Sunday 23 November 2014

The Captain's Story (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Robert Peters, Collin Gaveck and Ron Bowen
While Mark Twain is a titan in American literature, most won't have read the obscure story that Travis Mills adapted into this film. The Captain's Story was first published in 1892 with roots in a travelogue which he published in The Atlantic Monthly fifteen years earlier called Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion. A key reason to adapt this rather than better known material like The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County must surely rest in how contemporary it feels. A hundred and forty years doesn't mean much to satirists of religion, after all, given that the writings they spear generally predate them by thousands. This one is a relatively straightforward narrative, given by an old sea captain, 'Hurricane' Jones by name, to a clergyman in plain clothes, the Revd Peters, on board his ship during a sea voyage. Without knowing that he's addressing a man of the cloth, he explains how the miracles of the Bible should be interpreted, with results that he apparently doesn't realise contradict his obvious unyielding faith.

While the captain's story is the heart of The Captain's Story, Mills adds bookends to introduce it. He has a very eager young man waylay his pastor to seek help because he feels that he's losing his Sunday School class, unable to explain what he's finding in the Old Testament. Collin Gaveck is well cast as Kenny, a well meaning, bright eyed youngster, clearly out of his depth but willing to ask for help, something of an open book waiting to be written on; and Robert Peters is just as appropriate as Pastor Larry, just as clean cut, if we can ignore his cigarettes, but an older, more cynical sort who would like nothing more than to be back home on his leather sofa watching the Knicks on his big screen TV. As is so often the case with priests, he delivers his answer in the form of a story, the captain's, as delivered to him as a seminary student losing faith while doing community service at a rest home. We receive the story in monologue from Ron Bowen.
And, if Gaveck and Peters are well cast, Bowen is a gimme for this role, suitably grizzled and with a well travelled accent. He has to sell the picture because, for the most part, all we see is him, his face and his pipe in front of a plain white background. It's a fun story, full of outright theological mistakes and aiming to impound a highly unorthodox view of miracles, but it does explain what a young man must do to keep his flock. In fact, quite deliberately, it even mangles the Biblical passage it aims to explain, the one from 1 Kings that pits Elijah against the 450 prophets of Baal on the slopes of Mount Carmel in a battle to see whose god will light the fire under an altar holding a bullock as sacrifice. The captain doesn't just forget the sacrifice or the fact that the Baalist prophets were slaughtered afterwards, he even transposes Isaac for Elijah. What's important is that he puts his faith not in God but the ability of man to convince people of His power. It's a circular argument that fails horribly but in a delightful and reminiscent way.

Given how minimal the setup is, there's very little on which to comment. The text is Twain's, albeit in an expurgated form, and Bowen delivers it with relish. The framing story is a decent addition that highlights an irony. Mills had his eyes set on a particular church outside which to shoot Kenny and Pastor Larry, but he gained permission to shoot for only two hours. With merely two actors and no other crew, Mills would have found it an easy task if it hadn't been for noisy road construction nearby. The three of them kept at it, recording take after take to provide clean audio throughout, and they finished within the two hours. It has to be a particularly cruel irony that it played with horrendous sound early on the Sunday morning at the 52 Films in 52 Weeks festival, thus prompting my desire to see this afresh to hear it properly, as it's hardly strong visually. A different event at the same venue after the Saturday screenings had ended had messed with the speakers and it took even James Alire a little while to get back to pristine quality.

The choice to shoot the majority of the film against a static white background is an odd one for a visual format; this would play almost as well on radio without any changes to the words. However, it does add to the timeless nature of the piece. Twain's story was sourced from a trip to Bermuda with a clergyman friend, Joe Twichell, and it's open as to which particular flavour of Christianity he had fun with, possibly the Presbyterians who are tangentially referenced in the text. However it rings true with any number of targets today, from TV evangelists through Southern Baptists speaking in tongues to snake handlers in the Pentecostal Church of God. The story has probably been ripe for reapplication every decade since it was written and removing visual context from this adaptation will aid its passage down the years in the same way. The only thing that leapt out as odd to me was the pronunciation of Baal, which is correct in English but highlighted to me that I've been using the Hebrew pronounciation instead. Baal humbug!

A Respectable Woman (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Colleen Hartnett, Michael Coleman, Travis Mills and Stacie Stocker
This film is Running Wild's second attempt at a Kate Chopin story as part of the 52 Films in 52 Weeks and it may be the best picture in the project thus far, in large part because it has time to breathe. With twenty minutes of running time for the fourteen hundred words Chopin wrote, it's explored with a lot more depth than The Kiss, which translated a thousand words into a mere four minutes on screen. It also allowed for the first great performance to manifest itself at last, following a number of notable ones like Bill Wetherill in An Encounter, Eric Almassy in The Liar and Holly Dell in You Touched Me, not to forget Shelly Boucher's supporting role in The Devil and Tom Walker. Here the entire picture is written on Colleen Hartnett's face and, thankfully, she proves more than able to carry it. It's an especially strong showing, given that for the second Chopin adaptation running, Michael Coleman is gifted with a peach of a wild card character; he's capable enough to have stolen the whole thing if Hartnett hadn't been on top of her game.

She's the title character, of course, though hardly the respectable woman that Chopin wrote about back in 1894 for Vogue. Mrs Baroda was a lady of society, who wouldn't dream of appearing with tousled hair or with so little make up, let alone dressing casually even when working from home. In fact, I'd suggest that she would see work as being beneath her station. In Chopin's original story, she's spending a restful spring at the plantation after a busy winter of entertaining guests when her husband, Gaston, surprises her with another one, a college friend named Gouvernail. He's no society gentleman, merely a journalist, so he doesn't move in Mrs Baroda's circles and they've never met. She immediately makes assumptions as to how common he must be and thus decides that she won't like him before he even arrives. Instead, she finds that she does like him but can't explain why, even to herself. Over time, she struggles with who he is and what he means to her carefully constructed world.
With the exception of the 120 years and 1,200 miles between the Louisiana story and the Arizona short film, this adaptation is relatively close. While the respectable woman of the title isn't truly respectable in the society sense meant by Chopin, she thinks she is. Clearly houseproud, she has no wish for her home to become a frat house, and to avoid such a horrendous fate, her mouth moves faster than her mind and her mind faster than her perception of reality. Certainly she looks down on Walt before he ever shows up to stay and she may well look down on her husband Tom too. Certainly Hartnett doesn't have the shared charisma with Travis Mills that she does with Michael Hanelin, who would normally play the husband in a film like this. Given that Hanelin was the Running Wild casting director for this project, I'm sure it was a conscious decision to cast Mills instead of himself and probably for that very reason. It adds an edge to the relationship which underpins how this respectable woman interacts with her husband's guest.

In both the story and the film, the implication is that the respectable woman isn't, that she's just putting on airs and graces to play a role and it merely takes the right guest to make her aware of it. Perhaps that realisation is slightly different, that in the film she merely finds it while in the story she also decides that she doesn't have to be restricted by her role, but that's open to interpretation. Certainly she's a lot more comfortable with herself in the story than the film, with cinematic choices here emphasising how distant she and Tom are: either a careful distance between them while they talk or back and forth editing, not to mention the deliberately weak moments of affection. Chopin's ladies are generally in control, even when their worlds are shaken up, but Mills chooses to have his respectable woman shaken at the outset and in various degrees of turmoil throughout, until the decision she makes at the end of the piece which we get but Tom completely fails to understand.

And in talking about the title character, who owns this film, I've mostly avoided talking about Walt, who serves the same purpose as Gouvernail but in a completely different way. In the story, Gouvernail is run down from overwork and wants nothing more than to rest at his friend's plantation to recoup his energy; his interactions with Mrs Baroda are driven by her not him. Here, Walt is a complete fish out of water but one who nonetheless finds a way to be comfortable, perhaps another reason that the lady of the house finds herself drawn to him even as she's horrified by him. He drives their interactions here, beginning as she finds him bathing in their pool. He doesn't drink the way he used to and he wants to eat outside; he doesn't want to be indoors and his first time inside is shot at a suitably odd angle to show how poorly he fits there. The final straw has him shoot darts from a blowgun at the cushions on the couch, an obviously Freudian act that is an immediate affront to a respectable woman but, later, something that resonates.
Michael Coleman is excellent here, the sort of different, exotic, interesting character that Seth Gandrud is so good at playing. Perhaps he'd have been cast if only he hadn't played a similar role as recently as You Touched Me three weeks earlier, but Coleman nails the part, even when he's leading scenes while facing away from the camera so that all we see is the little pony tail on the back of his head. He's as powerful a presence in the film as he becomes in the mind of his friend's wife, enough that when he leaves, the hall seems empty without his bags in it. The camerawork at that point is excellent, coming right after a scene of tender motion and switching to urgency as the lady of the house finds Walt gone and rushes down the hall to look at the empty rocking chair in the back yard and realises that he's gone from her world. If this film belongs yet again to the writer and the lead actor, the way the camera is used is worthy of note too. Travis Mills was the writer and the director of photography, but thankfully not the leading lady.

