slur for emphasis. And thus far, although we do wonder why, she's put up with it. She's let him berate her and turn her chin with his fingers; she's given him the kiss he wanted as the cost of getting out of the car. All this time, she's been only half there; she's been looking inward, perhaps searching her soul, perhaps drumming up the courage to speak, perhaps both.

And indoors she finally does, responding to a stream of misogynistic invective with a strong monologue of her own that seizes the reins of the relationship. Leigh's diction is strong, but she doesn't match it with physicality, which is an interesting approach. This could easily have become a battle of gestures; Medina certainly uses a few. Instead she stays relatively still and relatively calm, still looking inside but starting to let out what she wants to say. Certainly she's past fearing a response and, in fact, may even push for one. In de Maupassant's story, we never know if the Countess is telling the truth or not. Did she cheat on her husband to father another man's son, or was she lying to him? The point, of course, is that it doesn't matter, that her action gives her control over her life for the first time. Mills never mentions the concept of lying in his adaptation, but we do wonder if Judy is telling the truth or not. Given that we're a century on from de Maupassant's Paris, there are easy methods of finding that out.

I feel that in simplifying this part of the story, Mills lost some of the depth of the original. Judy's victory is an important one and it's a good way to end this short film, but it's a weaker and surely a shorter victory than the one that the Countess obtains. 'At least I'd thrown one punch in my life,' Judy explains to Randy, as if she knows that she hasn't taken control, she's just shaken his. The unanswered question is whether she'll pursue more control in the future or just return to the yoke of motherhood. Maybe she'll eventually reach the seven that the Countess had. She does firmly strip away any romance that might still exist in their relationship, backed by a quiet romantic piano that plays in a particularly ironic key. The Countess achieved far more than Judy and, in doing so, raises a question that I'll ask over and over in my reviews of these films. In adapting these stories to a modern setting, does Mills achieve what they did, in part or in full? I feel that he added a level to The Kiss but lost one in Useless Beauty by stopping too short.

Sunday 13 July 2014

Blood Ink: The Tavalou Tales (2013)

Director: Irin 'Iroc' Daniels
Stars: Tony Kure, Greg Tap, Izzy Escobedo, WIlliam Conner, Jenelle Lee Vela, Rudy Torres, Robert Clinkscales Jr and Emory Parker
The first time I saw Blood Ink: The Tavalou Tales, I knew I had to see it again because it apparently said a lot but did so in such a confusing way that my first viewing was spoiled. Initially I couldn't figure out who I was supposed to be watching, who the focus of the film was supposed to be, but that's because there are four leads here, each with their own subplot. There are many features that take this approach, setting up a host of different, seemingly unrelated story strands, that, over time, make their connections apparent and merge into one overriding story. What sets this aside from all such films that I've seen is that each of its various subplots appears to belong to a different genre. I have no doubt that Blood Ink is the greatest urban, gangster, hip hop, drugs, inspirational, thriller, paedophile, serial killer, horror, ghost story that I've ever seen, but then it's still in a category of one. The driving force behind the film, Irin 'Iroc' Daniels, highly regarded Phoenix rapper, calls it a 'paranormal Crash', but that's really just the beginning.

The complexity of the connections between characters is one of the high points. Daniels, who wrote the script with assistance from Miguel Gonzalez and Christopher Sheffield, told the Phoenix New Times that it 'really plays into the idea of six degrees of separation' and the frequency in which characters bump into each other, sometimes quite literally, is cleverly structured, especially as they do so even at points when their subplots haven't yet connected. The sheer number of these characters is a less successful aspect, as it's often tough to keep track of who everyone is. Certainly a second viewing helps immensely, but I'm still unsure as to who a bunch of these people are because either they weren't introduced by name or I blinked at that moment and missed it. Perhaps the complexity was too much for the running time; Crash ran 112 minutes, while this is two minutes shy of an hour and a half. Mostly, though, I think that problem is rooted in the editing, which is so fast paced that it's easy to get distracted and lose track.

That's evident from the very outset, when we meet two of the four central characters in the story. They're at a gas station and one realises that he's left his wallet somewhere so bums some change off the other. This scene runs a mere 45 seconds but it includes 16 cuts and this sort of thing continues for most of the film, especially the first half. It's vastly overdone and is frequently annoying. Every now and again, a shot is held for more than a couple of seconds at a time and we have to wonder if Daniels dropped off at the editing table. Fortunately the characters themselves are much less annoying and they're a notably varied bunch. Izzy Escobedo impresses as he earns his first credit as the initial lead character, Augustine; while his acting does show his inexperience, he's very believable as an ex-con who's trying to go straight and regain custody of his young daughter, who's stuck in the foster system. He's especially believable as a tattoo artist because he is one, working at the very studio he works at here, Dark Chapel in Mesa.
He's doing well until he's shot dead relatively early on in the film by a gangster because he has the gall to respond to insults by kicking him out of his shop. Greg Tap also debuts here and does better still in a role that calls for him to be perpetually pissed off at the world, possibly because his character's mother called him Louise instead of Luis. We're annoyed at him mostly, esé, because of how stereotypical, bro, his dialogue gets, homes. These conversations feel improvised and, to be honest, may well be realistic for all I know, but still seem as scarily overdone as the editing. Occasionally the profanity takes over too, in particularly stressful situations like when one of his crew is shot during a convenience store robbery, and he starts sounding like he's in a bad blaxploitation flick. It's after that that he hauls his lieutenants over to Dark Chapel to get matching tattoos of their fallen brother and two of the four strands of story connect. These two dominate the first half of the film and underpin the rest.

