Sunday 31 August 2014

His New Profession (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Jess Dandy and Charles Parrott
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.
The Masquerader, Chaplin's most ambitious film thus far, allowed him to tell a few stories in one through meta manipulation. He played his regular character and his regular character masquerading in drag, but he also got to play a fictional version of himself becoming his regular character to mix it all up. This isn't as ambitious, not only because Chaplin just plays Charlie, the cheeky opportunistic layabout, but it does stretch the usual Keystone locations by bouncing us frantically back and forth between them. We start in the park, end up at the pier and spend time in the bar in between. We know all these locations well from other Keystone comedies and, frankly we know much of what happens in them too, but instead of taking those Lego bricks of gags and building them up into something big and then moving it to a new location, he builds bits of it in different locations and keeps us shifting between them. The characters here cover a lot of ground, rushing onto the screen and off it again, ensuring that our eyeballs get a workout too.

Charlie is the focus from moment one in a story that ably builds his character. This little tramp isn't a bad man and he doesn't seek to do bad things; in fact, he doesn't seek to do anything, as appropriate reissue titles like The Good for Nothing and Helping Himself highlight. However, he does keep his eyes open and if something happens to fall by chance into his lap, he'll surely take advantage of it, however unethical or inappropriate it might happen to be. Chaplin's story is written very much to drop things in his lap and for him to benefit from them, with comedic effect. The most obvious example here is what sets up the whole film, as a young man wants to wander off with his girlfriend but is stuck with his uncle, who's confined to a bathchair with an apparent broken leg. If only he could find someone to babysit him for an hour or two! Enter Charlie, who's sitting by a different tree in the park reading the Police Gazette. He takes the job, but hardly for altruistic reasons; the first thing he does is take him to the Pier Bar and try to cadge a dime.

Of course, Chaplin doesn't skimp on the little opportunities for gags and there's a glaring target for them in plain view: the invalid uncle's broken leg. While the first painful moment comes when the bathchair is wheeled onto Charlie's foot, it's the uncle played by Jess Dandy who comes in for the lion's share of pain. That broken leg is sat on, bumped into and tripped over, bashed by no end of props and even hooked by Charlie's cane to turn him around. There are those who call out certain moments in Chaplin's early films as cruel, such as the abuse of his elderly assistant in The Property Man, and I'm not going to say they're wrong, but inflicting pain was one of the foundations of humour in the silent era and there's just no way that we can escape that. Most of the gags in this film are constructed out of someone's pain, but I didn't find them particularly cruel. Cruelty for me in Chaplin's early films is epitomised not in The Property Man but in the deliberate acts wrought upon Mabel Normand in Mabel's Busy Day.
It's also worth mentioning that, while Jess Dandy's uncle suffers the most in His New Profession, Charlie gets a number of pratfalls himself. The most notable arrives as he's struggling to lift the bathchair over a kerb because wheelchair ramps just didn't exist in 1914, only to sit down in a mess of broken eggs that had been dropped on the sidewalk by a young lady earlier in the picture. We laugh as much at the pain and inconvenience inflicted on Charlie as we do at that inflicted on his charge, so it's equal opportunity cruelty. The uncle is stuck in his bathchair throughout, so doesn't have the freedom to, say, buttscoot on the grass to clean egg off his pants, as Charlie does twice here. He just sits back and endures whatever the script has in store for him, which is quite a lot, while Charlie can and does give as good as he gets. In fact, the uncle is so passive a target that he stays a prop when he nods off. No wonder Chaplin was such a hit with the public; he shaped his films by cocking a snoot at them and everyone in them.

The most overt cruelty in this film actually doesn't revolve around pain. After the uncle won't give him a dime on account to spend at the bar, Charlie waits for him to fall asleep and wheels him over to the pier. He parks him right next to a one-armed man, who's also dozing, a one-armed man who has a tin cup and a sign reading, 'Help a cripple'. Needless to say, Charlie seizes the opportunity, steals both sign and cup for his charge and uses the first coin to finance his bar trip. To be fair, we do eventually discover that this particular cripple is not a cripple at all, merely a con man, but Charlie doesn't know that. He steals what appears to be an invalid's only source of income so he can get drunk, and yet he's the hero of the story! I'd suggest that morality was a very different thing a century ago, but I'm sure that the lowest common denominator comedians today would happily recreate the sort of wheelchair antics Chaplin sets up here, merely with bigger and more outrageous payoffs.

I wonder what safeguards were in place back in 1914 when Charlie kicks the uncle's bathchair away from him and he rolls on down the pier towards the sea. Getting knocked off a pier into the ocean was no rare fate in Keystone comedies, as Charlie found out in A Busy Day. I should put your consciences at ease by pointing out that the gentleman who does end up in the ocean here was not in a wheelchair at the time, but Dandy does come close on not one but two separate occasions and the various shenanigans that go down during the finalé can't have been the safest stunts that Keystone actors had ever performed. Even less outrageous activities, like the manhandling Charlie gives his employer's girlfriend after she puts her hand on his knee, looks like it could well have been painful. And I'm still not sure where that scene even came from. Perhaps Chaplin, ever a ladies man, wanted to make sure he got to play with one of them in this film even if it made precisely no sense in the grand scheme of things.
I have no idea who the actress is, but she epitomises how difficult it sometimes is to keep track of actors in films which didn't have credits. IMDb lists her as Peggy Page, who debuted here and then appeared in the next four Chaplin movies. Wikipedia doesn't have a credit for 'Nephew's Girlfriend', so may suggest Helen Carruthers as 'Woman' instead. The BFI adds Gene Marsh to the possibility list, viably as IMDb has her first seven films listed as being Chaplin shorts. Perhaps that should be eight. Then again, the BFI lists Minta Durfee as 'Woman' and I didn't see her anywhere in the film. Other actors are clearer to identify, as that's certainly Roscoe Arbuckle briefly visible as the bartender of the Pier Bar, for instance. Cecile Arnold is the young lady who dropped the eggs, appearing in yet another Chaplin short. Her first five confirmed roles were in Chaplin films, starting with The Property Man, and she'd go on to appear in six more. It isn't escaping me that so many young ladies had brief careers at Keystone dominated by Chaplin shorts.

The most notable supporting actor here is male, though. It's Charles Parrott, a twenty year old actor who plays the young man who hires Charlie to look after his uncle. He was four years younger than Chaplin, but he started in film two years earlier, at the Christie Film Company in 1912, moving to Keystone a year later, where his first IMDb credits show up. He'd appeared in Chaplin films before, though predominantly as an extra. This was his sixth short with Chaplin and he's easily at his most obvious here, running over Charlie's foot with the bathchair and popping up behind a sign to surprise his girlfriend. It's easy to see the promise inherent in his work and so it shouldn't be much of a surprise to discover that Charles Parrott would eventually become known as the fourth great solo silent screen comedian behind Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. If you don't recognise the name, it's because he didn't become Charley Chase until 1923. By that point he had directed over a hundred films for Hal Roach and become famous playing Jimmy Jump.

This was yet another reminder to me about how time can blur achievement. Even as a child, I was aware of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, but viewed them as contemporaries, those great silent comedians from an unfathomable distance in time away from me. Only later did I realise that they weren't, that even within the silent era there was progression and legends built on the prior work of other legends. It was actually Harold Lloyd who debuted on screen first but at this point he was still stuck as an extra, playing roles like a hottentot in The Patchwork Girl of Oz. He wouldn't become prolific until he became Lonesome Luke in 1915. Buster Keaton didn't appear until 1917 and spent his first four years as Roscoe Arbuckle's sidekick. By the time he made his first solo film, Chaplin had become his own writer and director, become the first international star of the screen, moved to Mutual for $670,000 a year then to First National for a million dollars, built his own studio and, with other major names, founded a distribution company, United Artists.