While A Respectable Woman was arguably the strongest 52 Films in 52 Weeks picture at this point, it has its technical problems. The editing occasionally felt a little sharp between scenes that warranted a softer transition between them. Most obviously the lighting is often wild, not so much on the actors themselves but on the backgrounds behind them. It's not consistent, sometimes too dim but often too bright, enough so that I wondered if there might be a cinematic reason for it but I came up dry. Certainly the odd angles used are deliberate, as are the lackluster moments between Tom and his wife. The webisode shot for this picture raises sound as a deliberate trigger for suspense à la Robert Bresson, but sound felt less obvious than lighting, sitting back and mostly doing its job rather than disturbing us with its prominence. If the lighting lessened it, the more relaxed running time and strong performances from Hartnett and Coleman enhanced it and it could easily land a film festival slot on its own merits.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Be with Me (2013)

Director: Michael Terrill
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
This film was an official selection at Filmstock 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of all 2014 films.
Be with Me is really getting itself seen. Just here in Arizona this year, it's already played the Phoenix Film Festival and the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival and it's about to screen again at the Arizona event for Filmstock, as part of their Fresh Off the Docs selection. On a wider level, it's played a lot more than those and won awards during its festival run such as the Best Drama Documentary (Short) at DocuFest 2013 in Atlanta. That's quite an achievement for something that runs 44 minutes or roughly half a feature. That's too short to fill a slot on its own but far too much to fit alongside other films in a balanced set of shorts. It was one of three Arizona Documentary Shorts at the Phoenix Film Festival and it'll be one of three docs in its Filmstock set. It has notably high production values so it looks slick, courtesy of local talent like Tommy Schaeffer on sound and Keegan Ead in the editing room and on second unit. Admittedly he isn't local any more, but he was at the time; this merely underlines that our loss is Vermont's gain.

There's a lot to like here, in a film that would surely bring tears even if the filmmakers hadn't clearly tried to accentuate that; even in the introductory passage, there are textbook catches to the throat to trigger a reaction. Michael Terrill, who wrote and directed, has no prior credits at IMDb but does a very capable job here nonetheless. He has a story that aches to be told, he introduces it well and lets it flow well from that grounding into detail through example. There's very little input from the filmmakers, just an odd question here and there, so the production is notably unobtrusive, however much the interview subjects are posed just so for the camera. It builds on a curve, so that as we move into the story we gradually accelerate to its end, meaning that it's hard not to get caught up in the sweep of the accomplishment at its heart. The goal of the picture is to provide hope to others who might find themselves in a similar situation and its technical aspects aid that to no small degree. It's unmistakeably a powerful piece.

The narrative begins at the point the Cairns family discover that their second child, James Cairns Jr, or JR for short, is different. His sister Shelby was bright, inquisitive and precocious, but he's the opposite: quiet, introverted and 'all over the place', in the words of his mother, Lori. He didn't talk much but he cried a lot. Communication was very difficult and he avoided eye contact. Nowadays, it's clear what that means, but at the time it needed JR's cousin, only three months older, to come over for an event for the family to see the obvious discrepancies. So they sought a medical opinion and the diagnosis they got from the Phoenix Children's Hospital was that he was both mildly to moderately autistic and mildly to moderately mentally retarded. Lori and Jim Cairns were open to that as they could see that something was wrong; but they did not buy into the conclusion, that he would spend his entire childhood in his bedroom and be confined to an institution by the age of seventeen. So they did something about it and we have a story.
The catch is that, even though this is a true story told through interviews with people who were there as it happened, there's nothing to back it up as being anything more than one woman's personal belief. The majority of the film is told by Lori Cairns herself, effectively expounding her own perspective on her son's life, which is promptly enforced by a few family members and family friends, notably excluding JR's dad, Jim Cairns, who is only there at the very beginning. The only professional insight is restricted to a brief segment in the middle, when a therapist and a speech pathologist add comments. The former was hired by the Cairns to help their son and I believe that the latter was too. What's more, Lori Cairns co-produced the film and other family members were also actively involved in its production, so it's impossible to see any objectivity or impartiality at all. This is a message rather than an exploration, if not an outright piece of propaganda from a woman whose reasons for making it are not entirely clear.

Now, that doesn't mean that the message isn't valid; it's just that what we see is clearly one side of the story with any other potential side conveniently excluded. While it may or may not be telling that her ex-husband is mostly absent from proceedings, I was especially concerned to hear so little from JR himself. He is in the film and he dominates the last few scenes, playing golf and driving a car, but he never really talks to us through the camera about his experiences. Based on what we see, there's no doubt that the use of ABA (applied behaviour analysis), as pioneered by Ole Ivar Løvaas, a UCLA clinical psychologist, had some effect on their autistic son and it may well have been responsible for his ability to function as an adult. As this ends, he's about to graduate from high school and go to college to study journalism; he has strong potential for the future, far beyond what the Phoenix Children's Hospital suggested could be possible, but there's no data to back up why. It might be entirely the ABA, but it might not.

Certainly the notable absence of independent professional opinion, whether in agreement or in dissent, is what lessens a potentially important documentary into a slickly produced home video. Having personally turned a number of 'disorders' to my advantage and played a large part in the development of someone in a similar situation to JR, I'd love to see the documentary that this isn't, one that includes data to back it up. The direction Lori Cairns chose for her son stemmed from a book by an anonymous author writing as Catherine Maurice, Let Me Hear Your Voice: A Family's Triumph Over Autism. Many of the concerns I found in what Lori did are echoed in an anonymous review of that book at Amazon by a high functioning autistic adult. He or she was worried by the way autism is treated in the book as 'a fate worse than death' and how the writer 'speaks of dragging her children kicking and screaming out of autism, forcing them to be normal'. This manifests itself continually here too, with 'weird' consistently used as a synonym of 'wrong'.
In fact, the very title comes from a comment by Ann Monahan, JR's aunt. 'I know you like where you're at,' she thought to JR as a child. 'I know it's fun there for you but I want you in my world. I want you to be with me.' That's entirely understandable but it sounds very selfish when you write it down. Lori even admits it at points. He's 'weird right now' but he hopefully won't be forever. She refuses to let him do anything that she perceives as 'inappropriate for his age', so he can't line up cars together or watch The Little Mermaid. I often felt acutely uncomfortable during scenes where, to quote Monahan, Lori 'cared enough to be what others would consider cruel.' It raised connections to me with boot camps to turn kids back to Jesus or the 'cures' that turn gay kids straight. It wasn't the shock it should have been to discover that Løvaas, who is generally seen in a very positive light for his successful work with autistic children, also worked with kids who were gender-variant earlier in his career, perhaps leading the first to commit suicide as an adult.

I don't want to talk down the achievement of the Cairns family and I'm happy that JR's future is open, but this is a huge issue that's worthy of a deep documentary rooted in what we've learned over the last few decades and this isn't it. I want to hear directly from the autistic children who grew up going through ABA treatments and other similar techniques. I want to hear from the professionals who do this for a living and qualified critics of their accomplishments. I want to see the scientific data rather than just the memories. I want to hear from the people who were dismissed as negative in this narrative: the support groups who apparently don't want to hear about the progress of others and the professionals who saw what Lori was doing as inappropriate. I want to hear from the families who didn't attempt to change their autistic kids at all, or who did so in a less direct manner, to see the differing results. The Cairns are part of that but they aren't all of it. This is slick, professional stuff, worthy of a view, but it's not that documentary.