The least substantial strand is perhaps the most memorable, because Bill Connor looks freaky with his long beard as the silent protagonist of the third subplot. The film's website calls him James, but I don't believe I caught his name mentioned once in the actual picture, just as I don't believe he utters a single word throughout, even though he's by far the most experienced of the lead actors. He's a notably scary dude here, often shot in such a way that he looks notably bigger than his 5'11". We can only guess as to exactly what James's thing is, but he certainly kidnaps little girls; whether he's a paedophile or just a serial killer is up for grabs, but he's clearly bad in an utterly different way to the many other bad people we've seen thus far. He's also white, unlike a majority of the cast. Surprisingly, racial issues aren't really touched on here, even with such a wide and diverse multicultural cast of characters. Most of the violence is contained within each ethnic group and rarely spreads beyond it.

The fourth plot strand centres on John Corbin, who works at a record label. He's a big bubbly ladies' man and actor Tony Kure has an air of the young Forrest Whitaker about him. He's the least important of the leads for a long time, only to start to take over after the halfway mark. Technically he's the first character we see, as he's the one who lends money to Augustine at the gas station, but that good deed comes back to haunt him, literally, after a bad one. Driving while distracted by ladies on the phone, he runs over a little girl in the street and just as Karma stalks Louise and his henchmen, Guilt starts to eat away at John. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how Augustine's story connects to James's, but John finds his strand stuck in between them in some of the most overtly paranormal scenes of the film. The morality outlined does seem a little contradictory; we're given a few polemics against revenge, all while most of the characters we see are happily seeking it. Corbin is the only character who feels torn.
Backing up these four leads are a whole host of supporting actors, a few of whom are recognisable faces in the local film scene but most of whom were probably sourced from the communities interested in the idea of a hip hop movie made in Phoenix. Iroc Daniels has been a major figure in the local hip hop scene for a long time and I'm sure he knows everyone who's worth knowing. Far from the small casts and crews of most local pictures, he's suggested that over five hundred people worked on this one and that's very believable. While the action on screen is predominantly devoted to conflict, this whole project feels like the epitome of collaboration: a sprawling story with a multi-ethnic cast, most of whom are not regulars in the local film scene, and a huge crew. This is precisely the sort of picture that falls apart in the hands of someone who's never made one before, but Daniels held it together until completion and he deserves a great deal of credit for doing that.

The biggest problem with the supporting cast begins with how many of them there are and, by extension, how little screen time they get. Most of them fade into the background, often blurring together in clumps, but some manage to make their presence known. Barbie MacBride is by far the the best of them, playing a sort of crazy old gypsy woman who is really the physical manifestation of Karma. Christopher Sheffield, who contributed to the story, gets the brief role of a cop and makes the most of it. The little girl John hits with his car also manages to make herself memorable before that happens. Unfortunately there just isn't enough running time to give everyone their moment in the spotlight, so characters who might have had a presence in a longer picture are shoehorned in to play their part and then whisked away again, such as the pair of New Age lesbians who knock on James's door to introduce themselves because they've moved into his neighbourhood. They deserved more screen time.

At the end of the day, this is a good film but it fails to be a great one for a few reasons. It's too complex for its length, causing confusion, especially on a first viewing where we don't notice a lot. The editing is massively overdone, causing more confusion, even on a second viewing. The lead actors are impressive for people who mostly aren't really actors, but they're not impressive enough for us to overlook that fact. Connor knows exactly what he's doing, but I'd like to see Escobedo, Tap and especially Kure act again in something a little less stereotypical for their looks. Hilariously, some of the more wooden performances were given by some the actors I recognise. Technically it's a solid production, with the exception of that editing, which was done by Daniels himself. As if trying to counter the number of people who worked on the film, he wrote it, directed it, produced it, edited it, shot it and scored it himself. In five of those hats, he was decent, but in the sixth far less so. Maybe he'll be less enthusiastic on that front next time.

Thursday 10 July 2014

The Kiss (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Renee Bryant, Troy Reeves, Sarah Lovell and Michael Coleman
After a safe opening entry into his 52 Films in 52 Weeks project, writer/director Travis Mills opened up his ambition a little for the second. It's The Kiss, ostensibly based on a short story by Kate Chopin, which was first published in Vogue in 1895, and it feels like a safe story too, as it's really short, only just breaking a thousand words, and it's relatively straightforward in its outlook. Mills's adaptation is also short, running a mere four minutes, but he changes much more than just the timeframe and he adds a heavy dose of that ambiguity that he's so fond of. He retains almost nothing from that original story, merely the setting of a scene around a wedding and, of course, the kiss of the title that is at the centre of both stories; otherwise it's completely unrecognisable. Inevitably the updating of century old material to contemporary settings prompts changes but that doesn't apply here because Chopin's story is notably timeless. In fact it almost describes a concept which didn't obtain a name for another twenty years, the 'gold-digger'.