He wasn't the first screen comedian, of course, and he arrived at Keystone Studios in 1914, the home of many recognisable faces, to replace a major star, Ford Sterling. Roscoe Arbuckle was already there, as were Mabel Normand and many others, but Chaplin was the first to refuse to continue doing the same ol' same ol' throughout his contract. This project has served well to open my eyes to just what he achieved. His New Profession is far from the greatest short comedy ever made and there are a whole bunch of raw edges in evidence, not aided by the restoration work apparent on the Flicker Alley box set not being as effective as on many of his earlier films. However, it feels like it's a product of a different era to Making a Living or Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. I keep forcing myself to remember what those earlier films were like as I watch the newer ones. To realise that Making a Living, fully 25 pictures away, was made a mere seven months earlier is jawdropping.

Important Sources:
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

His New Profession 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 debuted in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.

Saturday 30 August 2014

Sacrifice (2010)

Director: Bob Nelson
Stars: Brent Heffron, Shanda Munson, Heather Liebenow, Noel Allison, Idena Thatcher, Jack Pauly and Lester Scott
I'm horrendously overdue with a review of Sacrifice, a Mesa monster movie that I've seen a few times and somehow haven't got round to reviewing yet. To be fair, on my first time through, it didn't have an ending but I've had the DVD forever and that's no excuse. Last time, I watched it as part of a trio of Quetzalcoatl movies: Q: The Winged Serpent, The Lost Treasure of the Grand Canyon and Sacrifice. Yeah, you weren't expecting three of those to exist, right? Well, the first of the trio is by far the best, Larry Cohen's shlocky 1982 picture benefitting from a stellar cast that included Michael Moriarty, Candy Clark, David Carradine and Richard Roundtree. The middle one was made for TV in 2008 and only boasted lesser names such as Michael Shanks and Shannen Doherty. It could be seen as the opposite of this film because it has a really stupid story but surprisingly good effects work, while this microbudget local feature boasts a surprisingly strong story but suffers from the worst monster effects outside of Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

I should highlight here that this film is absolutely not 'from the Palm d'Or winning director of Farewell My Concubine', as the default poster at IMDb suggests; that's a completely unrelated Sacrifice, also made in 2010. Chen Kaige can surely afford much better effects work, so this was made by Bob Nelson, the head honcho of Brick Cave Media, who released it for free online viewing this weekend. Now Bob helped me a lot as I expanded Apocalypse Later from blog into print, by talking me through the publishing process, so I owe him a debt of thanks. However this review, as always, will be completely free of bias. Just because I like someone doesn't mean their movie doesn't suck. What I got out of my first viewing was that this was a learning process for Bob, who I didn't know at the time. Transplanting his love of kaiju flicks and sci-fi B movies into a story appropriate for the American southwest, he tried to get that vision onto the screen. I saw this first in a theatre, so he succeeded, but it really can't hide its microbudget.

There's good and bad obvious immediately. The opening credit sequence, horrible kerning aside, is good, mixing strong music with an imaginative approach. The picture proper kicks off with stock footage, which helps to cement a higher budget in our minds, but the new narration that kicks in is not well done. When we're whisked off to the Satellite Command Room of Task Force STOM, the first original visuals, we notice capable costuming but pixellated greenscreen. Lt Gen George Olendorf is about to activate STOM-1, the new Subterranean Object Mapping satellite designed to locate chemicals used to build weapons of mass destruction up to two miles underground. He explains to invited guests that the technology cost billions, which is believable for the the Apple hardware we see on control room desks. The general, the onlookers and the technicians are rarely shown in the same shot as the camerawork is static. The actors look their parts and have good intonation, though they often pause or falter. Nelson needed more takes.
Even this early, the strongest aspect is the story, which was written by Nelson with contributions from his better half, novelist Sharon Skinner. It's quintessential fifties sci-fi, right down to the running time, a short 67 minutes. Not for the first time, I wonder if it would have played better in black and white. Temporarily ignoring the technical issues, like the blockiness and the siren that drowns out the tech's lines, this would have played very authentically had it been in black and white. I've even seen sci-fi movies from the fifties that had the same stumbling over lines, so flaws like those could have been interpreted merely as quirky authenticities. Certainly the build is very reminiscent: a military man introduces new technology to folk who question the ethics of its use and, on activation, it immediately discovers a threat within the United States. Here, that's a cache of plutonium buried in Arizona, which immediately prompts an investigation and connects the military with the civilian side of the film.

Even on my fourth viewing, I find myself totally on board with the story, even as I cringe at the technical quality behind it. Sound especially continues to be a problem throughout, but the visuals need work too. The camera doesn't move enough and the composition of frame is not always what it could be. Lighting is often inconsistent, manifesting odd issues like when graduate student Atzi Olin and her boyfriend, Dr Kyle Broughnam, walk out of a room and into a corridor, while their clothes change from green to blue. They're the same clothes; it's just that they're lit completely differently. At least the editing is capable, if not special, and the acting does improve. All these actors were new to me when I first saw Sacrifice, but I've seen many since, often improving as they go. Shanda Lee Munson is the exception, as she's better here as Atzi than I've seen in anything since. Brent Heffron, Kat Bingham and Bob Barr have all moved onto better things, notably The Sum of Its Parts, Dust Jacket and The Crate respectively.

It's Heffron's character, Kyle, who the Air Force immediately comes to see. They're looking for help with their 'interesting geological puzzle' from a scientific expert and he's appropriate because he's already in Arizona and he's familiar with what STOM-1 does as he worked on the project. Atzi gets roped in because the plutonium is a couple of miles underneath the small town of Desert Cove, where she grew up. I liked Heather Liebenow as the lead Air Force officer, Col Lene, even though she overdoes the precision of her presentation. As she points out, 'We're the military. We're all about overkill.' Noel Allison, a strong lead in Pattern: Response, seems to be acting out a different role to the one he was given and Heffron seems to be inexplicably channelling Elvis Presley. I haven't a clue how solid Kat Bingham is, because she's not in the film enough and she's mostly lost under the air conditioning of Queens Pizzeria in Mesa, I mean the breakfast place in Desert Cove. She has character, at least, which shows through the obscured dialogue.
The good and the bad continues in Desert Cove, highlighting both the mistakes Nelson made as he shot this film and the things he learned as he progressed. The worst is always on the technical side, with the sound and lighting inconsistent. There's lots of back and forth during the conversations, which creates a distance that doesn't deserve to be there. The first major digital effects show up after half an hour in the form of an obviously overlaid graphic of a huge drill that they'll use to tunnel into the earth. The displays haven't been great and other overlays are similarly poor, but the really awful effects work is reserved for the monster. On the plus side, the helicopters, trucks and military camp sites appear to be real, as Nelson managed to find some solid assistance from all the right people. The quality of lighting is bizarrely better in the dark underground scenes, the sort of shots that even professional films tend to screw up. Dialogue isn't always great but it is always natural and the majority of the cast deliver it well.

Again, it's the story that stands out for special notice. We know that the plutonium isn't being used by an al-Qa'ida group, but as the Air Force drill into a mysterious tunnel leading into the ground, we find that it has ties to the ancient Mayans, from whom Atzi is descended. I like how Nelson blends ancient myth with modern science, because it's a great idea for a monster movie, far more believable than most of what the fifties B movies gifted us. I'll take the accidental resurrection of a creature conjured up by the Mayans to defeat the Spanish invaders over trans-dimensional turkey monsters from outer space any day, let alone invisible aliens, gorillas wearing diving helmets or giant turd monsters that creep slower than the victims they somehow catch. It also gives the script a solid ending, a particularly human one which renders the otherwise generic title rather appropriate. Sure, I can find issues without trying too hard, but it's a strong script that plays better than many of the sci-fi B movies that inspired it.

