Thursday 14 May 2015

Thrasherland (2015)

Director: Joshua J Provost
Stars: Casey Likes and Cara Alvey
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
If Logan Must Make Star Wars was what this year's Home Grown Shorts set needed to lighten the notably dark tone, Thrasherland is what it needed to wrap things up. It's a strong bookend to Grace of a Stranger, a very different film indeed but another one tied to both hope and skateboards. However, instead of two adult actors to tell its story, it relies on one child actor, Casey Likes, with very little support, and frankly, as strong as the sentiment of the short is, it would have failed if he hadn't have been up to the task. The good news is that he's excellent, especially at the beginning but also throughout the twelve minutes that it runs until a conclusion that sits well not just for Thrasherland but for the whole Home Grown Shorts set. I've mentioned the programming of this set a number of times as I've reviewed the films that played in it, because I've been learning the fine art of set programming on my Apocalypse Later mini-film festivals at local conventions and this set, unlike many nowadays, really shone from that angle.

Casey Likes plays Carpenter, a thirteen year old kid who's unhappy that his family won't be able to go to California this year on holiday. Sure, he cares for his little sister, Charlie, who's in hospital for a reason we aren't let in on but which we assume is serious. However, he comes across as the usual petulant youth as he pouts at the lack of holiday. He doesn't stamp his foot when he shouts, 'That's not fair!', but that's only because Joshua J Provost, the writer and director, didn't want to be quite that stereotypical. Life sucks for young Carpenter but it's clearly not as simple as him being selfish. There's a great line early on when his mum suggests that he go see Charlie: 'I don't like to see her like that,' he says, highlighting that he cares but can't give voice to his feelings in terms that his mother would understand. So, when he packs for the road, we know it isn't as simple as just running away from home. The rest of the story fills in the gaps, as he takes a journey whose meaning is eventually made clear through a fantastic and touching plot device.
I happened to sit close to Provost at the screening of Bread and Butter and talked to him about the film of his that would screen later in the festival. While Thrasherland details a journey taken by Carpenter, it also represents a journey for Provost. It took him nine years to make the film, which was originally aimed to be a feature. Eventually he realised that it wasn't going to happen, just like Carpenter's California holiday, so he turned it into something that would, namely this short. I got a real kick out of it, though I wonder what the impact would be if it were to be extended to feature length. It relies on a restrained introduction, that strong lead performance from Likes and a great ending. What we see on the journey is more important to the character than to us, though I have to admit that I enjoyed seeing these sights on the big screen, as my better half and I saw them earlier this year when driving to north Hollywood to take part in the shoot for Flight Fright. We stopped at the Cabazon dinosaurs and the wind farm this side of the mountains too.

In many ways, it's an ethereal piece that often slips away from dialogue into a jangly score as Carpenter makes it further down the road. Provost does drop some hints early on, but then it's just the highway; we do know where he's going, because it doesn't take any knowledge of the road to grasp that, but we don't quite know why and we have to wait it out with Carpenter before Provost opens it up and brings it home. Given that the wait constitutes the majority of the film, which Carpenter either makes it through alone or shares with people we don't see, the technical side of the picture is often in focus. I enjoyed some of the camerawork, like the shadowplay on the bridge, but found some shots too handheld for my liking. The impressive choice of locations is strung together capably by editing, but it's Likes who always keeps us going, the determination on his face only occasionally lost to a fear that he's doing the wrong thing. I bet Provost had the same looks over nine years, but Thrasherland is definitely the right end to his journey.

Logan Must Make Star Wars (2014)

Director: Nathan Blackwell
Stars: Logan Blackwell, Brian Blackwell, Craig Curtis, Shay Alber, Kellen Garner, Bob Caplan, Lauren Henschen, James Hoenscheidt, Christopher Hoenscheidt, Darren Ito and Josh Kasselman
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
While Stolen Afternoon was only five short films earlier in the Home Grown Shorts set at the Phoenix Film Festival this year, it felt like an aeon. The Class Analysis, Duty and Fish Hook are hardly light viewing and the documentary, Fighters Move Forward, didn't exactly avoid the darkness either. So, by the time Logan Must Make Star Wars showed up in the set, the audience were overdue for some laughs, especially given that it was a Saturday morning. I knew it would play well because I'd seen the film before; even though I missed its original screening at last year's A3F film challenge, I keep up with Squishy Studios and Nathan Blackwell kindly allowed me to screen it myself in the Apocalypse Later short film set at LepreCon 2014, a year end wrap up at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival and a small charity event for Oakwood Care. It played well every time but it was so precisely the perfect antidote to all the dark material in this set that it surely won't ever play anywhere quite so well as this again.

