Wednesday 29 October 2014

Gentlemen of Nerve (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin and Mack Swain
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
The grand sweep of Chaplin's Keystone pictures, especially those from the second half of 1914 which he wrote and directed himself with the benefit of substantial creative control, is clearly all about his growth as a filmmaker. Most of these self-directed films highlight his newfound mastery of something and a new experiment to attempt to solve something else. Given that his previous film, Dough and Dynamite, was a peach of a picture, surely his best yet, it's somewhat frustrating to realise that this one absolutely isn't. I have no doubt that the title of Gentlemen of Nerve is supposed to have at least three meanings, but I'm seeing the fourth, which is the nerve of the gentlemen at Keystone, including Chaplin himself, who shot this overly generic revisit to a number of his earlier films and released it three days after what became his most successful Keystone picture of them all and arguably his best too. A quarter of the way in, my better half asked me, 'Didn't we see this one already?' and I knew exactly what she meant.

The first deliberate meaning of the title presumably refers to the real drivers racing their automobiles on the Ascot Park Speedway in Los Angeles on Sunday, 20th September, 1914. This is the same venue which served as the background for Mabel's Busy Day, four months earlier, possibly the worst of Chaplin's 1914 shorts. That was ostensibly a Mabel Normand picture with Chaplin trying to steal it from her, while this is a Charlie Chaplin picture with Normand trying to steal it from him, so it could easily be regarded as a riff on the earlier film or a thematic sequel. I found Mabel's Busy Day not only the worst of Chaplin's pictures for Keystone but the one in which he was most obnoxious and least sympathetic; he returns to that here somewhat but not to the same degree. Fortunately, Mabel, an annoying character in that film too for her constant 'woe is me' attitude and an unbelievable copout at the end, is an absolute joy here and surely the cause of some of the best moments in the picture.

The second meaning isn't obvious on screen, but refers to Bert Dingley and Ed Swanson, for whom this event was a benefit as they'd been recently injured racing in Tacoma. Dingley was a major name, known at the time as the first American Championship Car Racing champion, having won the championship in 1909. Racing was a dangerous sport and injury or even death were common. In 1929, after fifteen years of advancement from the vehicles seen here, the Indianapolis 500 was filmed for Speedway, a William Haines film. One driver died during that race, possibly in an on screen crash, and the winner died almost three weeks later in another race. This benefit was therefore a real event, including many 'freak races' 'including a foot-auto-horse and bicycle race, quart of gas race, dress up race, quarter-mile slow race in high gear, exhibition mile, tug of war between motor trucks, and junior race.' Attendees paid fifty cents per ticket, even members of the press, so the 5,000 who showed up raised $2,500 for the injured men.
Of course, the third and last deliberate meaning of the title refers to Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain, as they attempt to find their way into the event without paying, just as Charlie managed to do in the earlier picture. Everywhere I look seems to identify the two as friends, but they don't seem to be; they're merely both trying to do the same thing at the same time. There is some humour in their interaction, but mostly it was the bystanders who engrossed me. Gentlemen of Nerve was the fourth Chaplin picture at Keystone to be shot on location during real auto races and it's been fascinating to watch how the regular audience interacted with what he did. During Kid Auto Races at Venice, shot in January, nobody had a clue who he was because he wouldn't appear on screen until February and so they watched the races instead, at least for a while. By the end of May, when Mabel's Busy Day was shot, they knew exactly who he was and they watched him instead. Here in October, they're lining up to see what he has in store and he plays that up.

Mack Swain was a talented comedian, as we've seen in many of Chaplin's Keystone shorts, but he's more of a lumbering ox here without anything much to warrant his presence. It's telling that his best scene by far is the one where he tries to get into the races through the gap made by a missing board in a wall. He gets stuck, naturally, and nothing seems to help, not even the time honoured Keystone boot to the rear, which Charlie attempts a number of times before handing over the reins to the cop who shows up to try to pull him back. The best bit about the scene is Charlie clearly getting fed up with the wait and crawling through Swain's legs instead. The next best is how the folk in the makeshift bar on the other side of the wall act once he shows up. One lady passes him a seltzer bottle, which he puts to good use, though its spray mysteriously attains the power of fire hose when it goes through the gap in the wall to hit the cop in the face on the outside. None of the best bits are Swain's and yet this is his best part of the picture.

For such a throwaway short film, the cast is a strong one. Before Chaplin shows up to start shenanigans at the gate, we've watched Mabel Normand and her beau for this picture, Chester Conklin, pay their way in and sit down to watch the fun. Unfortunately, they sit right next to Phyllis Allen, who flirts up a storm with Chester and pisses Mabel off no end. Of course, with Mabel on his arm, we really have no idea why Conklin is interested in this flirtatious woman; Conklin was born in 1886, so Normand, a former postcard model and bathing beauty, was six years his junior, while Allen, a bulky battleaxe, was a full quarter of a century older. None of it makes any sense, but it is at least mildly amusing until Normand elevates it by orchestrating her revenge by neatly stamping on her competitor's foot. She elevates the picture in this sort of way a couple of times more as it runs on too, the other times opposite Chaplin rather than Allen. That she steals both of those scenes highlights her talent well.
Mostly though, I wasn't watching the cast, I was watching the audience. Swain is only used for his bulk, while Conklin is given ridiculous scenes to set up Normand, but as good as she is here, she's not given a lot to do. Chaplin is the focus, of course, at least once he actually shows up, which is a surprising amount of time into the picture, but even when he's shining, he's generally shining in front of a host of folk who can't wait to see what he's going to do. Beyond being the next step in the progression of how audiences saw Chaplin's star rising, there are two reasons why this is interesting. One is that Keystone weren't just here to shoot a film, they were here to be part of the event too and it's clear that Chaplin was playing to the crowd. The other is that there are ringers dotted amongst it, so that he can interact with them. Who they are, I have no idea, but it was fun trying to figure out which were Keystone actors and which regular members of the audience. There's a great interactive scene where Charlie antagonises some of them.

There are other strong moments too. One minor but enjoyable one involves Charlie and Mabel, who has ditched the unattentive Chester for the overly attentive Charlie, and an amazing vehicle, identified by a sign as the Franklin Wind Machine. It's a large automobile with a huge propellor on the front; as Charlie leans on the latter, it knocks off his hat, and when it's started up, both he and Mabel are blown away. In an earlier scene, before Mabel finds her way to Charlie, he sits down by another girl who has a drink with a straw; he cleverly sneaks enough of it while she isn't looking that she eventually just gives it to him. I particularly liked the scene where Conklin's character kisses Allen's and she goes ballistic, but that's as much for the reaction of the crowd around them as it is for the characters. These various moments help to keep the picture a lot more interesting than Mabel's Busy Day and perhaps the best of them is left for last, as Charlie aims to kiss Mabel, only for her to rebuff him in a great scene-stealing moment.

Sadly, these moments are peppered through a notably weaker film than usual. It's a racing film without any real racing, though there is one beautifully atmospheric shot of cars lined up for a tyre change race, half hidden by smoke. While Chaplin is more sympathetic here than in Mabel's Busy Day, he's still firmly back in obnoxious mode and there are a couple of notably violent moments that feel more like the first half of his year at the studio than the second: in one he bites Conklin's nose and in the other pokes a lit cigarette onto Swain's. Who nose why those seemed appropriate at this point in time, when his general direction was away from that sort of thing. The editing is notably rough, like a workprint not a polished film. Mostly the whole thing is a long string of déjà vu as it's all reminiscent of, if not outright replicated from, a host of earlier Chaplin films. We might be able to bend a little, this being part of a charity event, though I don't know the financial details, but we can't fully forgive the relentless familiarity of it all.

Incidentally, Chaplin's character name here is Mr Wow-Wow, which doesn't seem to have any connection to the film at all. Instead it was sourced from the Fred Karno sketch, The Wow Wows, which the impresario had written specifically for an American audience and chosen for his company (at the time including not only Chaplin but also Stanley Jefferson, later to become Stan Laurel) to play when they toured the United States in 1910, though they had all advised him against it. A skit on secret societies like the freemasons, it played fairly well but failed to engage with audiences and Karno found much greater success after he replaced The Wow Wows with Mumming Birds, retitled A Night in an English Music Hall, which was a tour de force for Chaplin, the reason Mack Sennett sought him out for Keystone and from which he borrowed for a number of films for the studio, most especially The Knockout. He didn't do the same with The Wow Wows but, from his choice of character name here, it apparently resonated with him at least a little.