Of course, it's impossible to look past the bad effects work. The Lost Treasure of the Grand Canyon would have been much better had it stolen the script to Sacrifice, which in turn would have been much better if Emily Albee, who did the creature animation for the bigger budget movie, had done the same here. She's local-ish, knows exactly what she's doing and can work wonders on a low budget. Just watch Kaze, Ghost Warrior to see what I'm talking about, which was entirely created on her home computer. Nothing in this film compares to that; the monster is better than those in Birdemic: Shock and Terror, but on occasions not by much. Without an expert to create a believable monster, Nelson would have done better with a man in a rubber suit. The analogue approach would have fit the tone of the movie too, which should have played out in black and white. He has moved on to better work, especially his new short, The Sum of Its Parts, written by J A Giunta and directed by Johnny Skinner. This was his learning curve: he did some things right and a lot wrong, but he learned from all of it.

Sacrifice can be viewed for free on YouTube this holiday weekend.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

The Masquerader (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle and Charles Murray
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.
Undoubtedly the most sophisticated of the shorts he had directed thus far, The Masquerader shows that Chaplin was developing his skills quickly and he was more than ready for this meta story that reminds of a few earlier films but sets its sights firmly on the bigger and better films of the future. Like his previous picture, Recreation, it plays with traditional Keystone slapstick, but unlike that short where there was little else on show, those elements are firmly restricted to the background here. Like A Film Johnnie, the first of Chaplin's pictures to stand up on its own merits rather than as another historic first in his career, it uses Keystone Studios as a backdrop. However, it goes much further than merely introducing the Little Tramp to the studio as an outsider to cause chaos; it tasks Chaplin with playing a studio employee, effectively himself, who in turn plays the Little Tramp. Fired for being too distracted by the ladies to do his job, he returns as one for the second time in 1914 after his previous turn in drag in A Busy Day.

What impressed me most was the way in which Chaplin refused to restrict the comedy that unfolds to the fictional characters. Sure, initially he paints the 'real people' seriously, as they prepare for a day's shoot, but their change into the characters you might expect to see in a Keystone film doesn't only happen with the application of make up. When Chaplin is late for work and so gets hauled away from the ladies by his ear, the act is something we might expect of the Little Tramp but he hasn't become the character yet. As he does so, on the other side of a dressing room table to Roscoe Arbuckle, the slapstick they indulge in is exactly what we might expect of their characters, but they're still themselves when they begin. This is a melding of the real actors with the characters they play and it's neatly subversive, notably deeper than anything that he'd done previously and far beyond what anyone else was doing. Recreation, as capably built as it was, suddenly feels like an antique from a different era, but it was made only a week earlier.

Of course, while Chaplin initially plays an actor similar to himself, as do Arbuckle and Chester Conklin and others, not all of these people are that close to their real selves. Charles Murray plays the director driven to fire Chaplin and he did briefly wear that hat in real life, but not quite yet. He didn't sit in the director's chair for real until December, when he quickly churned out three short films at Keystone before giving up that role for six years. Perhaps, what happens to his character in this film aside, he found that he enjoyed the idea and had a chat with Mack Sennett to make it happen for real. Fortunately the shorts he did direct don't appear to be anywhere near as outrageous as the fictional one he attempts to shoot here, with its villain outrageously threatening a sleeping baby with a knife. Keystone comedies did find their way into notably dark territory on occasion, but this would seem to be one we can be thankful never made it from fictional plot device to real picture.
It's rendered even more outrageous by the fact that this is where Charlie fails to notice his cue because he's too distracted by the kisses of the ladies backstage, leaving the villain stuck with his knife aloft and the baby unaware of the grisly fate hovering above it. Fed up with waiting for Charlie to rush in and save the child, the director throws it at him instead, another dark moment in a light film. Highlighting how the actors at Keystone were interchangeable on a moment's notice, his next action is to substitute him with Chester Conklin. 'He's rotten,' says the director. 'You play the part.' Of course Chaplin, who reminded of his regular character even before he put on the tramp's outfit, sabotages his replacement and treats us to another round of meta slapstick. Of course, it's no surprise that Chaplin would be drawn to this sort of multi-level portrayal, given that he came to Keystone's attentions through his work in Fred Karno's stage sketch, Mumming Birds, with its play within a play, but this is a much more modern take on the concept.

In fact, after kicking his director through a stage window and playing a number of tricks on him that we'll assume he borrowed from the Little Tramp, Chaplin is promptly fired and thrown bodily out of the studio in scenes that are reminiscent of the end of Blazing Saddles, their fight continuing through a completely unrelated set. While that film was notably ahead of its time in 1974, it may well have borrowed from this one made six decades earlier. Film historians really aren't kidding when they emphasise the importance Chaplin has to screen comedy! Of course, if his multi-levelled meta antics are ahead of their time, where he goes next is very much rooted in the past. Male actors had been playing female characters on stage for centuries, of course, but they'd also been doing it on film since its early days. Often they were quite obvious about it, but I can imagine great swathes of the audience in 1914 not realising that the leading lady who shows up after Chaplin's departure is Chaplin himself returning in drag.

And so, after playing an actor based on himself, then the character he usually plays, Chaplin now takes on the role of a female actor to find his way back into the studio that fired him. He's overdressed, with a big ruff and an extravagant hat, but he's very believable, looking rather like a more feminine version of Liza Minnelli. While his more transparent turn as a woman in A Busy Day was notably shrewish, violent even in the tradition of Mrs Punch, his return to drag here is far more coy and coquettish. No wonder his director's hands start roaming and he throws all the actors out of the dressing room so the new leading lady can have some room, before chasing her around a table with amorous intent. If, at this point, 1914 audiences hadn't seen through the ruse, they would have been shocked to discover this lady ripping off her wig in what looks like rather painful fashion. If this scene is anything to go by, female impersonators a hundred years ago must have had a streak of masochism.
And so returns the Little Tramp for a second run at the studio, albeit an inevitably brief one because even he can't have imagined he'd have been rehired after exposing his ruse. Instead the discovery just sets up the more traditional aspects of the film, prompting the inevitable chase finalé complete with a quick bout of brick throwing and a rapid fire slapfest that made me burn up calories merely watching it. It should be emphasised that it's done well, however traditional it all is and however inferior these last few scenes are when compared to the majority of the film. There's a lot of slapstick humour dotted throughout this short but it's done slowly, deliberately and in the holy name of character. The early scene with Chaplin trying to steal Arbuckle's drink but falling short in every way is cleverly done and can't fail to raise a laugh. Yet the more frenetic action at the end of the picture is so generic and throwaway that it's not worth mentioning in the same breath except to say that it pales in comparison.

I wonder if Chaplin was wondering how much he could get away with, how far he could take this concept and how forward looking he could become without jeopardising his newly found status as the writer and director of his own pictures. If he finished up with some generic slapstick and a chase, nobody would say a word against it, right? It's the Keystone way, so he must have been following the guidelines. I'd suggest that it may have been even more important to Chaplin that this particular film be received well, because it had a higher profile cast than Chaplin had been trusted with thus far. Sure, Laughing Gas starred Mack Swain and Slim Summerville, but those films in between were with lesser known actors new to the studio. This one, however, features Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee and Roscoe Arbuckle, all recognisable faces at Keystone before Chaplin was ever hired. I believe that's even Mabel Normand at the very beginning too, playing herself in a few frames in the 'pleasure before business' scene before things get going.

It appears to have been well received, but with most praise given to Chaplin's 'really remarkable female impersonation', as Bioscope described it. Perhaps its script was so far ahead of its time that it didn't get proper recognition in 1914. Of course, with the magical power of hindsight, we don't only recognise how innovative Chaplin's writing was, we also bear witness to the many little ragged edges that demonstrate just how far he still had to go before the undying classics we know would come later. Watching each film from 1914 at the speed they were released, this feels like yet another step forward, underlining the fact that this new screen comedian was someone to watch. The pacing is especially notable, as the picture is neither too fast to feel rushed, at least until the finalé, nor too slow to drag. It's easy to imagine Chaplin feeling that he mastered the basics with Recreation and was ready for something much more ambitious in The Masquerader. It's far from perfect but it's his best and most sophisticated film up to this point.