I much prefer Mills's script to Chopin's short story, though perhaps it's simply because I'm a man. Chopin was an influential feminist and The Kiss revolves around a young lady who gets precisely what she wants, even though the kiss of the title temporarily scuppers her chances at the prize. She wants to get married, to the rich young man who is awkwardly courting her, for a particularly mercenary reason. As she puts it, 'The rather insignificant and unattractive Brantain was enormously rich; and she liked and required the entourage which wealth could give her.' She's about to land this big fish when another man waltzes into her house and plants an 'ardent, lingering kiss upon her lips' which would have done for her chances if she wasn't such a 'outspoken' young lady. In other words, Nathalie is modern enough to marry for money, modern enough to make it happen, even after a cog has been thrown into her machinations, and modern enough after it's done to try to keep the millionaire and the hurler of the cog both.

If any of this is there in Mills's adaptation, it's because we've brought it with us from our homework. None of it would appear to be there otherwise, because he doesn't give us any background detail to tell us why the young bride at the heart of his story got married. Maybe she's a gold-digger like Nathalie, but nothing tells us that. We can certainly see that her husband isn't a passionate man and there's nothing to suggest that she loves him, but there are a hundred reasons to get married and she could easily just be distracted by the chaos of a big wedding. We can believe from Renee Bryant's face that her character isn't sure of her decision, but she doesn't drive the story as Mills presents it. In fact, nobody drives anything except the complete stranger played by Michael Coleman who isn't given a name, a reason or any dialogue. He walks past their table on a restaurant patio, stops to kiss her completely out of the blue and then waltzes off down the road. He exists in this film only to deliver the kiss of the title and set up our story.
And because Mills avoids giving us any background, we have to find a point of reference somewhere else and the only place viable is Renee Bryant's face. She underplays her role from the outset, because she's playing someone reciting an anecdote to a friend while distracted by all the shiny at a wedding fair, so I can buy her lack of engagement (no pun intended). But when she's kissed, she has a new focus and we have to figure out why. There are two ways I can read this film and neither of them follow the original story. The literal one is that she's kissed by a stranger, whose unexpected moment of passion focuses her thoughts and makes her wonder about the commitment she's about to make. That's hardly a feminist approach as it puts her firmly out of control. The alternative I keep coming back to is the one that gives her control, in which she imagines the whole encounter as a mild fantasy to replace the passion her husband is missing in spades. Certainly when he reappears, it's because she conjured him up again.

Michael Hanelin will surely be happy that he's not the only actor tasked with playing ambiguous roles at Running Wild, but I wonder which way Renee Bryant read her character. Everything revolves around that kiss, which she doesn't fight. The last shot of the film shows her face wide open, resonating a whole host of emotions all at once, and it's the one moment in the film that she's alive. It would be easy to denigrate her lack of engagement, if only it wasn't the right choice for the picture. Staying distracted throughout, but ending up with wide eyes, is far more appropriate. The acting generally is certainly more consistent than it was in The Sisters, but these are far from the sort of outstanding performances we know Mills can conjure out of his actors. Mostly I think they did what they needed to; it's just that their characters play second fiddle to the story. There are feminist takes to this, but then the deliberate lack of background makes many readings possible. I firmly feel that the woman isn't in charge here though; the writer is.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Laughing Gas (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Star: Charlie Chaplin
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.
However Chaplin experts decide to divide up his early pictures into sections, and there are more than a few ways to do that when over half of them are clearly a first something or other, we can't avoid this one being a pivotal moment of change, possibly the most important one after his first picture and his first as the Little Tramp. His first twenty shorts were directed by a variety of directors and written by a variety of writers, with the size and quality of Chaplin's off-screen contributions open to debate. He did contribute to his films from the beginning but often not much and what he did bring to the table didn't necessarily make it into the finished product. It took him a dozen films to get the chance to sit in the director's chair, on Twenty Minutes of Love, but he had to share that honour with Joseph Maddern. He flew solo on short number fourteen, Caught in the Rain, but then Mack Sennett stepped in to direct the next half a dozen. From Laughing Gas on though, he would never be directed by anyone else on a short film again.

Already established as an actor and screen comedian, this could be seen as his coming of age picture as a filmmaker, appropriately given that it was his 21st. Credits here start to mirror what we might expect of a Chaplin film, or at least they would if Keystone pictures had credits in 1914. It was directed by Chaplin, written by Chaplin and starring Chaplin, with nobody else really getting much of a look in. The cast does include Mack Swain and Slim Summerville, both regular names at Keystone, but they're in minor roles, as indeed is everyone else. Having played second fiddle in his last three pictures, once to Roscoe Arbuckle and twice to Mabel Normand, there's no mistaking who the star of this movie is, from the very moment Chaplin, in familiar tramp attire, swaggers into Dr Pain's dental surgery and exudes authority, taking off his hat and gloves as if he expects a servant to put them away for him. Surely he's Dr Pain himself! No, that's just a setup; Chaplin is playing with us from moment one.