Important Sources:
Anon - Horseless Age: The Automobile Trade Magazine, Volume 34 (2011)
David Robinson - Chaplin, the Mirror of Opinion (1983)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Gentlemen of Nerve can be viewed for free on 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.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Dough and Dynamite (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin and Chester Conklin
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.
If Those Love Pangs was a lesser film in Chaplin's filmography, there's good reason; all the best material had been left out, marked instead for this film. That picture had aimed to set him and Chester Conklin up as screen rivals for the attentions of their landlady, without any real idea of how that was going to unfold. Chaplin developed the idea of them working at a bakery and that soon grew into such promising material that it was shifted out to be a separate picture, this one. Those Love Pangs was therefore developed once again, was shot quickly in only four days and ended up feeling much like an afterthought, albeit one that benefitted from Chaplin's continued growth as a filmmaker; he endowed it with enough interesting detail that it doesn't feel unworthy of attention. It's immediately obvious that Dough and Dynamite completely overshadows it, though, as Jeffrey Vance ably highlights: 'In the early silent-film era,' he explains, 'Dough and Dynamite was generally regarded as one of the greatest of all Hollywood comedies.'

He also calls it 'perhaps the most important comedy Chaplin made in his early ascent to screen stardom and the most profitable of all the Keystone two-reel comedies.' These are powerful but deceptively simple words that deserve to be expanded. Most of Chaplin's Keystone films were one-reelers, which describes both their length and their importance. A reel is a single magazine containing one thousand feet of film. In the sound era, reels were projected at 24 frames per second, which meant that one reel amounted to eleven minutes or so of material. Back in the days of the silents, projection was slower, varying between 16 and 22 frames per second, so that reel played for longer, as much as fourteen or fifteen minutes. Two-reelers took up twice as much film and twice as much running time, so were reserved for more important pictures. While Chaplin had acted in a few, he had only previously made one as a director, The Property Man. Both Those Love Pangs and Dough and Dynamite were initially slated for one reel only.

In his autobiography, Chaplin explains that he went notably overbudget, never a good sign for a director. Mack Sennett expected each Keystone picture to cost under a thousand dollars, but Dough and Dynamite bloated up to eighteen hundred, losing Chaplin his $25 bonus for bringing it in under budget. That sort of thing might have cost him more, such as the creative freedom he had to continue writing and directing his own pictures, but the result was recognised by unprecedented success at the box office. In his own words: 'The only way they could retrieve themselves, said Sennett, would be to put it out as a two-reeler, which they did, and it grossed more than one hundred and thirty thousand dollars the first year.' With the film making that much money, no wonder Chaplin remained in charge of his own films. However, Sennett fought the idea that spending more opened up the possibility of earning more, one prominent reason why Chaplin was already seeking a new employer, even as he was bringing his brother, Sydney, to Keystone.
If he was spending more money than his boss wanted, Chaplin was at least becoming more efficient as a filmmaker. Shooting of The Property Man ran over seventeen days, not counting any taken off, but Dough and Dynamite took only fourteen, beginning on 29th August and ending on 11th September, unfortunate for a film that ends with a successful terrorist attack. Chaplin's autobiography cites nine of those days as being shooting days, but there's so much crammed into the film, which runs almost half an hour, that it's amazing to think of how quickly the complex choreography must have been mastered. It's that interplay between characters that leaps out the most in this picture, not only in how well it's done but in how much of it there is and how constantly it continues. While the action does escalate, as we might expect, to that explosive finalé, it feels much more natural in its progression than usual and it's paced magnificently. We breathe easily throughout, even as we're given a constant barrage of slapstick.

Charlie is a waiter again, this time at a bakery with its own restaurant, and he's about as effective at it as usual. He starts out collecting plates from tables but is so absent-minded that he collects one that's only just been delivered, scraping leftovers from other plates onto it before the customer is able to take a bite. Within forty busy seconds, he's reprimanded by the customer, apologises for his actions, returns his food, retrieves the leftovers with his fingers and drops some in the man's lap, samples what's left and wipes his fingers on both his own trousers and the customer's jacket. This scene highlights just how much is going on in this picture. While it's an ancient critic's cliché to suggest that viewers shouldn't blink or they'll miss something, it's fundamentally true in this picture as the detail continues to be this dense throughout and it rarely lets up. In fact, there's a great deal of prestaging going on here: often what seem like throwaway mistakes turn out to be carefully setting up later moments, but more of that later.

Of course the sense of hygiene is terrible: Gordon Ramsey would be horrified and we haven't even found our way down to the kitchen yet. That's downstairs, through a trapdoor set in the floor of the main dining area, opposite the door to the kitchen. There's no way that that could go horribly wrong, huh? Well, at this point, the place seems to be running very smoothly, Charlie being the only spanner in the works or fly in the ointment, driven both by laziness and an eye for the ladies. He promptly leaves that customer with a collection of plates because a lovely young creature has just wandered up to the front, its counter display neatly labelled 'Assorted French Tarts'. This allows him to both imitate her enticing sway and play havoc with a plate of pastries, one naturally flying through the air with the greatest of ease onto the face of the very same beleaguered customer Charlie had already caused so much trouble for. We're only two scenes in and both props and people (not that there's much difference) are already being re-used and built upon.
It's not surprising to see why audiences loved this one. The slapstick arrives quickly and while it's hardly high brow stuff, it's impeccably timed, carefully choreographed and continues on unabated. Even though many of these moves, especially those within fights, are routine ones that we've seen many times before and not only in Chaplin's films either, they're put to use magnificently and, if the film is a piece of music, they serve ably as its beats. There's a real rhythm here that goes far beyond anything achieved in any of the earlier Chaplin shorts and it persists for much longer. Where most Keystone films begin with an idea that spawns action and escalates rapidly into a frantic chase scene, Chaplin had already been aiming for a different approach for some time and here finally mastered his counter. This feels more like a dance, in which the tempo is just as important as the choreography and the end result grows as much through the expansion of participants and scope than the moves they make.

Chaplin's growing sophistication is highlighted not only through the number of participants who actually have something to do here but through how he introduces them. Keystone pictures were never known for their subtlety, so characters tended to have one function and they showed up just in time to perform it. In this picture, many have a whole bunch of scenes in which they do very little except act naturally until the moment they're called upon to shine. The story even has a grand sweep that actually makes sense within the logic of the film, even if it doesn't make a lot of sense outside of it. Even if the idea of Charlie and his partner in crime, played by Chester Conklin, being elevated from mere waiters to replace the entire staff of bakers, was prompted by industrial action really sweeping Los Angeles at the time, as Vance suggests, I'm at a loss to see how striking bakers might better find their demands met by blowing up the places at which they work. Chaplin was oustpoken politically but this doesn't feel like social comment.

Instead it feels like simplification. This unnamed bakery is run by Fritz Schade and his wife Norma Nichols. Chaplin and Conklin are their waiters, while Cecile Arnold and maybe Peggy Page are the waitresses. Jess Dandy in drag is the astoundingly homely cook, reminding very much of the female characters comedian Les Dawson would play many decades later. All these are portrayed in a neutral light, as neither good nor bad, as are the customers, played by Vivian Edwards, Phyllis Allen and Charles Parrott, who had not yet become Charley Chase. The bakers, led by Glen Cavender and including Slim Summerville and possibly Edgar Kennedy, among others, are the ones with emotional bias. They 'want less work and more pay', as an intertitle highlights, and though there's nothing to suggest whether their demands are fair or not, it's clear that their subsequent actions aren't. They storm out, gesticulating wildly, then buy a loaf of bread, stuff it with dynamite and have a little girl return it to the bakery for them. Oh yes, they're villains!
With that framework outlined, you can imagine the rest yourselves. However, your imagination might fall short for a change, as this one's a marvel, the scenario written by Chaplin but apparently in collaboration with Sennett, who didn't have any of the subtlety on show here. The choreography, tempo and attention detail surely all belong to Chaplin; I can't see what Sennett might have contributed, unless it was gags. There are strong setpieces, like one where Charlie parades up and down in front of Schade with a tray of loaves on his head. We're impressed by his achievement but still believe that he slips up and drops one until we realise that it's all a setup; he leans over to retrieve it and promptly loses the rest. Another has Charlie effectively handcuffing himself behind his back with dough, having to climb through his arms to escape. There are setpieces in many of Chaplin's early films though; more of them, however well done, aren't groundbreaking. What I found new here were the more subtle things in the background.