Important Sources:
Anonymous review in Bioscope, 21st January, 1915
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

The Masquerader 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 debuted in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Channeling (2013)

Director: Drew Thomas
Stars: Skyler Day, Dominic DeVore, Kate French, Taylor Handley and Christian Camargo
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
I'm seeing a lot of movies lately made by people well known for a different role in the movie industry. The cost of entry is decreasing all the time, which means that editors, effects guys and scriptwriters can start to make the artistic statements that they want to make, all while keeping their day jobs and paying their bills. The man behind Channeling, an intriguing sci-fi action flick, is Drew Thomas, who started racking up credits as a cinematographer in 1997, moving up from short films through TV shows to features. Prior to this, his only credits as a producer or director were on Coachella, a feature length glimpse of that festival in 2006 and an episode of Walmart Soundcheck in 2009. By the way, whatever that suggests, it's really a live music show with interviews that is presumably sponsored by the store. If working for Walmart might mark the low point of Drew Thomas's career, this could easily be the equivalent high point because it's a heck of a lot more ambitious and his integrity remains intact. He wrote, produced and directed.

It opens very well indeed, with a commercial for EyeCast, a high definition camera that's embedded into a contact lens, surely the next step in the technology that's already brought us Google Glass, albeit after this fictional product. 'This is your life, live,' it says, 'because you only live once.' The technology is neat material for science fiction, of course, but science fiction isn't just about inventing technology, it's about putting it to use in a social context and building a story out of it. Fortunately that's precisely what we get here, beginning with Wyld, a young man who oxys up and races a Shelby GT through the countryside, a petrol pump hanging out of the side, broadcasting live all the way on his channel, Wyld Life, which has a lot of followers. When a trio of bikers chase after him with guns, also broadcasting through EyeCast, one of those followers pipes Wyld the feed and he takes one of them out by braking hard and letting the biker slam into the other camera on the back of his car. You only live once, indeed, and no, it's not abbreviated.

Switching to Yemen, Sgt Jonah Maddox of the US Army gets a call from the States. Wyld was his brother, Wyatt Maddox, who has died of trauma. Jonah travels home for his funeral and discovers that Ashleigh, their sister, broadcasts too, if only by looking in the mirror. She's raising to the world the envelope from the coroner that contains Wyatt's stuff and Jonah breaks it up. 'This isn't for them,' he tells her, but, after watching an old video recording of them as kids, he opens the envelope, discovers an EyeCast and pops it in. This automatically starts the Wyld Life channel and suddenly we have a movie. Wyld was someone to a lot of people, who are texting, commenting and now ringing. Suddenly Jonah realises that he has a lot more to do than go to his brother's funeral. He goes to EyeCast, masquerading as his brother, who of course was anonymous, unseen on footage broadcast from his POV. EyeCast want 'surprise, immediacy, chaos' because, as they pitch to sponsors, 'no-one Tivo'd 9/11'. And Wyld is all those things.
The potential is obvious here, but it could easily have been lost in the mix. Thomas keeps it focused in all the right directions, porn, first and foremost, as Ashleigh wakes up with Conner who's broadcasting her. I like the nod to the obvious, that EyeCast can be done in secret, which echoes the big privacy fear that's brought up every time Google Glass gets mentioned anywhere, but also that it can happen two ways at once, which I've not seen yet in the Google Glass stories. Maybe it's still too expensive. Blackmail comes up quickly too, with the inevitable money angle. Wyld races stolen cars to broadcast from and the screen he sees tracks the number of people watching. It's all about sponsorship, which manifests itself here first in a glorious interruption to the biker's feed during the chase for a diaper commercial. As always, timing is everything, right? And there's the darker side, which we soon discover as Jonah finds his way into the life his brother was leading, which merely starts with what he describes as 'a request line for felonies'.

Everything takes a back seat to the tech, at least initially. The actors play second fiddle to the contacts in their eyes for a while and the most obvious character is the one who's killed off at the beginning. Jonah is the bland brother when he enters the story, a poor comparison to the cool Wyatt. The story hints at quite a lot, but the tech drives it all. When Tara, Wyatt's partner and broadcast eye candy, explains to Jonah that he was murdered, the fact that he had thousands of viewers at the time but no witness is a delicious irony. Even the cinematography, Thomas's day job, is at its best with the tech at its heart, like that great moment when the biker hits Wyld's Shelby GT. We see the biker hit the car in the rear camera then pan round to watch him land in front of it. It's great enough that we see it twice and we aren't upset. Not all the tech is believable, Thomas definitely cutting corners for cinematic effect, but it's levels above the usual. When Gabriel hacks into a website, he tells Jonah and Tara to come back later. This isn't CSI.

I really appreciated the character of Gabriel. While Wyld and Tara are ramping up numbers to land higher quality sponsors, Gabriel isn't interested in that stuff. Cinematic shortcuts aside, he's the most refreshing screen hacker I've seen in a while. He's a merry prankster who pushes firebreathing dinosaurs and giant eyeballs through red light cameras, then hacks into them to grab the images. He's in it for the art not the money, blocking comments let alone sponsors. Much respect to Gabriel for not selling out and to Thomas for including such a character in his movie. I understand that he has to stay firmly in support, backing up the hot chick and the tough guy, but Thomas could have written him very differently and I'm thankful he didn't. Maybe it's enough to let me forgive him a little for those odd shortcuts and conveniences. Surely the one that rankles the most is that Wyld's continued anonymity relies on him never looking in a mirror, but he's seen most driving stolen cars that have three of them for him to look at frequently.
The acting gets better. Dominic DeVore isn't bad as Jonah and he certainly improves when the character pulls the stick out of his butt and lets him join the story properly. Taylor Handley shows more charisma as Wyatt, with his Leonardo DiCaprio vibe; unfortunately he's not in the picture long enough for us to find out if he can carry one. I liked Kate French a lot as Tara from moment one, because she's believably quick and tough on top of her good looks. Again, I'd like to have seen her do more than she's given the chance to, but her role is what it needs to be. It's Skyler Day who's the best of the main cast, surprisingly given that she's annoyingly weak at the beginning of the film. Ashleigh's subplot takes quite a while to kick into motion but, in many ways, it's much truer than the main one. It doesn't merely take a dive into what the technology does, it's an exploration of what the technology means to real people, both the positive and the negative. The film finds its emotional peak when it all goes down for her, not for Jonah and Tara.

The biggest problem Channeling has is that it's biased too much towards the more commercial angle, to the detriment of the more substantial one. I feel odd bringing this up, because I'm a genre guy and I'm all for the sort of places that the main plot takes us, the snuff, sex tape and gambling angles, not to mention all the driving action. These play out well with a neatly sinister edge to the twists, but they don't hold any surprises because there aren't enough characters and possibilities for that. Ashleigh's angle is one that I wouldn't normally be interested in at all. She's a young lady suffering inside from the constant belittling of her father, parental abuse over decades that leads her to find an outlet for her anguish. It could all be fodder for a soporific tween drama, especially given the roads it sets her on towards the sort of celebrity reality coverage that makes my brain shut down, but it's really the heart of the technology Thomas turns into fiction in Channeling. EyeCast is democratised empowerment with a transparent middleman.

With only a hundred minutes to play with, there's much that's missed out. This is Twitter meets YouTube meets liveblogging meets GoPro, of course, but it delves deep enough to capture trolls on a girl's fashion channel. Yet it misses the legal angle which ought to be massive. How would criminals act if they couldn't be sure if their victims were channeling or not? Surely the NSA is monitoring these feeds. Why wouldn't a serial carjacker like Wyatt not be tracked down through his widely advertised channel? Like cops couldn't monitor that and figure out where he is? Regular people would be capturing streams, whether to relive or remix. Sure, you're only live once, but that doesn't mean captured streams aren't admissable in court as evidence. The insurance industry is why there are so many dashcams in Russia. There's a lot more depth to this technology than targetted popups and sponsored ads. I salute Thomas for getting as much of it into his movie as he did, but he inevitably missed a whole heck of a lot.