It turns out that he's merely an assistant and not the only one either, as there's another in the back room waiting for him. I'm not sure quite what this fellow is supposed to be, but if it wasn't for a prominent and strong moustache, I wouldn't have said he'd made it to his teenage years yet. Chaplin wasn't a tall man, only a mere 5' 5", but he towers over his fellow assistant by a foot or so. Either the actor, who seems to be a Joseph Sutherland in possibly his only film appearance, was of seriously diminutive height (though perfectly proportioned with it) or he's really a young lad transparently pretending to be an adult for some reason or other that is never explained. Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems strange in the cruel days of slapstick that Keystone would not take advantage of attributes so apparent and work them into the script. Physical uniqueness was always highlighted; that's why actors like Arbuckle, Summerville and Swain were so important to the studio: as fat, thin and large actors respectively.
Whatever the explanation, we're certainly kept on the hop as Laughing Gas gets moving and get moving we do. While the camera is still a static creature and the editing hardly imaginative, this is a smooth ride throughout. Even when chaos erupts towards the end, as was almost compulsory at this point in time, we watch it unfold in a smooth and controlled manner. While the worst jumps in 1914 pictures tend to be due to poor quality public domain prints with frames or even reels missing, watching the remastered versions of Chaplin's Keystone films highlights that sometimes jumps were there all along because editing wasn't close to being the art that it would become. I wonder how much of this was due to Chaplin, who talked in his autobiography about the 'primary rules', that 'if one exited right from a scene, one came in left in the next scene' and so on. He mentions these before philosophy about camera placement that he learned as he went, so he's treating these as gimmes. Yet his earlier films don't always follow those gimmes.

That's not to suggest that there aren't technical difficulties even here, because there are. Dr Pain's lobby was constructed cheaply even for a Keystone set, because the books are clearly painted onto what aims to pass for a bookcase and so is the mantel clock on top of it. The Rasputin beard on one patient is more outrageously fake than even the norm at this studio which was renowned for its fake facial hair. However, there's less to obviously stand out as problematic here and more that just moves on so smoothly that we wonder why this wasn't regular for Keystone up until this point. Even Chaplin's moves are clearly getting slicker, his famous stagger as he rounds a corner or bounces to a stop is better and used more here than previously. The inevitable pratfalls as people push others over are handled efficiently, even when there's a foot difference between assistants. Sutherland does well to push Chaplin over, just as Chaplin does well not to castrate the much taller Mack Swain when kicking him in the belly.

Eventually the real dentist shows up, of course, in the form of German-born Fritz Schade in a top hat and monocle and with the overdone acting style that might suggest. This was his first Chaplin picture, though he'd show up in eight of the remaining fifteen. He had a presence to him that lent itself to certain types, but even a quick glance at the variety of roles he racked up between 1913 and 1918 show that he was a versatile addition to the Keystone roster. It's here that we get down to the sort of dental shenanigans we might have expected from the outset. I expected a lot more of this than we get, as the story is a restless creature that constantly adds new elements without forgetting what it is. Chaplin's script is much more ambitious than the one he wrote for Caught in the Rain; that felt like a frantic sprint through every stock situation he'd seen by that point, while this is a more controlled stride through scenarios familiar or not. The familiar sections are generally the more manic ones, while the sensitive ones feel newer.
What's more, Caught in the Rain was a very traditional picture in that the inspirations were all taken from previous films. Here, there's a lot more, as Jeffrey Vance highlights in Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema. One key influence was a vaudeville sketch named 'The Dentist' that Chaplin knew well from his time on stage with Fred Karno, though he never performed it himself. Of course even this was far from original; as Vance points out, 'dentistry and tooth extraction have been a source of humor since the commedia dell'arte.' A further influence was personal, as Chaplin apparently had a bee in his bonnet about dentists; in his later years, his family struggled to get him to visit them. These sources, combined with more traditional movie slapstick and ideas that earlier directors might have jettisoned, show that Chaplin was far more confident in his writing than he was only a couple of months earlier when writing Caught in the Rain. Of course, this bodes well for the films he was yet to make at Keystone; let's see how much he grows before he leaves.

The best moments in the film are the ones that revolve around women, unsurprisingly from what we now know about Chaplin's predilections. Sure, he has fun knocking people over and stepping over them, and he gets a good scene with an anesthetised patient and a mallet, initially using it to wake him up and then to knock him back out again, but it's the scenes with girls that shine the brightest. One sees him follow a pretty woman on the street, who he doesn't yet know is his boss's wife, only to slip and rip her dress off on the steps to a building. Alice Howell shines in this physical role, making it no shock to find that Stan Laurel called her one of the ten greatest screen comediennes. Another has Charlie flirting up a storm with a patient played by Helen Carruthers, whose 21 films in 1914 and 1915 include a dozen with Chaplin. He uses an dental extraction tool on her nose to turn her head towards his so he can steal a peck or two. It's a huge contrast with the scene where he uses it for its intended purpose, naturally with much violence.

This is still formative Chaplin, but it may well mark the point where he starts to benefit from a little more creative freedom than he had experienced previously. There's certainly some classic Charlie in here, just packed in tight with more traditional blatant material. Even there I wonder about how some of that was shot. There have been brick throwing battles in a bunch of Chaplin's earlier films, but as brutal as those scenes often are, we don't tend to see blood or damage. Here, with only two bricks thrown, we get teeth conspicuously knocked out of two different faces. Sure, it's a short set in a dentist's office, but still, it's a new edge to an old gag and when you work through whole batches of Keystone pictures, a new edge is always a good edge because the repetition can be mind-numbing. For all its faults, this feels somewhat refreshing. Perhaps that's underlined by the scene with Charlie on top of a patient in the chair, yanking a tooth out with force. It's the most expected scene in the movie, but here it's merely a minor moment.
Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Laughing Gas 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 August.