Monday 17 November 2014

For the Love of Dogs (2014)

Director: Tim Odonnell
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
Zoom! had the benefit of having a subject dear to my heart, independent record labels, but For the Love of Dogs is just as engaging, if not more so, because of a fascinating boy who rated his own documentary at the age of eleven. He's Cory and he has Asperger's. He was diagnosed at four and, even with the help of a therapist and a psychiatrist, not to mention very supportive parents, he's still learning how to cope in a world where people generally don't have what he has. If, like Burt and Ray in Zoom!, he's a charismatic enough subject to ensure that we're quickly on board, the people behind the camera contributed much to the success of his story, not just by keeping out of the way so Cory can win us over as much as he does a whole slew of strangers in the film but also with some interesting choices of camera location or ways that people can get a point across. Most notably, in telling us all about Cory, writer/director Tim Odonnell also tells us about the condition that he has on a much wider scale.

Given that Asperger's is a name that crops up more and more nowadays, it's worth this visit to refresh us on what it actually is and Cory appears to be a good example. He's fine verbally, in fact better than many of his peers, but he's bad at reading body language and other non-verbal cues. This impacts his ability to connect to other people and the outside world, which prompts both anger and anxiety. He suffers notably from sensory overload, not least with a photographic memory. He told his mother that 'my mind is like a DVR' that's really hard to stop. He also hears things louder and scratchier than the rest of us and with no delineation between what's in the foreground and background, making it hard to focus on one thing. He puts his hands over his ears a lot to control that. He benefits from repetition and has his own obsessive compulsive routines to organise the chaos. Most notably, he's hyperfocused on a specific interest which, as with many like him, is animals. He uses it to control his anxiety and screen it out.
So Cory has problems. It was interesting to hear his father talk about his own OCD, which he sees as one reason he's successful at what he does but also one reason why he's hard to live with. Cory's grandfather may have been even more like him, but of course came from a time when such things weren't diagnosed or even discussed, just noticed by those around. I found these scenes fascinating and would have liked to hear more detail, but I understand the need to return to Cory and especially to progress to the point when he visits the National Dog Show in Philadelphia, at which we spend the majority of the film. Clearly Cory can deal with owners of dogs much better than other people because they share a common interest and that can be easily engaged by obvious conversation openers. He impresses many at the dog show in the ways that touch hearts, seeing dogs and, through his photographic memory, recognising their sires, even when the latter are dead. That's an odd way to keep loved companions alive and it's very touching.

The most obvious flaw of the film is that it captures Cory partway through a story that is clearly not over. While we're given background to highlight how he got to eleven, we immediately want to know how he's going to be as a teenager and a young adult. This lessens the film in a sense, not in what it is but in what it could be. I hope that Odonnell will be able to continue shooting Cory's progression through life, perhaps adding new footage occasionally like how Michael Apted has done with his Up series, which revisits a set of seven year old children for updates every seven years. Perhaps inevitably, while Cory is the focal point of the film, he's the least interviewed, so we continually get his feelings either second hand or through a translation to the visual. While that often works (we really don't need to hear 'best day ever' because it's obvious in his face and his interactions), we still want to hear him talk to us. However, these aren't major complaints and this is still 26 minutes very well spent.

Zoom! - Tucson's Late '50s Rock 'n' Roll Record Label (2013)

Director: Dan Kruse
Stars: Burt Schneider and Ray Lindstrom
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
Even with a conscious effort to maximise viewing opportunities at Phoenix Film Festival, I end up missing a lot of worthy films and short documentaries somehow always end up on that list, prioritised lower than almost everything else. Just in case anyone else finds themselves doing the same thing, I'll highlight that the three not so short documentaries (the shortest ran for 26 minutes) that comprised the Arizona Short Documentaries set this year were consistently excellent and really don't deserve to end up at the bottom of anyone's list, including mine. Let's see if I can follow my own advice next year! Fortunately I caught up with these three films later, as each of them has a subject deep enough to draw us in and is shot with an abiding passion that keeps us there. This one was made by Dan Kruse as a thesis film at the University of Arizona School of Music, as part of his masters degree in musicology and ethnomusicology, and it's easy to see why the story engaged him enough to want to document it.

For all that it's a history lesson, it's a very engaging personal look at one. Back in January, 1959, a school dance at Catalina High School in Tucson inspired the creation of something which Kruse joyously shines a light back onto over half a century later. On the stage was Jack Wallace and the Hi-Tones and on the floor was a bevy of screaming girls. Also there to feel the energy were a pair of fast talking seventeen year old boys, both seniors at the school who, in their own words, didn't 'play anything except the radio'. So, for no reason other than it seemed like a great idea in the heat of the moment, they started their own record label, Zoom! Records. They're Burt Schneider and Ray Lindstrom and they're also the primary reason why this short is as successful as it is. Now with their sixties becoming their seventies, they still appear to be as bright eyed and bushy tailed as they must have been back in 1959 when all this went down. It's hardly surprising that they talked the singer at that dance into recording their first single, I Think of You.

As a fan of indie music, I found their story fascinating, even if that's as much for how they were part of a wider trend as for what they did themselves. If I understood correctly, Zoom! didn't last too long, but the records they made survive today, sound pretty cool and have a number of interesting stories to tell. Burt and Ray left the music business almost as soon as they entered it, but they remember the experience in detail and Dan Kruse hauls in an agreeable amount of appropriate experts to back up their stories. What comes out of the interviews is a magic time of opportunity where prices were low and ambition high, but naivete was stronger than anything. Never mind just the kids, they were no more naive than the folk they worked with; they all learned as they went on. Wallace himself didn't know what a B-side was even as he was recording a single. King Rock and the Knights were getting reviewed in Billboard, even though their manager, Bill Wershing, hadn't heard of it. Hearing themselves on KTKT in Tucson was jaw dropping.
I lapped up all these colourful stories. Why did Burt and Ray choose Sidney J Wakefield's recording studio in Phoenix? Well, because it existed, because Duane Eddy recorded there and because it only cost $15 an hour, but also, above all, because it was open for Saturday sessions as they were in school for the rest of the week. They recorded everything live and in mono; multiple tracks weren't even thought of and even stereo wouldn't arrive for a while. Recording engineer Jack Miller fed the results into a speaker in a 2,100 gallon water tank, functioning as an echo chamber, and back through a microphone outside of it. KTKT DJ Frank Kalil played their records in the afternoon and everyone tuned in to listen. I even loved the asides, like how Tucson kids drove up to Phoenix for ice skating, swan boats in Encanto Park and the escalator at Porter's. All this went down only half a century ago right here in Phoenix and a couple of hours down the interstate in Tucson, but in the music industry it's an eon away and it needs historians to recount.

While the subject matter, wisely advertised in the film's title, is enough for me all on its own, others will benefit from choices Kruse made while creating it. It wouldn't have been the same without Burt and Ray, so their inclusion is key, not only to talk about what they did but also to revisit their past in the present. There aren't many other interview subjects but there are enough and, with only one exception, they're a perfect selection. Most were actually part of the Zoom! story at the time, including everyone mentioned thus far. Others include Al Perry, a singer/songwriter and record collector; John Dixon, an Arizona music historian; and Brian Moon, Kruse's musicology professor at the U of A who's really interesting even if his voice really isn't. Kruse also plays many of the Zoom! hits, so we can hear what they're all talking about. There's even a telling scene where Burt and Ray visit Miller at Canyon Records in Phoenix to see just how much the industry has changed since they contributed to it. That's a perfect cap to a great documentary.

Sunday 16 November 2014

LFO (2013)

Director: Antonio Tublén
Stars: Patrik Karlson, Izabella Jo Tschig, Ahnna Rasch, Per Löfberg, Erik Börén and Lukas Loughran
This film was an official selection at the 10th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
I got a kick out of the originality of LFO on the big screen, because it really doesn't care about doing what other films do. In fact, it played at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival as a showcase feature but I'm really not sure whether it counts as horror, sci-fi or something else entirely. Really it's all three, being a drama grounded in black comedy that eventually reveals itself as sci-fi, without a single giant monster, ray gun or spaceship, but sci-fi that is frankly more horrifying in its implications than most horror movies. The LFO in the title constitutes the sci in sci-fi, standing for 'low-frequency oscillation', sounds generated so low that the human ear can't hear them. This entire film sits on bedrock built by lead character Robert Nord when he discovers that a combination of four such oscillations cancel out everything else and instil a form of artificial hypnosis into everyone in range. Start thinking about what you would do if you found something like this and see if you're the twisted visionary that Robert is.

