Friday 27 February 2015

Playtime Strikes Back (2015)

Director: Adolpho Navarro
Stars: Gracie Dufresne, Zoey Cunningham and Adolpho Navarro
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in the 2014-15 season. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014-15 submissions.
The name of Adolpho Navarro didn't show up on my radar until the Phoenix Comicon film challenge last year when his action packed superhero short, Fists in Flight, won top prize. Since then, it keeps cropping up at competition after competition and he's winning a lot of them too, such as this week's A3F 48 hour film challenge. I've discovered that Navarro and N'Raged Media have been making films for a long time and there are a whole slew of them online to check out, so they're a template for other local filmmakers in more ways than one. Another commonality is that these films often feature special effects that would seem to be far more ambitious than would be attempted by anyone in their right mind in a 48 hour film challenge. Isn't it tough enough to write, shoot and score a complete film, edit a trailer and put a poster together, all in 48 hours, without trying to add in special effects? Well, Project Daisy, the Beat the Clock winner last year, incorporated stop motion frickin' animation and Playtime Strikes Back uses puppetry!

And, of course, it uses a lot of puppetry. The story is almost entirely explained in the title, so there's little synopsis needed. Suffice it to say that little Gracie might look sweetness and light but she has a notable streak of brutality, not merely let loose on the deathmatches to which she challenges Ralph on the XBox 360 but also on some of her many soft toys. 'That little beast has a dark side that'll put Vader to shame,' explains the clown on which she vents much of her violence, accompanied with neat slow motion, a neat scream and some neat editing to make it all effective. There's also a raggedy creature hanged from her ceiling fan too, who memorably pleads, 'Please rid me of this harness of death!' Yet some of Gracie's other dolls must either have stuffing for brains or cases of Stockholm syndrome, because they stick up for the little psycho bitch when the clown picks up a knife and pledges bloody revenge. The fight is on with Gracie oblivious in her XBox Live headset and focused on her online carnage.
While the effects make the film viable, it's Gracie Dufresne, who the credits claim is playing herself, who steals the show. She's a natural on camera, her grin utterly appropriate for the circumstances, and she's more than willing to bring the smackdown on that burned and bloodied clown. She also voices Billy, the formerly forgotten dangling doll, though Navarro himself voices the rest. What makes this notable is that instead of merely voice acting over inanimate dolls, he uses an old technique known as Syncro-Vox, first used by Edwin Gillette to allow animals on TV commercials in the 1950s to speak with human mouths. It was popularised on shows from Cambria Productions like Clutch Cargo, Captain Fathom and Space Angel. It saved them a lot of money over regular animation, but I'm pretty sure they didn't work at the speed of Navarro, turning out effective Syncro-Vox work with a greenscreen and software rapidly enough for a film challenge entry. I see him as a mad scientist, doing these things purely because they can't be done.

Of course, the seams have to show eventually in this sort of film, because there are only so many hours in the day to make everything look pristine. Here, they show in the fight between the clown and the doll who sticks up for Gracie; it's great fun, to be sure, with comedic dialogue and decent action, but it's less effective puppetry than elsewhere in the film. Many of the large cast of puppets are of the hand variety and they're worked capably, just like those deemed worthy of the Syncro-Vox treatment, but attempts to manoeuvre the lead puppets through what can only be described as complex fight choreography in the background of Gracie's bedroom while she's playing a deathmatch are just a little too ambitious for this short. I'd say that there are only so many special effects that one man can do with such limitations but I feel sure Navarro would take it as a challenge! I bow to his ambition and his refusal to acknowledge the boundaries others assume. Mostly though, I just enjoy the heck out of how much fun he obviously has.

Playtime Strikes Back can be viewed for free at YouTube.

Sinking (2015)

Directors: Nathan Lawrence and Justin Ehlers
Stars: Justin Ehlers, Kim Gonzales and Berlin Ehlers
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in the 2014-15 season. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014-15 submissions.
It could be argued that Sinking, the IFP Breakout Challenge entry from the joyously named Loneliest Yeti Productions, isn't a film at all; it's a music video. Perhaps the judges saw it that way, as the only award it took home was for its music, a song of the same name by a band called Blind Horse. I like the approach, as one of the traditional failings of film challenge films is the sound quality and that isn't a problem with a short that's entirely silent and backed by (or backing) a song that doesn't need any voice to be in sync. Unlike many music videos though, this one does tell a story with its visuals. It's a sad story, dealing with the loss of a child and the struggle of the parents to continue in their relationship after such a traumatic event, but what makes it really interesting is that it's told entirely in reverse. It begins at the moment at which this couple may have finally found a new start, as she rescues him from an attempted suicide by drowning in the bathtub, an act that we later discover has additional meaning.
Because the story is told in reverse, this is inherently a film to watch more than once. First time through, we wonder what the heck's going on for a while until we realise we're venturing backwards to discover a reason for such a drastic act. There are a few hints that the trigger isn't just a bad relationship, so we're not too surprised when the reason manifests itself but it's still a tough thing to watch when it does show up, even abstracted away from; this isn't aiming for in your face trauma. A second viewing solidifies the story and a third both adds nuance to the emotional impact of the piece and helps to highlight some of its flaws. One odd issue I found is that it took a fourth time through to actually realise how the words tie to the visuals, as each time I watched with the intention of listening I ended up merely watching instead. In the end I had to hide the visuals so I could listen without distraction. Is that the film doing something right or the song doing something wrong? I have to say that I don't know.