Monday 7 July 2014

Death Factory (2002)

Director: Brad Sykes
Stars: Lisa Jay, Karla Zamudio, Jeff Ryan, David Kalamus, Rhoda Jordan, Jason Flowers, Ron Jeremy and Tiffany Shepis
It's about time I saw this film, which was, at least at one point, the best selling title on the Brain Damage catalogue. Somehow I've never got round to it, though I've seen its sequel a few times, most memorably at Phoenix Fear Fest back in 2008, and it's still a guilty pleasure of mine. Unfortunately the imagination of the sequel isn't matched by the original, which is a thoroughly routine slasher with one saving grace, the rather unique monster, which was the only element Sean Tretta rendered far more conventional when he revisited this picture with his sequel, The Death Factory Bloodletting in 2008. In that film, she was played by Michelle Mousel as a young lady in a hot outfit apparently built out of leather straps, with sharp teeth and sharp metal claws attached to her fingers. Here, she's a demonic Goth chick with clown white make up and she's played by Tiffany Shepis early in her career. Her teeth are just as sharp but the metalwork on her hands is far less stylish and more grounded in freaky and unwieldy wired medical contraptions.

Her back story is by far the most interesting part about the script, which is otherwise stunningly routine. She was formerly Alexa, a young factory worker at Dyson Chemical, who made chemical weapons on the outskirts of town and did it poorly enough that she was exposed to a radioactive spill. Dyson denied all responsibility, no doubt because everything they were doing was completely illegal, and just wanted to cover the whole thing up, but she mutated into this freakily original creature and returned to the factory to wreak her vengeance. '24 people, all brutally butchered... and they never found the killer,' explains one character as a sort of fireside story that, in a horror movie like this, naturally turns out to be true, if surrounded by the inconsistency that riddles the script. Apparently people die all the time in this factory but nobody has been there for years. Try to correlate all these details and you'll send yourself insane. You just won't look anywhere near as cool as Shepis while you do so.

None of the rest of the cast look as cool as Shepis either. They're the sort of actors you might expect to be playing characters in a movie like this, one obviously shot on videotape in a 4:3 ratio with surprisingly decent sound but overdone colour. When we see skin, which is quite often, it's far too red as if the people we're watching spent the previous day out in the Arizona sun and forgot their SPF vampire suntan lotion. Then again Alyson and her boyfriend aren't likely to care too much because they're only a token necking couple for the monster to kill off at the beginning of the film. They're only given three simple things to do. Alyson needs to get the pair of them into the factory somehow. Allison Beal needs to take off her top for a while so we have something to look at. Then they need to die. I appreciated writer/director Brad Sykes's choice to not reveal the monster fully at this point and the neat role reversal where it's the guy who's the wuss wanting out. I didn't appreciate the ten minutes Alexa took to slice them up. At least it feels that long.
If we're looking at anything except Beal's boobs and Shepis's claws, we're noticing a pretty cool set. The venue was apparently a haunted house attraction, used out of season with many of its props serving as the set decoration but without any of the more extreme stuff on show because it wouldn't fit. Bizarrely, as much as this place adds a great deal to the disused tone of the film, it doesn't seem to fit itself. None of it looks remotely industrial; what sort of factory has chairs, beds and couches like these? Or were the winos who break into the place to die flush with a convenient collection of antiques to haul into the building to destroy? I never bought into the location for this film, but do agree that it's a pretty cool place to shoot a horror flick; it just shouldn't have been this one. Sykes is a prolific filmmaker, so he probably returned to it for another movie where it may have fit better. Then again, we're asked to buy into a lot here. The most believable aspect was to find Ron Jeremy playing a crippled wino. He missed his true calling.

The next big stretch is to believe that the various schoolkids who decide to party on down at the factory just because are a) schoolkids and b) schoolkids who hang out together. There are three vaguely defined couples, which makes it a pretty small party, but there's beer and boobs and weed, so we don't complain too much. Derek likes Rachel and she likes him enough for them to be dating, but apparently he's not a priority. Troy likes Louisa but she really doesn't like him, so he just clings in the hope that, in the absence of anyone else, he might just get lucky. Rachel and Louisa hang out together, even though Derek hates it, maybe because Derek hates it. Partly he hates it because he's a squeaky clean nice guy and Louisa likes to show her knife a lot because it makes her look tough. Partly it's because she really does seem to be a bad influence; she seems to only exist to tell Troy no and hurl schoolkid insults at Rachel like suggesting that she's 'clean, sober and a virgin'. That leaves Francis and Leticia, who are at least a real couple.