He's far from the usual lead character, but Patrik Karlson plays him to perfection, taking the relentlessly slow pace of the film and turning it, apparently innocently, into foreboding. Robert is on permanent sick leave from his job for reasons I didn't quite catch and his habit of not taking his meds, though his wife, Clara, stuck a permanent reminder on the bathroom mirror for him to do so, may be as important in the grand scheme of things as those four oscillations. Robert and Carla don't get on at all, not only because he ignores her to spend time in the basement with his sound equipment. She dismisses what he does as 'playing with his toys' and where he does it as his 'fortress of solitude', but he's really experimenting on himself. When the ambient relaxation sounds accompanying his wife's yoga sessions made him violently angry, something he calls a 'sound allergy', he started wondering about how to trigger other responses and we're quickly lost in the technobabble of it all, as befits what is, after all, a mad scientist story.

What's important here, among the oscillators, flashing lights and formulae, not to mention the apparent plethora of hidden references to drum machines and synthesizers, is that Robert clearly has delusions of grandeur. He's merely been talking about sound allergies with a couple of similarly affected folk, but one experiment on himself makes him lose five hours and suddenly he's convinced that he's going to win the Nobel Prize and change the world. Enter Linn and Simon, the folk moving in next door, and we have what we need to set the story in motion. It's worth mentioning two things at this point. One is that Robert isn't yet sending up too many flags, wondering about how he can ensure that his newfound knowledge won't fall into 'the wrong hands'. The other is that this is hardly the usual way to start a feature; our attentions have been almost entirely on one man in his own house doing little but talk. One of these things doesn't change while the other resonates because it does: we soon realise that Robert's are 'the wrong hands'.
Initially it's innocuous. Those five hours he lost were to a state of utter relaxation. What if we only needed ten minutes of sleep a day, like Judge Dredd gets? Robert easily hypnotises himself into giving up cookies because they make him fat. Imagine the possibilities! Well, there's the rub. Robert begins to imagine the possibilities for him that opened up with the arrival of Linn and Simon. He moves his prototype upstairs to switch on when they visit for coffee, putting on headphones to avoid being affected himself. He tells them to start thinking that he's a nice guy, that Simon should wash his windows and that Linn should develop a sexual hunger for him. It works promptly, precisely and perfectly: as soon as the device is off, they're a lot friendlier, Simon wonders if he could wash his windows along with his own and Linn finds a way to jump his bones. What was that about wrong hands again? Imagine if you could convince anyone to do anything just by pressing a button on a remote control. Power corrupts, right? Who watches the watchmen?

For a while it proceeds roughly as we might imagine, naturally escalating appropriately, but we soon find that the film asserts itself at points to highlight that it's as interesting as what is unfolding within it. The key scene here comes half an hour in, when Linn and Simon tell Robert that they're heading off for a trip to Copenhagen and ask him to look after their house while they're gone. Of course, he wires it for sound and tricks it out with his hypnotic device, so that when they get back he can listen in on them. Once he's instructed Simon to go to buy groceries and Linn that she just can't wait to have sex with him, he rushes over to get some and we find that we don't. We remain behind in Robert's house, listening in through the headphones he left in his kitchen. While we've followed Robert's antics throughout, it's at this point that we're placed emphatically and directly into his shoes, promptly discovering that we are doing precisely what he was just doing. The distance has gone. We're the ones in Robert's house now.

And that last statement is important too, because it's here that we realise that the film had never left it. We never visit Simon and Linn's house, just control it remotely. We never drive to the bank, when Robert realises he needs money so hypnotises Simon to rob it. We never go elsewhere to meet other characters; they all come to us. The entire picture takes place within the four walls of Robert's house, which becomes rather claustrophobic even though writer/director Antonio Tublén allows us to see quite a lot of it. In fact, it's claustrophobic not because we don't leave but because we're stuck there with Robert, who retains a consistent tone almost entirely throughout the film but which changes in our mind as we discover more about who he is, what he's already done and what he's going to do. Patrik Karlson, who outwardly seems to be an unremarkable middle aged Swede, endows his mild mannered character with magnetism that's impossible to explain except through talented acting. We can't stop watching him even as we want to.
I certainly shouldn't spoil the finalé with its grand ideas, the ones talked about first by audience members leaving the theatre before they start to backtrack to find the points where they might believe they would act differently. I want to talk about the second act, but firmly believe you should experience the dark and surreal comedy that it contains yourselves. This is an odd film in that it's at once funny and serious, with each approach never clashing with the other. There are no gags, no jokes, no overt triggers for laughter, but there's a supremely black humour to the way that Robert discovers that he has all the power of God but finds that having the power is only half the battle and he has to figure out what he should do with it. His relationship with his wife, which would be simplicity itself to spoil, is a fascinating concept on its own, and where his relationship with his neighbours goes is a sublime descent into the surreality of complete control and complete honesty. Tublén's strange imagination is one which we should be thankful for.

While the film was fascinating to me for its story, it's just as fascinating to me as a critic trying to write up a review of it. Beyond Karlson's superb performance at the heart of the film, all the usual angles on which to comment are closed. The rest of the acting is complex to describe, because there's very little of it and none of it is traditional. Robert is the only character who is continually on screen throughout the film, with three others that are prominent. However, without inadvertently throwing out spoilers, none can really be described as being themselves for long. Izabella Jo Tschig, Per Löfberg and Ahnna Rasch are tasked with a strange task, not to portray the characters themselves but those characters through a particular filter. I'm happy to say that all three are thoroughly interesting to watch. The few other actors on screen don't play characters as much as they do props and triggers for the story to escalate. Perhaps the most important is the voice on the radio who tells us all sorts of important details which we often fail to notice.

The cinematography is inherently limited because we're stuck in Robert's house throughout, which isn't a big one that might accomodate a lot of equipment. I did notice that many of the scenes that unfold in his 'fortress of solitude' are montage scenes and they seem to adopt the Automavision process that I've only previously seen in Lars von Trier's The Boss of It All. This has the director select each initial shot, but then allow a computer to move in a random direction. Tublén's previous feature, Original, made with Alexander Brøndsted, was partly produced by von Trier's production company, Zentropa. The soundtrack is notable, if as much for its prominence as its quality, because its background bleeps and chirps often take over to become the transitions between scenes. It's no surprise that Tublén himself served both as the picture's editor and composer. Clearly he's yet another fascinating name to follow in the Scandinavian cinema of restriction, as set in motion by von Trier. They just don't make films like this anywhere else.

Saturday 15 November 2014

Kiki Meets the Vampires (2014)

Chrissy Mountjoy-Collette, John Tomelleri, Dale Hilton, Amber Lodge, Shawn Mock, Rev Dwight Frizzell, Lionel Dekanel, Paxton Von Kruger, Eric 'Kiki' Clam and Krystal Heib
The biggest perk that stems from being a film critic, reviewing at Apocalypse Later the sort of films that most critics don't review, is the feedback I get from filmmakers. It's the best feeling in the world when an actor, a writer or a director gets in touch with me from the other side of the world because they've found my review of their film and they want to let me know that I got it. Well, one film that I'm still not sure that I've got yet is The Legend of the Shoe Man, which I first saw as a festival submission. It's a short piece of folk art which builds something mythical that may or may not have been real. It might be a documentary or a fairy tale or an anthropological study or a fireside yarn or an experiment to build an urban legend out of thin air using an odd mix of interviews, stock footage, comedy, exploitation, music video, sermonising, reenactment and outsider artistry. Well, I reviewed The Legend of the Shoe Man and Joey Skidmore, the man behind the film, found it and kindly sent me a copy of Kiki Meets the Vampires to review too.