A more palpable flaw is in the inconsistency of focus. While the camera remains an agreeably loose thing throughout, not annoyingly handheld but staged well enough to not seem staged, it's loose enough that faces often find themselves out of focus. Perhaps that was a deliberate choice by writer/director Nathan Lawrence or his lead actor/co-director Justin Ehlers for artistic reasons, highlighting the lack of focus that plagues this couple after such a tragic loss, but it doesn't play that way and that feeling could have been accomplished, indeed was accomplished, through other visual elements such as the specific progression of events we're taken through. Ehlers and his leading lady, Kim Gonzales, seem capable enough in what they're doing on screen to warrant us seeing them properly, especially as the film's approach inherently deprives us of their voices. That choice I can live with, because it seems more fundamentally appropriate with each viewing. We really don't need words; this is a quintessentially visual story bolstered by music.

Sinking can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Thursday 26 February 2015

Half Measures (2015)

Director: J Schreck
Stars: Scott Nass and Larry Nass
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in the 2014-15 season. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014-15 submissions.
Half Measures stood out among the early films screened at this year's Breakout Challenge because it was unlike anything I've seen at previous IFP challenges. It's wordless for the most part, an experimental take on camera placement and editing technique, all set within a very cool location, a junkyard for trucks, and with a charismatic but unlikely looking lead in Scott Nass. He's not young and he's not pretty but he does have a strong presence, even with very little dialogue, and I'm stunned that he hasn't got a single credit on IMDb. Based on these five minutes, right down to the very second, horror movie directors ought to be queueing up to hire him because he has the look and the feel that they need, whether as an antihero, a villain or an outright monster. I want to see his last thirty years of output but I'm presuming that's going to translate to searching YouTube for a few local films and making do. He does get dialogue here, though not a lot and only late on, but he's just as good delivering it, ably selling his character's confusion.

The story is so slight as to be almost non-existent. This unnamed character drives through a junkyard on a cart to work on an old green truck. We can guess he's searching for parts but we can't see that as he's mostly hidden under a jacked up cab and we're focused on other details throughout. Here's a panel and some rust, there are pistons, over here we get some more interesting angles. Eventually our attention is concentrated enough on leaking fluid that we know something's will go horribly wrong and, sure enough, the cab falls back onto his left arm. He fights for a while, still wordlessly, until he loses conciousness, or perhaps, dies. The only thing we're missing here is the bubbling of blood to match the bubbling of piston oil, but perhaps that seemed too obvious to director J Schreck, a cool abbreviation of Jeff Schreckler. Then this man just gets up and wanders off because he's moved out of the realm of reality and into something else entirely. Here's where we get some actual story, which could be read a few different ways.
That dominant performance by Scott 'Boss' Nass is what resonated with me most, complemented well by a supporting slot from his brother, Larry Nass, as a sort of gangster devil, but there's more to praise. The feel is built neatly by the combination of a memorable and sparse location, a lack of dialogue to heighten the isolation, imaginative camerawork from Carl Goodwin, an agreeably sun faded desert colour palette and notably strong editing from Schreck which deservedly won one of the film's two awards at Breakout, the other being for sound design. On the downside, I would have preferred a much steadier camera (this isn't shakycam but it's often handheld) and the lighting is inconsistent. Both are relatively minor concerns as they play into the surreal nature of the piece, as does the odd choice to shoot the first conversation in such a way that we assume the two actors were never together and it's only the product of editing. Are these flaws or aids to the freaky feel? Clearly I should watch more Edge Psychotic films to find out.

Fading Away (2015)

Director: Timothy Helmstadter
Stars: Julie van Lith, Maria Patti and Timothy Helmstadter
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in the 2014-15 season. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014-15 submissions.
Another IFP film to run 4:59 and only just squeeze in under the challenge limit, Fading Away has a couple of major flaws but still manages to impress on a few counts, not least that it still managed to wring some emotional response out of me even though it obviously ached to do so. I find that most films which start out with the clear goal of plucking heartstrings and only think about character later in the process, tend to fail pretty miserably; that's especially true of short films, which don't have the luxury of being able to expand into appropriate space. This one is certainly a mixed bag but it does achieve its goal better than most because of the performance of Julie van Lith as Ruth. While this is technically capable, with decent audio and video, it still felt like a lesser piece until Ruth showed up and van Lith quickly drew me in with some believable Alzheimer's antics. I've spent time with people like this and, while many choose to stay quiet to avoid advertising their gaps, some just don't have a clue and sound precisely like Ruth.