Francis looks way too old to have just finished school, but he apparently still lives with his parents and is dumb enough to have forgotten when they're away for the weekend. So much for the party at his place, which is why Louisa throws out the factory down on Duncan Rd as a substitute because she used to go there eight years ago. To be fair, I've heard a lot worse reasons in slasher movies but that doesn't mean this is a good one. The six of them head down there, Derek only to protect Rachel and Troy only because Louisa can't say no forever, right? For a while we get all the expected scenes in the expected order. They wander around and bump into spider webs and such for little shock moments. They split up to see if they can get the power switched on. They party for a while, because Francis has a beatbox and some weed, while Derek and Troy bring some beer. And then we get the campfire tale which explains why we're here and introduces Alexa to the story properly. Now we're all set for the main reason for the film: gore.
We've seen a little already, what with the extended death scene at the beginning and Ron Jeremy getting his still beating heart ripped out right in front of Alyson, covered in blood and still screaming herself. The hairy hedgehog gets less screen time here than he does in the blue movies he's better known for. We just know we're going to get more gore though, because none of these six 'kids' are remotely bright enough to make it out alive and we don't want them to anyway. We're firmly rooting for Alexa like the gorehounds we are. Of course, we don't mind them splitting up, stripping off, getting jiggy with it first, but they have to die eventually because that's the main reason we're watching this film. Well, to be fair, nowadays we'll watch to see what Shepis was doing this early in her career, and she is by far the best thing about Death Factory, but back in 2002 nobody really knew who she was so they were watching to see six more people wind up dead in horribly bloody ways. At least the film can deliver on some fronts.

As the body count adds up, Sykes does try to give us a little more than the expected, but I don't believe many audience members really cared. Most of it left me dry, because the characters weren't drawn well enough for me to care about whether this one leaves their supposed friends high and dry or that one has hidden depths as a hero. The only bit that connected at all was the bit I wasn't expecting, which made it a surprisingly capable twist. It's odd to realise that this film had nothing to begin with but built throughout and did find a little bit of substance by the end, while the sequel began with everything but gradually fell apart as it moved on. Perhaps it's all about expectation. Sykes didn't give us any at all while Tretta maybe gave us too much. Tretta's film is light years ahead of this one but from that perspective anything Sykes gave us before the end credits would have felt like a win; while Tretta set us up to believe we might have a cult classic on our hands, only to fail to deliver on that potential.

If we think back to what came before that decent twist, we can't fail to note the poor acting (though I've certainly seen a lot worse), the clichéd characters and the predictable plot (up to that point, at least). The positive side is pretty sparse. Certainly the amount of blood is a plus, because we get a lot of it. Sadly the gore effects themselves aren't that great: there are some good moments with blood spurting out of necks but we do wonder how Alexa's knife fingers can generate so much of it when they're apparently unable to penetrate skin. The fact that Ron Jeremy dies quickly and horribly is definitely a plus too. Almost entirely though, it's Tiffany Shepis who shines, not as the scream queen we might expect but as the monster. She looks thoroughly different with her short hair, bleached face and wild contact lenses, not to mention her sharp teeth and spiderlike medical attachments on her arms. She also overplays things so much that we wonder if she's in a haunted house attraction rather than a movie. Ah, now I understand the setting...

Saturday 5 July 2014

The Prometheus Project (2010)

Director: Sean Tretta
Stars: Tiffany Shepis, Louis Mandylor, Scott Anthony Leet, Patti Tindall, Jonathan Northover, Sebastian Kunnappilly, Noah Todd, Joe Ricci, Zena Otsuka and Ed Lauter
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
My previous review at Apocalypse Later was of the first of the 52 Films in 52 Weeks that Travis Mills and Running Wild Films made during 2013. That was a major challenge that they both set and met and I felt I should follow in that spirit by reviewing them all over a similar period, starting this July: a 52 Films in 52 Weeks in 52 Reviews project. When I decided to do that, I strongly felt that I should accompany it with a similar project, to review 52 other films, all local Arizona features not made by Running Wild, within the same 52 week period. The Prometheus Project was the obvious choice to kick it off, because it comprises the second half of yet another project I'm kicking into high gear, the Make It a Double project to review pairs of films selected by major names in the industry from their respective filmographies. Tiffany Shepis was the first person I asked to participate, back at Phoenix FearCon V in 2012; I've already reviewed her first choice, The Hazing, but for some reason hadn't got round to following up with her second, this film.

What's more, I was very happy that she chose it because it's not only a Tiffany Shepis picture, it's also a Hal Astell picture. Well, sort of. I'm hardly a featured player, but if you pay close attention indeed (and to do so, you'll need to pause and frame advance carefully), you might just catch a glimpse of my left arm banging on the metal in an underground cage fight scene. No I wasn't fighting; this was my first film as an extra and seeing my name in the credits at the Phoenix Film Festival was a special moment indeed. At that time, the picture was known as The Prometheus Project, an appropriate title for various reasons, not least its roots in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus and the mythical Greek character of the title, a Titan who stole fire from the gods to benefit mankind. Fearing that nobody abroad would know who Prometheus was, the picture's distributor changed that title to The Frankenstein Syndrome, only to promptly change it back again after the prominent international release of Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