Some tied to reuse of props. Another apparently throwaway moment that I thought was a mistake arrived when a baker attempts to transfer dough from a vat to a table to knead and instead lets most of it fall on the floor. It's ignored for a while, as if it never happened, but later it comes into focus when Chester slips on it and then again when Charlie picks it up and throws it back into the vat, highlighting the ineptitude of the waiters and their horrible approach to industrial hygiene. Other subtleties tie to gradual discovery too, but by us catching up to them rather than the plot. One of my favourite moments came after Charlie finishes cleaning up the kitchen and sits down on a large sack of flour. Only then did I realise that Chester Conklin had been in the scene all along, still pinned underneath it after Charlie had dropped it down the stairs onto him a little earlier. To me, this highlighted just how much Chaplin was becoming totally aware of everything going on in his films, so that he could best use those details to this sort of effect.

Something else that leapt out at me here is the completely democratic manner in which abuse is dished out. While we know the Little Tramp today as a sympathetic creature, he could be and often was actively obnoxious in some of his earlier pictures. Critics have called out instances where he heaps violent abuse on some character or other in a completely one-sided act that's often impossible to justify. Here, nobody escapes! Chaplin is on the receiving end just as much as he's dishing it out, as is Conklin. The waitresses may escape more than most but they get theirs too, as does the boss, the cook and even the customers, some of whom also get a few notable shots in of their own. Of course, the bakers receive plenty, just as they dish out plenty, including the explosive grand finalé. I can easily imagine Sennett dishing some out to Chaplin too, off screen for notably failing to keep within budget, but Chaplin, who certainly delivered here his best film thus far, clearly had the last word: a hundred and thirty thousand of them.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Dough and Dynamite can be viewed for free on 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.

Monday 13 October 2014

Exit to Hell (2013)

Director: Robert Conway
Stars: Kane Hodder, Tiffany Shepis, Rena Riffel, Dustin James, Owen Conway, Taryn Maxximillian Dafoe, Jason Spisak and Dan Higgins
I first saw Exit to Hell under the title of Sickle and I'm in two minds as to the change. Sure, Sickle makes it sound like a routine slasher movie, when there is a little bit more going on here, but Exit to Hell is more of a spoiler than a clarification. If the title is going to bring it that far out into the open, then I presume I can safely highlight that when folk turn off old 69 in Arizona and find themselves in the professionally isolated backwoods town of Red Stone, they're not quite entering the realm of the usual cannibal hick murderers; this place is a little more on the supernatural side. In Sickle, we're supposed to gradually realise that only bad people manage to lose the main road and take the same mysterious turn that none seem to notice, then wonder about what that really means. If it isn't literally Red Stone, a suggestive name to begin with, are they in Hell, Purgatory or just some cursed zone that feeds on dark souls? In a film called Exit to Hell, of course, it's frickin' obvious, even if none of them die until they get there. I liked the ambiguity more.

There's not a heck of a lot of ambiguity anywhere else in the film, because writer/director Robert Conway knows exactly what he wants to throw on the screen and he can't be accused of false advertising. This is neo-grindhouse pulp, painted in that modern style that grindhouse never really was but we imagine that we remember. Of course, the music is newer and heavier and the editing, especially during the opening credits sequence, is MTV ADD. After that, the artificial aging is predominantly restricted to wild transition effects; there are a lot of them throughout but they're not omnipresent. Instead we're given reminders of that seventies vibe in changes to the colour saturation levels and noticeable rear projection, not bad per se but deliberately noticeable. Most of all, the subject matter continually plays out in the neo-grindhouse style, full of drugs, gore and freakiness. It's not as stylised as Rodriguez, as cool as Tarantino or as nasty as Zombie, but it plays well to its budget. This is the sort of VHS you'd have gladly rented in 1985.

Perhaps my memory is playing up, but watching Exit to Hell on Netflix, I found it slightly different to what I remembered of Sickle, which screened with a Q&A at Phoenix Comicon last year. I remembered the odd footage from Conway's gore short, Necro Wars, that kicks in before the movie proper as a wild extension to the various production company idents, but I didn't remember there being quite so much of it. All told, we surely see most of that ten minute short dotted throughout the movie, which isn't good given that the running time is a brief 81 minutes. Knock out Necro Wars and the credits and the picture proper clocks in around the 70 minute mark, hardly a substantial piece. The thing is that I remember more of it from when it was called Sickle, with certain key scenes feeling a little less substantial here and the pace a little more pepped up. Didn't Sheriff Sickle get to use the enhancements on his police car bonnet or was I dreaming at the end of a long Comicon day? Certainly this could easily benefit from more flesh on its bones.
The good news is that the lack of real substance is the biggest flaw of the movie. Conway nails the style he wanted far better and more consistently than various other local filmmakers working with similarly low budgets. The most obvious comparisons are to Brian Skiba's more prominent recent neo-grindhouse films which share many of the same cast, such as Blood Moon Rising and .357: Six Bullets for Revenge. There's more going on in the former and more big names in the latter, but Exit to Hell plays out better than either of them, because it's consistent to itself and Conway hides the budget better. He achieves that by finding a strong location, killing off his characters liberally and stripping away the fat. Yes, he needed more meat on his bones, but at least he got rid of the fat. Those two Skiba films may well be more substantial meals than Conway's, but their fat content is enough to choke a whole bundle of arteries. This one doesn't have any room for distractions.

The story is pretty simple. A gang of thieves are robbing strip clubs and their latest target is Baby Dolls in Phoenix. Well, that's what the sign says, even if the DJ calls it the Pink Pussy. Their approach is to infiltrate a place and then wait for their moment to strike. Here, they've become Travis the DJ, Tasha the bartender, Jenna the stripper and Randy the customer, and their moment arrives in notably bloody fashion as Randy has a temper and the place promptly turns into a bloodbath, what the news dubs the Silicone Slaughter. Off they drive through the night to the border, but Randy lands them in Red Stone instead. We know what happens in Red Stone, because we've already followed a couple of opportunistic killers there in the form of a bug eyed Jose Rosete and a coked up Shane Dean. Cheno and Pablo really aren't bright but holding up Mordin's gas station just as Sheriff Sickle walks in turns out to be a particularly dumb move. The cop demonstrates why his name is appropriate and we're down a couple of talented local names.

Fortunately there are more to come. The leader of the thieves is Dustin Leighton, who I last saw in a short film, Kerry and Angie, but was also the lead in Conway's debut feature, Redemption: A Mile from Hell. The most prominent of the thieves turns out to be Jenna, played by scream queen Tiffany Shepis, who doesn't scream much here because she's clearly too strong to be a stereotypical victim, even while being chased down by Sheriff Sickle. Boris, who ran the strip club, is Michael Harrelson delivering a pretty good Russian accent. Even better is Jason Spisak as his boss, Yakov, a ruthless Russian crime lord who chases down the thieves and naturally ends up in Red Stone too. Spisak has appeared in a number of Arizona horror flicks, from Piranha to Locker 13, but he's far better known as a voice actor, probably why I first experienced his work as a narrator in Avé Maria. Shane Stevens gives a good showing in the coda and the late Noah Todd philosophises well while feeding his snake. As he died in 2010, this film obviously took a while in post.
With so many actors in such a short running time, it shouldn't be surprising that many of them get little to do. I haven't even mentioned Kevin Tye, who gets killed off so quickly that he hasn't even made it onto the film's IMDb page. Stevens is there for a very specific reason so his part is just right, but Tye, Rosete, Dean, Harrelson, Todd, even Leighton, all deserve a little more screen time. At least they are very much supporting actors here, but even the more prominent names get surprisingly little to do. It's Shepis who gets the most screen time but she gets little to do with it, at least kicking off with a topless dance routine and finding her way quickly into peril and out of it. She isn't top billed though, that honour given to Kane Hodder as Sheriff Sickle, presiding over all the overtly gratuitous gore on show. The title change doesn't do him any justice, as much of the brooding presence he had in the title role is lost as he becomes just another character. Like most of the cast, he does what he's asked but should have had more to do.