She may be starting to come to terms with her memory loss or she may be doing it over and over, but it isn't a new thing for her daughter, Audrey, who is stuck dealing with all the fallout because her brother is in Albuquerque and can't rush over at the drop of a hat. Audrey is clearly fed up with shouldering all the responsibility but she just as clearly cares deeply for her mother. Maria Patti does well as Audrey when she's bouncing off Ruth, but clearly needed a few more takes during her solo scenes to let her monologue flow better. Her biggest problem though, and the biggest problem of the film as a whole, is that Ruth and Audrey aren't believable in the slightest as mother and daughter. Sure, those are clearly the roles they're playing but we don't buy it. Partly it's the ethnic difference, but mostly it's the age difference; sisters is a more believable sell. Unfortunately the script works better as mother/daughter, so that's what they were. Either Tim Helmstadter should have found better aging make up or he should have cast differently.
The other major flaw is the fact that Fading Away is so obviously a much bigger story and five minutes is merely a glimpse into it. The majority of the film is spent in Ruth's front room, as Audrey tries to convince her that she's a danger to herself and suggests that she needs to be somewhere where she can be taken care of. That's not received well, as you might expect, but Audrey has a point, given that her mum nearly burned the house down earlier in the day but can't even remember the fire department being there. Sure, this is a pivotal scene in the bigger story and, perhaps, we might buy into it being a story in itself if that's all we'd been shown. However the earlier scenes of Audrey arguing with her brother on the phone about who gets to do what force us into a much bigger picture and five minutes isn't remotely enough for us to explore that properly. Those scenes should have been cut to focus us in on the real story, with the added benefit of losing the lesser acting moments. Then reshots could be added back in for the feature.

Fading Away can be watched for free on YouTube.

Wednesday 25 February 2015

Best Day of My Life (2015)

Director: Jeff Dykhuizen
Stars: Samuel Varghese and Heidi Johnson
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in the 2014-15 season. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014-15 submissions.
There were fourteen films eligible for awards at this year's IFP Breakout challenge and fifteen awards up for grabs but, as sometimes happens, the judges chose to divvy those awards up amongst only five titles, so a few other worthies missed out entirely. The two such examples that stood out most to me bookended the big winner of the night, Flight Fright, which won five awards, if not the biggest prize, and I do wonder if its comedy and professionalism stole some of the thunder from the two films around it, Best Day of My Life and One to Another. In particular, Best Day of My Life is a film that needs space to resonate and that was the last thing it got stuck in the middle of a set of shorts with comedy following immediately after its brutal last line. It's neatly constructed, that last line also being its first but the two delivered in amazingly different circumstances. The shift in tone from blissful embrace to stark isolation in a five minute short is superbly handled, as is the juggling between one recurrent shot and a succession of flashbacks.

It's all about a couple, Freddy and Judy. At the beginning of the film, they're a young couple in love, very obviously so and very understandably so too, given that they're getting married. 'Best day of my life,' he tells her, the pair of them a grinning composition of red, white and black. We quickly move on, though, to the moment when she raises the idea of having a family. After all, it's been two years, eleven months and four days, the precision of her memory important given where we're going; he just knows that it's almost three years. And we keep moving forward, these brief flashbacks always returning to the most impactful moments of their life together, interspersed with Freddy driving through Phoenix suburbia. We're only a minute and a half in when the tone starts to change and it does so with emphasis. Suddenly we're not in Kansas any more, Dorothy, and everything starts to descend into darkness. That it does this so capably without resorting to the usual emphasis points like blood and swearing is very telling indeed.
I wish I knew who the two actors are, but this runs a second under the five minute challenge limit, so I'm sure they didn't feel that there was room to add credits. I presume Freddy is played by Samuel Varghese, who is also presumably the agreeably befuddled lead in Clutter, another interesting Breakout Challenge film from a year earlier. Both that film and this aim to tell unusual but believable stories with a message. Here that message is one that isn't heard often enough, because many filmmakers would shy away from material that could well raise accusations of sexism. Well, domestic abuse comes in many forms and it's not always delivered by a man to a woman; it's merely that society's take on gender roles makes it hard for men to reach out in such a situation and receive help instead of laughter. Varghese does very well in this difficult role, but his co-star is even better. She's Heidi Johnson, who has venom in her tongue and power in her stance and is dangerously believable in this role.

Technically it's a little inconsistent but I'm not convinced that there aren't reasons for that. The structure of the film in its progression of flashbacks is hindered by the restrictive five minute running time and I'm sure would breathe better with a little more room to do so. I'm especially interested to know if the lighting choices deliberately play to the changing tone of the story, as the score clearly does, or if they were, well, just inconsistent. Unfortunately each of these little vignettes is so inherently short as to make that tough to figure out and I really hope that Jeff Dykhuizen and his crew of Grand Canyon University film folk shot more footage that they can edit together into a longer version. This is strong as a five minute challenge entry but it could easily be a blistering ten minute short film. It wouldn't be easy to directly expand, so if there isn't any extra footage, it would probably need remaking to flesh it out fully. It would be worth it, as I know I wasn't the only one impressed by this film, even if it didn't win any Breakout awards.

