Wednesday 28 January 2015

The Dragon Lives Again (1977)

Director: Lo Ke
Stars: Bruce Leong, Shin Ii Lung, Tong Ching, Alexander Grand and Jenny

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Having changed the face of action movies forever by introducing the western world to Hong Kong martial arts pictures, Bruce Lee died in 1973, at the height of his fame. Needless to say, the kung fu industry was rather distraught and promptly cast everyone and his dog as 'the new Bruce Lee'. Some of the actors who were tasked with this role, like Bruce Le and Bruce Li, did pretty well and became stars themselves. Some became famous once they stopped pretending to be Bruce Lee, like Jackie Chan, the embarrassing star of New Fists of Fury. Others just earned their wages in a neverending barrage of Brucesploitation movies, a few of which are fun, most of which are awful and some of which are outright bizarre. This is emphatically one of the latter, an apparent comedy from 1977 known both as The Dragon Lives Again (though it isn't a sequel to the previous year's The Dragon Lives) and Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. The principal reason that it's bizarre is that Lee is far from the only icon in the movie; in fact, it's packed full of them!

It's also bizarre because of how these icons are treated, starting with Bruce Lee himself. Even though it's been four years since his death, he shows up unconscious on a set of trestles with a sheet hiding what is apparently a giant boner, one that the King of the Underworld's two wives are rather keen on (spoiler: it's really his nunchucks). Yes, we're in the underworld, which looks so much like the regular world of kung fu movies that we might be excused if we think it's the same one. The impersonator this time out is Leung Siu-Lung, credited as Bruce Leong, a decent martial artist but one who looks a lot less like Bruce Lee than Shen Ie Lung, playing the Godfather without any of Marlon Brando's mumbling but with a physique that resembles Lee's, at least once he strips off his outfit for the boss battle in the inevitable rock quarry that, contrary to the laws of physics, apparently sits right in the middle of town so that folk can merely look sideways whenever they want a fight and let it take over their environment.
So, this is Bruce Lee versus the Godfather, with the King of the Underworld somewhere in between them as a bad guy rather than a boss, to use a videogame term that originated in a Bruce Lee movie. He does have a pillar that he can shake to create earthquakes, which makes him pretty wicked, but they all seem to have an epicenter right there in his evil underground lair, which makes him pretty dumb instead. This whole set up is odd to begin with, but it's only the beginning, as there are many more icons waiting here for their fifteen minutes of Underworld fame. We're quickly introduced to three in a Chinese restaurant, starting with future star Eric Tsang as Popeye the Sailor Man, complete with requisite tiny hat and pipe (oh yes, the spinach shows up later). He's sharing a table with Kwai Chang Caine, the character David Carradine played in the series, Kung Fu, and over there is Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman, the Japanese wandering masseur Shintaro Katsu played in no less than 26 movies and 100 television episodes.

I don't remember Zatoichi ever being a bad guy, but here he's working for the Godfather, who apparently collects icons, because his other minions all fit in that category. There's the Man with No Name, complete with poncho, though the English dub refers to him as Clint Eastwood throughout; there's Exorcist (without a 'the') who is inexplicably French; and there's Dracula and his army of zombies, who look rather like men in black bodysuits with white skeletons painted on them; they don't even attempt to stay in front of black backgrounds which might have made them look cool. Two more are played by non-Chinese actors. James Bond appears in the form of 'Champion-boxer of Europe, Alexander Grand', who had kicked off his career with a couple of Bruce Lee titles, Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon. The other, the Godfather's sexy assassin, Emmanuelle, is played by Jenny, who has neither a last name nor another film credit. Now, who could stand against such a line up? No, don't answer that question. This is Brucesploitation, baby!
What the writers were smoking to come up with this, I have no idea, but they didn't stop there. Soon the One-Armed Swordsman shows up too, as a weaker character than in the Shaw Brothers movies, and I'm unsure if any of the other people we meet aren't half inched from other Asian pictures too. I'm especially suspicious of the red cloaked chamberlain character who shows up to battle Bruce Lee and the forces of good in the name of the King of the Underworld. Maybe I haven't watched enough Asian movies to know who he's supposed to be, but maybe he's just a rare original in this one. There are two credited writers: Shek Ke, who never earned another credit, and Wei Liang, who worked much more as an art director but also wrote The Reincarnation, an early Chow Yun-Fat movie, with its director Cheung Sum. Maybe that's just a warm up for this one, which simply couldn't be followed. What script could you write after this one to try to top it? Bruce Lee taught us the art of fighting without fighting; maybe that's what it means.

Clearly this isn't a movie for everyone, but it has so much happening that nobody watching is likely to be bored, even if they can't get into the weirdness of it. It also can't be accused of false advertising (except for that title) because it even showcases all those various icons during the action packed opening credits sequence; how can anyone fail to thrill to the sight of the Man with no Name shooting himself in the foot and setting his poncho on fire? It's a special kind of movie genius to be sure, but it's genius nonetheless. What's problematic is that there's so much going on here that it's hard to pick what stands out the most. Strangely, as perhaps befits this movie, it isn't the fight scenes, because they're mostly underwhelming until the boss battles at the end, which are much more like what we should have had all along. The Clint Eastwood and James Bond fights might prompt us to ask for our money back. They're more like what the wrestling industry call squash matches, there just to briefly showcase the hero.
I got a kick out of the King of the Underworld's wives, not just because they frolic around naked in a huge bathtub with their equally naked servant girls, but because they bicker so well. After they play a round of rock/paper/scissors to see which one will get the opportunity to transform into another character and so be able to seduce Bruce Lee, the winner screws it up with more bickering and the other promptly joins in. With them trying to cheat on the King, perhaps because he freely admits to not feeling up to doing them himself, Emmanuelle persuades him back into the sack after the Godfather sends her to take him down by screwing him to death. This leads to amazing lines, another guilty pleasure in this movie. 'Her pussy's in this plot too,' he soliloquises. 'She's using it to murder me!' I got a kick out of the King's chamberlain counting his vibrations while he's doing Emmanuelle (or rather while she's doing him); all out of beads on his abacus, he pulls out a conveniently placed but highly anachronistic calculator instead.

Given that this movie was originally released in Cantonese and I watched an English dub, I can't trust all the dialogue to be even close to accurate; I learned that lesson watching midget superstar Weng Weng's For Y'ur Height Only. However, during the Bruce Lee vs Zatoichi fight, the fighters' astounding repertoire of moves is mirrored in subtitles as well, just in case we missed the dialogue. Lee's are all named for his films, but Zatoichi's are as imaginative as Blind Chicken Beaks, Blind Guy Kills Mosquito and, best of all, Blind Dog Pisses, which looks roughly like you might expect. This imagination extends to the astounding lack of continuity. Bruce Leong plays Bruce Lee throughout the film except for his battle with Dracula, as he inexplicably shows up as Kato instead. Similarly Dracula's zombies are silent throughout, except at a point where dialogue is needed and one demonstrates how fluent he is in English. The chamberlain's set of teleporting mummies merely mumble of course, because, you know, credulity.
Make no mistake, this is a stunningly awful movie, but I for one am happy to live in a world where Bruce Lee wakes up in the underworld and promptly stamps out gambling and opens a gymnasium. You know, the usual bucket list items to check off the moment you're dead. I can't hide my appreciation for Popeye going into snake stance to battle a corrupt cop and Kwai Chang Caine mule kicking his partner offscreen. Random moments of coolness made my day, like the scantily clad dancer who entertains the Godfather and his minions or the walking, talking skeleton belonging to the long haired, long bearded master that Lee inevitably encounters on day one. The many unanswered questions deserve panels of their own at conventions. Why is Exorcist French? Why does Lee only haul out his repertoire of animal noises for just one fight? Why is he floored at one point by electronica? Who stole all the water out of the king's wives' bathtub? Why do mummies teleport to Pink Floyd? Answers on the back of an envelope, please.