Now, if The Legend of the Shoe Man was offbeat, Kiki Meets the Vampires is a wild glowing portal into the Twilight Zone. It's about everything that Hollywood isn't and, while it refuses to explain itself, it's easier to figure out than Skidmore's first film. It just took me a while to get there and until I did I'm not sure if I was embarrassed, entertained or embarrassed about being entertained. My better half didn't like it at all but I couldn't keep my eyes off it. I found a peculiar charm to it that suggests that it would play well at a party, not just once but looped over and over, in the right company of course. And that's going to be the key, as this is far from a movie for everyone. The more open you are to the unconventional, the more you might just get a kick out of this movie, because it's less of a narrative story and more of an odd collage of odd characters shoehorned into an odd hour. The closest I can come to summarising the film is by suggesting an episode of Scooby Doo, as cast by Ed Wood and directed by Mack Sennett.

To describe it properly, I have to explore it through its characters. It begins with Krystal Heib portraying a vampire queen like her life depended on it. Scantily clad in lingerie and a fur coat and backed by stained glass, she writhes in ecstasy in an antique chair to the music video for La Guinguette by les Fossoyeurs, a French punk band. Using an outrageous Bela Lugosi accent and enough emphasis for a dozen mimes, she cries to her entourage, 'Him! I vant that one! Bring me Kiki!', referring to the lead singer of the band, also one of its three saxophonists. When did you last hear a punk band with three saxophones? It might have been the same time you last saw a punk band switch to jazz via traditional chanson and even include a whistling section through which they do-si-do. Les Fossoyeurs (or the Gravediggers) aren't your regular punk band, that's for sure. Krystal Heib isn't your usual vampire queen either; surely most don't have a bald bongo playing vampire stooge in a purple velvet smoking jacket. This is all about wild coolness.
If Heib and her minions constitute the vampires, it's time for us to head over the pond to meet Kiki, and so we do, watching les Fossoyeurs eating dinner, jamming in a local club and surviving vampire attacks without apparently noticing that they're even happening. I was never quite sure if the vampire girls with their corpse paint and transparent pursuit tactics are supposed to be invisible or not, but they're easily foiled through such timeless tactics as banana peels and farts. Then again, being French, Kiki's farts are probably lethal to vampires because of the garlic. Maybe all French vampires should emigrate to Kansas City instead. After a succession of scenes both legitimately or inexplicably in French, les Fossoyeurs hop Stateside for an American tour, grounded as the whole film is by the newsreading of a French DJ. French news is comprised half by coverage of 'the biggest band in Europe' surely about to break North America and half by the mysterious murders spreading across the continent.

What's clear thus far is that most of the people in the film can't act but that all of them are clearly having a blast making it. Also, just as Ed Wood cast non-actors who were fascinating people (psychics, wrestlers, horror hosts etc), Skidmore cast this film from the eccentrics and fascinating characters around him (and given that he's been a musician for decades, there are plenty of them). Some return from The Legend of the Shoe Man like Wolf the Bounty Hunter (now Vampire Slayer) and John the Angry Plumber. Others show up at this point, like the Rev Dwight Frizzell or the bikers with flaming swords who arrive at the finalé. The key to getting into a Skidmore film appears to be the ability to do something either bizarre or unique, like walking across a kitchen floor on your hands to attack someone with your feet, or to actually be someone bizarre or unique, whether through size, shape or character. Then he can shoot you doing something cool and edit your respective footage together into something that vaguely resembles a story.
Most of these folk only have bit parts though, what might be fairly described as cameo appearances if a debut screen appearance could be called a cameo. The thrust of the narrative follows three set groups of characters. Two are represented in the title: Kiki and the French punks in les Fossoyeurs and the vampire queen and her minions. The third are not and they're later arrivals in the film but they do become just as prominent, in fact far more important to the film and its tone. The realisation that they're a parody of the Scooby Gang brings everything into focus and suddenly it all makes sense. Why was Betty reading in the bath, while Chrissy played with her bubbles? Why do the pair of them have a pillow fight and frolic on the bed for no apparent reason? Well, because they're really Velma and Daphne and who didn't grow up with that vision in mind whenever they watched Scooby Doo? Now Tom and Stoney make sense. Now the twin for Wolf makes sense. Now the Reverend makes sense. Now it all makes sense!

Daphne, I mean Chrissy, is the most prominent, as Chrissy Mountjoy is a tall drink of blonde water with a short purple dress and a lime green boa. She's acted before, generally in lesbian horror films like Dream Witch and Christine's Addiction, but surely her finest moment here is after the credits when we watch her try repeatedly to pronounce 'les Fossoyeurs' in the outtakes. Amber Lodge is much better as Velma, erm Betty, even though this is her debut on screen. Her fact filled Nosferatu monologue needed retakes but otherwise she was surprisingly strong as an actress. John Tomelleri appropriately gets little to do as Tom because, after all, Fred never did much in Scooby Doo, right? However Shawn Mock doesn't get any more as Stoney, because Shaggy always needed Scooby and this film had no budget for an animatronic hound. Maybe that's why the vampires nabbed Chico, the old turnip farmer's dog. Like Lodge, neither Tomolleri nor Mock have acted before and their chance may come in the next Skidmore movie.
If the Scooby Doo parody defines most of the tone of the film, at least some of it is phrased through old school slapstick instead. There was a lot of that in Scooby Doo too, but here it seems to be separate from that side of the film so I wonder if it was just a separate influence. It's mostly apparent as vampires try to obtain Kiki for the vampire queen and in another apparently random picnic scene in the park. That has a pair of 1950s teenagers who clearly aren't teenagers any more, Boner living up to his name and wanting more than his Christian girlfriend wants to give up. The joke is that she's a rather buxom lass, innocently topless by the time the vampires show up, but they end up chasing after Boner instead. This is less like a Scooby Doo gag and more like what Mack Sennett might have written, had he included bloodsuckers and boobs in his silent pictures. Given the lack of consistency of tone, this scene could even have been shot in black and white and with intertitles instead of sound and worked just as well.

And that inconsistency, more than anything else, is what's going to challenge potential audiences. Many people have no problem with bad acting, or Nicolas Cage wouldn't have a career, but they don't want to be challenged by the movies they watch, content instead to be drawn along by a smooth progression of inanity. This is far from smooth, so it'll challenge people. It's an English language film but its main stars only speak French and other characters do likewise. There are so many people in the film that nobody is ever really focused on, so we jump back and forth continually trying to figure out where we're going and eventually realise that the film is always in the moment not in the flow. The humour is often juvenile, as is appropriate with Scooby Doo and slapstick comedy influences, but there are moments with full frontal nudity too, both male and female, often entirely out of the blue and for no apparent reason. And, it's a mere hour in length, including the music video in the middle and the outtakes at the end.

So there's frankly no way that Kiki and the Vampires is ever going to go mainstream. You're not going to see this in your local multiplex or reviewed in your local newspaper. However, it really doesn't care as it's hardly what it's aiming for. It has to be said that as a filmmaker, Joey Skidmore is a damn good musician (and the film's insanely catchy theme tune opens up his excellent new album, Joey Skidmore Now!). His editing and cinematography are hardly sophisticated and his writing is far from linear. He can't maintain a tone or a theme without wanting to throw something else in there for no better reason than it happens to be cool. I'm sure they'd kick him out of film school but, frankly, is there anything more punk than that? The people who don't hate this are going to love it because it's an unholy collage that plays out like the cinematic equivalent of a punk zine, with Skidmore, the editor with a passion, writing about all the cool things he's found, pasting in images of the sacred and the profane, xeroxing it at work and selling it at gigs for beer money. On that front, it's a cult film that will be watched over and over.

Friday 14 November 2014

The Idea (2014)

Director: Andy Robinson
Stars: Dillon Buffington, Troy Ralph, Jonathan Holdsworth, Chris Avila, Eddie Manteca, Daniela Mitchell, Manuel Pena and Jonathan Boutin
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
Making movies about making movies is always a dangerous idea but it's also an intriguing one. For half of its running time, The Idea is surprisingly astute and full of superb little details that are worth watching the film a few times to fully catch. Unfortunately, it ends up, perhaps inevitably, as the victim of the film challenge time limit. I get the impression that Dillon Buffington, who wrote the picture in which he writes a picture with two colleagues, could have continued the detail-oriented joy of the first half to a stronger, more natural conclusion and, in doing so, generated an excellent fifteen minute short film. That's not how film challenges work though, so he had to find a way to wrap it up quicker and couldn't find a good way to do so. It's not a bad ending, because it actually describes the evolution of modern Hollywood movies, but it could have been a lot better. Half a great film with an OK ending is still pretty good, but an entire great film would be much more worthy. I hope he makes it.