Best Day of My Life can be viewed for free at Vimeo.

Flight Fright (2015)

Director: Jim Politano
Stars: Gerald Dewey, Swizyzinna, London Kim, Doris Morgado, Tony Bafaloukas and Eddie Deezen
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in the 2014-15 season. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014-15 submissions.
Jim Politano really pulled out the stops for his 2015 Breakout Challenge short, partly because of lessons learned from an earlier film. Back in the 2012-13 season at Beat the Clock, Love Sucks won as audience favourite, deservedly because it's still one of the funniest IFP shorts I've seen. Within seconds, he made the audience laugh; within minutes, he'd offended every woman watching with panache; but he saved the day after the credits by bringing balance to the force. It was wonderful writing, but it couldn't have looked worse visually if he'd tried; without any decent equipment or any crew, it ended up in pixellated black and white. Screening in the IFP finals set at the Phoenix Film Festival against superb films like The Memory Ride, Screaming in Silence and La Lucha, it looked amateur. Flight Fright, by comparison, looks professional, at least once it was exported properly from the master copy. And I know how professionally it was done because, disclaimer, I was there as an extra watching it happen from inside the film.

Flight Fright may well be the first IFP Phoenix film challenge entry to be shot in Hollywood, because Jim booked Air Hollywood Studios for the day so he could shoot on an actual set. The smaller plane we shot on sits right next to the bigger one that was used for Airplane! and so many other films since, including Sharknado 2: The Second One. The cast and crew were predominantly sourced from Jim's previous film, the superb hard hitting science fiction short, The Class Analysis, and it surely wouldn't have taken the IFP judges long to vote Gerald Dewey and Swisyzinna best actor and actress respectively. They're the heart of the picture, even if neither is the most recognisable face on screen. No, that's not me; my left arm was once again my most prominent attribute. It's Eddie Deezen, who most may know from The Polar Express or the Grease movies, but I still remember from WarGames and Teenage Exorcist. He has a cameo sitting next to Jim's lovely wife, Karen, and I'm not saying any of this just so I can get into his next film. Honest.
What we hear of the story unfolds entirely within the plane, as it cruises above the ocean at 20,000 feet. Dewey and Swisyzinna are a couple named Gomez, bickering believably back and forth as he's afraid to fly and she can't believe it, given how tough he acts on solid ground. He's taken nerve meds to ease his anxiety but they're apparently having increasingly quirky side effects, as we see in a succession of shots of regular Politano jewel Tony Bafaloukas doing a succession of outrageous things on the wing outside his window. Both Dewey and Swisyzinna impressed me, and they dominate on screen, but I was even more impressed on set by Doris Morgado, playing the flight attendant to whom Mr Gomez explains, 'There's a man out on the wing having a barbecue!' She's racking up credits in Hollywood, in films as prominent as 2 Guns with Denzel Washington and Snitch with Dwayne Johnson, and I'll be working through a bunch of them ahead of her sure climb up the ladder to success. The rest of them are climbing too.

Of course, knowing Politano's penchant for classic sci-fi, both the good stuff and the truly godawful stuff, it won't be too surprising to discover that this has a consistent Twilight Zone sort of feel to it and he nails it pretty well. Bafaloukas, the inveterate improvising scenestealer from Love Sucks and The Sisters of St Mary's, does his level best to steal this one too but he's hindered by being stuck on the other side of the glass where we can't hear him. London Kim, like Dewey, Morgado and a bunch of extras, a key player in The Class Analysis, is excellent here too but doesn't get screen time enough to do justice to his role as the captain; Eddie Deezen gets much more in his cameo slot, with two memorable scenes with Morgado. Technically this is accomplished, the antithesis of Love Sucks, even if the version screened on the night was annoyingly dark; the strong score sadly not acknowledged in its five awards. It's really all about the idea though, which is what it is: funny and enjoyable but without the substance of The Class Analysis.

Sunday 8 February 2015

B-Class Cultural Heritage (2013)

Director: Yuji Hariu
Stars: Juya Kasuga, Jiro Kurosawa, Raiki Komino, Masao Yamamura, Shinichiro Kanamaru and Reisa Maekawa
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 DOUG.DAT and Sad Monster disappointed me, the final sci-fi short shown at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2014 elated me. B-Class Cultural Heritage was stunning on the big screen, as much for how utterly different it was from everything else around it as for what it actually was in itself, but for me it was a breath of fresh air. It certainly didn't hurt that Yuji Hariu, the film's writer, editor, director and effects wizard, flew out from Japan for the festival with an absolutely stunning interpreter in tow. I believe that my better half is still jealous that I got to talk to her after the screening, but hey, Hariu's English was about as weak as my Japanese; we both have a few words here and there but no fluency. She did a great job helping us communicate and merely happened to look drop dead gorgeous while doing so. Somehow this was all highly appropriate because this is perhaps the most quintessentially Japanese film I've ever been privileged to watch. Perhaps it's the 21st century equivalent to all those Yasujiro Ozu classics.