Monday 26 January 2015

My Date with Adam (2013)

Director: Dennis Schebetta
Stars: Tressa Glover, Brian Morvant and Julianne Avolio
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.
If Passing was a good story marred by a variety of technical concerns, My Date with Adam is a good story marred by circumstance. Technically, this one's accomplished, with excellent lead actors, great support and no technical issues to speak of. The tone is fun and the infectious humour makes the fifteen minutes zoom along like five. The problem is that the first half is entirely given away by the synopsis, the poster and everything else advertising the film, while the second half is utterly obvious, unfolding throughout as expected by everyone with no surprises whatsoever to be found. There's nothing here to compare to the depth of Passing, with its concepts on top of concepts pouring out of conversation like a couple of writers brainstorming a novel. This is a romantic comedy, pure and simple, merely one that happens to involve a robot along with its pretty girl. Fortunately it's still an indie short romantic comedy, so it contains none of the brain melting horror you might expect if a robot was thrown into a Hollywood romcom feature.

It's the lead actors who make the film. Tressa Glover is very believable as Sarah, a young lady who wants to find the perfect man before she turns thirty and she's running out of time. No conventional beauty, she still exudes sex appeal and good looks and would surely have no shortage of offers; if only she might be willing to settle for anyone less than perfect. She knows perfect exists, because she works as a wedding planner and, among all the nightmares she encounters apparently daily in her professional life, she does see those magic moments too when everything goes right and everyone goes aah. Brian Morvant is very believable as Adam, her last chance date who seems to be very promising online but is a little less so in person. 'I'm not very good at small talk,' he explains on their first date and he's right. He has trouble with humour as well and doesn't seem to be quite all there. One odd twitching problem and off he runs in a nervous hurry, quickly blaming a migraine for his failings.
The point, of course, is that Adam is a robot, which wouldn't be too surprising to anyone who hadn't read the synopsis or looked at the poster but is spoiled there because we have a second half to the film. After a successful second date, he takes her home, they kiss, he sparks and collapses to the ground and a van of stereotypical nerds drive up to whisk him away for repairs. Their leader is Philip and Brian Morvant has a lot of fun playing him too. With Morvant's versatility in a double role and Sarah's glorious meltdown at Perfect Weddings, this unfolds very nicely indeed, but there isn't an moment of surprise to be found as it does so. Perhaps if I'd watched this as a romantic comedy, I might have been happier, because romcoms need characters and charisma, which this has in spades, over originality. However, I watched it as a sci-fi short and so I wanted original ideas to go along with the fun. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but believe it would have played better at the Phoenix Film Festival proper rather than within its horror/sci-fi track.

Passing (2013)

Director: Stephen Sherwood
Stars: Jim Gray, John Schmedes and Barb Foran
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.
A couple of longer mid-set films, Passing and My Date with Adam are both substantial character studies, using science fiction tropes to tell very human stories. They're both flawed but interesting short films, but the flaws and the interest arrive in completely different ways. Passing goes for a deep, fleshed out set of ideas that are initially a little obscured but eventually focus in on what's really going on. However, rather than that revelation being a twist finalé, it's more like the midpoint, because the characters important to the progression of the ideas continue on and we find out a lot more about who and what and why. That's why this is a 26 minute picture, but the ending not being the ending is not really why it runs long. That's because many things are just a little bit off, not enough to be bad but enough for us to notice them in an uncanny valley sort of way: the lighting is often a little too bright, quite a few shots feel like almost good greenscreen even if they aren't and the acting is inconsistent.

As I'm finding is often the case, it's the older actors who are more successful. Jim Gray plays the puzzled old guy who answers the door as the picture opens, to let in an old friend played by John Schmedes. John is the former, Michael the latter. Barb Foran is the last of the leads, playing John's wife, Helen. All three of them have not so good moments because they often seem to be trying too hard. It's not that they're bad actors, it's that they seem to be acting on stage and reading for radio, rather than feeling natural in front of a camera. Schmedes is the most successful and all three have plenty of good moments too. I enjoyed watching all of them, but that's the problem; I should be watching their characters rather than the actors portraying them. They're a few rungs up the ladder from the supporting cast though, who I presume are either non-actors or people fresh to the industry who are trying to make their name. They don't impress too much but, to be fair, they get little opportunity to do so. This one's very much for the old folks.
The script by director Stephen Sherwood is more consistently successful, though it could be trimmed. He sets it up nicely through that initial meeting, removing John's befuddlement through Michael pointing out that, 'I'm here about your death.' 'Oh, that,' he replies and they toast, 'To home!' Anyone who misses that moment, which I've unfortunately just highlighted, may find themselves figuring out what's going on. The base idea could be a futuristic technology thing, or an immortality thing or a deal with the devil thing, as there's someone outside in the car that John thinks is 'creepy as Hell.' But, before we get the explanation, we get to watch John have a glorious time with Helen. I did appreciate these scenes, even though they're the least important from a science fiction angle (but perhaps the most important from a dramatic one), as it's always refreshing to watch older characters actually have energy, have sex, have activity in their lives that isn't just playing bingo down at the old folks' home.

Inspired in part, say the credits, by John Scalzi's wonderful novel, Old Man's War, it aims to create a world believable enough to hang a number of concepts off. This may be the most successful angle to the short, as we work through quite a few during the second half and they both keep our attention and send off our minds to ponder on their ramifications. It wouldn't be difficult to build further stories on the universe that we're given a little glimpse of here. Unfortunately the visual side, while again not being bad, doesn't live up to the story that wants more. Most of these concepts appear and disappear during a conversation, as John and Michael set a stage that we never see dressed or acted upon. I did enjoy Passing, but I'm more intrigued in what happens behind its story: what went before, what will come after and what's happening off screen as this little drama unfolds. A tagline for this could be as human as a truism Michael tells John: 'The price of love is loss.' But, as human as this story is, it wants to be a heck of a lot more.

Saturday 24 January 2015

Your Cocoon and You (2013)

Director: Dallin Cerva
Stars: Davey Morrison Dillard, Chase Ramsey and Leslie Hobson
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.
After a cute animation, a traditional science fiction drama and a faux commercial, the second sci-fi shorts set at the International Horror & Sci-Film Festival in 2014 continued with something that isn't really a sci-fi film at all. It's an absurdist drama which uses a neatly surreal idea to illustrate how hard some people are with change. Jed shares a house with Tony, but Tony is moving out to get married to Kara and Jed feels he should save him from such a fate. Really he's just struggling with his friend moving on, especially as he's a stereotypical nerd: he's thin and bearded, is covered in zits, can't pogo, watches Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on BluRay, you know... the usual. There are surprisingly few posters on their walls, but there are lifesize Han and Leia cardboard standups watching everything they're doing. Tony forces the change though, literally. The very next day, Jed finds him in his room wrapped up in a giant cocoon hanging from his ceiling. The metaphor couldn't be more obvious. He has to move on to become himself.
I liked Your Cocoon and You because it's hard to dislike it. Jed might be a slob but he's certainly one of the good guys; when it comes down to it, he does everything he can for his friend. Tony might seem a pain in the neck, but he's obviously going through a lot so we can cut him some slack. His fiancée, Kara, the only other character we meet, is actually pretty cool, especially wearing a shirt that makes fun of T Rexes, and she shouldn't make Jed feel as threatened as he feels. The best part is the point where the whole world is about to collapse on Tony, now that he has wings, but Kara delivers a delightfully endearing line to make everything fine again, even if he has such poor taste as to have enjoyed The Boondock Saints. Culturally, bringing in a replica of the Sword of Omens from Thundercats is a more impressive touch. The worst part was the bouncy and intrusive electronic score that distracts rather than emphasises. The wings look cool but also could have looked more real. Mostly, this is well acted and enjoyable, if obvious and simple.