There are two other prominent actors in the same boat. Rena Riffel is another actor brought in from out of state, but she's particularly sidelined, even if she gets an exotic dance of her own. As Penny, she's tasked with little more than playing a stereotypically dumb blonde stripper who inadvertently puts Yakov on the trail of the thieves. The other is Dan Higgins, who thankfully succeeds where most of these actors failed, by stamping his presence on the film so emphatically that he's who I remember most when I think about it. That's a notable accomplishment when the lead is a force of nature and both Shepis and Riffel deliver pole dances, but his role is as a backwoods gas station owner. He's consistently note perfect, but his real scene to shine is the one when Yakov walks in and asks how he can find the thieves who are clearly here in town. It's a wonderful scene, a great adaptation of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, because Mordin defies Yakov in ways he never imagined. Both actors ought to win, but Higgins takes it.

That's the best scene in the film, even if, like most of the rest, it deserved to run longer. Others are much more exploitative, outrageous and/or gruesome, but Conway lets loose with the gore far more than any of the other elements he plays with. The nudity is restricted to early scenes and sex is rarely suggested. The cool angle to neo-grindhouse isn't prominent in the dialogue, which is relatively routine and mostly shorn of bad eighties puns, or the enhancements to the bonnet of Sheriff Sickle's car, which are wasted in this cut, even if they were given a use in my memory of the one I saw at Phoenix Comicon. Esther Goodstein deserves a mention as Sickle's wife, even if her cool role is restricted so far as to be a prop, yet another reminder that everything in this film is strong and consistent but used too sparsely. It would be better if the Necro Wars footage was stripped and every character and every scene bulked up so that this would run ninety or even a hundred minutes. As it is, it's a promise rather than a delivery.

Sunday 12 October 2014

Tennessee's Partner (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Mikal Benion, Andre Stephens, Michael Rivers, Jason Tucker, Hanifah Holsome, Billy Williams, Gus Edwards and Dre Ducati
I remembered Tennessee's Partner pretty well from its festival screening. It stood out at the time because it had an all black cast, the pace was notably slow and the music was a little different to the films around it. After rewatching, it's the genre that stands out as Mills converted it into a completely different style to the 1869 story by Bret Harte. Harte is mostly known for his early work that surrounds the California gold rush, so westerns. Tennessee's Partner is one of his most remembered stories, enough that it's inspired a following. Allan Dwan directed a feature in 1955 with Ronald Reagan in the title role, playing what Peter Bogdanovich described as 'his most likeable performance.' Parts of the western musical Paint Your Wagon are clearly inspired by it, as is the Four Seasons song Big Girls Don't Cry, at least in the memory of lyricist Bob Gaudio, as recounted in Jersey Boys; he thought he was watching John Payne in Tennessee's Partner, when it was really John Payne in Slightly Scarlet. Anyway, Travis Mills turns it into an urban gangster flick.

It's an odd story, with an odder ending. I literally reread the last couple of paragraphs half a dozen times to figure out exactly what Harte was trying to say. Initially I thought he'd turned his western into a ghost story, but really he was emphasising the brotherly love between Tennessee and the unnamed character known only as Tennessee's Partner. It's a strong one because it had already survived the sort of incident which would set most brothers at each other's throats. After Tennessee's Partner had brought back a wife to the fancifully named Poker Flat, Tennessee promptly stole her away for himself. Yet when he returned, without her, as she'd been stolen away in turn by another, the Partner met him with a handshake and not an ill word said. No wonder the similarly nameless narrator (Harte makes it clear that names have little meaning in Poker Flat) felt it important to tell the tale of this forgiving man who met betrayal with loyalty. He's a simple and serious man, who risks his life for his partner and whose dying thoughts are of him.

Mills actually keeps most of the story intact, even with its translation to east side gangster story. He kicks things off at the point where Tennessee returns and tells it primarily through the gossip of two black men who sit on a porch and drink. As is appropriate for a Bret Harte story, they aren't given names but they're played by Billy Williams and Running Wild Films co-founder Gus Edwards and the dialogue is strong. This is a good way to fill in background and both of them are easily up to it. As neither of them is likely to ever leave that porch unless its to get a fresh bottle, it falls instead to Mikal Benion's character, who sits there listening but never saying a word, to literally take us with him to witness the consequences of the events they're gossiping about. Quite why he's such an obvious tail I have no idea. Maybe Mills read 'simple and serious' in another fashion entirely. Maybe his Partner is happy for someone to tell his story. Maybe it's all conjured out of the mind of Benion's character, of which more later.
What Mills cuts out is the ending, not only those last couple of paragraphs that I had to reread but quite a few before it too. In Harte's story, Tennessee is known to be a gambler and suspected to be a thief, but he apparently gets a little too blatant and is consequently tried for armed robbery. Quite whether this is true or not is open to debate, given that he's caught and tried by the man he allegedly robbed, a Judge Lynch no less, in one day, then hanged and buried the next. The wings of justice were ever swift in the old west, but they weren't always just, especially with the word 'lynch' in play. Even with his translation to gangster flick, Mills keeps it all consistent up until the trial, merely substituting the real judge for a local crime lord merely nicknamed 'the Judge', again an appropriate switch for a Bret Harte story in which everyone goes by a nickname whether they need one or not. After that, he takes a couple of details from the story and gives them a whole new meaning, thus providing an intriguingly new and more substantial ending.

I liked Tennessee's Partner when I first saw it, but that ending is what's staying with me from this viewing. It's appropriate to quote a western here, given that's what Harte wrote, so I'll quote the memorable line from the ending of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance which said that, 'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.' Everything in Tennessee's Partner, both the original story and this adaptation of it, are legend, recounted by a nameless narrator about characters whose real names he doesn't know. It's very possible that he transcribed hearsay to go with what he saw, or perhaps just made stuff up. The truth is so far hidden behind the words that we can only guess at it. Mills taps into this with an adaptation that does the same. If Benion's character is the narrator, ironic as he never speaks, he does the same thing: watching and listening and turning it all into an unreliable story. It's always possible that he's recounting the legend to us just as much as the old gossips told parts of it to him. But hey, it's a good legend.

Saturday 11 October 2014

Jane Doe (2006)

Director: Jane Fendelman
Star: Jane Fendelman
Jane Doe is rather unlike any movie I've seen before and that plays in its favour. I don't know quite what I expected going in but I guess it was some combination of the words, 'cancer' and 'documentary'. In 2005, Jane Fendelman was diagnosed with grade three breast cancer, its most aggressive form, and that meant a 40% chance of survival. In other words, it was likely that she was going to die. That's hardly the best of news at any time but it also served as a double red underline to the annus horribilis that was her 2004, in which her father had died, she'd suffered a miscarriage and her husband had left her for a friend. At this point, you might expect that the arrival of aggressive cancer and a 60% chance of death might prompt a submission, where Jane would give up, roll over and let death take the bad times away. She emphatically did not do that. She made this film instead. 'I'm a caterpillar and I'm going into a cocoon,' she explains. 'In seven months I'm going to come out with wings... everything I think and feel will be different.'

And above all, that's what this film is: a document of one person's surprising reaction to imminent death, in which she struggles through the obvious knowledge that cancer is the big, bad bogeyman who scares the crap out of a lot of people to the realisation that it's a heck of a lot more than that. Perhaps the most quotable film I've ever watched, the most important line comes when Jane suggests that, 'Maybe cancer is such a gift because it strips away everything you thought you were.' It's an unorthodox approach but a telling one, because Jane is one of the most alive people I know. I didn't know her in 2005, when she went through this, or in 2006, when she released this video diary of that time, but I know her now and it would be difficult to think of anyone with more drive. The reasons why are the building blocks of this film, as we don't really watch her struggle with cancer, instead we watch her struggle with what it means: to her, to her life and to the world around her. And she ends up realising that she's a butterfly.