Anyone who's seen the work of Squishy Studios, from Masters of Daring to Zombie Team Building via the Voyage Trekkers web series, knows their sense of humour and that's very much in evidence here, as they add the Star Wars universe to the list of sci-fi staples that they've lampooned. It won't surprise any to find that Logan is played by Logan Blackwell, but the setup is the sort of genius that Squishy Studios is known for. We're not given any explanations of how this happened (perhaps because they could easily constitute a prequel), but Logan plunges backwards in time to 1974 and accidentally kills George Lucas. To avoid an unimaginable future without the Star Wars trilogy (props to Blackwell for not mentioning more than three films), he has to make A New Hope himself, merely without any money, actors or props that he can't find himself. That's mirrored in Logan Must Make Star Wars itself, which is populated by Voyage Trekkers props and characters and a beard for Logan as transparent as those of the Monty Python crew in Life of Brian.
What we're here for, though, isn't realism, it's the Squishy Studios brand of humour, which has a habit of poking fun at culture in a deceptively light-hearted way. I'm hardly going to call this the deepest short in the set, but there's a little more going on here about both the art and business of filmmaking than might immediately meet the eye, culminating in a wonderful cameo by Josh Kasselman as a Roger Corman-like producer, all ready to snap up stock footage for another cut and paste job. The dialogue is as sparkling a highlight as we've come to expect, but not only through choice of words. Sure, Logan's glorious opening lines to potential backers are, 'So, we start on the fourth movie, OK?' but Lauren Henschen's outrageous Georgia peach accent for Princess Leia never ceases to make me laugh, even on my tenth time through. Logan gets the truest line in 'I guess the dialogue's always been bad,' but James Hoenscheidt gets a gem in the reworked cantina scene as Han Solo arguing with Greedo.

While Logan Must Make Star Wars is surely just a scratch on the surface of the Star Wars universe, a five minute short film to compare to the two seasons of Voyage Trekkers making affectionate fun of Star Trek, it crams a surprising amount of story arcs into such a brief running time. We start with a big fall with the death of George Lucas (for the time, folks; this is 1974, remember, when he was about to become great), but there's a big rise, another fall, a second rise and eventually a great finish. That's as many story arcs as the entire Star Wars trilogy. I'd love to see more of this sort of material from Nathan Blackwell, but it's hardly his focus right now with the long awaited Voyage Trekkers feature in pre-production. Maybe there will be another 48 hour film challenge that falls into a free timeslot so the Squishy Studios crew can turn this into a trilogy. After all, by the end of this short film, Logan may have made Star Wars, but he hasn't followed up with The Empire Strikes Back yet. At least he can hire another director to do that, right?

Logan Must Make Star Wars is available to watch for free on Vimeo and YouTube (the latter is longer):

Saturday 9 May 2015

Fish Hook (2014)

Director: Nickolas Duarte
Stars: Ryan DeLuca and Paul Hickert
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
I'd seen many of the Home Grown Shorts at this year's Phoenix Film Festival before, but Fish Hook was a new one on me and it was the one that I knew I needed to see again. It's a real oddity: a picture that's all about impact, which we feel in our gut far more than we see on the screen because this is as ephemeral as anything I've seen. If you scribble down every fact presented, it'll be a very short list indeed. We only meet two of the three characters in the story; beyond names, we're never told who anyone is or how they connect to anyone else. What happened in the past is skirted around with practised skill; what happens in the present is brutal. None of this really tells us anything at all. Yet, at the same time, we're given such impressions that we believe that we know a whole heck of a lot. We know who all these people are, what they did in the past and why they do what they do in the present. We look at all the things on screen but effectively see the unseen hanging in the air between them and watch it manifest in our minds.

That's clever filmmaking, but we have to wonder if we got the right picture. Perhaps that's the point. The director and co-writer, Nickolas Duarte, may have had a completely different vision of the story than I do or you do. He could make three more films about the same subject from different perspectives, then tie them together into an episodic feature and call it Rashomon. When the credits rolled on the big screen, I had a good idea what was going on but wanted the film to start afresh and let me check my theory. After a second viewing, I'm relatively sure that I have a crystal clear vision of the big picture, but I'm also well aware that it's entirely fashioned from my personal interpretations which could be completely off base. I would recommend this to any university film class as it really ends with an unspoken suggestion that the entire audience should immediately form groups and dissect the film frame by frame to check their own interpretations and figure out what it's really saying.
This makes a synopsis very difficult. The film opens with sinister imagery: drills, saws, blood spurting into a sink. Davey texts Brandon, but Brandon doesn't respond. We watch him not respond, instead taking a glass and balancing it on the edge of a table, playing with it until it inevitably falls. This abstraction sets the stage admirably for the personal conflict to follow. The text was about Mr Mike and Brandon's reaction is to eventually go to see him in his workshop. They talk banalities. Well, Mr Mike does; Brandon keeps his mouth mostly shut, letting the heavy air in between them speak for him. There's more hanging in this air than exists otherwise in the workshop, a sword of Damocles with a fraying thread, a vast shared McGuffin as hard to remove as a fish hook. I know what Mr Mike says to Brandon but I also read its meaning, which is another thing entirely. I don't know if Mr Mike tries to hug him, wrestle him or protect him. There's just so much history here that it's threatening to erupt from Brandon's body and leave him a shell.