And this leads to the inevitable talk of a sequel. Channeling was well received, enough to win as the best sci-fi feature at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2013, among other awards. It holds a very strong rating at IMDb, though it's in dire need of more votes. I hope it's doing well enough commercially for a new feature to be a firm possibility in Thomas's mind once he's done promoting this one. While the suggestion of a sequel is rarely a good one, it seems appropriate here. He wouldn't need to bring any of the cast back, though he easily could, of course. He could fashion an entirely new story around the same technology and explore a host of other angles that he didn't have space for in this film. Maybe the whole surveillance angle would be most timely, after Edward Snowden's revelations utterly changed the tone of everything in the cloud. He could extrapolate the technology much further than video feeds, comments and a little interactivity. This is a strong film but it deserves to become stronger in a wider context.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Carry Tiger to the Mountain (2011)

Directors: Bennett Lieberman and Arnold Barkus
Stars: Xin Li and James Rich
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
I've seen many films with titles sourced from odd places, but I don't think I've ever seen a science fiction film named for a tai chi position before. It makes sense here, because this has the particularly ambitious goal to merge two ostensibly incompatible concepts: time travel, the science fiction staple, and tai chi, a Chinese martial art practiced as much for inner tranquility and health benefits as for any of its pointers to self defence. Why writers and directors Bennett Lieberman and Arnold Barkus thought these would merge well, I have no idea, but that starting point provides all the good points to this short film, as well as all the bad points too. Marrying science to spirituality is a noble goal but also a impossible task and we leave the film as confused as to what we just watched as entertained by some of what went down. In the end, it's a human story about two people who don't know they're in love yet surrounded by a sci-fi attempt to spice up how they figure it out. Yet even that doesn't really work, so I'm don't know what's left.

Initially it comes over as scientific gibberish painted over a hippie backdrop. I'm still not quite sure as to whether it really leaves that by the end credits, because the more I try to fathom the answers to what it raises, the less I'm sure as to what the questions were. It's that sort of movie that moves around a lot and keeps us interested but without ever seeming to actually do anything. Certainly it's insubstantial to begin with, with an enticing narration all about time and dreams and trans-dimensional gateways, that may be as much freeform poetry as it is science hinted at by on screen mathematical formulae that may or may not attempt to describe the deliberately slowly edited living world they overlay. 'Dreams originate on the space-time manifold of cosmic consciousness,' expounds the eager narrator who seems unable to stop. 'They're forged in a turbulent furnace by quantum mechanical fields percolating bubbles of time into ever expanding oceans of simultaneous being and nothingness.' Oh yeah, baby. Right on.
It does get more grounded as we begin the film proper and watch Ali try to chat up Ming. He's a nerd but not outrageously so. He wears glasses and Tesla shirts and has that sort of constantly happy demeanour that makes me want to punch him. Ming, on the other hand, is a free spirit. The camera floats around her and she floats around him and it in a sort of dance. It's odd to see her during the staccato editing phases where the goal appears to be to capture moments of time and skip forward through them rather than let them unfold at normal speed. That seems somehow right for him, as a scientist aiming to figure out how to travel through time, but utterly wrong for her as nothing ought to contain her, even deliberate editing. Eventually they connect through tai chi, because she knows what she's doing and he doesn't, perfecting pratfalls but not moves. Apparently he's figured out that tai chi is the way to travel through time, though we're never quite let in on that secret. Carry Tiger to the Mountain is the move that presumably works.

And off he goes, blinking into nothingness and scaring the crap out of Ming. When he comes back only a few moments later, he's talking backwards and convinced that they're an item. The rest of the story may or may not explain any of why. And here's the real problem of the film. I can watch Ali because he's good at being a wacky sort of charmer with an undercurrent, half science and half new age, that prompts us to wonder which side of those strange bedfellows he sleeps with. I can watch Ming all day because she's a pretty Chinese girl who sunbathes on the roof and knows tai chi, and because, while she doesn't appear to do anything, she hints that there's substance there waiting to be found. James Rich and Xin Li aren't the most talented actors I've ever seen but they fit the story well, people caught up in something magical and never losing their sense of joy. So, while the sci-fi pretends to be substantial, it plays much more like meaningless jabber. As a quirky romance, it's well, quirky. New age time travel: A+ for ambition at least.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

The Recipient (2010)

Director: Javier Bermúdez
Stars: Zack Zublena, Marigló Vizcarrondo, Cristina Sesto, Terry Muñiz, Lydia Aquino and Alfredo DeQuesada
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
While many of its peers in the Sci-Fi Shorts B set at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2011 were complex affairs, worthy of much discussion, The Recipient would seem to be a simpler, much more focused piece. Simple that is, until the very last line, an absolute peach that prompts the reevaluation of everything that has gone before. That's superlative writing from David Norris, who also shot the film, and Javier Bermúdez, who also directed it; both also served as producers. Until the last line, Pierre Gautier is a relatively straightforward lead character, the man referenced in the film's tagline: 'How far will a man go when he finds out that the only way to save his wife is to end the life of another?' Until the last line, what he goes through is something we can all imagine, empathise with or even remember, to a degree. Pierre does go a little further than most of us would, after all. Surely, whatever depth of pain we might discover after the loss of our spouses, most of us would still set limits on what we might do about it.

However, Pierre Gautier is especially devoted and, as a company CEO, he has some resources to bring to bear in the matter. Norris and Bermúdez set him up as a good man, who isn't just clearly in love with his wife on the wedding video he watches as the film begins; he still is, however many years it's been since. He also appears to be a good man in that, even from the pinnacle of his company's power structure, he's willing to take the time to chat with the man who cleans his office. Of course, as the story progresses and we find out what he's willing to do to save his wife, he shifts consistently into darker territory. The people he's working with to bring her back from cryogenic storage are not regular scientists. He has to provide a large payment, of course, but sign no formal contract. There are serious requirements for secrecy and no guarantees that the process will work. He also has to provide a donor, by kidnapping one. These are the people of last resort, providing an underground service at a serious financial and moral cost.
While the film works on the level of the question it poses, the lengths we would knowingly go to in order to save someone we love, there's a little more here that's worthy of discussion. Pierre Gautier is clearly an important man, not just because he's a CEO and he can raise a large sum of money very quickly, but in the way he carries himself. Zack Zublena, a French actor fluent in the English language, makes him feel like he's important because of who he is, someone with natural power, from which his position naturally springs. A poor man could have kidnapped a donor and stolen the money, but he couldn't have had the inherent power to make him appropriate for this story. So, while this is no moral judgement on the 1%, it is a meditation on what power means. And, of course, that's highlighted by the blistering finalé delivered by Mariglo Vizcarrondo in what appears to be her only film role. I won't spoil this and you can't see The Recipient online, so I hope Fanatico Films make it available soon so you can experience it too.

The Turing Love Affair (2010)

Director: Natasha Kermani
Stars: Stefanie Woodburn, Brandon Wardell, Randy Spence and Grayson Brannen
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
I wanted to like The Turing Love Affair a lot more than I found myself able to, because it looks gorgeous and it's unashamedly geeky. Unfortunately the story it finds to unfold in this gorgeous and unashamedly geeky environment is far too weak to stand up to much attention, which is a real shame. For those who have no idea what the title means, Alan Turing was a British mathematician who contributed so strongly to the field of computer science that he's been called 'the father of artificial intelligence'. During World War II, his work to break the codes of the German navy prompted no less a name than Winston Churchill to claim that he 'made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory'. Sadly, his reward for his service was to be chemically castrated in 1952 after successful prosecution for being gay. He committed suicide two years later. He's in the title because of his Turing test, which defined the standard for a machine to be considered intelligent if a human, through conversation, couldn't distinguish it from another human.