If that doesn't make a lot of sense, it's because Jane Doe is less of a story and more of an immersion into the mind of someone reevaluating who she is, a sort of braindump that I might describe as chemo addled if only it didn't contain so much fundamental insight. In fact it's much easier to explain what the film isn't than what it is. It isn't a medical journey, for a start, because cancer isn't the focus here, it's far more of a MacGuffin, given that everything in this film revolves around it but it doesn't do anything (from our point of view) except serve as a catalyst for Jane's change. We do meet a doctor but he provides little medical detail and Jane isn't able to add much either; attempting to explain why steroids are being added to her chemotherapy cocktail, she only manages, 'It protects you or does something.' This is not going to help anyone learn what cancer is or what it does to the human body. The closest it gets is to hammer home the point that chemotherapy makes your hair drop out, hardly news at eleven.
It's not even a traditional video diary, of the sort that chronicles a journey through treatment. There isn't much treatment, at least in the film, because primarily we're focused on Jane's mind more than her body. There are few points where anything directly leads to anything else, so there's no real progression on the medical side. In fact, we have little idea of time, tracking it mostly through the various stages of hair loss. This is because Jane didn't edit down her 150 hours of footage chronologically, attempting more to catch the progression of her inner thoughts. This ends up highly appropriate because it echoes how epiphanies didn't arrive at once, they were gradual realisations, piecing together bits from here and there to form an idea and the ideas to grow into a mindset. It's quite clear that Jane is rarely completely lucid, the disease hitting her hard and the chemotherapy treatments messing with her head. It means that her narrative is a rambling thing but, like her thoughts, it gradually coalesces into a big picture.

The rambling is only one reason why it's a difficult film to watch. There are many moments where we drift away, but never for the usual reasons. I often drift away from the screen while watching movies but, most of the time, it's because they're boring and I eventually realise that I'm not watching any more and return to figure out what I missed and why I should care. Here, it's never boredom that made me drift. There are moments that are uncomfortable, emotional, private, repetitive, rambling, each of which shifted my eyes away but never fully and never for more than just moments. There's too much here that's magnetic, real, true, meaningful, wise. If some moments made me look away, others refused to let me blink. Unlike most documentaries, where what we're shown builds to a point, the points here leap out of nowhere when we least expect them. One moment, Jane is rambling again, unable to form a coherent sentence, and then she's blistering out entire paragraphs of directly quotable material.

And those scenes, if such a word can be applied to a movie where almost all we see is Jane's face talking into a video camera, are the best ones, because they're immense moments. They emphasise that behind the woman struggling with pain and disease, there's a mind that's connecting dots to realise vast truths and finding a way to give them a voice through the cocktail of drugs in her system. There's a much more traditional documentary moment later in the film, where Jane takes off a scary pink wig to show her mum her bald head for the first time and she leans over and kisses it. It's an irresistible moment, the sort that trailers were designed to highlight, but it's out of place here because it's part of a sequence that involves other people. It's a moment for the video diary that this isn't rather than the video diary that this is. Every time the camera widens its scope to introduce Jane's mother or sister, doctor or hairdresser, it leaves the movie where Jane tells us secret truths and becomes a lesser, more traditional documentary.
Those moments mostly serve to highlight where the real value is here, which is in Jane talking directly at us through the fourth wall. She's so blissfully open and honest that it's sometimes difficult to take, feeling like we're intruding on her privacy, but it's clearly important for her to let everything out, to unburden her mind as she searches for who she really is. There are points where she looks great and points where she really doesn't. There are points where she's bouncy, surely buoyed by energy gifted by the steroids in her chemo drugs, and points where she's subdued, lost, wiped out. There are points where the reasons to go on are clearly there in the forefront of her mind and points where they're gone, hiding beyond her reach. All these serve as jigsaw pieces that she gradually connects as the film runs on, building a picture of the butterfly which she'll become. What there aren't are points where she's embarrassed. 'I can't remember the last time I was embarrassed,' she says late in the film. It exists because of that as much as cancer.

It's inevitably a tough picture, because this isn't light hearted subject matter and because of the lack of conventional progression. What's hilarious is how well it plays technically. I may know Jane because she's a strong fixture, a force of nature even, in the local film scene, but she wasn't in 2005 because that side of her was one of many that found their way out after her metamorphosis. She shot this on a home video camera, mostly through simply sitting in front of it but occasionally by hauling it out with her too. It's not difficult to notice that she was the entire crew for most of the film, with the addition of a cameraman only when she's really out wandering. Yet, amazingly, we can hear everything she says, with less background noise than half the entries to local film challenges this year. We can see everything we need to, however sucky the camerawork and the lighting. Jane may not have much of a grasp of what day it is throughout, but she still provides better sound than many people with actual sound equipment. That's hilarious.

It's also ironic because it's much less important here than it would be in most films. It doesn't matter how bad the lighting is, because all we need to do is to see Jane as she pours out her thoughts and lets us in on the moments that matter to her as she goes through this journey. Sometimes those are as apparently meaningless as singing along to music, a hairdresser praying for her or her dog licking her face, but they clearly mean as much to her as more serious moments like the discovery that the focus on lumps in her left breast hid the fact that there's a lump in her right one too. The film is that personal and ultimately it's precisely why it succeeds. We begin the film knowing nothing but 'cancer' but we come out of it knowing Jane, because people are bigger than disease, especially when they're as strong and open to reinvention as she is. I've reviewed her in short films (and a play) portraying a variety of roles, but all of them came after the most important role she's ever had to play: herself.

She also provides her best lines, enough that they could easily be compiled into a short volume of truth. I'll settle for a paragraph, and skip over trite (if true) ones like, 'I'm happy that I'm alive' and the first line in the film, 'This is the story of the healing of a broken heart.' The substantial lines come later. 'I feel like I can do anything now,' she suggests in the depths of treatment. 'Anybody can do anything and it's really easy.' You just have to choose to do it. She tears up less facing death than losing her hair, but it's really all about change: 'I keep on being scared to go to sleep because I don't know who I'll be when I wake up.' Eventually she embraces being bald, because each step in the process makes it more real. 'When it's not real, it's like fighting a ghost,' she says. 'If I'm going to have cancer, I want to have the full experience.' These aren't the lines of Lifetime movies of the week, they're the lines of someone going into her cocoon, being addled by chemo drugs, finding her own personal truth and coming out a butterfly.

Important sources:
Niki D'Andrea - Jane Doe: A Phoenix Woman's Battle with Breast Cancer Becomes an International Documentary Success at the Phoenix New Times Blogs (2008).

Friday 10 October 2014

Those Love Pangs (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin and Chester Conklin
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.
After highlighting that Chaplin's famous perfectionism was starting to show in the way he was mastering individual aspects of filmmaking in his last four films, I should point out immediately that very little of the sort appears to be evident in Those Love Pangs, clearly a lesser entry in Chaplin's late Keystone period. I should add that there's a good reason for this. Jeffrey Vance cites studio boss Mack Sennett as explaining the changes that took place during development. Apparently Chaplin started out on this one reel picture with the simple idea of Charlie and Chester Conklin as rivals for the amorous attentions of their landlady. You can easily imagine some of where that idea would be likely to take them, but it quickly went a great deal further, so far that it expanded into a two reel comedy, Dough and Dynamite, often regarded as the best of Chaplin's Keystone pictures. With all that development diverted, Those Love Pangs became little more than an afterthought, devoid of much of the care and attention we're getting used to from Chaplin.

That's not to say that he didn't work on the little details, because there are still some magnificent points that fit into the progression we've been seeing. However the big picture is notably weak, rather unsure as to what it wants to be. The best part is the beginning, which is closest to the original goal of the short. With their landlady outside their door, each of the boys position themselves to be the one who will greet her. Charlie's first in line, but Chester outmanouevres him by suggesting that there's a woman under the table. When Charlie's curiosity, not to mention his gullibility, gets the better of him, Chester nips out to grasp the landlady's hand. Charlie's response is violence, as it so often was in the Keystone shorts, but it's a calm and thoughtful sort of violence for a change. He picks up a fork from the table, tests it, thinks about it, lines himself up and jabs Chester hard in the backside, spoiling his moment. He even puts it to his mouth afterwards to pretend that it's a makeshift mouthharp. It's very thoughtfully done.