And when it does erupt, the sound kicks in beyond the ambience that's been droning quietly behind it all. 'My body is a cage,' sings Daniel Vildosola, who composed the wonderful music that is so relevant that it always had to be original. The cinematography of John Sears keeps the violence as impressionistic as the script, shooting so closely that we see blurs that only occasionally manifest themselves into recognisable clarity. You know, like a fight really is. Ryan DeLuca does a magnificent job as Brandon, screaming at us in silence until Duarte ramps up the volume to eleven. Paul Hickert is almost as good, a sort of Willem Dafoe next door who seems to be one thing but might just be another; even though he has more dialogue, he's still acting mostly with body language, which tells its own story. Once I post this review, I'm going to ping Nickolas Duarte, who wrote the script with Drew Grubich, and ask him what he believes he said. I wonder if it will match what I heard him say.

Friday 8 May 2015

Duty (2014)

Directors: Rob Burson and Victoria Rincon
Stars: Rob Burson, Aimee DuMars, Sandy Owens and Robbie King
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
Another flawed thirteen minute Arizona short, Duty has the opposite problem to Fighters Move Forward. That documentary featured too few people saying too few things, so that it never really finds where the real story is. This human interest drama has too many people too quickly focused on where we're going, so that the real story is heavily telegraphed in the first scene. I'm careful to avoid spoilers and know that synopses should only be detailed up to a point; that could be ten minutes in or sixty, but here it's scene one. We're in small town America where the cops are good guys and the sheriff isn't being investigated by the feds, but the first thing we see is Lance stealing money from the evidence locker. IMDb explains that we're 'in the midst of the financial crisis of 2008-2009' and we soon discover that it's dragging this cop down. He can't afford to cover his daughter's meds and the bank is getting ready to foreclose. He's pursuing a few odd avenues to solve his financial problem, but none of them are advisable.

Duty has two names all over its credits, so it would seem safe to see the film as theirs. Rob Burson wrote the script and took the lead role for himself, produced the picture and co-directed it with Victoria Rincon, who also shot and edited the piece. Mostly they do good work. Burson is a decent lead, able to elicit our sympathy even after that opening scene. Lance is a good man, but it isn't just the financial crisis that's causing his problems; it's also his male chauvinist attitude, which we're never quite sure we should read as his alone or endemic to the role he plays in society. His wife is a good woman too; in fact, everyone in the film has our sympathy to at least some degree, even Crazy Willie who acts up at two in the morning and waves his shotgun around. I've seen films where I couldn't care about anyone, as important ones as Gone with the Wind, but I'm not sure I've ever seen one before where I cared about everyone and found that a problem. If these people are all so damn likeable, how come nobody is helping them?
While Burson has the screen time, Aimee DuMars is just as good as his wife, Julie, and so's Sandy Owens as the chief. The acting is strong throughout, except for Lance and Julie's screen kids who are obviously so happy to be in a movie that they can't stop grinning, a problem but a forgiveable one. I like Rincon's editing more than I do her camerawork, but she makes everyone look good. She merely likes to keep her camera handheld, presumably for a grittier feel, but the approach is overdone nowadays and has lost its impact. She finds some strong shots though, especially towards the end of the movie; the very last shot is superbly framed and the one soon before it when Lance handles the point of no return is pristine. The score is another plus, from Rincon's brother, Brendan, meaning that technically this is very capable. The script is clearly the weak link, not because of what it says or where it goes but because it's so inherently predictable, telegraphing every move like this is a pantomime rather than a dark drama.

The first time I watched Duty, at last year's Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival, I felt that the script was a little too simple to boot but, watching afresh, at the Phoenix Film Festival and again here at home to put this review together, I've changed my mind on that front. While this is about a good man finding himself doing bad things for good reasons, it's far more than that too. It's as much a commentary on the macho mindset pervasive in the police force, even in a small town like this one with a capable female boss, and the self-destructive stupidity of those from which they protect us, as it is about the hard times brought to good men and bad by people a long way away and unseen to everyone who matters. Duty is duty to all the characters in this film, but the word means a different thing to each of them and it shapes how they choose their actions. There's a lot of depth here that I didn't see first time through and I wonder how it plays to different people. While there are questions here, I believe we need to find our own answers.

Duty can be watched for free on Vimeo.