Your Cocoon and You can be watched for free on YouTube.

Enhanced Cellphone of the Future (2013)

Director: Snehal Patel
Star: Andrea Bogart
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.
Snehal Patel's faux commercial for a futuristic communicator implant must surely be the shortest film I've ever seen at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival. It might actually be long for a commercial, less than a minute in length even without any credits, which of course would be out of place in such a project. Without a title screen or any names whatsoever, it blips by so fast in a set of shorts that it would be easy for us to blink and miss it. For a little while, I wondered if it was the introduction to a longer short, like the faux commercial that introduces Angel Ruiz's Terminus, but no, it was the entire film and we'd moved on to the next one. Given the inherent restrictions that such a brief opportunity offers, it does wonderfully. It hits all the right notes: the utterly white background, the friendly narration, the slick and seamless effects as the only character we see moves through time, fashion and advancing technology all at once. We can believe this is 2025 AD and there's a lot crammed into this small space.

However, it's such a small space that there's inherently not as much here as there could be in something a lot longer. This is a commercial, pure and simple, without a storyline or any progression other than what it deliberately shows us as its point. Andrea Bogart is perfectly cast as the 'woman transcending time', as she's described in the credits on the film's Vimeo page, but she's doing the job of a model rather than an actress. The people who shine brightest here are the people who make models look great: Desiree Castro, in charge of wardrobe, and Kathryn Fernandez, who took care of the hair. Sure, there are video effects folk aiding them by allowing various model shoots to combine into one gorgeous segue, but it's always a face of a pretty girl that we watch on a commercial, so she can sucker us into the brand being advertised to us in the final shot. Here that's Andrea Bogart selling us the NoMoto E-36 Communicator Implant, with GPSx and Redtooth the neatly extrapolated extras. And at the end of the day, that's successfully all this is.

Enhanced Cell Phone of the Future can be watched for free on Vimeo.

Friday 23 January 2015

LiFi (2014)

Directors: Preston Peterson and Jason Boesch
Stars: Zachary Ray Sherman, Sun Hong and Jeremy Radin
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 adored LiFi and, as much as I also adored the freaky cyberpunk visuals of The Developer and the quirky Japanese weirdness of B-Class Cultural Heritage, I'd call it easily the best sci-fi short in show. It's nineteen minutes long but it's so relentlessly charming and thoroughly engaging that it feels like half that. It's full of ideas, as all the best science fiction stories are, so much so that they frequently bounce off each other at a rate of knots. It's a story about a single man, a trio of young scientists and a set of potential changes to the human race. It's a light hearted comedy and it's an emotional drama. It's a whole slew of things all at once and yet it never loses its focus. And it has the toughest but most appropriate ending I've seen in years. As soon as the first word of the end credits appears, we throw our hands in the air and scream that Preston Peterson and Jason Boesch, who wrote and directed, gipped us out of a resolution, but, about one second later, we realise that we always had to provide it ourselves. That's the whole point.

This trio are young men working out of what appears to be a well equipped garage or storage container. Allister sounds like Steve Buscemi but is a little nerdier. He teleports an apple from one table to another right before the title appears; that's our starting point. Joon is the inevitable Asian while Marc is the one who looks more like a wrestler than a scientist but sounds perfect. Zachary Ray Sherman, Sun Hong and Jeremy Radin all sell their roles absolutely, because it's never just about their key lines, the ones that are supposed to resonate and have the angel and devil on our shoulders start another ethical discussion; it's about every line, even the throwaway ones that still serve to build their characters as they find their way through the various escalations the script throws at them to the point where they must put their money where their mouths are. This is what science fiction is supposed to be: funny without being outrageous, dramatic without overdoing it, so packed with ideas that they spill out over the edge for us to catch.
We join the film at the point where Allister is feeling very confident, because his apple teleportation was the third consecutive success without a hint of apple sauce, and he wants to talk about the next step. We have working teleportation from the outset, which is enough for many films, but they move on up to dead tissue in the form of a hamburger. It teleports but then explodes, hurtling a bone into Joon's safety shield; they theorise that the various sources for the burger confused their equipment but somehow revitalised bone and hair from the burger's DNA. Soon the others talk him into teleporting Petey, their lab mouse, in the process discovering that their machine isn't just a transporter, it's also a 'genetic cleansing service', because the mouse that comes out the other side has the same DNA as Petey but is missing the scar he wears with pride after nearly losing his liver in an experiment long ago. Suddenly, it isn't just about what they've managed to achieve, it's what else their achievement will become.

All three actors sell their characters well, but they benefit from the dialogue that they're given. The most important line clearly arrives after Marc vocalises what they're all thinking. 'This could change humanity for ever,' he says, and Allister calmly replies, 'Are we ready for that?' Could a species that watches Jersey Shore really be ready for immortality? Well, maybe a species that watches films like LiFi might. All three of these characters are intelligent alpha go-getters, so they're hardly a cross section of modern America, but they are a refreshing trio to watch in a science fiction film. I personally had an absolute blast without having to endure a comic relief idiot dumbing down the intelligence winging its way around their storage locker. I enjoyed the asides, the debates, the very subtle Bones quote, as much as I enjoyed those ethical concerns that proliferate like raindrops. This is the sort of film that we can watch half a dozen times, pick up new issues and sit down with good company to dissect them and what they raise. That's priceless.

Liftoff (2013)

Director: Nir Yaniv
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.
Liftoff was as great a choice to start the Sci-Fi Shorts B set at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2014 as Library was to start the equivalent A set for exactly the same reasons: it's a short, silent, eye-grabbing animation. Yet while they appear so close as to both have seven letter titles beginning with the letter L, they're otherwise very different indeed. Library was very stylised from the outset and it played a lot with colour to highlight tone and change, while Liftoff is primitively drawn in black and white, almost entirely in lines with a occasional attempt at shading. I don't mean to denigrate the artistic talent of the creator with that statement, as it's certainly done well; it's merely far more in the vein of a newspaper cartoon strip rather than a painting. This is appropriate because of where the story takes us and the lead character, who never gets a name, but that would take me into spoiler territory so I'll resist the urge and let you discover the film's direction yourself on YouTube.

The man behind Liftoff is Nir Yaniv and, if the about page on his blog is remotely truthful, he's a busy and talented man. He's a published novelist and writer of short stories, a columnist and a critic, the founder and editor of the first online Israeli science fiction magazine. He's a multi-instrumental musician and an acapella vocalist with his own studio, neatly named The Nir Space Station. In the world of film, he's acted, written, composed, directed... and, of course, animated. His Achilles heel seems to be that he can't cook his way out of a paper bag, but hey, everyone has their flaws. Somehow Yaniv found the time to create a little four minute animation about a rocket that lifts off from our planet and finds its way rather quickly to the Moon, where its astronaut climbs out and bounces around the surface having a whale of a time. The story doesn't stop there, but the inevitable twist isn't close to being a gut wrenching one, just a calm and polite way to wrap things up. It's simple and unthreatening but it's thoroughly enjoyable.

Liftoff can be watched for free on YouTube.