As the title suggests, we're presented with not merely a conversation between a human and a machine, but a conversation that moves into far more emotional territory. The human is Harry Zelazny, probably a portmanteau of homages to science fiction writers Harry Harrison and Roger Zelazny. He's a musician, an important one if the magazine cover mounted onto the wall in his room at the Elizabeth Space Station is anything to go by. It calls him the 'new face of modern music.' Why he's staying on the Elizabeth we have no idea, but it's halfway between the inner system and the outer colonies, placing us firmly in both the future and the middle of nowhere. Perhaps he's trying to escape something, usually the case in the films noir that provide the look and feel of the piece. This is presented in colour, but a sepia-toned colour that often reminds of Blade Runner, itself a science fiction neo-noir. We quickly discover that Zelazny won't be leaving the Elizabeth, not ever, because someone or something has broken his neck in two places.

So in come the homicide investigators, Det Anya Greenwood and Dr Sam Tarkov, to ask questions of what seems to be the only suspect, Charlotte CA110, the stewardess responsible for taking care of Zelazny on the Elizabeth. She's a cyborg, one of 25 that maintain the station, and it's pretty obvious that she's not a human being. She looks great, but she moves too deliberately and has an odd melodic but artificial voice. There's a lot that's derivative in the story, which is an archetypal one for science fiction literature, so the Lije Baley stories of Isaac Asimov, detective tales set in a world where humans and robots are very close to being indistinguishable, leap as quickly to mind as reference points as does the Voight-Kampff test that Deckard and his colleagues administer in Blade Runner to delineate humans from replicants, itself based on a science fiction novel, Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Whatever we call the test, it's a Turing test, though here there's another level: has the known cyborg found consciousness?
And here the script has us watch two stories unfold. In flashback, we watch Charlotte CA110 talk with the man she's tasked to steward, conversation that goes far beyond what might be expected for her job. She listens to him play his music, which may be part of why she appears to fall for him in ways a cyborg isn't supposed to be able to do. This flashback shows us what led up to Zelazny's murder, while in the present, the Nucorp interrogators try to figure it out by questioning the stewardess. I find it admirable that writer Natasha Kermani, who also directed, aimed to tell a human story as well as the one more overtly rooted in science fiction, because Greenwood and Tarkov approach the interrogation very differently, something that builds them as characters and a dynamic between them. There's an important story hiding in here about the origins of consciousness, one important enough to frame the film and provide its title, but its actual exploration is surprisingly only hinted at.

I'm not calling for this to be a feature, but it deserves to be a much longer short film as fifteen minutes is not enough to do it justice. While Kermani started down all the right roads, none of them get to where she aims to reach, leaving us dazzled by the visuals but frustrated by the script. It's almost a Hollywood trope that time honoured ideas be trumped by the look and feel of a film, but this doesn't feel like Hollywood, it just feels incomplete. I'll happily praise a host of crew members for their contributions to the visuals: Seth Hagenstein for his cinematography which plays very nicely with angles and lighting; Raquel Cedar for her production design, as she nails both the sterility of the space station and a film noir atmosphere; Brendan Bellomo and hs visual effects team, an International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival regular with Bohemibot and Sol also under his belt; even Lauren Bates Jaffe for her make up work. If we could watch this in a half hour version, perhaps Kermani's script could explore enough to catch up to their standards.

The Turing Love Affair can be watched for free on Vimeo.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

SNAFU (2010)

Director: Julian Caldow
Stars: Eric Loren, Tom Sangster and Marshall Griffin
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
I enjoyed SNAFU a lot, though it didn't take me long to figure out where it was going. That I continued to enjoy it, even after figuring out where it was going, says quite a lot because the twist isn't the be all and end all to the movie. There's a lot more here, especially on the visual front, where the effects look great but how they're woven into the film is even more important. For instance, the short opens with a serene shot of the majesty of creation, a moon slowly orbiting a planet, then the peace of the universe is raped by the violence of a spacecraft going down hard because an unnamed soldier is about to crash onto an alien world. That shot highlights the playfulness, appropriately as it turns out, that keeps a particularly dark story engaging, especially as it could easily have been rendered much darker still. It was intriguing to revisit it, as I'd forgotten the film over three years but its ideas had stayed with me. When I caught up with Edge of Tomorrow, I saw SNAFU, even though there were other ways to read it.

The soldier survives, apparently intact except for his memory. As he walks out of the mist on the surface, he narrates to us how he can't remember anything from before the crash: not his name, not his rank, not his reason for being there. He doesn't even know what the IPMC on his insignia stands for. He appears to be lucid now, with one driving thought that comes out of the haze: get to zone four. So off he goes, as a soldier is trained to do his duty, after all, whatever the circumstances. He discovers that he's not alone when he leaps into a foxhole to avoid some hover-tanks out on patrol, but the soldier there dressed in a similar uniform is a corpse with no face. He keeps on towards the destroyed city in the distance, whose roadsigns and construction appear very Earthlike, if the heavenly bodies in the sky tell us otherwise. He tracks down other soldiers, but the only one on his side is quickly killed by men from the other. An IPMC cylinder lands in the street, so he takes down a sniper nest and heads over to see what's in it.

And, after finding that it's a trap, he's shot dead by a laser installation that emerges from the ground. So much for our sole protagonist. But then, we start again. He wakes up out in the desert and heads back to town. 'It's a stuck record,' he narrates, 'and I don't think I like the groove.' If we weren't paying attention to all the weirdness that was going down before, we can't fail to do so now. He'd watched as the soldier was killed, but a blink later they were all gone. One of the enemies, who dies in front of him, apparently can't remember anything before the crash either, and he has a great line of dialogue, albeit one hijacked from RoboCop. 'I killed you,' he says. There are a few ways that this can go, as déjà vu shows up and the soldier questions his environment and his connection to it, but I was with the right one all the way. After a fresh viewing, that may well be because I once wrote a short story that had major similarities to where it takes us after the initial twist is revealed. If so, this may play a little more surprising for you.
SNAFU was a team effort, especially on the visual side, but the man behind it is clearly Julian Caldow, the writer, producer and director. He also scored the short, which hat may be one of the influences from John Carpenter that he cites, Sergio Leone being the other. Certainly the end credits feel very much like what Carpenter might have conjured up, not only because of the music but because of the choice of font, even its colour. The end of the film is reminiscent of Carpenter too, as is the use of a narration that feels much more hardboiled detective than standard science fiction. The coarse acting of Eric Loren fits too, though mostly through the archetypal action approach rather than through channelling any particular Carpenter actor; he isn't trying to be Kurt Russell, for instance, not really. Clearly the sequel, if Caldow ever makes one, would move totally into Carpenter territory, but that's the sequel. I didn't see a lot of Leone though, maybe the lack of actors in detailed landscapes being the closest, but even then the vision was different.

Given the strong visual aesthetic, which is consistently fantastic for a film which runs a short 27 minutes, it's not surprising to discover Caldow's background. He debuted here as a writer, producer and director, possibly as a composer too, but he has a major history in cinematic art, whether that be storyboarding, creature design or concept illustration. He started as a draughtsman on Tim Burton's Batman, and is still in the business, with films as prominent as Gravity, Prometheus and X-Men: First Class on his resume, as well as Game of Thrones for television. With such a visual background, I was more surprised to find that his script stands up well within the world he creates here. The only thing missing is population, as more enemies would have made a lot of sense. Maybe Marshall Griffin could only bring life to so many of the Bluehawk Horde within the shooting schedule, but extras are easy to come by. At the end of the day, it's a well rounded piece from a man who really should find time to make another short film of his own.

SNAFU can be watched online for free at Vimeo.

The Hollow Men (2010)

Director: Ashley Denton
Stars: James Harwood and Jerome Quiles
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
I had problems with The Hollow Men when I first saw it, but it stayed with me and eventually made itself known as one of those films that draws you in and makes you think. Any filmmaker can refuse to dot his i's and cross his t's for the sake of cinematic ambiguity, but it's easy to lose the audience when doing so. What Ashley Denton achieves here is a film that we don't get, but is enticing enough to make us want to explore it and figure out the puzzle. Ironically, in doing that, he does to us precisely what the story does to his characters, and, I think, that's the key to understand what's going on. I have no idea how long it took me to figure out the ending, but I think I'm finally there and The Hollow Men plays all the better now I have my own theory as to what it means. I should emphasise that while my theory holds true, as far as I can tell, it is just a theory and Denton may have aimed at something else entirely or even just to create a film that prompts its audience to theorise.