Fighters Move Forward (2014)

Director: Jake Lee
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
The Home Grown Shorts set at this year's Phoenix Film Festival started very strongly indeed with not one but three superb and very different films: Grace of a Stranger, Stolen Afternoon and The Class Analysis. It had to drop the standard sooner or later and it turned out to be here, with a documentary called Fighters Move Forward. It's not a bad film and there are certainly good bits in it, but even at only thirteen minutes, it's too long; I found it repeating background shots pretty quickly and it just can't find enough subjects to interview. Fortunately, the focus of the piece, Pete Chavez, is excellent on camera, so it does have a firm foundation, even if not a heck of a lot to build onto it. Given that the whole thing is about boxing, I could switch metaphors and suggest that it's found a good stance already but still needs to learn how to punch. The other catch is that, like the Best Documentary Feature winner, Angel of Nanjing, it comes over more as a promo piece than a documentary. It's certainly a good cause but a film needs more than that.

In fact, while director Jake Lee quickly puts Chavez in front of the camera to explain to us why we're here and why we should care, it takes him three minutes to move on to someone else. The positive side is that Chavez must have run through this spiel many times because he comes across well and quickly covers a lot of ground. He started Chavez Boxing Gym back in 2004 to some decent success, but soon found kids who needed the environment he was providing but couldn't pay for it. He let some in for free but couldn't do the same for everyone he'd like because he was running a business not a charity. Phoenix magazine's article on the gym made the difference, bringing Chavez to the attention of a reader who suggested that he start a non-profit organisation, even bringing in a pro bono lawyer to get him a 501(c)(3) status. Now he runs the Chavez Boxing Foundation too, which helps more kids who need Chavez to mentor them, not only to succeed in the gym and the ring but also in life. It's why we have a movie.
By the five minute mark, when Chavez finally brings up something more than just why he's there, we've only heard from one other person and he isn't as good in front of the camera as he presumably is in the ring. This doesn't bode well for the movie, even if it has to be why we've been focused almost entirely on one speaker, but it's here that things get interesting, as a conflict develops between Chavez on one side, an upstanding citizen who runs a clean gym, lives his life as an example and practices what he preaches, and local gangs on the other, who see him as a threat to their future. Some break into his gym, vandalise his equipment and graffiti death threats on his wall, but Chavez goes looking for them, finding some in a nearby park in Chavez Boxing Gym shirts that they clearly stole from him. He confronts them too, which escalates into a fight, with him presumably outnumbered, though we're never told how many. This is so stereotypical a bad action movie storyline that we're taken rather aback and it's why we keep watching.

Of course, it doesn't end up quite how it would for Van Damme, Rothrock or Lundgren, but that's not the point. The point is that it's refreshing to know that there are actual people like the heroes in outrageous action movies who we enjoy but never consider realistic. Chavez has far too much screen time and that hurts the film's credibility; over the entire running time, there are only two other people who speak to us and both of them are recipients of scholarships from the Chavez Boxing Foundation. The only objectivity comes from a brief news clip and that's not enough. I wish we could have had heard from people in the local community: politicians, neighbouring business owners or even former gang members. The biggest gap is surely the family of Melyssa Gastelum, one of Chavez's boxers who died in an accident and gave her name posthumously to that scholarship fund. Why couldn't Jake Lee find these people? Fortunately, Chavez himself is believably sincere and I hope this flawed film still helps him and his work.

Fighters Move Forward can be watched for free on Vimeo.

Thursday 7 May 2015

The Class Analysis (2014)

Director: Webb Pickersgill
Stars: John Henry Whitaker, Gerald Dewey, Fouad Hajji, Armando DuBon Jr, Doris Morgado, Paul Thomas Arnold and London Kim
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
There's an irony in The Class Analysis following Stolen Afternoon in the Home Grown Shorts selection at this year's Phoenix Film Festival, because the latter was made by Aaron Kes and T J Houle, who took over as program directors at IFP Phoenix from Webb Pickersgill, who directed the former for IFP award-winning filmmaker Jim Politano, who settled for producing this one. Traditionally, Politano's films, like Love Sucks and The Sisters of St Mary's, were poor technically (given that they were made on budgets close to zero with Politano himself as the entire crew) but rich in dialogue and humour. With enough money to make a 'real film' on a 'real budget', as he would put it, he hired Pickersgill and a strong cast of California actors (and Arizona actors who took that one road to Hollywood) to create the hardest hitting short I've seen in quite some time. While it was inspired by true events that anchor it to a very recognisable point in time and space, it extrapolates out easily to any time and any place and will remain timely from here on out.