What happens is easy to describe but tough to relate because it makes more sense the more background a particular viewer might have in Japanese culture. We're watching Akira, a skateboarder played by Junya Kasuga but presumably named for the actual skater doing the stuntwork, Akira Imamura. He answers his phone to hear a typically kawaii voice tell him that he's standing on a forbidden manhole, one registered under the B-Class Cultural Heritage Association. As he looks down, she explains that, 'As a penalty of this violation we will viciously attack you for the next 3 minutes.' She really isn't kidding either, adding that, 'If you do not die, we'd like to present you a special prize!' She even finishes with a cute, 'Good luck!' as the manhole lifts and some sort of laser weapon peers out from underneath, focusing on Akira's chest. It waits politely for those three minutes to begin and he discovers that he needs to be off and running with great speed! I don't believe this film could remotely work in any other culture, but here it's perfect.
It isn't just the concept that's quintessentially Japanese. The film itself is produced with technical aplomb that is consistent in every aspect. There are many more laser guns, of course, and an abundance of neat explosions. Nobody else seems to notice, which is a notable comment in itself. The weaponry gets bigger and more powerful as the clock runs down, carefully concealed within other mundane objects registered by the B-Class Cultural Heritage Association like traffic lights and railroad crossings. Hariu's effects work is exemplary, never taking over the film but working hand in hand with the cinematography of Kazuhisa Maruyama who, like Hariu, doesn't appear to have earned another credit at IMDb. His camera is notably in tune with the story, with a number of scenes tailored around the choreography. One has a young man drop a coin as he prepares to put it into a vending machine. Leaning down to get it, Akira leaps over him on his skateboard and a gun rakes across the machine, shocking the clueless young man as he stands.

Everyone involved warrants praise. I don't know if Hariu or Maruyama was responsible for the use of slow motion, but one of the most tired effects in film looks utterly fresh here because this is precisely what slo-mo is for. There's a great use of dolly work to lift the camera above the city as Akira turns and look down at his progress. The editing is razor sharp, courtesy of Hariu in collaboration with Tomoyuki Kujirai and Masaki Mizuno, who both also worked with him on the visual effects. That editing works seamlessly with a wonderful use of subtitles and credits, which never settle for boring old conventions. Transitions between shots look wonderful too. The electronic score by Jaermulk Mansfield and Soichi Terada is appropriate for the action, the insanity and the inevitable irony waiting for the conclusion. Everything is perfect, down to the awesomely underwhelming prize for survival. This was the best way to finish up a sci-fi shorts set and I've enjoyed it many times since, courtesy of the DVD Hariu gave me. Arigatou gozaimasu, Yuji-san!

B-Class Cultural Heritage can be watched for free on Vimeo and YouTube.

Saturday 7 February 2015

Sad Monster (2013)

Director: Kurt Dettbarn
Stars: Maja Dettbarn, Matt Washington and Kurt Dettbarn
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 disappointed by DOUG.DAT, increasingly as I think about what the concept could have become, and I was disappointed by Sad Monster too. It got a good response from the crowd at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival though, so it certainly has something. What I thought it had was a strong visual style drawn out of the inherently sentimental material. I didn't like the shakycam but I loved the long shots and the framing and the gradual bringing into focus of little things as the camera moves. It's surprising that it has won many awards for producer/director Kurt Dettbarn, but apparently nothing for Joshua Rainhard as the cinematographer. To my thinking, it's Rainhard who sells this most, with the monster suit made by Melis Bayraktar, Trason Fernandes and Jen Wright backing him up magnificently and Dettbarn's suitably melancholy music underpinning it all. There is no dialogue in this movie, which could easily be regarded as a music video, but then it really doesn't need it.
The story is elegantly simple. The Sad Monster of the title is some sort of cuddly plush troll, but he's sad rather than scary, right down to the single fang that decorates his bottom lip. Why he's seven feet tall, I have no idea, given that he's clearly supposed to belong to the little girl who banishes him at the outset, but he is and that means that he can leave and wander off into the world at large, searching for another place where he can belong. You could read this like a dialogue free summary of Toy Story in music video form and without a single moment of CGI, but that would suggest depth and this deliberately avoids that. It merely highlights how a single act can change everything, one command turning a world upside down, especially when it's delivered by a child, here Dettbarn's daughter Maja. It works well, but that simplicity is a double edged sword. It delivers the sentimentality that Dettbarn clearly aimed for, but leaves us no way to really connect with our sympathy and we sit back as the credits roll and wait for the next film.

Sad Monster can be watched for free on Vimeo.

DOUG.DAT (2013)

Director: Christopher Rowell
Stars: Rich Slaton, Hannah Prichard, Charlie Messenger and Joseph Steven
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 you have any background in IT, the title of this film might speak to you. If you don't, let me explain the basic concept. A .dat file is simply a data file, a combination of ones and zeroes that has meaning when run through the right program. Here, that's an emulator, not one that we might run ourselves to emulate an old game system and run its old games, but a human being emulator, built by a man called Hobbes to run a man named Doug, digitally generated from the detailed image stored in an MRI scan. Clearly we're in the far future, given that DOUG.DAT is running on a QT-CPU, presumably a computer built on quantum tunnelling technology, with one petabyte of RAM. That's serious equipment, if you don't know the terms, but that just makes it all the more frustrating to see it physically represented in Hobbes' lab by recycling of hardware already obsolete to us today. Such are the drawbacks of making a short film without budget enough to let a technological imagination run loose. I've only seen Restitution ever get round that.