Beyond causing needless confusion, it's a shame that they fought the original title because it highlights a whole new level for Sean Tretta, who wrote, directed, produced and edited. Known for three prior pictures, this was a notable step forward on every front: the cast, the budget, the ambition. Yes, The Death Factory Bloodletting is a notable guilty pleasure of mine but, let's face it, it wasn't a great movie and it never had any delusions about that. This one aches to be a great movie and the stars aligned to make that possible. I'd have to say that it fails in its quest for greatness, but it's still a notable success. It's written well, with a host of telling homages to Mary Shelley's novel and a lot more complexity than is usual for a Frankenstein movie. It's talky but never slow and it builds steadily to a powerful finalé. There are negatives too, but I'll get to those soon enough. The point here is that the film aimed a great deal higher than anything Tretta had attempted previously and it achieved a good deal of what it aimed for.
Those homages arrive early, after a brief flashback to Shepis's character, dressed in scrubs and running around a hospital which appears mostly deserted except for blood, corpses and whoever is chasing her. She's Dr Elizabeth Barnes and she survives the night but, when the FBI come to interview her two years later, she's confined to a wheelchair and hiding her disfigured features behind a mask. Agents Godwin and Wollestonecraft want to know about her work for Dr Walton and all three names are clearly sourced from Frankenstein or its author, as is the concept of framing the story around her deposition, a modern equivalent to the letters that so often framed Gothic novels like Shelley's. Shane Dean's clipped speech works really well here as an FBI interrogator, light years away from the neo-Nazi he played in The Death Factory Bloodletting for Tretta a mere two years earlier. So, alongside the FBI, we begin to peel away the layers to find out where this story is going to take us.

It starts with Walton, a doctor with a special interest in his work because he's also suffering from cancer. He's set up a research effort called the Prometheus Project because he sees a parallel between the gift of fire and his attempts to develop a regenerative healing serum. He sees both as the power of God, surely a giveaway as to where it's inevitably going to go horribly wrong. Barnes, a stem cell researcher with a degree in molecular biology, is only one of the talented young things recruited to take part and Walton's ability to headhunt the best and brightest is mirrored by the fact that Walton is played by Ed Lauter, not a name from the level Tretta could hire from previously. Another giveaway that this is a horror/sci-fi movie rather than a straight drama is that the first people she meets are security and the first things she hears are rules to ensure the secrecy of the project. Don't ask any questions. Don't go into the basement. Don't leave the building. Talk about a horror movie checklist!

The other people locked in with the horrors which will come are a varied lot. The lead surgeon is William McKennin, played by Jonathan Northover, who I recognise from Jaz Garewal shorts like Present Tense. He's politely British and welcoming. Dr Neeraj Sahir is also welcoming, indeed enthusiastic about working with Barnes. Sebastian Kunnappilly was Shepis's client in the wonderful M is for Matchmaker, a finalist in the ABC's of Death 2 competition and the only film Tretta has directed since this. Ira Gordon is the late Noah Todd, playing a data systems expert with a jokey sense of humour that he couldn't use as the religious freak in The Death Factory Bloodletting. He died the same year this film was released and it's dedicated to him. That leaves Patti Tindall, the lead in Tretta's Death of a Ghost Hunter, as Dr Victoria Travelle, who interned with Walton out of college and is jealous of anyone else's potential. We know immediately that she and the newcomer are going to clash hard. 'Competition is the mother of invention,' explains Walton.
Backing them up are a couple of other names from out of state. Prolific Aussie actor Louis Mandylor plays Marcus Grone, Walton's right hand man and one of only two people with access to the basement; Travelle is the other, of course. With a string of credits as long as my arm, he's a lot more recognisable than Scott Anthony Leet to me, but many would know the latter from his previous career as a punter in the NFL, with stints at both the St Louis Rams and the Dallas Cowboys. He's David Doyle, the huge Irish security guard who was fighting in the cage that I got to rattle in my extra scene. He's a very believable tough guy, even when not acting. While I sat back and read a book while waiting for the next take in which I was needed, he kept doing apparently effortless pressups to keep a sweat on throughout. For at least four hours. Given how hard he worked to make this film, it's appropriate that he ends up dominating it, as you might expect from his patched up prominence on the posters.

That's not bad for someone who's shot dead with a head shot half an hour into the movie, but then every Frankenstein story needs its monster, right? Well, the Barnes vs Travelle rivalry has led to breakthroughs, although their first attempt at reanimating a recently deceased human being went violently wrong. Doyle becomes their second subject and things go a lot better. 'We need to be prepared for anything,' suggests Travelle, but she undestimates the case substantially and we have our story. Leet is a big guy at 6'2" but he seems even bigger as he enforces his presence during the second half of the film. He towers over the rest of the cast, not only through size (Shepis is only 5'3") but also through sheer force of will. It's odd at this point to ponder that Shepis is the lead in this film, even with Tindall as the Dr Frankenstein character and Leet as her monster. She's the narrator, outlining all this to the FBI interrogators, but she's also the film's conscience, meditating on the film's tagline, that 'the end justifies the means.'

What's most interesting about Shepis here is that she doesn't play the character we expect. She's playing the lead in a film directed by her husband but, beyond the discovery of a conscience, she doesn't grow as a character much at all. The opening scene shows her in the element in which we know her best, running away from something, as much as she doesn't scream the way we know she can. As it's a flashback, we'll see her back there, but she doesn't spend the majority of the film doing that and she's very strong in this uncharacteristic role. It shows how much she's an actor not just a scream queen. Tindall shines too, in the role of a bitch with hidden depths. Travelle is the most clinical character in the picture, the epitome of the dedicated scientist who walks over everyone and everything in her path in the name of saving them. Yet she's also the most overtly caring character, becoming a surrogate mother to the resurrected Doyle. The two women are constantly at odds, underpinned by the actors playing off each other wonderfully.