Technically, we're not where I initially assumed we were after a couple of times through the film. It's just an everyday neighbourhood bar in an unnamed mining town, albeit one with a notably diverse clientele. The man who provides the opening narration, 'Where does nonsense end and wisdom begin?' then walks away from the camera to wait the film out is clearly of Chinese heritage. The barman is a white Vietnam veteran; his doo rag and country music hint at redneck, but his customers are all over the map, as far as class, race and religion. A well-spoken and well-outfitted black businessman chats at the bar with an old friend of Arab descent. Over in a booth, a Hispanic couple chat away in Spanish over food, clearly happy but perhaps also a little worried about the fact that she's very pregnant. And, to stir this melting pot, in walks a big Aryan Brotherhood biker with profanity tattooed on his knuckles and a mighty thirst. When the cast is this diverse, we know there has to be a reason and we know roughly what's coming, right?
Well, we get that but more so. The spark is a nothing moment, as they tend to be, as the barman fails to hear a drinks order from the men at the end of the bar and the businessman's polite but testy reaction is escalated by the biker. Suddenly it's on, with the biker bringing up the first racial slur and the black man hurling the first profanity. Jim Politano's story was adapted to the screen by Ioannis N Skiotes and he has no intention of holding back at all, so it's hardly comfortable viewing. The hatred that rapidly surfaces is equal opportunity; while we might assume the biker is going to be the bad guy and someone else, if not everyone else, is going to be the politically correct good guy, that's far from the case this time out. He's certainly ready and willing for a fight, but the businessman is overly sensitive and just as ready to react. His friend keeps out of it until his religion is brought up and then he's straight into the fight. Everyone is touchy about something, it seems, not least the barman who attempts to break it all up.

The film succeeds for a few reasons. One is that the writing is blistering, leaping around believably from college loans through the Crusades to modern day Bosnia. These characters hurl out whatever comes to mind and the majority of it is as valid on all sides as it is inappropriate to bring up in a bar. The acting is another, because, as much as this is a war of words, we can easily believe it becoming something more. Gerald Dewey, who won Best Actor for the year's IFP challenges for his work in Politano's Flight Fright, is even better here. John Henry Whitaker is note perfect as the biker, successfully avoiding the stereotype of stupidity and violence by infusing his character with intelligence and bitterness both, then letting the latter out slowly and easily like a provocateur who enjoys what he does. Paul Thomas Arnold and Fouad Hajji are just as strong but less obvious in roles that are quieter until, well, they're not. Armando DuBon soon gets his chance to join in and is immediately up to the high standards already set.
If the third reason is the golden oldie country music that wafts through the bar, as innocent as the chatter isn't, the fourth is the first twist, which of course I won't spoil. Suffice it to say that, as I'd seen the picture before and knew where it was going, I paid a lot of attention to the audience. It was clear that the deluge of vehement abuse and profanity had the audience shuffling uncomfortably in their seats, especially one this early in the morning and which included a bunch of kids there to support other films. Yet, almost nine minutes in when the first twist hits, it felt like they didn't just stop shuffling, they stopped breathing too. I don't believe I found a quieter moment during a screening any time during the Phoenix Film Festival. The script is tough and it's wordy but it knows when to shut up and let the background roll over everyone. It's not the only twist but it's the key moment and it's superbly handled. Instead of watching what the actors do, we watch what they don't do and it's even more powerful.

I have to add praise for London Kim, the pilot in Flight Fright, who brings the picture home with suitable gravitas, and the other actors who have less to do but nonetheless do it very well indeed: Doris Morgado and Lino Dumont especially. Fortunately the crew doesn't let the side down either, but they mostly keep a lower profile, succeeding not by thrilling us with their mad skills but by proving what mad skills they have by not making their work stand out above the rest of the production. Most notable were the camerawork of Rich Robles and the editing of director Webb Pickersgill, who was also responsible for the visual effects, but everything is strong. I was surprised when this didn't win for best Arizona short, because it seemed to be the obvious choice. Perhaps the judges, along with the audience, found it a little too disturbing to call out with an award. I'm just happy it played and played well and had people talking afterwards. As many actors happily returned for Flight Fright, Politano's next Hollywood film, his future is clearly a strong one.

Stolen Afternoon (2014)

Director: Aaron Kes
Stars: Mae Broeske, Cord Nash Skvarek, T J Houle and Aaron Kes
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 an official selection at Filmstock 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of all 2014 films.
Given that the Home Grown Shorts set at this year's Phoenix Film Festival was packed full with impactful dramas that ran the gamut of homelessness, racism, terrorism, suicide, debt, addiction, abuse, revenge, murder and a runaway child, it might surprise that it was the two comedies that got the most reaction in a verbal way from the audience. Logan Must Make Star Wars clearly benefitted from being a break in this apparently relentless assault late on in the set, but Stolen Afternoon was second up and its predecessor, Grace of a Stranger, was calm and polite with its impact. Yet it played wonderfully and sold huge. I heard an 'It's funny!' from a young kid way down at the front and an 'Oh my God!' and a 'That's amazing!' from the folk sitting next to me. All those were during the film; there were a bunch more during the credits. It could be seen as an even greater accomplishment because director Aaron Kes made this in a mere 48 hours for the A3F film challenge in 2014, where it won the Audience Favourite.