As the film begins, we're with the real Doug, or Douglas Grayson, to provide his full name, as he waits to have his MRI done. He's taking a sick day because he thinks something is seriously wrong. Dad suggests that it's just stress but he reckons he has microscopic tumours or some such. It's refreshingly banal and ultimately meaningless, which may be a succinct summary of Doug's entire life. However, after he finds himself placed into a completely different context, banal and meaningless can become important. I was more impressed by how this film addresses the concept of time than in the tech that allows Hobbes and Madeline to do what they do and the little drama that surrounds them as they're doing it. I only buy the ending in spirit though. This is an interesting concept, but it's sadly wrapped up in conventional clothes and can be torn apart easily; it deserved a better treatment. That said, I still enjoyed it being raised and thank writer/director Christopher Rowell and his very capable actors for that.

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Abducted by the Daleks (2005)

Director: Don Skaro
Stars: Katarzyna Zelnik, Eliza Borecka, Sonya Karina, Linda Black, Maria Vaslova and Baron Trenk

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

If My Grapefruit, My Father wasn't a great film, Abducted by the Daleks makes it look like Citizen Kane. I once watched this on fast forward and found it a great deal more entertaining than it turned out to be at regular speed. You might be surprised to discover how stunningly, outrageously, depressingly awful this picture is, given that it features both a trio of daleks, one of which appears to be a real Doctor Who prop, and a set of young ladies who begin it scantily clad and promptly remove what little they're wearing to spend the rest of it buck naked. That does sound like it ought to be a bundle of fun; in fact, it sounds like it would take some notably inept filmmakers to screw it up, which is just what these pseudonymous folk manage to do. They cast some good looking girls to frolic around in nothing but high heels and they did make a feature film containing daleks (which they had to rename to Abducted by the Daloids when the BBC sued) but that's it. I can't find another positive thing to say about any aspect of this production.

Well, that's not strictly true. The opening credits could have been a lot worse, though they're better with the sound off, and there's a great score, albeit one that we would miss if we turned off the sound to lose that narration in bad serial killer voice. The score isn't appropriate but it is mostly made up of Pink Floyd, early tracks like Interstellar Overdrive and Pow R Toc H, which is never a bad thing; I must have blinked when they played Black Sabbath's War Pigs though. If the score is good, the sound is atrocious, which is unfortunate because the four young ladies driving into the forest at night are apparently Polish and not particularly understandable in the English language. Clearly none were cast for their ability to enunciate or intonate, but the obvious solution of having someone else dub over their voices was ignored. All four look great but this would have been far more successful if they'd have chatted in Polish, whether we got subtitles or not, because frankly nobody is watching this for the plot.
What's perhaps most surprising is that there is such a thing as a plot, even though it's an awkward and tortuous one that actually had my family debating what happened after it was all over. To be fair, that's not entirely because it's convoluted (though it is), it's also because it's mostly explained in dialogue that we struggle to understand, whether it's delivered by girls or daleks, and because there are long periods where nothing whatsoever happens except naked girls walking through a forest. I did wonder for a brief moment if that was strangely appropriate, given how many episodes of classic Doctor Who involved the cast running up and down corridors, but I really don't want to give credit for homage where credit surely isn't due. Mostly, this is just a kludgy attempt to explain away naked chicks, shoehorn in daleks and end up in a slasher plot featuring the Serial Skinner. The script does tie these together, but very loosely. Plot progression is not a strong suit here, but then nothing is.

Whoever wrote the film didn't care about the script in the slightest, most obviously because he adopts a transparent pseudonym, Billy Hartnell (for those who aren't classic Doctor Who fans, William Hartnell was the very first Doctor). When he decides that he needs the girls to get out of the car and into the forest, he conjures up a bad CGI alien for them to literally drive into. When script ideas are half inched from Eegah, you know you're in trouble. When he realises that their skirts, so short that we can clearly tell that some are wearing no underwear, are still too much clothing, he has Isabella strip down to her skin in a clearing. Why? Well, why not? After all, we've just spent way too long trying to decipher dialogue and way too long wandering around in a dark forest. It's time for our eyes to be treated! At least the lighting is decent, as inappropriate as it is to have a strong light source conveniently placed for these ladies to know where to point their torches in the dark and avoid breaking their necks while they do so.
And of course, just before Isabella strips off for no reason whatsoever, we discover that there are daleks watching through some remote viewing device. There's nothing to suggest that they'll be in the picture, except for the title, of course; they simply show up out of the blue. We can't understand them either for the most part and they're so inept that they beam up her skirt instead of her (if it was still on her at the time, we might understand); they have to wait for her to spend what feels like ten minutes holding one high heel in a snag for them to grab her too. Hilariously, she's not even aware that she's not in Kansas any more until the daleks tell her to obey their orders. She honest to God slaps one of them right in the plunger, which might just be the single best moment in the entire picture. Two others decide it's cold so disrobe, fondle each other and start licking thigh. They don't notice the daleks either, until one, no lie, says in a famously mechanical dalek voice, 'Ahem.' This movie has a whole two syllables of humour.