Compared to these two doctors and their subject, the rest of the cast struggle to make themselves seen. Each gets their moment in the spotlight, as does David C Hayes as a grinning weasel of a lawyer, but the moments don't last and each of them leaves the movie for long periods at a time. Lauter is used sparsely while Mandylor gets plenty of opportunity but is stuck with the most transparent character. Todd only gets one real scene of substance, as do Kunnappilly and Hayes. Northover is the only one given the chance to play with the leads but, while he does good work, he's overshadowed throughout. The story was always about Tindall and Leet, with Shepis playing most of the real roles around them: she's the hero and the victim, the human element but the first to really play God, the narrator and chronicler of events. Most of all, she's the conscience in a moral story heavily inspired by Shelley but well adapted to the modern day. Through Dr Elizabeth Barnes, she shows us that things really haven't changed that much since 1818.

Friday 4 July 2014

The Sisters (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Noah Lanouette, John Miller, Mark DeBoer, Michelle Allen, Ron Foltz, Anne Gentry and Helen Sanger Pierce and Robert Peters
Having set himself the scarily ambitious task of making 52 short films in 52 short weeks, I have no doubt that Travis Mills understood how important the first of them would be, both practically and symbolically. It could be that the success of the entire project owes a great deal to the success of its first shoot, which is highlighted in the first episode of the web series Running Wild Films made as they went to document the project and maintain public interest in it. 'We never fell behind schedule, thanks to the cast and crew,' he noted confidently to the camera, adding, 'We did not rush or compromise quality and I believe we left this weekend with footage that will cut together into a good short film.' It is indeed a good film, though it's far from a great one. It could easily be described as a safe first picture to set the project in motion, with few set-ups, a host of short, mostly safe performances and with its ambition apparent mostly in what Mills changed from the source story, adding mild subversion and emphasising both beginning and growth.

Perhaps The Sisters works best as a beginning, which it became in so many ways. It was the first film shot for this project and the first to be screened at the three day festival during which all 52 films were shown. It was adapted from the first of the fifteen stories in James Joyce's 1914 collection, Dubliners, obviously a key work for Mills because he would go on to adapt every one of them for this project, almost entirely in order too. It was even the first story Joyce ever wrote, under the pseudonym of Stephen Dædulus back in 1904 for a weekly paper called The Irish Homestead. While there are a number of themes woven into the story, the main one is also concerned with a beginning, that of the adult life of the boy who recounts it, prompted by the death of an old man whom he had befriended. Mills even emphasises it in this version with the addition of an unlikely baptism and especially through use of the old man's pipe, not mentioned in the original story but here a strong symbol of the fascinating yet dangerous world of adulthood.
Unfortunately the writing is stronger than the performances tasked with bringing it to life, though, to be fair, none of the actors get enough screen time to allow them to get their teeth into their roles. Anchoring the piece is young actor Noah Lanouette, recently seen in two other impressive child-focused short films from different directors, Marcus Stricklin's The Tent and Darrin Moore's Technically Grounded. He has just the right combination of awkwardness and openness to work well as James and he maintains the focus of attention throughout, even with a mere two lines of dialogue, less than almost everyone else in the cast. While the story is always about James and the old man, deceased before the story begins, it's told by the adult characters talking either over or around him, as if he wasn't there. His ascent to adulthood may be realised best through the fact that, given the script's progression in Mills's contemporary adaptation, not one of them is likely to do it again.

The adults are all lesser characters, set in their ways and with little of interest to see. Michelle Allen has the toughest task as James's mother, because her character has only banalities to say. She looks fine but is too deliberate with her voice, too precise on her intonation. Her husband hasn't much to say either, but Mark DeBoer gifts him with a little more character, sprawling on a chair. It's Ron Foltz as the other adult in the conversation, who has much more to give us. He's smarmily pressing, insinuating inappropriateness between the boy and the old man. He makes 'He never got married' an accusation of both homosexuality and paedophilia, the overt choral music serving as a reminder that the old man in the Joyce story was an Irish Catholic priest with the sad century of revelations since underlining that insinuation. Anne Gentry is also strong as one of the old man's sisters, with just the right combination of elegaic sadness and cheery front. Helen Sanger Pierce is weaker as the other but still has her moments.

Of course, the only reason that Running Wild Films could even consider undertaking (no pun intended) a project as ambitious as this is the fact that their slim crew has become over a whole slew of short films, a well-oiled machine. When the pictures they enter into 48 hour film challenges are comparable in quality to those they take more time over, it's clear that they can do what they do quickly and efficiently. This is a strong film technically, the weakest link being the highly unambitious editing, comprised of lots of back and forth cuts of static shots. Perhaps the disconnection that approach suggests is appropriate, but there were opportunities for the camera to move and join in the story that weren't taken. Perhaps subconscious worry about adding complications to the first film in a long project might have contributed to that choice. Perhaps Mills and his crew just wanted to get this one in the can safely and move forward to longer and more ambitious films. The Sisters works well as a beginning, but it could easily have been more.