Thursday 22 January 2015

The Developer (2013)

Director: Robert Odegnal
Stars: Tamás Mohai, Tímea Sághy, Iván Kamarás, Szabolcs Jáger and Richy Romwalter
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.
The sci-fi short sets were more consistent than their horror equivalents at the 2014 International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, but there were less great films than in 2013, when no less than five knocked my socks off: Ellie, The Secret Keeper, Restitution, Sol and Flashback, all of which were beaten out by White Room: 02B3, which affected me less but was admittedly put together with class. Only three pictures stood out at that level in 2014: LiFi, B-Class Cultural Heritage and this Hungarian neo-noir, The Developer, which won a deserved Best Sci-Fi Short award. It's a neat mix of live action and CGI, which occasionally makes it feel like a videogame. The graphics are dark and enticing, all yellow and black like a burgeoning bruise, with an oppressive sky weighing down on a dystopian landscape where everything says Gold Dimension, the name of the corporation that apparently runs the city and everything in it. And through this future world, a man drives another in a floating car to a house in the countryside.

In a way, this has similarities to The Secret Keeper, one of those great shorts from the 2013 festival. Both are set in damaged futures, where the lead character discovers something through their weird occupation that changes everything, both for themselves and others. However, the tones of the two films are utterly different, this one playing out with a mixture of noir iconography and cyberpunk tech. The lead character is the developer of the title, an interesting job that is later described by one of his employers as 'seer'. He strips down to his undies and sits in a bath of ice, he tapes photo paper to the shaved spot on the back of his head and he passes out. It'll come, he says, 'like a fast cut in a film' and he's talking about whoever it was that stole top secret documents from the murdered president of Gold Dimension; this is one of his apartments, where the crimes happened, and the residue of the act is still there ready for someone like the developer who can pick up the imprint. It's an intriguing idea and it's put to good use here.
Given that this is overtly film noir, albeit transplanted into the future where cars can fly and corporations run cities, there has to be a woman and she arrives in magnificent fashion, caught up in the visions of the developer as he merges the recent past with the recent future, visions that include his own death. As he returns to consciousness, he has to find a way to expose the villain without losing his life in the process. I have to admit that, while some of what happens from that point forward was obvious, I didn't see all of it coming and was impressed with the direction Aron Horvath spun the story. Inevitably it's the visuals that score highest here, not just the cityscapes and props but the trip the developer takes into the past; that's underpinned throughout by an intriguing progression of ideas. The actors may be the least of the various components in play, but they were well cast for looks as well as talent. I enjoyed the parts and the sum of the parts and am now eager to see more Hungarian science fiction.

The Horizon Project (2013)

Director: Scott Belyea
Stars: Rob Ryan, Tennyson D'Onofrio, Cameron White, Jordy Wiens and Travis Fowler
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.
Like The Escape, this feels very much like a pitch for a feature and I could have sworn that I heard that it was aimed at being one, even if there's no current suggestion to that effect on the film's website. Unlike The Escape, though, it's a long pitch, which establishes itself slowly over 26 minutes through the benefit of all the things we expect from fully fledged features: multiple sets and props, an abundance of extras, professional special effects and matte paintings, the works. However, while The Escape felt like a trailer, The Horizon Project feels like the first act. If this is ever expanded into a feature, this could play, almost untouched, as the first 26 minutes, taking us up to the point where we can move up to the next level of story and be introduced to the main supporting characters. The lead we already have: it's an unnamed boy played by Tennyson D'Onofrio, who is set up as worthy of note very quickly, much more so than his dad, who accompanies him into the script.

We're in the future where civilisation has been mostly destroyed by what the synopsis calls a 'biological pandemic' and the Horizon Corporation is 'spearheading the global rebuild.' Malnourished survivors are eager for the help of an organisation with means and a host of them are queuing up to be checked over as the film begins, even though those confirmed to be infected are immediately disposed of in decisive fashion. The flamethrowers surely aren't just for their belongings. Of course, our protagonist appears to be special, or he wouldn't be our protagonist; there's something going on inside his body that is of note to the company and we watch him collected, disinfected, injected, clothed and shipped on out to Horizon City, 'a community for survivors' where 'the future is safe.' This section is the setup for the setup, so it's a decent length and would fit much better as the introduction to a feature than as half of a short film; from the perspective of a short film, it runs far too long and steals running time from where things will go.
And that's how I saw this film. Whether it's aimed to be a feature or not, it feels like the beginning of one, so the end is rather unwelcome. Of course, the flipside of that thought is that the crew must have done a great job of drawing us in for us to feel that way when the end credits roll. I say the crew rather than the cast, not to belittle the achievements of those on screen but because nobody stands out visually for any special attention. D'Onofrio is certainly good as the boy at the heart of the film, but this short is his setup not his moment in the spotlight. He's about to come into his own when it all stops and our imaginations have to continue on the story instead. Others, like his father, the driver of the bus to Horizon City or the doctor who pops up a few times as a future character of note, all do good work too but are either quickly removed from the story or will become more important later. Everything we see leaves us to feel that it's about to get real when it runs out of time.

Forcing myself to see what's actually in this film and not what would follow it in an imaginary feature, I'm impressed with what was accomplished. That's partly because it transforms a post-apocalyptic story into a dystopian future with an ambiguous corporate hero/villain and a single child who might just save us all, thus scoring highly at sci-fi concept bingo, but partly because of how it came together. This isn't merely a short film, it's also a hands on course in filmmaking. Director Scott Belyea and cinematographer Scooter Corkle teach the Youth Filmmaking Challenge at the Reel Shorts Festival in Grande Prairie, Alberta. This is an extension of that program, taking novices on location with a half dozen experienced professionals and all the equipment they need, to learn by immersion over a fortnight as they make a short film, this one. I have respect both for the goals of that project and what they achieved. Maybe the next year's class will shoot the next third of the story. It'll be interesting to see what the future will bring.

Wednesday 21 January 2015

Chocolate Heart (2014)

Director: Harrison Atkins
Stars: Jonathan Gordon and Allie Gallerani

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Of all the short films about sexual weirdness that I've covered for this week's Weird Wednesday, this is surely the most conventional, but how conventional can any picture be when it features duelling genital arms? Really, this is a take on sex education and how difficult it is to know what to do when nobody will tell you, a scenario far more common than most would admit and a dangerous one for young folk once they reach the point that their bodies want to do things but their minds don't know what. Hey, did your parents tell you about the birds and the bees? Well, Owen's parents didn't tell him, so he's kind of stuck. Why didn't they tell him? Well, they turned into cats in the first line of narration. Harrison Atkins, writer and director, doesn't have time to explain, so leaps headlong into the realm of surreality and that's why this film works as well as it does. I just wish I could figure out what the chocolate heart of the title was supposed to mean. I think I got the rest of the symbolic references, at least.

The story follows the strange encounters Owen has in a library. He's there to try to figure out this whole sex thing, by consulting the written knowledge of the world, but finds himself hit on by a girl, Mary. While this is the beginning of a whole slew of porn movies, Owen hasn't got far enough to know what to do with the body part that Mary clearly wants to play with and so he runs away. Clearly this is all symbolic, which is fine because it all makes sense so far, right down to the talking toilet, but if there's meaning to the rest of the film, there's meaning to the title too and I can't quite figure that out. With Mary moving in close in slow motion, he's desperate but, as he narrates to us, 'All I can think about is a beating chocolate heart.' Is this supposed to represent the ickiness he figures will arise or the sweetness of first love or...? What's more obvious is the genital handshake that is so neatly set up in his dreams. That's the scene that most will remember from this picture, guaranteed.