We're here to watch three men write a movie while sitting on their couch bandying ideas around. That's hardly an engaging sight, so we also get to see what they conjure up in their imaginations, then change to meet what the conjurors change. They start with a guy, make him a mechanic but detour into who he should be with. One wants him to be relatable, so gives him a 'smokin' hot girlfriend', while another has the girlfriend be 'plain and uninteresting' because 'smokin' hot' isn't relatable. Am I mistaken or are both played by the same actress? If so, that's a nice touch. Then they make him gay, leading to a stupid joke that's actually a telling comment about writers with poor vocabularies and then a superb breaking of the fourth wall to highlight that 'sexual orientation doesn't matter'. It carries on like this for a little while, the conflict about conflict leading to conflict and everything seeming stupid while actually being clever. If I read the credits correctly, one actor is even playing another, while the other delivers pizza. Nice.

But then The Idea runs out of time to do the idea justice, which is unfortunate but difficult to see how it could have been avoided. So, if it's inevitably not the film it could have been, what about the film that it was? Beyond Buffington's writing, what leapt out at me was the editing, which isn't credited so I have no idea who to praise. The ideas in The Idea come thick and fast and they could easily have been mired in bad editing. Fortunately they aren't; whoever cut the picture kept them in perpetual motion, even while switching back and forth between the writers and their visions. While the actors playing the writers are capable, if mostly through well delivered dialogue as the rest of the talent required involved looking or just sitting on a couch, those in the imagination shots deserve credit as they had no way to grow, being merely ideas, but did have to absolutely nail each of those ideas in no time flat, sometimes just a second or so. With it all done right, I really want to see this lose its ending and find its full flow.

The Idea can be watched online for free at YouTube.

If Not Me (2014)

Director: Glen A Hines
Stars: Glen A Hines, Greta Skelly, Maya Patron and Deb Blume
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
Every IFP Phoenix challenge filmmaker wants to make movies or they wouldn't be IFP Phoenix challenge filmmakers. However what they want those movies to be varies just a little. Most want to get their short films in front of eyeballs and for some, the eyeballs of their fellow filmmakers at challenge screenings is enough. Some have a little ambition and want to get their work into the Phoenix Film Festival or another local event. Most would say that they have a serious drive to become a film professional and some may even be telling the truth to themselves. Watching the short films of Glen Hines, it feels like he's building the portfolio he wants to send to the Lifetime Channel so he can make uplifting TV movies until the day he dies. Eva's Light, which caught a lot of attention at the Beat the Clock Challenge last year, was strong in itself, but If Not Me, made for the Breakout Challenge, feels very much like a companion piece to play beside it and build a theme that I wouldn't be surprised to see extend over his next few films.

Both films are underpinned by piano based scores that are uplifting with touches of sadness, though this one later goes overboard with the addition of a song to hammer the sentimentality home. Both films are centred on elderly ladies, one real and one maybe only sourced from reality. Both films unfold through a set of images, often in flashback, to underpin a narrative; Eva's Light was narrated by the woman at the heart of the story while If Not Me is built from an interview about the equivalent woman, who has left us. It could be argued that one ends with death and the other begins with it, but both highlight the passage. Both films have carefully constructed forewords and afterwords; in fact, both start out with words before we ever see visuals, setting the scene before we see it. Both films then find a visual tie to the subject to ground our exploration of them; the photos/memories in Eva's Light and the shrine to remember the old homeless lady in If Not Me. Whether the films constitute a thematic pair or just a beginning is open.

What's most obviously different here is that Glen A Hines, who again co-wrote with Deb Blume and also produced and directed the film, puts himself prominently into it too. He's the businessman who talks to someone, perhaps a journalist, about Maxine, the homeless lady who lived on a bench in the park which he passed every day for a month before realising that she wasn't there any more, presumably murdered somewhere else or he'd have noticed the crime scene tape. Other people noticed sooner, which is why a shrine was put up on the bench for this businessman to notice. This does make a little sense. While most people only see what's there and it takes a Sherlock Holmes to notice the dog in the night time who isn't, the comment here is surely that homeless people are overlooked background in our minds and we often filter them out. Having done so, the businessman is surely as much shocked by what he filtered as by an actual murder. His interview feels drenched as much in guilt as in remembrance.

While If Not Me isn't as strong as Eva's Light, it's still a capable piece. Hines knows how to play with our emotions and he does it well, focusing on the positive in so doing rather than the negative. He's a decent face for the film, though of course it's Maxine herself who steals our attention, playing backgammon with herself on her bench, which she's adorned with the sort of things that made her happy (things that aren't remotely dirty enough). There's a neat use of time lapse photography, highlighting how the world moves too fast to notice little details like Maxine. The shots of her standing still while the world flows inexorably around her in a marketplace are especially potent and deserved much more running time. Greta Skelly is excellent as Maxine, though she never has the chance to speak. Hines provides her background and the film provides her voice. Where this loses out to Eva's Light is in how sentimental it gets, the overblown song an overdone crescendo to a much more subtle short film that deserved to play out on the piano.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Rigged (2014)

Director: Shawn Esplin
Stars: Suzanne Brown, Brighton Weick, Aly Graham, Russel Traher, Pat Kaye, Allison Beauchamp, Dell Herts and Jim McElleney
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 submissions.
I always find myself wanting to like Shawn Esplin's IFP Phoenix film challenge entries more than I actually do, mostly because what I appreciate most are his ideas, which tend to outweigh how they're brought to life. I liked the idea behind Shiny but it was too long and too detached, even if Todd Isaac played a neatly quirky sort of Gollum. I liked the idea behind Escape from Zany's Baking Company, probably my favourite of his films thus far, but it was too obvious. I even liked the idea behind Smiling, even if that was about all I did like in that film. I like the idea behind Rigged even more than any of those, not merely the basic idea but how he expanded on it to riff on sports films, detective films, comedies and thrillers all in one. I liked how he played it straight, however outrageous the double entendres. I liked the choice of game, spinning up a corruption scandal in the world of senior bingo. What I hated here was the acting, which is about as wooden as I've seen, enough so that I wondered if it could have been deliberate.

It's much better on the technical side, except for inconsistent sound. Esplin sets the scene quickly with a clandestine action in the dark as a young man passes a set of bingo balls to the local caller. He's kept in the shadows, but she's immediately memorable with huge earrings, long string of pearls and a salacious line to read. 'Don't worry, sweet cheeks,' she suggests. 'I'll be pulling out your balls any chance I get.' It's well lit, so that we see the characters and the bag of balls well but absolutely nothing else. But then we switch to the game itself and a host of regulars bemoaning the magical lucky streak of the young man at the back with performances so wooden that I was almost surprised when the actors moved. Perhaps the idea is that these seniors are merely old and tired and fed up with losing but I don't buy that. Maybe the character investigating the improbabilities for cheating speaks low and monotone to fit into a hardboiled detective state of mind. Whatever, the cast are mostly so devoid of emotion that everything falls flat.

I should add the caveats that Pat Kaye acquits herself strongly, as always, as one of the bitterest players, and Suzanne Brown certainly has her moments as the caller, though she's a little overt, but they merely highlight how far everyone else lowers the standard. What's most frustrating is that the dialogue they're given is otherwise sparkling and worthy of strong delivery. In fact, much of what sits behind the actors is rather good, especially for something with no budget. I liked the little details, like Leonard's hat and tie and Mildred's granddaughter's phone. I liked the background rumble of voices and the score. I liked the detective's glances and the shadows in the line up scene. I liked the Commissioner's speech, which did raise the acting at least one notch. Had the acting been up to the other aspects, it would have had a chance at more than just the Audience Favourite award at the Breakout Challenge in February, which is what took it to the Phoenix Film Festival.