It's a pretty simple story, as they go. T J Houle, Kes's partner-in-crime at the rival local film challenge, IFP Phoenix, plays the unnamed mother of an unnamed baby daughter. She's clearly highly capable but the phone rings with news that Carla has had a relationship crisis and needs to be picked up from the side of a road. What are friends for? Well, as Carla is the only character in this film to have a name, clearly she's important enough for her to leave her baby daughter behind for a few hours with her similarly unnamed brother, who's staying with them for a while on holiday. The bad news is that the only thing that Brother knows about babies is that his sister has one. He's clearly as prepared for a couple of hours in the smelly company of this cute baby girl as I am for the zombie apocalypse, which is to say not at all. Frankly, we'd call his stunning ineptitude into doubt if Cord Nash Skvarek wasn't so funny at being utterly useless. We don't want to imagine how bad things would have got if only Aaron Kes hadn't shown up to rob them.
And there you have it. What follows is utterly ludicrous, of course, but in the best possible way. We aren't supposed to buy into the situation; we're supposed to buy into how true to life it bizarrely manages to be while still remaining utterly ludicrous. There are hints at further depth here, in both of these men finding help in a strange way, but they're only hints as this aims mostly for the chuckle organs. Each of the four actors is perfectly cast and nails the tone of their characters: the matter of fact Houle, the deadpan Kes, the deer-in-the-headlights Skvarek and, of course, the cute Mae Broeske as the baby who obviously had an absolute blast on the set. At least, she did when she was on camera and that's what matters most to us. I value what Houle and Kes do for IFP Phoenix, but I do wish they'd make more movies. This is a gem, a comedy worthy of repeat viewings and yet it's not even my favourite of the two films Kes has directed. Following my all-time favourite IFP challenge film, La Lucha, was an impossible task, but this is worthy.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Grace of a Stranger (2014)

Director: Alex Thomas
Stars: Jaron Druyon, Jessalyn Carpino, James Hesapis, Clay Johnson and Jennifer Sandoval
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
I first saw Grace of a Stranger at last year's Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival and it immediately found a hold. Watching it afresh at this year's Phoenix Film Festival at the frustrating time of 9.05am, I found that it still played well, even though it felt, at the time, like a surprising choice to kick off the set, given that it runs a deceptively relaxed eighteen minutes. A hour and a half later, I understood why and appreciated the skill with which the Home Grown Shorts set was programmed. Grace of a Stranger worked well as the first half of a pair of bookends with Thrasherland, another human interest journey with a skateboarding connection. It's also a hopeful film, so fits at the beginning or end of a set. That it was inspired by a true story adds a little oomph, even if it was written by an inmate of the Arizona State Prison Complex while a student in the Arizona Prison Creative Writing Workshops. Clearly something else went wrong for Aaron Keel after the events adapted to the screen here finished and, sadly, we're not told what that was.

The story follows two men. Aaron is a homeless man who has 'been in kind of a bad way' but who is now turned around and looking for a stable future. He's finding it tough, as we see when he cleans himself up in a Co-Op restroom and applies for a job; the manager can't even process his application because of the lack of contact details: no phone, no e-mail, no address. Unfortunately, given that the only thing he owns that doesn't fit in his rucksack is the skateboard he uses to get around and that's destroyed by a car after he hits a rock in a parking lot, he needs more than hope to move forward. Eventually he finds Bert at BLX, a skate shop which he co-owns with Zack, his unseen partner, who thinks up all sorts of rad (or bad) ideas when Bert's not there. The contrast in problems is clear and so is the fact that Aaron clearly can't afford a new board and Bert can't afford to hire him. The key moment is when Aaron leaves BLX without the board he clearly thought of stealing and Bert finds him a replacement for free, hence the title.
Aaron Keel is real and his two page short story, Acts of Kindness, first published in Rain Shadow Review, the Prison Creative Writing Workshops’ literary journal, can be read for free online at the film's website. It highlights how much director Troy Hollar, who heard the story read aloud on NPR by Erec Toso, a U of A English professor who also teaches workshops behind bars and set Aaron the task to write a piece about an act of kindness, took a few liberties with that story when adapting it to film with Andrew Newburg. It's actually a better, more nuanced story when stretched out from two pages of prose to an eighteen minute short film and it's brought to life very well indeed. It's the dialogue that sells it best, along with the actors who deliver it. Matt Letscher, who plays Bert, is a very experienced actor who many will recognise from a string of major TV shows, like Scandal, The Carrie Diaries and Boardwalk Empire. The awesomely named Nipper Knapp isn't, but he's also up to the challenge and the two of them nail the dialogue.