If plot continuity is as close to non-existent as makes no odds, there are plenty of goofs to watch out for too. While the girls weren't noticing the daleks, they weren't noticing the boom mike either. Later in the film, one of the dalek operators is clearly visible during one scene as the metal bits surrounding its head aren't attached. The effects are just as miserable; one hilarious scene has two naked girls strapped to a stark metallic wall while the daleks fire some sort of laser beam at their parts; I'm not sure if we laughed more at the girls' unsynchronised writhing reactions or the fact that the daleks couldn't keep their beams up, perhaps telling some sort of cosmic Viagra joke. Of course, choreography is a word these filmmakers have no conception of (or simply don't care about, which might be more accurate). They apparently like dry ice enough to deluge some scenes in it, but their budget isn't up to cover the rest. The cameraman was also clearly drunk as I can't explain his work in any other way. Yes, technically, it's all horrible.
Best of all, there's an impromptu actress switch. The villainous fourth girl turns out to be a slave trader from outer space who shows back up in the daleks' ship in a dominatrix outfit flopping a whip around to intimidate the others, but she's clearly played by the only actress to sign a contract that didn't task her with getting naked. That means that when she's transported back to Earth to join the slasher plot, she's not only stripped to the skin, it's someone else's skin. Lina Black becomes Maria Vaslova, clad only in a pair of high heels, ready to be tied to a tree and molested by a pervert in a bad Hallowe'en mask. IMDb identifies the director, Don Skaro, as Roman Nowicki (also known as Trevor Barley), who apparently likes series, as this is the only one of nine films he's directed to not be part of one. Thus far there are no less than four Fantom Killer movies, and a pair each in the Fantom Seducer and Mark of the Whip series. The plot synopses and casts look rather familiar thoughout, though some were actually shot in Polish.

Katarzyna Zelnik was in the first three Fantom Killer films, but this was the last of her credits; the same goes for Eliza Borecka. Maria Vaslova, the intergalactic slave trader dominatrix, took over for the fourth Fantom Killer and was also in both Mark of the Whip films and Kristi and the Time Machine, whose IMDb keywords include 'duct tape over mouth', 'time machine', 'high heels', 'leash', 'bound and gagged' and 'female nudity'. I wonder what that could be about. It's directed by Richard Stalin, who directed a Polish horror bondage porno called Girl in the Lift, so maybe Nowicki is more prolific than he first appears. The Kristi film does feature an actor called Rovert Yelrab, which of course nobody would notice is his Trevor Barley pseudonym backwards. I should add that this film isn't pornographic, only going so far as to have the Serial Skinner touch both sets of Maria Vaslova's lips while she's tied to a tree. She's manifestly the least aroused aroused girl I've ever seen though and the Serial Skinner is just as lackluster.

It's hard to imagine why this film was made, beyond the basic concept. Really it's a Doctor Who fan film, made by people without talent but access to an authentic dalek and a bevy of hot Polish beauties happy to get naked. Sure, if you have props like those, a soft porn fan film is clearly the way to go, but any eight year old kid would have more imagination as to how to use them than 'Billy Hartnell'. I fail to understand how any wannabe softcore director can fail to direct naked chicks to do interesting things for the camera. Even if the girls baulked at doing porn, they certainly proved willing to gyrate and fondle and lick. How can anyone fail to imagine how to put that to good use? This film would honestly have been better with no plot at all. Just have these chicks strip off and stand on platforms for daleks to scream orders at for an hour and a half. That film would clearly suck but it would still be better than this. This has to be the best example of how to screw up a gimme since The Phantom Menace.

My Grapefruit, My Father (2004)

Director: Jeremy Feig
Stars: Ian Tanza, Jeremy Feig, Susan Kitchen, Leslie Lello, Lauren Wadden and Connie Schiro

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

This week's Weird Wednesday features two films that really don't know what they want to be. For a start, My Grapefruit, My Father and Abducted by the Daleks are long short films. Or short feature. I haven't a clue how they ought to be categorised but this one is just short of 42 minutes and the other runs for 55. Neither are good films, but this one does have a few moments of admirable surreality, as the title might suggest, as well as some comedic moments that made me laugh out loud. By comparison, Abducted by the Daleks has naked blondes and, well, daleks. If that makes you leave this one for that one, hold your horses. That's a particularly difficult film to make it through without fast forwarding, while this one is just a lot less than it could have been, mostly because of the amateur talents on show. Jeremy Feig, who was the film's writer, editor, producer, director, lead actor and probably the guy who cleaned the bathroom, has made a number of films since this debut, so I can only assume he's got better.