Of course, if Chester has his moment to shine with the landlady, Charlie's surely going to get one too and this is even more thoughtfully done. Of course, Chester picks up the fork and prepares to reprise the gag, but Charlie's no fool. Realising that he's in precisely the wrong spot, he carefully switches places with the girl. Then he realises that he's inadvertently set her up, so tries to manoeuvre them both into positions of safety. Of course, it doesn't work as the landlady rejects his advances by pushing him backwards at just the right time for the fork to hit its intended target. Chaplin is superb here, pantomiming for sure, but in a much more subtle way than was usual at Keystone. Conklin isn't bad either and the pair of them do work well together, but not so well as Chaplin did with Roscoe Arbuckle in The Rounders. What's most notable about the rest of the film isn't so much where they go and what they do but who they meet while they're doing it. One scene in and the landlady is apparently forgotten.
Charlie's all set for the bar, cunningly conning his rival out of a coin, but he's immediately distracted by a slim brunette who waltzes past and looks enticingly at him. She's Vivian Edwards, in her sixth film, five of which were Chaplin pictures. This is the most audiences had got to see of her thus far and she's suitably delightful, as promised by her role as one of the Goo Goo sisters in The Property Man. Her fellow sister in that film, Cecile Arnold, promptly shows up here too, as a similarly delightful blonde who looks more than enticingly at Chester; she actively calls him over, by name too if I'm not very much mistaken. I'm no lip reader but it's so clear that I don't think I need to be. The difference, of course, is that Charlie is promptly run off by a tall man who shows up to steal the brunette's affections instead, while the blonde is all over Chester, so flagrantly that Charlie throws his hands up in disbelief at his rival's astounding success, then prepares to leap into the lake to literally drown his sorrows.

What's notable isn't who's playing the girls, as both were regulars at this point in Chaplin's pictures. Had Cecile Arnold appeared in The Rounders, it would have meant she'd been in as many as Edwards and in all the same ones too; presumably they came as a double act. What's notable is what they are, which is something that's generated something of a debate amongst silent film aficionados. In a silent film, with few intertitles, we can't know for sure, but the suggestion is that they're a pair of prostitutes. Or perhaps only one of them is, or maybe the other. Who knows? Well, beyond the suggestion that two such elegant ladies might possibly be interested in a couple of gentlemen who look like Charlie and Chester, who's in an outfit that somewhat mirrors Charlie's in that it clearly doesn't fit properly and in many similar ways, the blonde sticks her boot up on a bench that Charlie's sitting on, pulls a wad of cash out of it, counts it carefully and puts it into Chester's pocket. Are we to believe that she's paying him?

No, surely we're to believe that she's a lot more to Chester than just a blonde in a park. If she knows his name, lavishes him with kisses and gives him a chunk of cash to boot, Occam's razor suggests that he's her pimp. There are a number of other possibilities, of course, but that's by far the most obvious. Maybe he's really her boyfriend and he'd loaned her some cash, but then what's he doing chasing the landlady, what's she doing hanging out in the park on her lonesome and why does she have the cash secreted in her boot? Maybe she is only a random girl in the park whom Chester cleverly enlists into an elaborate scheme to pull a fast one on Charlie. Maybe there really is no accounting for taste and we shouldn't get so caught up in how to interpret an innocent situation. No, I don't buy it either, especially as the girls are with whoever has money at any time, even Charlie after they drift away to the nickelodeon and suddenly find him very agreeable company in the front row. They're prostitutes and at that point he has the cash.
While the quality of the material generally deteriorates as the film runs on, there are other moments that are worthy of note. Chaplin is still finding new and innovative uses for his cane. He reprises its use as the means to pull someone towards him that he did so notably in His New Profession, here dragging Chester along behind him as they leave the house and down its front steps. Later he does exactly the same thing to the tall man who hooked his brunette; he hooks him in return, right into the lake. Later still, he uses it repetitively on Chester, pulling him in to bounce him off his belly in a strange sort of fighting style that he might have learned from Arbuckle. A little more subtly, he also finds two uses for the other end: to clean his nails and pick his teeth. I'm less sure about another lauded moment, but I did find some charm in the way Charlie talks with his feet in the theatre because his hands are occupied around the girls' shoulders. The idea of using an upside down Chester as a temporary seat was more fun to me.

What all this means is that the details here are often praiseworthy, even if the film itself fails to maintain even a modicum of consistency. It starts out like the hotel pictures, hints at becoming a bar picture (one of the reissue titles is The Rival Mashers), becomes instead a park picture and eventually a movie theatre picture. Rather than building a frenetic pace by bouncing us between these settings, as Chaplin did in His New Profession, he merely shifts the action gradually from one to the next without any of them seeming to benefit. Most of it takes place in the park, where we're reminded of Chaplin's famous quote to Sennett that, 'All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.' Here he had all three and two of the latter to boot. The time spent at the nickelodeon is especially sparse, with the inevitable eventual chaos restricted to a few gags and a few seconds before Charlie finds himself thrown through the screen. He'd already made better films in each of these settings and some that used all of them.

Shooting was quick, taking only four days compared to the nine for The New Janitor before it and eight for Gentlemen of Nerve after it. The Rounders only took four days too, but it doesn't show its seams the way this one does. Sure, there was a crowd of people on the opposite side of the lake during the finalé of that picture, but there's little that Keystone could do about that in a public park. Here, there are at least two goofs that could have been fixed. The first is the number of obvious onlookers reflected in the door of the bar from whose delights Charlie is distracted by Vivian Edwards. My better half noticed the second a little later in the park, when Charlie first sits down on a bench; someone peeks over the bush behind him, only to vanish quickly, presumably when he realises that he's just interrupted a live shot. Surely the main flaw here lies in how quickly the film was put together. Chaplin had to finish up, so he could make Gentlemen of Nerve before shifting straight into Dough and Dynamite, which the original idea of this film became.

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

Those Love Pangs 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.

Friday 3 October 2014

Cabine of the Dead (2010)

Director: Vincent Templement
Stars: Richard Keep, Slony Sow, Yvette Petit, Pascal Montel and Bernard Cormerais
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon IV in Tempe in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
While six of the ten shorts that screened at Fear Fest IV were European, four of those were Spanish, so it fell to writer/director Vincent Templement to represent France with the very last slot. Cabine of the Dead looked very stylish from moment one, with its pulsing electronic score, nice camera angles and enticing lighting. We're gradually focusing in on Patrick, who's running scared and takes refuge in the location of the title, which isn't a cabin in the woods, it's what the French call a cabine téléphonique and we would call a phone box or a public phone booth. He's apparently a complete moron, because he doesn't seem to have a clue what's attacking him. Is it really viable that anyone in the western world in 2011 wouldn't recognise zombies when they're outside his phone box clamouring for his brains? That pointless idiocy was by far my biggest problem with the film, because it doesn't help us connect to his character at all. Otherwise, it's relatively well put together, especially on the technical side.

Not everything is solid. I didn't appreciate the brief shakiness the cameraman suffered from while Patrick is trying to close the door on the nearest zombie; I'm sure he was aiming at grittiness but it came across more like Parkinson's. He does a lot better emphasising the claustrophobia Patrick must surely feel inside the phone box by shooting from within it. I don't know if the camera was mounted inside or they built the booth with a removable panel so they could have a little more room; either way it works really well. There are a few longer shots too, which highlight how isolated Patrick is and how there are more zombies on the way to join the throng literally rattling his cage. More extras would have helped here, but it's staged well and I liked the composition of it all. The back and forth editing as Patrick phones the various people who might help him might be inevitable, but this screams out as being a perfect opportunity to play the whole thing out in splitscreen, building contrast rather than merely distance.
What Templement nails more consistently is a subtle humour. Even as he builds the tension, he's aware of the opportunity for laughs or, at least, for smiles. He doesn't try to tickle our ribs too overtly, but I had a smile on my face throughout, mostly because of how he built the supporting characters. Patrick himself is built primarily through the order that he rings people and the reactions he gets. After he discovers the wait time to talk to the cops, he tries Didier, a friend who falls asleep with his hand in his shorts and tries to write directions on the inside of a pizza box. Eventually he gets to mum and the reason why she's last is clear from her reaction. The funniest to me was when he rings his sister, Sophie, but gets her husband Marc. Their son is eating her and Marc thinks he can take him down calmly with a spatula. Pascal Montel nails the tone magnificently, even with much less screen time than Richard Reep gets as Patrick. Reep is good but hamstrung by being a dork who doesn't know what zombies are. He deserves to get eaten.