Hollar brings in a variety of other details and themes to flesh out the bones of Keel's story, which is brief to the point that it could be described as an anecdote. He establishes Aaron's decency through the street mutt that follows him everywhere; he has nothing but he still feeds the dog. He turns the breaking of the skateboard into an accident rather than an act of karma. He uses jazz as an odd but believable bonding experience for the two men, using a Charlie Parker shirt as the catalyst. And he gives the whole story an ending too, as Aaron can give a little bit back to repay Bert's act of kindness, rather than just change his anger into hope. The film is better for the presence of all these elements, even though they're not part of Keel's original story. Hollar doesn't even really retain the core of the story, which is that kindness trumps anger or positivity beats negativity, instead focusing on the idea that there's always hope, even if it's an unimaginable distance away, which is why I much prefer the film to the story, even if it's not as true.

The Mutable Life of Oscar Clark (2013)

Director: Alex Thomas
Stars: Jaron Druyon, Jessalyn Carpino, James Hesapis, Clay Johnson and Jennifer Sandoval
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
One benefit I've found to watching the selections of Arizona shorts at the Phoenix Film Festival is that I'm able to discover films from further afield than just the Phoenix metropolitan area. While that's the hotbed of Arizona filmmaking, it's no monopoly and there's good and/or interesting work coming out of cities like Tucson and Flagstaff. This short film from the latter, successfully funded on Kickstarter to the degree that director Alex Thomas could pay his actors, is unlike anything else I've seen made in state and it remains refreshing today. In fact, it's both a complete story and a hint at what could be, as this is the only film in this particular Home Grown Shorts set that could easily be expanded into something bigger. There's a lot more life in this idea than what Thomas can give us in the short thirteen minutes that this film runs. Put simply, it tells of a character, the Oscar Clark of the title, who discovers that he's fictional when he meets his creator, who has written herself into his story. I love that idea.

I partly love that idea because I came up with it myself a couple of decades ago and wrote a story called The Sound of Shattering Glass, but it's a very different approach to a man meeting his maker. I didn't tie it to film, for a start, as Thomas does here. His take on the idea neatly creates conflict because films are rarely written by one person, this one being a great example, given that Thomas wrote it in collaboration with Clayton Johnson. While I hope they worked together amicably, that isn't often the case in Hollywood, where writers are hired and fired frequently before a project becomes what the studio execs want it to be. Kingdom of the Sun was a romantic musical comedy that, over six years, gradually transformed into The Emperor's New Groove, a wacky buddy flick, as far from the original as can comfortably be imagined. It's why authors are always very happy for Hollywood to option their books, because they get paid, but often cringe when they actually make the film adaptations, because they invariably aren't what they wrote.
Here, Kathryn Flint has written a touching romance between Oscar Clark and his significant other, Olivia, who does share his surname in the end credits even though he doesn't wear a wedding ring. The studio, on the other hand, turned it into a murder mystery, blowing up Olivia at the beginning of the picture and setting Oscar up for the crime. The two men in black he finds suddenly interrogating him under a sinister light found the C4 in his house, his fingerprints on the detonator and the life insurance policy on his wife. Why did he do it? How does he know? He wasn't involved. Why they're willing to torture him to force him into a confession when they have everything they need, I have no idea, but maybe it's because they're a pair of script doctors hired by the studio to mess with Kathryn's vision. Of all the films in the world, this is the one whose goofs can be most easily forgiven. For her part, Kathryn, unable to let go of her creations, writes herself into the script to save Oscar and Olivia and their relationship.

Alex Thomas calls himself 'a musician before anything else' and that's understandable because we hear his work before we ever see it, the accomplished score impossible to ignore as it's suitably overblown for anything but the Hollywood movie the fictional script doctors are keen to turn this into (there's a touch of genius in ironically casting co-writer Clayton Johnson as one of those script doctors, creating his real film by sabotaging someone else's fictional one). After the score, the effects are most notable, partly because there are so many of them, given that we leap around between location and location, aided by the sort of progressions and transitions we usually see in comic books. The final scene is great fun too and it segues cleverly into end credits that are as in your face as the score. Like other dark comic-infused effects-ridden action movies like, say, Sin City, the acting takes a back seat to the concept but it's decent enough, if not particularly notable. It's the concept that shines brightest and I'd love to see a feature version.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Final Flight (2013)

Director: David Jorgensen
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
I've seen Final Flight a few times now and it's an interesting documentary that throws out some glorious moments late on but also misses a few opportunities. The subject is really the experience of flying, but it focuses in on a World War II veteran called Gene Fowler, who flew bombing raids into Germany in B-17s. An avid flyer from the age of fifteen, he signed up for the US Air Corps when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the Americans decided to join the war. Yet, once it was over and he made it back safely from his 33rd and final flight, he never flew again. The film doesn't really cover why, but the blurb suggests it was due to the trauma of the raids. He appropriately quotes a description of bombing runs as 'hours and hours of boredom interrupted by seconds of sheer terror.' Maybe he'd experienced enough sheer terror, especially with flights like the one where he kept losing engines on the way back and eventually landed his Flying Fortress in the English Channel in the shadow of the White Cliffs of Dover.