Two scientists walk into their laboratory for the umpteenth time, entirely familiar with their surroundings, moving through the routine steps they need to set up their new day, bickering at each other about their methodologies as they do so. Oli is the shorter one in the flying helmet that ought to look completely out of place but somehow fits with the delightfully analogue equipment with all its switches and dials. Charlie is the taller, more arrogant one who clearly believes he's in charge, whether he is or not. The word of the day is 'comfortable', but something is different and eventually they notice. There's some kind of burning vision at the end of a corridor, a sort of artificial sun that just sits there radiating light, waiting for them to notice it and start asking questions. 'What did you change?' Charlie asks Oli and they're off and running. What it is we're never really told, though it's apparently an unexpected overflow of their experiment to generate something. Its blinding light hides a doorway, which it has also metaphorically become.
And as they walk towards it, the picture restarts. They're back at the beginning, arguing as they walk into the lab. It isn't a straight repetition, of course. While actions and dialogue are mostly identical, there are changes which change all the more as Oli and Charlie realise that they've done this before. We aren't told how often they've been through this time loop already or how long it took before déjà vu set in, but they keep on restarting. We don't know how it's triggered or how large an area is affected. We have little data to go on, but we find a crucial point which sets up the dynamics of how they can jump the loop and move forward. What I find most fascinating about this is the irony with which the entire film is constructed. The scientists' job is clinical and methodical, but the reason they're watchable is that they're human beings, creating drama. The very stuff that makes the movie for us is what in them creates the opportunity for it to exist; when it goes away, so does the film. In a way, this is the purest and truest movie ending ever.

Denton's chief inspiration was Shane Carruth's Primer. 'Seeing Primer for the first time was like a kick in the soul,' he wrote on the film's website as part of a larger explanation that's well worth reading. Each of the points he makes there stood out for me as major successes for the film. The unexplained science was appropriate, to the degree that Oli and Charlie appropriately mumble through their routine. Not showing 'the machine' was a great choice, but so was not explaining it. Something as unreal as this MacGuffin is rendered all the more realistic by the characters not focusing their dialogue for the audience's benefit. A collection of tech donated by a ham radio nut grounds the whole thing. Even the major omission Denton cites is spot on; I wondered why there were so few cables. Sure, the old tech would have been designed to house them, but not so the bigger or more modern equipment. There are flaws, as the staticky editing was certainly overdone, but it's powerful, if not a film for everyone. Let's see if it grabs you too.

The Hollow Men can be watched for free online at Vimeo in a 2012 edit called Who are the Hollow Men?

Monday 18 August 2014

Antedon (2010)

Director: Alejandro Ayala Alberola
Stars: Alexandra Martín and Jorge Clorio
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
They may well have separate IMDb pages, but the slightest online research suggests that at least four of the seven Alejandro Ayala Alberolas there are the same person. Antedon, which played the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2011, was made by Alberola (III), while Dry Gulch, the creation of Alberola (VI), marked the return of his work to that festival two years later. Merely looking at the other films that he's uploaded to Vimeo and YouTube highlight that he's also the Alberola (IV) responsible for Guerra de Papel, made the same year as this, and the Alberola (V) behind Petropolis a year later. Why he's ending up with a new IMDb page for each new film, I have no idea, but perhaps there's a nefarious plot down in Mexico to clone Alejandro Ayala Alberolas to make animated science fiction films. I'm all for it, but I have to say that I much prefer Dry Gulch to Antedon. The two were made using very different animation styles, but the former has a lush and enticing presence to it while this one feels empty.

Dry Gulch also had a story, of sorts, while I'm really not sure what this one has. A large spaceship arrives in orbit around the moon of a planet and sends a shuttle down so a couple of stop motion astronauts can explore the surface. If I'm picking up what happens properly, they send up a flare and discover some sort of statue. There's a skeleton nearby. And then, perhaps looking into some sort of milky black surface, one of them becomes convinced that he's watching a prancing unicorn. As the surface opens to bathe him in inviting light, he enters and the end credits roll. It's that experimental and I have no clue what it's trying to say. The names don't seem to suggest any meaning. Antedon is a genus of stemless crinoids or water lilies, so that's presumably a dead end. The ship's name is another; Thebes could refer to any number of ancient cities, most notably the former capital of Egypt. I initially thought the male astronaut was Alejate, but that's merely the Spanish for 'Get away!' For some reason, both switch to English for their final lines.
If I don't understand what Antedon is trying to tell us, I can at least appreciate the unique approach that Alberola and his team of animators and filmmakers took to make this picture. Stop motion is rarely used nowadays because it's so time consuming, but I'm always happy when someone devotes that time. The motion is a little jerky, but I'm not sure how much of that is due to the number of frames in the animation itself and how much is the compression of the digital version available online. The outfits look subtly odd, probably because they're partially built out of Lego, but with the faces of real people overlaid inside them with the requisite heads up displays. I liked the look, but I did want to know what Alberola was aiming for them to do. I imagined 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner homages, but apparently the piece was inspired by the myth of the Sphinx, as depicted in Oedipus Rex, the classic tragedy by Sophocles. As that was about reason's victory over religion, I'm unsure how it applies here. Dry Gulch is far more accessible.

Antedon can be watched for free on Vimeo.

Earwigs (2010)

Director: Bruce Legrow
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
Regular attendees of genre film festivals may be excused for believing that there's a rule nowadays that requires the first film in a set of horror shorts to be a fake trailer for an outrageous throwback of a movie. Earwigs would certainly fit that bill magnificently, not least because it was made specifically for a trailer contest called Silver Wave, but at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2011, it opened up a set of sci-fi shorts instead. Hey, fifties monster movies were horror and sci-fi all at the same time, so I'm not complaining. From that single comment, though, if you have any background in the genre, you'll be able to visualise precisely what Bruce Legrow does with his two minutes. The bad news is that there's nothing else here, but the good news is that he does it very capably indeed. His anonymous actors don't just act the part, they look the part too, well cast as the stereotypes we expect and it's not difficult to figure out how the imaginary movie that Legrow never made to expand upon the trailer would play out.

Just in case we don't have that background, there's a synopsis online that goes a lot deeper. The scientist working on a serum to alter the human brain and unleash its 'full potential for empathy and compassion' is Dr Rutherford, who has a calamitous home life with a gossip of a wife. Once he adds in a 'caring gene' from an earwig, 'the great mothers of the solitary insect world', he's ready to leave it all by drinking the serum with his sexy assistant, Diana, so they can start 'a new loving life together'. She baulks though, so it's only Rutherford who turns into a giant earwig, prowling the city for women with whom to create a new family and using his newly acquired psychic powers to capture them and turn them into mindless slaves. Meanwhile, Private Buck, Diana's boyfriend, is eager to save her and gets his chance as the military take on the giant earwig's lair, a conveniently abandoned barn on the edge of town, with tanks and artillery. Well, they might be Communists, right?
Legrow does well in capturing the essence of fifties monster movies, even if the overblown advertising he slathers onto the screen is obviously digital rather than analogue. Other than that minor slip, the details are strong. It's shot in 16mm with costumes and cars that look appropriate for the era. Either he and his crew sourced well from thrift stores and antique shops or they built glorious props like the general's huge field telephone with an astute eye for detail. Even the anomalies are mostly appropriate, like the young lady in her nightgown who is tormented outside for no apparent reason. The only one that seems a little out of place is the parade of villagers with torches and pitchforks, which ought to fit far better within an homage to Universal horrors than sci-fi B movies. The stock footage, with inevitably different grain, is a nice touch, as I've seen that many times. The lighting, the subservient women, the use of garbage sacks as costumes, all help to add authenticity to the piece. Hey, I'd definitely watch this feature!