Panic, Fear (2011)

Director: John Francis Conway
Stars: Saad Nassim, Honor L Nezzo and Bryce Thurston
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon IV in Tempe in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
This short carries the on screen title of Panic, Fear, but IMDb lists it as Panic, Fear: Part One, which makes a little more sense because, like Stay, this feels less like a film and more like the beginning of one that we don't get to see because the end credits roll first. In fact, the two films worked well as a pair on screen, as they really aim to do the same thing: set a scene and let it unfold with the suspense paramount, the style worthy of note and the story so far down the list of priorities that it might as well not have been included at all. They both achieve this through use of the standard horror trope of a young lady in danger. Only the location is notably different: in Stay, she's in the middle of nowhere, but in Panic, Fear she's at home, as neatly emphasised by a tattoo on her foot. Initially she's in bed with her husband, but she gets up, visits the bathroom, pours herself some water from the fridge. Of course, the difference is that she's supposed to feel safe here, unlike the lady in Stay who wasn't in the back of that secluded car to feel safe.
The story here is so irrelevant that I've just told you half of it and the other half is that we then discover a stranger in the house with her. He's a faceless killer, as tends to be the case, hidden behind some sort of black bondage mask. He does have a presence to him, though he was far more ominous when he showed up in character for the film's screening at Phoenix FearCon IV and stood guard in the entryway as we filed in for each screening. Of course, we have no idea who he is, where he came from or why he's doing what he's doing; all we know is that he's doing it, which isn't a heck of a lot of background for us to connect to. Then again, we don't know much more about his victims. The young lady has a few tattoos, but otherwise is unworthy of note if her surroundings are anything to go by. If there's anything interesting in her fridge, on her bookshelf or anywhere else in her house, we don't get to see it. She doesn't have a big screen TV but she has sweet stuff under glass on her kitchen counter. That doesn't give us much to go on.

And so, we really don't care about either killer or victim, beyond the fact that the latter clearly has much nicer legs. What we therefore focus on is the way the film was put together, something that I appreciated more consistently here than I did with the last film that I reviewed from director John Francis Conway, one which played the previous FearCon, called the Phoenix Fear Film Festival in 2010. That was Blockhead, in many ways a similar but less successful picture, even though it won the award for best short. This does a lot of the good stuff that that one did, with its appropriate setting, memorable lighting and efficient gore effects. Perhaps it addresses most of its problems, not least by excising the moronic characters, needless dialogue and overly cool setups. Simplifying everything means that it runs shorter and smoother and the camera dollies neatly through the rooms to ensure that it stays that way. It does everything it needs to do except to actually tell a story; maybe that will eventually show up in the currently nonexistent Part Two.

Thursday 2 October 2014

DemiUrge Emesis (2010)

Director: Aurelio Voltaire
Star: Danny Elfman
This film was an official selection at the 6th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon IV in Tempe in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
When I last reviewed a stop motion animation by Voltaire, I called him a 'professional Cuban weirdo and cultural superhero' and I stand by that. He's one of those rare creators who are so idiosyncratic that their work is instantly recognisable, regardless what field he's working in. Hear one of his songs and you won't have any doubt that it's him singing it and the same goes for his films, which generally tend to fall into a series he calls Chimerascope, animations full of stop motion skeletons and assorted oddities, narrated in a philosophical fashion by a member of the musical profession. That last review was of 2011's Odokuro, gifted with a voice by electronic pioneer Gary Numan; this one was his previous film, DemiUrge Emesis, with suitably bouncy narration by Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo. This narration is focused more closely on a theme than the musings in Odokuro on life, the universe and everything. It speaks very specifically to the process of creation, as visualised for us through the self effacing metaphor of cat vomit.

Given how wild that metaphor is, it's surprisingly on focus and very recognisable, with the artist pouring out his soul into his creation, looking it over and finding it good, just like a cat with its vomit. The trigger for change arrives with the critics, who pop up out of nowhere like venus fly traps made of bones to carp and bleat until the sensitive soul of the artist crumbles under the pressure and he dies the violent death of a poet, to be born again, like a cat with nine lives, the next time an idea rooks him between the eyes. Given that I'm a critic taking on the task of reviewing a film that sees critics in the most negative light, I ought to be wary of my words, but critics don't all bleat and carp. I firmly believe that there's something positive to say about the worst short film shot in someone's back yard by a sixteen year old boy raiding his mother's closet for a costume and his little brother's toybox for props, but something negative to say about the most grandiloquent Hollywood epic. Few pictures are without both spark and flaw.
The most obvious flaw here is how quickly it all ends, but every second to a stop motion animator is far more important than to someone working in live action. I've seen many single takes in films longer than this entire short but those don't involve the painstaking work of stop motion. This is also more traditional in its design than Odokuro, the visuals merely impressing rather than amazing, even though they're more organic and at home in their surroundings. I liked the patron saint we creatives endow with headaches, a free gargoyle with rolling eyes. The creator cat doesn't merely have nine lives; it also has nine eyes, as if it ate a peacock and hiccoughed. The skeleton critics, however, are familiar creatures, eerily reminiscent of other Voltaire skeletons in other Voltaire shorts, but their bite (ironic if they're the bones from the cat's previous meals) is verbal as they hurl out their 'gloomy news and blues and bad reviews'; many critics know how to tear apart but not to build up (or, to be fair, vice versa).

While the brightest spark in Odokuro was its visual aesthetic, a surreal vision that took the metaphors of the narration and rendered them literally, the spark here is what backs that up. The script is a freeform slice of poetry, expounding the vomit philosophy of the title with rhymes spat out like bullets; Elfman is trigger happy, letting the words flow out like a torrent. It's Voltaire's script behind his animation and it all unfolds to the accompaniment of his characteristally quirky music, which he performed in collaboration with the ever-delightful Rasputina. I could imagine this delivered as a spoken word piece, but the music adds a layer and the visualisation another. Unlike Odokuro, the characters here don't feel like they're on their own, living their own lives with Voltaire's camera merely recording part of them. His words have the control here and its them which bring the characters to life. The Chimerascope films go back to a 1994 piece called Rakthavira narrated by Debbie Harry; it's about time I slid backwards through them.

DemiUrge Emesis can be watched for free at YouTube.

Stay (2010)

Directors: Álvaro López León and H R Paternain
Stars: Javier Bermejo and Sara Marrón
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon IV in Tempe in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
As the title suggested, Stay has stayed with me but hardly for the reasons that the filmmakers intended. I first saw it while screening submissions for the Phoenix Fear Fest and it didn't play well to me at that time on a relatively small screen, with its host of clichés leading to an inevitable conclusion and precious little scares showing up along the way. It apparently had enough for Chris and Jim to select it for programming though and watching it afresh on the big screen at MADCAP Theatres was a revelation. What felt like the same ol' same ol' on a small screen blistered off the big one and got a huge response from the audience. Not only did it work at scale, it worked magnificently, the scariest short at the festival by far. Every setup paid off, every sound built the tone and every visual added to the creepiness. Sure, the clichés were still clichés, there being less of a plot and more of a situation, the sort of film you expect to end with the title and be followed by ninety minutes of feature, but it taught me that small screens suck for screening.