The Matchstick House (2013)

Director: Sean Kyte
Stars: Todd Isaac, Kellie Cornelison
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
From the outrageous non-stop genre shenanigans of Present Tense, not to mention the engaging comedy of Technically Grounded before it, The Matchstick House felt like an abrupt shift in tone. Instead of subtly being drawn into the story of David and Jennifer, a pair of newlyweds with a sad story that we'll discover in flashbacks driven by the little matchstick house of the title, we wonder why we've suddenly left warp speed and slammed on the brakes. Perhaps it would have sat better after Blue and After the Beep, a pair of shorter, more serious, relationship based films, so the set could wrap up with comedy and let us leave the theatre with a grin on our faces. Of course, it's completely unfair to judge Sean Kyte's work on what played before it, so it was important for me to see it again in isolation and review it on its own merits. In that way, it's clear that it's a decent film, capably acted and well escalated to a natural conclusion, if not a groundbreaking way to wrap up a set of shorts.

We begin with David Guzy doing little things that appear to have no consequence whatsoever but which we gradually realise have strong meaning for him. He gets up and faces the day, for a start, in the early hours, setting up the coffee machine and dropping a scoop on the floor as he does so. There's nothing at this point that we remotely care about, but there are good reasons for Kyte to include them, which begin to manifest themselves as David sits down with his coffee to browse through photos of him and his wife on Facebook. Clearly she's not there any more to react to him dropping the scoop on the floor. When he starts to pack up knickknacks and bric-à-brac into boxes, we wonder why. He's curiously without emotion for someone who's clearly lost a young wife in one way or another, until he carelessly hauls books down from a high shelf and damages a little matchstick house that he'd unwisely set out right in the way only a few moments earlier. Now he's traumatised and he drops everything to fix it.

Thus far it's been Todd Isaac all the way, playing David somewhat appropriately in sleepwalk mode. That changes when we shift to the flashbacks prompted by this house, which is the epitome of a personal item to which nobody else would pay any attention. It's hardly a fancy or complex creation, just a little cube of glued together matches with a little roof on the top, but as we quickly find in flashback, it took Jennifer a whole morning to make. It's an important link because that was a crucial morning, one which David must be running through over and over because it's rooted in his fear of change. Fighting one change, he sets into motion another and he'll be stuck with that till the end of his days. Isaac gets to play with a number of sides of David's character, a complex one for a thirteen minute short and one which anchors the film even more than the matchstick house of the title. As Jennifer, Kellie Cornelison is a good foil, but it's the contribution of Jay Fitz over the phone which grounds the psychology of the piece.

I found that I didn't like The Matchstick House as much when I watched it at the Phoenix Film Festival, but a lot of that was surely because of its odd placement in the set. I've liked it more with each successive viewing, if 'like' is a suitable word for something that's so inherently sad and overwhelmingly traumatic, especially as the score stops when the end credits start and we finish in silence. In many ways, watching it over and over feels utterly appropriate, as that's surely what David is doing a hundred times a day, but of course they're his memories and his matchstick house sitting there to trigger them again and again. It feels like watching the film taps us into that cycle in an enlightening way. I wonder how people who have gone through serious loss have reacted to this picture. Perhaps that's what prompted Sean Kyte to make it to begin with. While the matchstick house is inaccessible to anyone but David, The Matchstick House is personal and neatly universal. Everyone will take something different away from it.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Present Tense (2013)

Director: Jaz Garewal
Stars: Gabriel Diani and Janet Varney
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
I adored Present Tense when it played in the Arizona Shorts selection at this year's Phoenix Film Festival to the degree that I honed in on Tucson-based writer/director Jaz Garewal after the screening to seek his permission for me to screen it myself as part of the Apocalypse Later mini-film festival at LepreCon. The sci-fi audience there loved it too and it got good feedback when I screened it again in my annual round-up at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival and at a charity event at Oakwood Creative Care. There are a host of reasons why it's easily likeable, especially to a genre crowd, but the most obvious is surely that it's so relentlessly reminiscent while never losing its originality. It takes firm aim at the old sci-fi trope of time travel, shoots it into little pieces by multiplying moments that we've seen in a variety of films or TV shows until it gets flamboyantly out of control, then hauls it carefully back into a neatly clichéd touching moment and finally brings it home by happily avoiding a Hollywood ending.

In this, Garewal is less a director and more of a conductor. If each character is an instrument, he allows all of them to play but controls how they do so with panache. I could almost see him as a shadow behind the screen, immediately letting Alex and Cynthia solo with facial expressions over the litany of the priest who is about to marry them, only to let Bryan, the best man, set the tone with a cautionary note and another Alex leap in with the first in a set of themes to duel it out for supremacy like an orchestral tug of war. You see, actor Gabriel Diani, who plays Alex, is all over this film like a rash, because there are a whole bunch of Alexes. The first has come back from the future to plead to his earlier self to not marry Cynthia. A mere moment later, another blips into being to plead with him to marry her after all, and then a third reiterates the message of the first. What's a poor bridegroom-to-be to do? Well, Garewal isn't remotely done and he keeps escalating things until nobody in the audience can fairly claim not to have been overwhelmed.
It was almost an anti-climax when I realised that Garewal had also composed the score. Of course he did, because the whole film is shot like a piece of music, most especially towards the end as the present day Alex plucks at everyone's heartstrings before Garewal wraps it up neatly with a perfect coda. There isn't any reason why I need to delve into the story deeper, except to ditch the musical metaphor and bring in one of an onion because that's what time travel has always meant to me. To reference just one example, it always felt empty to me to have only one terminator come back to chase down Sarah Connor and one freedom fighter come back to keep her safe. It made a lot more sense as the sequels added up and a lot more terminators started battling it out in the present to change the future. Surely, if time travel is ever made a reality (a convoluted sentence if I've ever written one), it would have layers enough to render time no barrier at all, with past and future spilling through the present with abandon. You know, like this.
The acting is capable, Diani and Janet Varney, who plays Cynthia, doing everything needed of them, but the relentless shenanigans of script trump them all, even as Diani progresses from outrageous outfit to outrageous outfit. The first is just a drab, dirty slacker, but the second arrives with an eyepatch and one kickass tricked out futuristic wheelchair, while the third has a futuristic energy source implanted into his belly. Nobody can fail to ride the waves, but it's the genre audience who will truly get this because they will recognise that Garewal isn't merely spearing one convention, he's shredding a whole bunch of them, some being specific films (the slo-mo Guns n' Roses pun from Terminator 2: Judgment Day most obviously referenced), but most being general observations on the genre. I particularly loved the shootout between two sides of a tiny church with nobody able to hit anyone else from a few feet away even with futuristic weapons. I also loved the Time Cops, erm Time Crimes Division, and the cartwheeling escape.

Genre audiences should count down the days before Garewal puts this short online. I'm sure it'll get there in the end, because it was successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter, where it had the most appropriate $1 pledge of any campaign. For a film that revolves around a time war being unleashed at a wedding, how's this for a promise? 'We'll go back in time and reverse your most embarrassing moment!' Neat, huh? Well, it continues in a fashion that could have been included in the script. 'Because of how time travel works, you won't know that this was done. Think about the most embarrassing moment in your life. Know that, at one point in time, this was actually your second most embarrassing moment, 'cause you gave us a buck, and we changed your life.' No wonder they reached their Kickstarter goal! After all, if they hadn't, they'd have just gone back in time and changed it up until they did, right? I liked Garewal's previous film, BlamBlamBlam, ClickClickClick, but this is a leap forward and I'd love to time travel to see what's next.

Update: Present Tense is available to watch for free on YouTube.

Technically Grounded (2013)

Director: Darrin Moore
Stars: Trevor Robins, Noah Lanouette, Calabria Pelletier, Madelynn Eldredge and Chelsea Carll
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
The most annoying thing about Technically Grounded is that it clearly springs from a single idea which I can't talk about because it would constitute a spoiler. I can say that it feels very much like one of those deceptively throwaway comments that get dropped into a conversation at a party, perhaps elicit a laugh of three before the topic moves on and it's promptly forgotten. Except that it isn't forgotten by everyone; it resonates with someone who feels driven to feed it into the creative process and generate something that will outlast that conversation. I wrote a short story once because of a spam e-mail and another that grew out of a piece of history related during a ghost tour. It wouldn't surprise me if this short film began with some off the cuff comment that just wouldn't leave Darrin Moore alone. If so, I'm thankful he turned it into a script (with Whitney Mead) and then a film as we've all been there. This is why I started up game night for family, where we switch off devices, eat, play board or card games and actually talk in person.