I'm not entirely sold on Chocolate Heart but it does have a high weirdness content for a film which wraps itself up in only six minutes and that's something. I've never seen anyone earn a credit as a 'genital arm' before and I do wonder how they shot that scene, because it does seem a little personal. I can't help but wonder about a future in which this could be an actual career, like 'hand model' is today. It would make a heck of a business card to hand out at networking events. Unfortunately Adam Kritzer and Vinnie Cannon, who are respectively Owen's and Mary's genital arms, haven't managed to rack up many more credits as of yet. Maybe they need to diversify their roles. Chocolate Heart is a well made film and much of what it wants to say is valid, but I wonder if its memorable weirdness will stay in the mind quite as long as much lesser material like Eaten Alive! A Tasteful Revenge. The two films are light years apart in quality; this is the professional short that the other isn't, but its neat surreality and symbolism may not be enough.

Chocolate Heart can be watched for free on Vimeo.

The Sex Doll She-Bitch (2009)

Director: Jaison H Costley
Stars: Sitara Falcon, Melinda Chilton, Bob Lanoue, Jaison H Costley and Matt Johnson

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

It's hard to pick a favourite aspect to this film with its undeniably awesome title. Could it be that a movie starring a sex doll out for bloody revenge was shot entirely in Utah? Maybe it's that the doll and its sister get credits: Ilsa is played by Sum Young Poon, while Violated Sex Doll is played by Sumotha Young Poon. Perhaps it's that every location has a profane but highly descriptive name (warning: this paragraph finds itself full of profanity just by referencing credits and locations), from the Cheap as Fuck Used-Ass Car Lot in which we begin the film, through the Cheap as Fuck Dive Ass Bar and all the way to the Cheap as Fuck Cockroach Infested Diner. The music comes courtesy of the Seeping Vagina Orchestra, while the band on stage in that bar is subtly named Cunt Grinder, complete with requisite chick bassist and a lead vocalist in a monk's habit. There's even the professionally offensive poster for Crispin Hellion Glover's What is It? on the back of a door, the one with a riding crop thrust between Shirley Temple's labia.

I think I'd have to plump for the lead actor, Sitara Falcon, because not only does he nail the misogynistic insanity of William Cronenbourg with such admirably straight vehemence that I wonder how many takes were lost to the crew falling prey to infectious laughing fits, but because he comes back later to play the role of Todd, tasked with seducing the very same sex-doll which has already raped his eye socket with a poker. This really wasn't the sort of film I was expecting to find good acting in, but Falcon, best known as a comedian, does a fantastic job, far beyond what the film really warrants, even in a stick-on moustache. It's especially noteworthy for being delivered almost entirely to an inflatable sex doll who doesn't move or react throughout his diatribes. I'm sure his dialogue was provided by writer/director Jaison H Costley, but it wouldn't surprise me to find that he improvised whole swathes of it while the camera just ran and captured it all. I'd love to see the outtakes and hope there are hours of them.

The story is pretty straightforward. Young William is a real prize, beginning the film getting head from a hooker, who he promptly kicks out of his car so he can go home to the wife. He spends the trip talking to everyone he knows, each haranguing conversation more demeaning than the last. He doesn't have any positive words for anyone, not even his car and especially not his wife. When he gets home, where she's watching PIGS (Police Investigating Gay Shit), he blisters at her in a hilarious one sided argument that gets better and better. He even shouts at the baby (which is another doll, though not an inflatable one this time, as that would be a little out there even for this movie). It's all as misogynistic as possible, right down to his suggestion that his sex doll wife should have had an abortion instead of having his doll baby. In a great touch he even slaps her, which prompts her very first movement; She goes to the kitchen to get a patch to seal the new hole in her cheek. Up till then, we wondered if this was all in his head.
Just as Sitara Falcon is surprisingly strong in each of two prominent roles, the sound and video quality is also surprisingly high. I expected something cheap and cheerful, if not as cheap and cheerful as a WAVE movie like Eaten Alive: A Tasteful Revenge. What I found was a very capable, professional piece, merely one that stars a blow up doll in the lead role, one that does move around at points but never attempts to speak; everyone else just acts as if it's providing her half of the conversation, which we never hear. They even underdo things, just as Falcon overdoes them with glorious bravado. Once William Cronenbourg is dead, murdered by his harangued sex doll wife, a detective shows up to investigate in monotone. When he finds the baby doll face down in the bath, he flicks on his voice recorder and states, simply and with no emotion whatsoever, 'the baby's dead'. These moments are as hilariously inappropriate as they are inappropriately hilarious. They made me wonder how the film got financed.

Costley is not a prolific filmmaker, though he did return to many of the roles he served here for a picture in 2013 called Dickhead Dave. The only credit he has on IMDb that predates this was as a videographer and grip for a 2008 short comedy called Maybe... For someone without much experience at that time, he certainly earned plenty here, on a wildly non-commercial 35 minute short; in addition to writer/director, he produced, foleyed, composed and storyboarded the film, as well as reserving one supporting role for himself. That he even completed this thing deserves kudos and what he did with it deserves more. That it's as utterly out there as it is, the approach taken restricting its potential audience massively but, then again, perhaps glowing in the dark to the people who would get a kick out of it, also deserves respect. It isn't the usual debut short to sell yourself to an agent and so land that prized Hollywood gig; it's more of the opposite and I have a lot of respect for that proudly niche achievement.

How we can categorise this film, I have no idea. It's about as awkward to place as the sex doll of the title is to act opposite. It's certainly a comedy, but it's gruesome enough in its effects work to qualify as gore movie too, which is an odd combination to begin with. Casting a blow up doll as the lead character is the shift to Troma territory, as is the dialogue which runs the gamut from cop dispatch messages like, 'Be on the lookout for a brown piece of shit station wagon. Subject is a white latex female,' all the way to outré monologues like Todd's chat-up routine that involves the bizarre details of the porn collection his former girlfriend burned. Like I said at the beginning, it's hard to pick a favourite aspect to this film because it's full of wildly inappropriate awesomeness. It's very wrong on so many levels, but if you really don't give a monkey's about wrongness, it might just become the favourite film in your dormroom, played afresh for each unwary new arrival, horrifying most and becoming a legend for the rest.

Amazingly, The Sex Doll She-Bitch can be watched for free on YouTube, though it's age restricted and may not be there with the approval of the copyright owner.

Billy's Dad is a Fudge-Packer! (2004)

Director: Jamie Donahue
Stars: D C Douglas, Robert Gant, Cady Huffman, Alex Borstein, Gina Rodgers and Spencer Daniels

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

If Eaten Alive! A Tasteful Revenge was inept, even sixty pictures into the WAVE Productions' filmography, the wonderfully titled Billy's Dad is a Fudge-Packer!, Jamie Donahue's debut as a writer and director, is vastly more professional. It's also a whole heck of a lot of fun, so much so that the family literally burst into applause when the end credits rolled. As the title might suggest, if you have the right state of mind, it's a throwback to the education films of the fifties, played straight throughout but with a narration that couldn't contain more double entendres if it tried. A few are a little too obviously set up, but others steal in as surprises and save the day. The quality is high throughout, both in front of and behind the camera, but it's D C Douglas who unarguably shines brightest as the narrator. Highly experienced both as a voice actor and a regular one, in film, television, anime and video games, he nails the tone as perfectly as if it had been his job since the 1950s and he'd merely leapt through time to make this one too.