He plays Travis Cloverfield on screen here, the long lost son of Sidney who's close to death as we begin. We might assume, if we haven't read anything into the title, that we're up for soporific sentimentality, as young Travis returns home to be with his loving family after three years away and for his mum, Mirabella, to usher him in to see his father before he passes. Fortunately that's not what we get for two important reasons: none of the actors, whose skills vary in quality, are of the level where they can successfully tug our heartstrings and Sidney isn't the sentimental type. In fact, he doesn't even plan on dying. Sure, that body he's stuck in is going to stop breathing soon enough, but he met a witchdoctor at a support group, Don Wally Ramaparté by name, who taught him a neat little trick. Death doesn't have to be permanent, he explains to his son. With the right training, he can transfer his soul to another body to live on. That's why he needs Travis; he wants to hold his hand and move into his body as he dies. Nice guy, huh?

Frankly, we have no reason to like Sidney, who appears to be a worthless father and grandfather, but we might just be on his side at this point because Travis is such a whiny nonentity. Here's the first problem; we're given a key moment to choose who we want to sympathise with and we don't wanna. We'd choose any inanimate object in the room instead, like a candle or a pair of curtains or a grapefruit, which is as good an explanation for this film as I can conjure up. As a graduate of the Anakin Skywalker school of making the audience not care, Travis does at least have some self-preservation skills. No way he'll share his body with his father, who he hates. He hands him that grapefruit instead, so that when his body fails and his soul leaps into whatever he's touching, his father becomes... the grapefruit. A talking grapefruit, of course, or we'd have a short film, but also one who can see, hear and feel pain. Later in the film we're given Sidney's explanation for how any of this is possible. 'I don't know,' he repeats and we move on.
Given that Ian Tanza, who plays Sidney, is probably the best actor in the film, it's rather unfortunate that it tasks him for the most part with voice acting for a grapefruit. We actually fear for the picture when we believe that it's going to involve years of Travis's bottled up angst erupting in scenes where he's the only human being on screen. 'You missed everything,' he emotes at his ball-shaped father. 'I want to change,' replies the grapefruit. 'I want to make amends.' As far as I was concerned, the best early moment was as two little girls dare each other to touch Sidney's corpse at the wake. They're stopped, just in time, to the excuse of, 'We just wanted to see if he was squishy yet.' Unfortunately, we're inflicted with more Travis, a man puny enough that he can't pound a grapefruit into a church floor and leave a dent. On the evidence of this film, Feig is a much better writer than he is an actor, as the successes so far are mostly earned by dialogue, with nods to a few supporting actors, such as Lauren Wadden as Travis's little sister, Katie.

She steals the grapefruit from the church and the film with it. While we do enjoy the surreality of Travis attempting to explain the truth to his psychiatrist, we enjoy Katie far more as she talks to the grapefruit. Like every little girl, she knows exactly what to do to get what she wants and she's happy to scratch her granddad's peel to make him break his silence. Wadden is a game little girl too, because she clearly isn't into one important scene late in the film which I can't spoil, but does it anyway for the sake of the movie. Unfortunately nobody else is up to that standard. Susan Kitchen could have been worse as Mirabella and Connie Schiro gets some fun scenes as the Cloverfields' nurse, Marta, who was apparently doing Sidney on the side and doesn't want to leave, even though she no longer has a patient. The most promising acting in the film seems to be by Travis's friends at the wake, who only get a few lines each and promptly use them to steal the picture from their on screen friend with a much bigger part.
Technically the film isn't much to write home about, though I've seen worse and would do so again right after this with my next Weird Wednesday selection. After the surreal concept that underpins the film, the best aspects are all in the script. Feig wrote some quirky dialogue for a number of actors. My favourite is Marta's heartfelt plea to the grapefruit with which she wants to run away to continue their life of bliss in some imaginative way: 'We frolic together during day,' she thinks aloud. 'I pack you in ice cooler during night.' He even brings in a surprise or two, as I could have sworn I knew exactly where he was going with the later scenes but he switched it all up on me. The final scene is a deceptively deep one, inappropriate and wrong in every way, which is notably subversive for what would otherwise feel exactly like a Lifetime Channel Movie of the Week if only its most prominent character was played by an aging soap opera star instead of a grapefruit. Casting is important, folks.

When the end credits rolled, what I was stuck with was confusion as to why this film was made. It feels as if Jeremy Feig actually wanted to make a serious drama, with a set of meditations on family, reconciliation and closure. It feels as if he had sympathy and sentiment at the top of his list of emotions to evoke from his audience. It feels as if the characters are there to make social comment, leaving us with insight into a wide range of tough situations. Yet he wrote a comedy not a drama, with the best bits the funny ones. He also, most frickin' obviously, turned the patriarch of the family into a grapefruit. The only possible way to get away with that is on a surrealistic platform, which is entirely undetectable outside that one conceit. It strikes me that at the end of the day, anyone who might enjoy the drama will be quickly turned off by its central concept. Only people who enjoy the inanity and insanity of that concept might get a kick out of it and they'll be sadly bored to tears by everything else.