We're in a car in a clearing in a forest in Spain. The young lady in the back seat doesn't know where they are either, but she has a boy in there with her and a cigarette to pass around, so she's happy. His parents are leaving for a flight, so they're just chilling until they can head home and party the night away. Maybe they'll start the party early in the back seat, but they don't quite get that far. He gets out to pee and she stubs out the cigarette, discovering in the process that there's another one in the ashtray with lipstick on it. We might think we have a story about to kick off, but we're quickly whisked away from that possibility when his head rolls off his shoulders. Something is moving around outside, enough to make the girl shut up the car, the camera to rock a little in anticipation and for us to get ready for the jump scares that we know have to be right round the corner. The only question is which corner, especially if this film plays on a system with decent sound.
Everything here hinges on the tension that builds as she tries to figure out what's out there and what it's got in store for her. Nothing here is surprising: the slowed down movements, the uncertainty, the shimmy of the camera. The shots are cut together faster and faster until, well, you need to watch the film yourself to find out where it takes us but the final shots are the best in the whole movie and the bigger and better the system you're playing it on the more you'll appreciate how it gets there. Watching afresh a few years after I last saw it, it feels almost like a musical performance, one played on the nerves of its lead actress, Sara Marrón, as much in the actual score, which is built out of sound effects. Technically Javier Bermejo is top billed, but it's Marrón's show throughout, even as her character must feel as out of control as she has ever felt. My guess is that this was created as either an experiment or the beginning of something bigger. It has too little substance otherwise to stand alone for long, just a freaky exercise in building tension.

Stay can be watched for free on YouTube.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Fearful John (2010)

Director: Daniel Romero
Stars: Iván Martín, Sonia Lázaro, Fernando Ustárroz and Óscar Villalobos
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon IV in Tempe in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
While Ma'am's Copy Shop was long for a short film and took its time to develop (pun unintended but I'll take it), this Spanish short, Juan con miedo or Fearful John, whips by us at a rate of knots. It runs eleven minutes but it feels like half that, as we immerse ourselves in the dark whimsy of fairy tales. The title is a take on Fearless John (or Juan sin miedo in Spanish), a simple Brothers Grimm fable that suggests that if only you can be completely without fear, you'll be able to land yourself a princess. In the story, the king promises the hand of his daughter, Princess Lily of the Valley, to whoever dares to spend a night in the haunted woods which contain the wonderfully named Castle of Terror. Because he's apparently unable to count, Fearless John doesn't just last one night, he stays in the castle for three, running off ghosts, tying up a bear and conquering a fire-breathing dragon and dumping it into a well. When he eventually comes back home, the king is so impressed that he allows him to marry the princess and the kingdom rejoices.

As the title of this film suggests, this particular John isn't going to be quite so brave. The inevitable John and Mary of the tales become Juan and Maria, who meet while the former is playing tag. He thinks she's playing too, but she's just trying to escape some creepy old guy. Fortunately she knows a hiding place of ill repute, a gloriously dilapidated house with a gloriously dilapidated gated courtyard, and she and Juan quickly take refuge there. Maria is clearly in charge here, not only because the character is dominant but because Sonia Lázaro is obviously a better actor than Iván Martín, who remains passive (fearful, I guess) throughout. 'In the tale you're always fearless,' she tells him, so off they go inside to hide out during the imminent storm. She dominates here too, counting its progress and passing the time by reciting a story her grandmother had written, a sort of legend called The Man of the Birds, which she keeps close to her even though she apparently knows the whole thing by heart.
It's a freaky story, built of the usual elements: sleeping peasants, crying children and spirits reincarnated as living scarecrows, you know the sort. It's made even more freaky by the location, which is surely one of the biggest successes of the film, even before the storm starts to bathe it in stroboscopic light. If this is a set, I'm stunned at how authentic it is, but I bet it's just a really good choice of location at which to shoot. It feels precisely like what it claims to be, an old house that the villagers won't buy because they say it's haunted. The film can be read in a number of ways, but my take is that we're watching the ghosts doing their haunting. Perhaps Juan is real, a city boy from Madrid in town every holiday to spend time with his grandfather, but Maria and that creepy old guy, whose identity is eventually revealed, are more likely to be ghosts than villagers. Either way, they drive the story, especially Maria with her rapid fire speech and her many stories; Juan merely experiences the haunted house like, well, a haunted house.

I enjoyed Fearful John a lot, though less for the acting or the story and more for the tone that it manages to successfully set. The house is a beautiful wreck and what it holds is gloriously designed too. The speed at which the film unfolds helps to make it a hallucinatory experience, as does the storm which would turn it into a dancefloor with a different score. The music here isn't modern at all, but it's strong and dynamic and drives the piece on, at least until Maria takes over with her fairy tales. The way they're recounted as story but woven into the fabric of the film we're watching is capably done, right down to the design of the espantapájaros who provides the nightmarish image with which we leave the picture. By the way, I chose to use the Spanish word there partly because it's such a glorious thing and partly because you deserve to experience it yourself without knowing what it means. Just don't forget to breathe, as the eleven minutes pass in fairy tale time.

Fearful John can be watched for free at Vimeo or YouTube.

Ma'am's Copy Shop (2009)

Director: ZiZak
Stars: Kim Ho-yeon, Owhoo and Zea Yu-bin
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon IV in Tempe in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
Ma'am's Copy Shop, a 25 minute Korean horror drama from 2009, is surprisingly obscure, but its director, ZiZak, best known as a scriptwriter, doesn't appear to be very well represented online, at least on English language websites. He co-wrote the feature films Soo: Revenge for a Twisted Fate and Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait a few years before this short, in 2006 and 2007 respectively, and may have directed another a couple of years afterwards, 2011's Executioner's Daughter, but it's hard to find information on him. It's unfortunate because this is an intriguing piece, too long and consistently overacted but with a neat sting to it that resonates as it moves forward through its five chapters and renders it far more memorable than other, better short films. The good news is that the film itself is watchable for free at IMDb but, bizarrely, it doesn't even have a page there to tell you who made it. I had to search elsewhere to find that Ma'am is played by Kim Ho-yeon, while Owhoo plays Chang-soo, the unnamed leading man.

It starts relatively simply, with Chang-soo taping up missing posters wherever he can because he wants to find his wife. He does seem a little strange, not merely because he's overly careful with the green duct tape he uses instead of the usual glue. Then again, the lady who's printed 10,000 copies of the poster for him for free, is a little strange too. Her excuse is that she's clearly head over heels for this man, but both of them are painfully nervous. Owhoo is so nervous that I wondered if he isn't even an actor at all, given that searching for his name only brings up Scrabble sites and, from what I can gather from Korean pages, this is his only credit. Perhaps he was an amateur cast for his demeanour, as we'll soon come to realise a lot of why he's the way he is and it's rather appropriate. For a while we wonder how this odd lady, surely the Ma'am of the title, is going to connect with Chang-soo, given that he's married and driven to find his wife, but then we see a photo of her inside that's been torn in half so only she's visible. We have a story.
We never know for sure what happened to Chang-soo's wife and Ma'am's husband, but we're given hints that do ring true, given what we'll see as the film runs on. The only English language site I could find that talks about the film suggests that ZiZak tried to 'express indescribable sadness through repeated despair and emptiness', which is an odd goal for a film that frames itself in longing. Chang-soo longs for his wife, which seems pretty straightforward until we get far enough into the story to realise what delicious irony underpins his search. Similarly, Ma'am longs for someone to share her life with, even though her missing husband apparently treated her like a queen and cooked the very best noodles. Her story arc is a weirder one than Chang-soo's but there's irony there too. ZiZak may have achieved some of the sadness, despair and emptiness he aimed for, but he nails irony much better than any of those. If anything, the ending is the most ironic part of all, because it's not just another example, it's another layer.

I wish I knew more about the background to Ma'am's Copy Shop, because it feels like there's something of note behind it, both as far as the development of the story and the film itself. ZiZak's involvement in a few features suggests that he ought to have had access to highly professional actors, but he clearly went for an awkward amateur feel instead, perhaps to capture the nervousness of his characters before letting us in on their background. Certainly the crew seems to be more than capable, especially the editing from Um Yun-joo and the deceptively natural cinematography of Kim Joo-young. Yet the cast don't match that, from the almost but not quite endearing nature of Chang-soo to the overdone selfishness of a couple of Ma'am's prominent customers. It's possible that this plays better through subtitles to an English audience than it would to Koreans, but it was the oddity of the piece as much as the gradually growing irony of its script that has stayed with me.

Ma'am's Copy Shop can be watched for free at IMDb.