Earwigs can be watched for free on YouTube.

More details can be found in Robert Hood's article, There's a New Bug in Town, where you can also hear the film's amazing theme tune, My Baby Left Me for an Earwig by the Hot Rod Daddy Oh's.

Sunday 17 August 2014

Dark Places (2005)

Director: Guy Crawford
Stars: Nessa Hawkins, David C Hayes and Syn DeVil
This film was an official selection at the 1rd Phoenix Fear Film Festival in Phoenix in 2006. Here's an index to my reviews of 2006 films.
Dark Places is one of those overly generic titles that doesn't promise much, but it's an oddly appropriate one given where it takes us. We're here to follow Keri Walker, a drug addicted whore, so she's hardly in a pleasant place to begin with and she quickly finds worse. 'You looking for a date?' is her first line, never a promising one in a horror movie, whatever the budget, and sure enough, her potential client throws her in the back seat and tries to rape her. She defends herself with a razor blade, so things get as messy as they do dark. To highlight how whacked out she is, we see much of this in schizophrenic montages, with staccato editing and a ravy soundtrack. Before we even get to the opening credits, she finds herself in a bathroom for a particularly freaky scene that sets the stage well. She's trying to clean up, utterly shaken, when another hooker comes in and tries to talk to her. It's a bizarre, utterly one-sided conversation that tells us a great deal immediately and may well tell us a lot more in hindsight, eighty minutes later.

Each time she descends to a new circle in her personal Hell we wonder if this is as far as she's going to go, but this film keeps switching the lights on another circle down. She's already physically and sexually abused, so next up is verbally abused. She walks over to her dealer Rush's place, hoping for a hit and a place to sleep, but he only sells her the former. 'You're not my friend,' he blisters at her. 'You're nobody's friend.' The hooker in the bathroom mentioned that she's going to stay at 'fat ass Luther's', so she heads over there to join her. He has an entire collection of hookers and addicts inside in every state of oblivion, some dancing it up like they're having the time of their lives, some completely zoned as if they've done that already and others passed out with nothing left in them. There's an elderly skeleton of an addict in the bathroom, hurling an encore of verbal abuse Keri's way; there's a prom queen in clown-like make-up looking for her crown; and there's a chick in Luther's bedroom who appears to have her lips sewn shut.

'Who says you'll be safer inside?' Luther asked her before she chose to enter and, given that he's played by David C Hayes, that's a really good question. He co-wrote and co-produced this film with director Guy Crawford and, while it fits very well with the freaky taboo roles he so often plays, it's far more consistent in its freakiness than most of the rest. Much of that has to do with the wild editing, courtesy of Nic Hill, which often makes us feel like we're going through a similar trip to Keri, but it's also due to those dark places which the film embraces. Every time we think Keri may have a lucid moment, the film is ready to scotch that. 'Kill yourself,' chants the anorexic druggy in the mirror. 'There's nothing out there for you,' suggests a strange chick who walks into the bathroom with her. At times, Luther's place seems like a set of trippers tripping different trips; at others, it's much more like a lunatic asylum. The tone and even the geography of the place changes, as if it's more of a nightmare place than a physical one.
Even lines that might play appropriately in the real world bleed into another level in this film. 'Everyone ends up here,' says one of its guests, after Keri wakes up from a nightmare to find there are four people on her single bed. It's at this point that the strangest thing happens, because this twisted exploitation flick reveals a heart and a substance that we really don't expect. Don't get me wrong, there are a whole bunch of problems here but we don't care as much as we would under other circumstances. The picture quality and lighting are notably variable. Sound is even more of an issue, as I suspect that the constant soundtrack doesn't merely aid the trippy feel of the piece, it also conceals for the most part the poorly recorded sound, which is ramped up every time someone has dialogue, accompanying static and all. If this had been another film, we could get disheartened quickly and drift away. Yet this keeps us watching for a bunch of reasons, the chief among them being Nessa Hawkins, who is amazing as Keri.

If IMDb is anything to go by, this is her only lead role, which is surprising. A year earlier, she had written and directed a short film called Drive By which won an award in Albuquerque; a year later, she appeared in another David C Hayes film, Machined. Why she vanished off the cinematic map, I have no idea, but it was far too soon. This isn't the sort of film that anyone watches to experience great acting and some of the supporting players are clearly here because they look their parts rather than because they could act them, but Hawkins is a real discovery, utterly believable in her role. She dominates proceedings, even if those proceedings dominate her character. Of course, the hallucinogenic feel helps her because she has few long scenes and those she has are strongly edited. There are also superb little shots that emphasise her plight, like one where we watch her shake on the floor, only to realise that the floor is a door when it opens to let her through, because the shot was taken from above it.

It's odd to care so much about a character like Keri, but the performance Hawkins turns in and the freaky framework that has her stuck in these dark places like a rat in a maze help us do exactly that. She knows full well that she's been on a downward spiral for a long time and she wishes she was able to escape the pain in a surprisingly sympathetic way. Of course, we never know how much of this is real and how much hallucination or nightmare, but it's claustrophobic and that helps us want her to get out. Even if she dug most of the holes she's found herself in, she's put through a lot more than we'd wish on anyone, and we don't exactly find a lot of sympathetic characters anywhere else. The bad guys are bad guys and so are the good guys, to someone like Keri. The only character in the film who does anything positive for her is Tim, one of the guests at Luther's, and he ends up bludgeoned to death and thrown into a pit. Nobody is able to help, not even the one who was willing, so Keri has to find a way to help herself.
While we aren't convinced from moment one that everything we see is real, Keri's inexorable descent into dark places continues until nobody can fail to notice how metaphorical it becomes. The key is also hinted at throughout but the most obtuse viewers shouldn't be too surprised when it shows up with a vengeance fifty minutes in to prompt us to reevaluate everything we've seen. One of the brightest decisions that the writers made was to tie the progression of the script so closely to Keri's state of mind, because it provides a fascinating and surprisingly substantial trip for we viewers and also inherently forgives any odd slips of consistency. Given that Keri isn't exactly seeing through lucid eyes, anything that doesn't make sense to us can be explained away as not making sense to her. This makes what actually happens less important than how it all goes down, which brings us back to Keri's hallucinogenic fever dream that manifests itself through the visual aesthetic and the increasing metaphors.

This makes me wonder whether Hayes's most important contribution to the film was as a scriptwriter or an actor. Certainly he's gone to darker places in other films, often in much smaller roles, but this is a big part in which he's consistently, freakily watchable. He holds court in a wildly outsider way, wearing a toga to sing and dance before a rapt and chanting crowd utterly under his thumb. His control varies from calm dominance to childlike frustration, though there's more of an edge here than I've seen when he's brought out the big baby approach before. He was embarrassing in Back Woods, for instance, but he's dangerous here. Keri finds out the hard way what happens to people who cross Luther. Also, it's bizarrely successful to have his screen wife here be a gothic lesbian dominatrix, with him because he makes her laugh. While Syn DeVil, like so many of the supporting actors, could have delivered her lines with more meaning, she couldn't possibly have fit the part better physically.

Director Guy Crawford is known for his edgy horror movies, though this is the only one I've seen thus far. He may have started out with what appears to be a relatively conventional slasher movie in The Catcher and his last film, Flesh, TX, doesn't look particularly out there, but in between there's a set of pictures in which he moved progressively into weirder, less commercial, more ambitious territory, such as Starved, Autopsy: A Love Story and Dark Places. This could be seen as an art film as much as an exploitation flick, because it really does come down to the trippy feel of the piece, which is generated by wild editing, odd gimmicks and deceptively loose writing. It's always interesting to see what someone with imagination can do with very little budget and there's no way that Crawford had much in hand to make this one, part of why it runs under 80 minutes. I'm sure that most viewers will have some idea of what they'll see, but I bet that most of them will end up surprised at how imaginative, successful and untraditional it is.