If you've ever seen an educational short from that era, you know what to expect here, merely translated into double entendres like the title. Billy's dad really is a fudge packer; he packs fudge down at the local Creamy Pleasures Candy factory, where he has many men under him. That's the sort of thing you'll pick up in this Audio-Visual Learning Aid from Educational Film Corporation, makers of Thalidomide: Wonder Drug of the Future and Why Do We Have Coloured People? If that sounds politically incorrect to you, it's only the beginning. The fifties were the golden age of American sexism, so while Billy worries about the upcoming Career Day, he wishes he had it as easy as his big sister. 'All she has to worry about is being pretty,' the narrator tells him, 'and making a good wife someday,' Of course, such comparisons are not worth making. 'This is the way things are because this is the way things should be!' To emphasise roles, Sister is referred to throughout as Sister, just as Mother is only ever Mother.
It's not worth going much further into the synopsis, which naturally involves Billy's dad explaining what he does at work, because you should experience it for yourself, something you fortunately can because it's on YouTube. Be advised that you should watch in a crowd, if at all possible, because the more people around you while you watch the better it gets, as laughter is contagious. I'll just highlight that while the gags are mostly obvious and overt, some are a little more subtle; not everyone will catch each one. For instance, how many people watching today who are too young to remember videos like this are also too young to remember the Village People? Of course, not everyone will recognise each sexual reference, as many tie as much to culture as to experience. I also enjoyed the lesbian overtones of Betty Henderson, the baker's wife, as much because polite society just didn't have such things back then as for the jokes themselves. Any fifties educational video about lesbians would really be pretty scary propaganda!

While Douglas sells the film, many others help him do it. The score from Rob Cairns is just as appropriate as Douglas's rich tones and the costumes and sets from Mynka Draper and Ana Veselic are likewise. The actors were well cast, as much for their looks as their acting ability, but they satisfy on both fronts. Billy is played by Spencer Daniels, who would soon play the twelve year old version of the title character in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and, a year later, appear in the Star Trek reboot. Alex Borstein, playing Betty, made this the same year she made Catwoman, making this the one to own up to, but was already five years into her most famous role as the voice of Lois Griffin in Family Guy. The actors who play Billy's parents aren't quite as recognisable, but they're busy actors with ever-expanding filmographies. This was a serious cast. It's hard for a film to live up to a title like this, but Billy's Dad is a Fudge-Packer! manages it with aplomb. If only all short comedies were this funny.

Billy's Dad is a Fudge-Packer! can be watched for free on YouTube.

Eaten Alive! A Tasteful Revenge (1999)

Director: Gary Whitson
Stars: Debbie D, Barbara Joyce, Tina Krause, Sunny and Dean Paul

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Leaping forward seventy years from The Fireman of the Folies Bergère, which felt ahead of its time, here is a bizarre movie that feels notably behind its time. While WAVE Productions was started to make films like the serials of the forties and horror and sci-fi movies of the drive in era, they didn't have the budgets or the acting talent of the studios that inspired them, so became something else entirely. They're still in business today, with what is now a huge archive of fetish films, made to satisfy a whole variety of fetish needs. There isn't any sex in WAVE Productions movies, but there are usually many girls getting naked or at least stripping down to their panties, along with a threadbare plot that involves another niche fetish activity. They're the folk behind titles like Thunder & Lightning 3: Chloroformed Heroines, Hypnotized and Cloned Models and Cannibal Island: Jungle Girl Barbecue, though some are far more mundane, such as Test Shoot, Love Object or Burglar. And let's not forget compilations like WAVE's Best Drowning Clips 3!

Eaten Alive! A Tasteful Revenge dates back to 1999 when it was one of thirteen releases that year, after sixty or so previous titles dating back to the company's founding in 1987. As you might expect from the title, it's a cannibalism fetish video, running around half an hour and featuring cheap sets, topless girls and horrible special effects, though the green blast from Stacey's shrinking pistol is surprisingly capable. In fact, the effects work gets better throughout the film, as if the crew didn't quite know how to handle a greenscreen set up early on but started to figure it out by the time the film wrapped. Most of all, though, it has an astoundingly inane plot with stunningly inane dialogue that never ceases to amaze, however under the influence you happen to be at the time. Lead actress Debbie D grins her way through the film, even though she's supposed to be running through emotions like jealousy, rage and satisfaction. She's one of the WAVE mainstays, nowadays a producer herself, but this is far from her finest hour.

As we begin, she's working as 'an executive in a cosmetic and fashion company', according to the WAVE Productions website. We wouldn't be able to tell that otherwise, because the sets are stunningly generic: what could be a doctor's walk in cupboard, the corner of an executive office and a shower, used without the shower curtain drawn, of course. Stacey is excited because there's a promotion up for grabs and her friend, Dr Baines, he of the wildly inconsistent accent, has mastered a new invention, which the pair will keep secret for now. It's a rather bulbous grey gun, which looks like it was 3D printed but was probably a NERF weapon with a sextoy attached, all painted one relentless colour. It has the power to either enlarge things or to shrink them, which opens up all sorts of possibilities like giving cows more meat and making Fantastic Voyage a reality. I wonder how that's going to get used in a movie called Eaten Alive! Answers on the back of a postcard, please.
Now what scenario could be conjured up that might prompt Stacey to use such a dangerous weapon? It's not merely that she doesn't land the promotion she wants, it's that Trish, her boss, lets her down in such an evil fashion. 'You're an attractive woman,' she suggests, 'but I needed the most attractive woman in the company.' Ouch! And that's Stacey's roommate, Lisa! Double ouch! And Robin would have been the second choice! Triple ouch! And... you get the picture. So what's a poor overlooked cosmetics executive to do? Well, what else but to steal Dr Baines's secret new invention, go home, stand there grinning while Lisa takes a gratuitous shower, then shrink her, bind her with string and eat her, slowly and sadistically. You had a different idea? Well, you don't work for WAVE Productions, so what do you know? Of course, it couldn't be more appropriate for Stacey to verify that Lisa is prettier than her. Of course, on noticing her, Lisa would cover her boobs not her bush. Of course, she'd eat her as a little naked snack. Why not?

Actually my biggest problem with these scenes is the dialogue. I can deal with the fact that the rest of the plot is just repetition; after devouring Lisa, Stacey only has to work her way through the rest of the cast in similar fashion until the end credits roll. After Tina Krause's nude shower scene, which highlights how Lisa is definitely more attractive than Stacey, I'm OK that nobody else actually gets naked; presumably Sunny, who was introduced here, and Barbara Joyce just have different contracts. I'm fine with the stunning story progression that has Robin and Stacey try on bikini after bikini, because hey, this is a fetish video. Frankly I'm even accepting of the outrageously awful greenscreen work that makes the swallowing scenes rather reminiscent of tenth generation VHS copies of Terry Gilliam animations. People don't buy fetish videos for their budgets, they buy them because they have the drowning/asphyxiation/cannibalistic/insert personal fetish choice here enacted by half naked ladies. But the dialogue... how is that not a turnoff?
I honestly think this would play better with the sound off. Then we can't hear Dean Paul switch from some sort of Alpine accent to blustering British and back like he's been shot by some other secret gun. Talking of accents, it would save us from Debbie D's accent getting broader every time she gets angry, like when she screams at her boss, 'We done here!?' Mostly though, it would excuse us from cannibalism puns that vary from cheesy, such as, 'This job would eat you alive!' to oddly inappropriate ones that sound horribly wrong, like, 'I'm not an ass kisser any more; I'm more like an ass eater!' Oh, and let's not forget just how poorly these non-actors mumble the lines that they should scream. For some reason, when stripped half-naked, shrunk to action figure size and about to be eaten, all anyone can say is, 'Don't drop me.' I'm not expecting Tennessee Williams dialogue or Marlon Brando delivery, but this is stunningly awful. I could do better, but I don't want to writhe around in my undies in a huge fake mouth being sprayed by saliva.