What I can talk about here is the power cut. Moore introduces us to a set of kids who only seem to exist apart from the regular world. The boys play multi-player games online, talking in game on headsets and texting each other outside of it, uploading kills to YouTube as they go. The girls talk, talk, talk on various devices at all once. Rachel is on her laptop, while talking on the family landline, texting on her bedazzled cell and skyping on her iPad. All human interaction is here, just not face to face. Moore does exaggerate for comedic effect and to illustrate his point, but he's not really stretching the truth that far. In particular, I've experienced a lot of communication with parents just like what's shown in this film, right down to the unrealised taking for granted. What's new here is that the power goes out and they're all flummoxed. We presumably aren't supposed to realise that cellphones would still be up with their always on connections to the net, but we can forgive that at least a little because of the dialogue.

I loved the dialogue, especially as delivered by some of these kids (the adults in the film don't get much of a look in at all). 'Seriously there is nothing to do,' clamours Tommy. To the obvious answer, he protests 'Play what? The power is out!' And so, to avoid being roped in for chores, he heads out front to sit on the curb, as do all the other neighbourhood kids we've watched inside. 'I didn't even know there were other kids in the neighbourhood,' he tells Nick, but suddenly they're introduced to girls and kicking cans in the street and water bombs and the works. The brief Kumbaya guitar strumming is clearly only in the film as a joke for old fogies in the audience like me, but it's hilarious nonetheless; to be fair, so is the rest of the film which is far more grounded and believable. This is a point far more than it's a story, so much so that kids might just raise their eyebrows at the film, but anyone over the age of twenty will find something in this to relate to and, in all probability, rather a lot.

The glorious little twist in particular surely can't fail to spur every parent to want to emulate it in real life, even if most will talk themselves out of it by the time they leave the theatre or reach for a remote. At the risk of puncturing the joke though, it's worth mentioning that this is something of a reactionary flipside to Our Own Devices, which played earlier in the same set at the Phoenix Film Festival. That carried far more truth in explaining that technology merely changes us; it enables just as much as it takes away. As much fun as this is, it's fun in the same way as telling kids to 'get off my lawn'. It doesn't stand up to too much analysis, even with an opening quote from Albert Einstein that, 'It has become appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.' Each generation gets to say this in their own way, yet there's always a next generation to laugh about the fears of the previous one. We survived women getting the vote and automobiles hurtling along at 20mph. We'll get over always-on connections too.

If the idea is king here, it's brought to life well, if we can get past the conveniences. The score is suitably bubbly and the camera moves well. It relies on a set of child actors to bring it to life and it finds a strong lead in Trevor Robins, who gets a lot more to do here than he got in An Encounter. Another Running Wild alumnus, Noah Lanouette from The Sisters, does well too but Robins is clearly on a roll here and remains out of reach. Keeping the trend alive on the side of the girls, Madelynn Eldredge was also in a 52 Films in 52 Weeks short, Clay. She's certainly one of the busiest young actors in the state, but she has little to do here and she mostly relegates herself to the background along with her screen sister, newcomer Chelsea Carll. It's Calabria Pelletier, another fresh face to film, who matches Robins step for step. Both are strong natural performers and we'll surely see a lot more from both of them soon. Robins in particular has half a dozen films in the can or going through post-production. I'm only surprised Pelletier doesn't.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Schism (2013)

Director: Charles Peterson
Stars: Patrick Adam, Patti Tindall, David Lines and Dominic Ross
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
After making a number of genre shorts and features, but especially Sex and Violence, Charles Peterson of Cool Wave Films seemed to gain a new first name: Controversial. In our eyes, that name now flavours any film he makes; just as we expect David Lynch to be weird, M Night Shyamalan to create twists or Michael Bay to suck, we expect Charles Peterson to be controversial and when he isn't, like with Clint, which casts Carrie Fee but none of her bodily fluids, it feels somehow wrong. However, while directing Clint and The Eleventh Aggression, and swapping hats on other Cool Wave short films, he was also working on Schism, which seems to fit the bill much closer, albeit in a different way. Less controversial in content and more in approach, it's a risky piece that could easily have backfired. After all, how many remember the Duo-Vision concept used by MGM in 1973 for Wicked, Wicked? It opened by applauding itself and its 'new concept in motion picture technique'. This is similar, but is far more memorable for not claiming it's memorable.

There are other reasons why Controversial Peterson succeeds here. Schism is a short film for a start, thus the gimmick only needs to be maintained for 16 minutes rather than 95, technically a few less because of credits and the fact that the bookends appear outside of split screen. The story fits the approach well and Jose Rosete's script, from a story by Peterson and Bill Furedy, is deep indeed. There are double meanings everywhere, all the way down to the lyrics of the Snow Patrol song that ends the film, whose chorus could have been its original inspiration: 'Light up, light up as if you have a choice, even if you cannot hear my voice, I'll be right beside you, dear.' For almost the entire picture, we're given two separate scenes that generally contain the same people in different settings but with the same dialogue, or half of it, at least, given the circumstances. Beyond appreciating the parallels on show, not to mention the skill which tied them together, we're left wondering exactly what the two sides mean.

We begin with Patti Tindall arguing with Patrick Adam, in a car that's hurtling dangerously down the road. Her first words are, 'Will you please slow down?' and they're telling ones. He's Greg Hill and he's far from being a happy camper. She's unnamed, but clearly his girlfriend becoming his ex-girlfriend. He's notably bitter, partly because of the moment and partly because he doesn't handle rejection well, given that his father had left his family before he knew him. 'I don't want to be your friend,' he snaps after she tries for a zone shift. 'I never want to see you again,' he reenforces as he kicks her out of the car. And off he goes, even more violently than before and it's no surprise to watch his car powerfully wiped out as he jumps a red light. All this unfolds in single screen format, but not the single screen we're used to as it's peculiarly small, as if the projectionist failed to understand what letterbox was, so cropped down the sides to match the bars at the top and bottom. I presume the idea is that we're focused in on the moments.
And then the screen splits and we watch instant parallels. There's a digital alarm on the left side and an analogue clock on the right, but the time's the same. Greg wakes up in bed at home on the left but fails to wake up at all on the right because he's in a hospital bed in a coma. Then in comes his father on both sides to apologise. Initially, this unfolds as dialogue on the left, albeit appropriate dialogue for each side, but then some of dad's lines start to be delivered simultaneously in both scenarios, the words the same but the response, of course, completely different. So, assuming that the right hand side of the screen is the real present, what's on the left? Could the right be an ironic one-sided rerun of a prior conversation? Is it Greg's damaged brain imagining the bitter responses he never gave to a new confession? If the title initially refers to Greg's relationships with his father and his girl, does it expand to some sci-fi concept of trauma creating a parallel universe unfolding uncannily close to our own but for one crucial detail?

Who knows? Given how it progresses, with other characters showing up simultaneously on each side, I'd plump for the middle option, that Greg is struggling to make sense of his life in a sort of dream logic as he begins to leave it. Of course, we're watching a film by Controversial Peterson, so even death isn't the surefire assumption that we might expect it to be. This moves into new territory, where 'second chances' end up with multiple meanings, just like everything else in this film. At one point, Greg spits, 'I'm dead to you!' at his girlfriend, which is especially ironic given the dual scenarios we're watching, but it's far from the only line that can be read two ways. In fact, just as Peterson had to effectively shoot this twice, with four actors running through the same lines in two very different circumstances, we really ought to watch it twice to ensure that we don't miss anything. It's almost ironic that IMDb claims it as a 2011 film, when it was started, while the credits plump for 2013, when it was finished. Everything has two faces here.

Certainly the most experimental film in the Arizona Shorts block at this year's Phoenix Film Festival, even with After the Beep showing too, it's also one of the most emotional and one of the most memorable. It's not without flaws though. While Patrick Adam is particularly strong in the earlier scenes with Patti Tindall, herself a reliable local talent if there ever was one, he does have some lesser moments later on when he proves unable to maintain the bitterness of his lines and they become forced. Technically, there's some awkward greenscreen work; I presume it's particularly hard to do effective greenscreen with a black guy in a white suit which is almost luminous because of the deliberate levels of light. Light is used well here, as a marker of life, but it fights effective greenscreen and wins. Mostly though, the cast and crew support the gimmick well and the gimmick supports the script even better. It's great to see a local short film with this level of care and attention given to its writing and structure. We need more Controversial Petersons.