I have to say that I had a blast watching this film, though it's probably less for the movie itself and more for the fact that I was nursing a white Russian and watching with family. Their reactions were even more priceless than the bad CGI, the worse dialogue and the flamboyantly awful acting. I'm fascinated to see how some of these folk progressed over the years, because a few are major names in this scene. Debbie D has made over three hundred movies, including The Deepening, alongside Gunnar Hansen and Debbie Rochon, which played the first Phoenix Fear Fest, and Bill Zebub's gleefully titled The Worst Horror Movie Ever Made: The Re-Make. Tina Krause is actually not awful here and has also racked up a filmography full of outrageous Z movie titles. The catch is that WAVE Productions films are often short but expensive (like the $25 for this 30 minute DVD). Even a skimpy 287 MB WMV download of a 2014 title like The Dream Killer! Chapter 1 runs $20 and longer films can be more expensive still. What's your credit card limit?

The Fireman of the Folies Bergère (1928)

Star: Josephine Baker

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

One of the usual reasons I give people for seeking out precodes is to watch things in black and white that they probably wouldn't dream happened before the counterculture revolution. This film, made to promote the infamous Parisian cabaret, the Folies Bergère, isn't a precode because French movies weren't subject to Hollywood rules, but it's another great example of something that seems all the more strange because it's in black and white. IMDb lists the picture, under its French title of Le pompier des Folies Bergères, as a 1930 release, but it probably predates that by a couple of years. It's available today in a Flicker Alley DVD box set entitled Saved from the Flames: 54 Rare and Restored Films 1896-1944 and they suggest that it was probably made to promote Josephine Baker's Vents de Folies revue at the famous venue in 1927-28. Certainly she's the only recognisable face (or body) in this film, which runs without credits and, as Flicker Alley describe it, is 'strangely undocumented'.

Why am I reviewing it under my Weird Wednesdays banner? Well, because it's hardly your average 1928 silent movie, for a start, but given that I'm reviewing so many short films this month, I thought I'd create a feature length set of five weird short films about sex; this one leapt quickly to mind to open it up. Just like the notorious Folies Bergère itself, it's full of naked women, plus one drunken, lecherous, overacting fireman of the sort who would have felt at home at Keystone fifteen years earlier. We don't know who he is but he's clearly enjoying himself and who would blame him, given the context. We're almost as taken aback as he is when the first pair of naked breasts appear in front of him, contorted in a fisheye lens, like the film wants to emulate the style of Luis Buñuel. He's drunk you see, initially on the beauty of what the first copy of the film I saw called 'nacked ballerinas' and the Saved from the Flames release translates as the 'naked dancing girls of the Folies-Bergere', but then on alcohol. They made him thirsty, you see.

And from here, it gets progressively odder. Initially he merely begins to imagine the various ladies in the bar around him without their clothes, clearly a healthy pursuit for a drunken firefighter, especially one so recently surrounded by them on stage at the Folies Bergère. In their notes before the short, Flicker Alley quote the revue's manager, Paul Derval. 'Ah, the naked women,' he said. 'If I ever tried to get rid of them, I might as well close the place down.' Initially we're just surprised to see boobs in a silent (non-porn) film, but then more show up on miniature dancers who cavort in a ring on the drink he spilled on his table. Of course, Georges Méliès was known for this sort of trickery thirty years earlier, so the effects weren't new, but our soused fireman tries to grab for them, as if he could take them home in his pocket, a subversive thought for 1928 and one I haven't seen repeated until Felicia Day's activities in The Legend of Neil. We don't stay in the bar, because our hero is clearly eager for more, so we head off to the Paris Métro.
It's here that he meets Josephine Baker, an American dancer who had to make her name in France as she refused to perform for segregated audiences back home. She quickly became a star, long before her acts in support of the French Resistance during World War II, which won her the croix de guerre, and she was a dynamo as the lead in 1934's Zouzou, arguably the first major feature film to star a black woman. Ernest Hemingway called her 'the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.' This is six years earlier though, as she was consolidating her success at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where she danced mostly nude in La Revue Nègre, by performing the Danse sauvage at the Folies Bergère in a skimpy outfit of bananas. Given how risqué her outfits were, or what often passed for outfits, it's strange to find that she's the only woman in this film who doesn't strip off for the camera; she merely loses a long dress to dance around in a bra and grass skirt. Our fireman doesn't care. He's hooked.

It's not merely that this silent movie features many unclothed young ladies that makes it weird; it's also whence some of them appear. Thus far, they've all been women who simply become naked women to an inebriated pair of fireman's eyes. But when a fire engine pulls up in front of him, he imagines the crew of fully outfitted men as women wearing only firemen's helmets. Clearly this obsession is going to lead our fireman, more and more reminiscent of Uncle Fester as the film runs on, into serious trouble. My favourite moment though arrives on the bus he hops onto. We're already imagining the cute little thing next to him in the altogether, because she's giggling a little and holding a hatbox on her lap, but it's the priest on the other side who strips first, changing sex as he does so! Of course, our drunkard finds his way back to the station in the end for the inevitable finalé with exercising firemen turning into... yes, you guessed it, nude women doing squats for the camera. Ah, the French.

It never ceases to amaze me how different cultures see things differently. Baker left the United States, her home country, because they wouldn't let her perform in front of white people. Yet, in France, they allowed her to dance almost naked on stage, turned her into a sensation and eventually an icon. They even made films like this, which is really an advert for the cabaret of the title, merely one far more honest than could have been made in the States. We might be used to late night radio commercials for local strip clubs, but would that have happened in 1928? Unthinkable. And with visuals? No way. And featuring naked dancers to show how there would be naked dancers at the revue? Inconceivable! Ironically, given how we would clearly describe this as 'ahead of its time', it also arrived at the biggest moment of change in film history, the advent of sound. Talkies were the rage, but this film remained silent, perhaps because nobody could imagine how to give the anonymous overblown slapstick comedy fireman a voice.

The Fireman of the Folies Bergère can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Tuesday 20 January 2015

The Escape (2013)

Directors: Alessandro de Vivo and Ivano di Natale
Star: Massimo de Matteo
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.
While the motion sickness I feel at overt handheld camerawork kicked in the moment The Escape began, I was still impressed by the poetic majesty that was also set in play. A man runs, clearly for his life, with the camera attached to him so that we see neither where he's come from nor where he's going, only his face as he does so. Massimo de Matteo does a great job as this unnamed character, chased by a sort of hooded bounty hunter type to the odd but effective choice of a gothic pop/rock score by Federico Truzzi. This and the perspective shifts of Antonio de Rosa's camera make the film feel a little like a video game, but that's no bad thing. It enables Alessandro de Vivo and Ivano di Natale to sucker us in immediately as we wonder about the context we can't see before they layer in the mystery of the title with a simple face to face conversation. 'How did you escape?' our focal point is asked by the man in an inevitable shadow, and we're instantly hooked. This is very clever filmmaking, deeply engaging us in mere seconds.

Of course, I can't really say much more because of two things: nothing much actually happens, from the point of view of plot progression, and almost everything that does is spoiler material. In fact, this feels a lot less like a film and a lot more like a trailer. There's nothing here that isn't firmly emotional in tone and there's nothing here that isn't either an action scene or a pivotal moment. It's as if de Vivo and di Natale wrote a feature film but didn't have the finances to make it, so stripped it down to six minutes and turned it into a pitch. Half of me feels that this is a perfect encapsulation all on its own and the other half wants to see the whole feature; at present the first half is winning that argument inside my head, but I'm sure that many would see the equivalent battle go the other way. There's a show business maxim to 'always leave them wanting more' and this is the epitome of that in visual form. It blasts its way past so quickly that it's almost a dream but it's one we want to experience again.

The Escape can be watched for free at Vimeo.

The Wars of Other Men (2013)

Director: Mike Zawacki
Stars: Scott Norman, Jonny Victor, Tommy Beardmore, Mitchell Koory, Stevie Robinson, Jonathan West and Pauline Ann Johnson
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 was buzzed when I saw that The Wars of Other Men was selected to screen at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival because it had garnered some publicity within steampunk circles. It's technically set a little late to be called steampunk, this alternate 1920s global conflict being much more dieselpunk, but it carries a lot of similarities that echo across the subgenres. It's a substantial piece and it knows it, kicking off with stylish opening credits that unfold over a set of maps with overlaid animated plans and finishing up with the agreeable orchestral score playing over the end credits like the echoes of a distant battle. Its 26 minutes are unrushed but to the point, every little detail there to build something within the carefully constructed script. That does mean that the conclusion isn't particularly surprising but the way we get to it is neatly done. There are strong design choices and capable effects throughout but, sadly, the villain of the piece is about as annoyingly stereotypical as could have been managed.

To be fair, the hero of the piece is rather stereotypical too, but he does have the benefit of screen time to build his character and between Mike Zawacki, who wrote the story and adapted it into a screenplay with Nancy Nall Derringer, and Scott Norman, the actor tasked with playing this unnamed lieutenant, he's built very well indeed. We quickly discover through a well written conversation between one of his men and a new recruit, that he's not only a capable soldier and a man of his word but also someone with the ability to think on his feet and find ways to imaginatively work within the rules and thus achieve goals which he has officially been barred from doing. That, and Norman's admirable combination of care and distance, is the real framework for the story, over which is laid the particular mission he's been given that we're here to watch unfold. The enemy has created a deadly chemical weapon called 'the fog' and the mission is to the factory that makes it, but it's not quite to do what we might expect.
Norman is very good indeed here, making sure that the lieutenant is far from a stereotype. However, the soldiers in his squad don't get the screen time he does, so the actors don't have as much opportunity to build and the characters aren't as memorable. They work best as a unit, which is perhaps as appropriate as it gets, providing us with a very human face to the allies that is countered by that of the brass back at HQ. The enemy, however, is faceless throughout, until we meet Dr Adam Weishaupt, the man behind the gas (if that doesn't sound like a bad joke). I don't want to fault Steve Gualtieri because he does precisely what he was clearly asked to do, but what he was asked to do is stand really still during a scene of great tension while looking like a Nazi version of Dr Evil and trying not to laugh because he obviously knows it. This should have been the pivotal scene in the film but it's really the worst because it's so annoying. It's safe to say that the rest of the picture makes up for it, but it would be a better work if this were fixed.

If Dr Weishaupt is the worst thing about the picture, the best is surely how it looks. Even above Norman's contribution to the lead role, the look of the film stands out for praise. To reflect that we're in a warzone, the colour palette is faded a little, as if coated with the dust from bombed out buildings. The devastation is highly believable, as are the other effects of war, such as a few very effective wounds. The tanks and armoured airships are gorgeous creations and due care is given to their placement and use. To highlight how this is an alternate history, if war zeppelins wasn't enough of a giveaway, the uniforms and badges used aren't recognisable. Apparently the helmets are from communist East Germany, rarely used in film, to make them feel unfamiliar. I feel odd complaining about accents in an alternate history, but they aren't consistent with the clear influence of England vs Germany, so it looks better than it sounds. This is strong enough, however, that I'm eager to see Zawacki's earlier work, such as 2010's The Message.

Monday 19 January 2015

Pale Blue Dot (2013)

Director: Aaron Schuppan
Stars: Nic English and Mandahla Rose
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.
This Australian short film is a neatly challenging science fiction piece with a rather apt title that speaks to scale and contrast. The original pale blue dot was the planet Earth in a photograph taken by the Voyager 1 probe at a distance of 40 astronomical units (or 3.7 billion miles) while it was travelling away from us at 40,000 mph. This image of the only planet on which man has currently set foot, as a pale blue dot almost invisible in the immensity of space, is a stark reminder of perspective. While the human race is a writhing presence on our planet, we're what Douglas Adams described as 'an infinitesimal dot on an infinitesimal dot' when compared to the majesty of creation. This particular story, written by the film's director, Aaron Schuppan, with Nina Pearce, neatly plays with the same sort of contrast, recounting the story of the end of our world entirely through two of the people who live on it, Francoise and Vincent, a young Australian husband and wife.

As the film begins, Francoise is much more than half of a couple. She's an astronaut, a time traveller and the centre of a media frenzy. She was sent through a wormhole by the Planet Patrol to the near future, in a rather unlikely spacesuit of cloth and pearls, and she returns to a clamour of questions from the media which are suitably blurred together but all ask a variant of 'What happens to us?' Her clear reply is a dark one indeed: 'We all died,' she explains. While most short films might concentrate on how the apocalypse happens or what we can do to change it, this one remains steadfastly at the level of a young couple, who presumably mean the world to each other, and especially Francoise, who finds herself in a notably tough situation. Should she be with her husband in the future, where he may be the only other person still alive but at least is on the same page as her, or should she be with her husband in the past, where the rest of us still exist but he's struggling to recognise her after her experiences? That's a tough call.

I guess this approach makes it a romance, albeit hardly a standard one, but it's also a thoughtful piece of science fiction. Perhaps to aid the confusion that the lead character feels in such a situation, Schuppan is not of the mind to make things easy for us. He cuts back and forth between the Francoise and Vincent of the future and those of the past, so it's often difficult to be sure precisely which we're watching. This may well be deliberate, to conjure up that confusion and make us think about how we might respond in such a scenario, but it's still rather disorientating. The choice to concentrate on one couple disorientates us too, as the world ends in this film, in between scenes, while we have no idea as to why. I liked all this, though many won't. The downside for me was the credibility of Francoise's unlikely spacesuit and her launch into the future; I didn't buy her as an astronaut either. Perhaps it's not about space at all, it's a take on mental illness and escape, because really it's all about what we feel about our own pale blue dot.

Library (2013)

Director: Rose Brauner
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.
As has been the case at a few recent International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festivals, the first sci-fi short in the first sci-fi short set in 2014 was an animation. I still remember the previous year's opener, Dry Gulch, with a great deal of pleasure, as that silent Mexican space western subdued a restless audience with a sense of gloriously organic design and sheer storytelling ability. Library, the thesis project of writer and director Rose Brauner at the California Institute of the Arts, is far too short and ephemeral to replicate that film's success, but it's a strong visual piece elevated immediately by a good use of colour and a vibrant score from Jason Guthrie. The text we see excerpted a couple of times during the film is the final passage from Dante's Inferno, as he leaves Hell and once more sees the 'beautiful things that Heaven bears'. This ties closely to the visuals as the film begins with the violent reds of Hell on Earth, a post-apocalyptic derelict library our setting, but soon transforms into the icy blues of a time after the flames have cooled.

The story, or what passes for one, follows the same theme. The use of this text doesn't merely highlight the transition, it also highlights text generally. This unexplained apocalypse has caused major damage to this library already but many books are safe until an odd looking Eastern magus performs a Shinto-esque kata to destroy them all. However, they become preserved in a rather bizarre way. Quite how and why I have no idea, because we have no context here whatsoever. Let's suffice it to say that this looks every bit as cool as it is internally inexplicable, but at least Brauner wove her creation with neatly thematic thread. This approach makes it highly enjoyable and visually grabbing, while the lack of dialogue enforces that it is above all else a visual piece, but the consistent lack of explanation, background or context means that it ends up like one of the pages of Dante it shows so prominently and then burns up into nothing, only to be seen again through the magic that is preservation of culture.

Library can be watched for free on Vimeo.