But, while his last bombing run constituted his final flight for an amazing 65 years, this 91 year old pilot is given a new final flight, albeit as a passenger in the back of a two seater based at Deer Valley Airport outside Phoenix, AZ. Before that happens, David Jorgensen, who may have been the entire crew on this film, sets us up for it. He switches us between a variety of different angles to flying, thus keeping a focus on the activity itself rather than any one particular aspect of it. We hear from modern day civilian pilots based out of Deer Valley, like Tom Johnson and Mike Pfleger of the Warbird Division of the Experimental Aircraft Association, who have picked up a formation flying bug from the military folk and explain how it works. We hear from Fowler, talking about his war experience and thus bringing a much darker aspect to flying. We see a lot of supporting material: personal photos, maps and stock footage obtained from the National Archives. And eventually we get to where we've always been going: Fowler back in the sky.
All this has been interesting but it's around the ten minute mark when we start to move towards special. We start to notice the score building, we watch Fowler strap into the back of a plane and his words begin to move away from his down to Earth, no-nonsense personality to a more abstract form. He quotes John Magee's famous poem, High Flight, appropriately for a few reasons. Magee was another American pilot who served during the war; a year younger than Fowler, he joined the fight early and died in the air just three days after the US declared war on Japan, so almost exactly when Fowler signed up. He wrote High Flight when doing high altitude tests in a new Spitfire, an experimental military bird like those flown in this film, and he described his feelings as he put out his hand 'and touched the face of God'. Fowler has particular closeness to those words, describing them as exactly what he feels about flying. He obviously means that too, which adds poignancy to his decision not to do so again for 65 years.

Those words also feel highly appropriate as the film takes flight and we see something of why they were written. The choice to include at this point a clichéd song like Walking in the Air could easily have broken the film, especially as it's Stephen van Dyck singing rather than Aled Jones, but it works. It's appropriate and it takes away all the words, memories and explanations, replacing them entirely with visuals. All the footage here is capable, as we see landscapes and skyscapes and follow a set of planes dancing through them. Frankly though, all the editing between shots at this point could have been safely ditched to show only the footage of Fowler taken with a rear-facing camera. This entire picture can be boiled down as far as the expressions on his face as the plane in which he's riding rolls, spins and glides and he touches the face of God one more time on his new final flight. As strong as this film is, showing anything but that for the last five minutes still feels like a missed opportunity as, really, it's all that matters.

A Day on Bleaker Street (2013)

Director: Bill Wetherill
Stars: Raymond Scott, Jane Fendelman, Colleen Hartnett and Seth Gandrud
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in the 2012-3 season. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012-3 submissions.
I'd wanted to watch A Day on Bleaker Street again for a long time. I saw it at the Phoenix Art Museum in April 2013 when it competed as part of the IFP Breakout Challenge, but was disappointed. At that time, I felt like the audience was being manipulated: set up to believe one thing after another, only to find them all false assumptions. However, the very last shot explained the point of it all, to highlight the old saying that 'the grass is always greener' and point out that whoever is on the other side of the fence might just believe exactly the same thing in return and for as excellent a reason. I knew that I needed to watch the film again with that knowledge, so that I could see it with fresh eyes. Fortunately, while the film lost out to Mission Control and The Face of Innocence for Best Picture, taking home only the Best Actor award for Seth Gandrud, it proved to have legs, playing a number of local festivals and being accepted on its own merits to the Phoenix Film Festival, where I finally got my repeat viewing and enjoyed it much more.

Three of the four cast members are multi-award winning names in the local film scene, so it comes as no surprise that they all provide strong performances here. The fourth is Raymond Scott, who quickly proves as the first person we see that he's up to acting alongside them. We're given no names, but IMDb tells us that he's Jim Morris and he's married to Marlene, probably for many years. Their body language suggests that life isn't going swimmingly, even if they have the traditional house in the suburbs. He doesn't want to get out of bed and clearly needs that splash of water to wake him up fully. He walks with some care as he goes through the morning routine. When his wife joins him, in the welcome form of Jane Fendelman, they only converse in sparse banalities and don't look at each other when they do. There's no physical contact between them whatsoever, so it ought to be safe to assume that they're only going through the motions. Then, as he takes a hose to the front garden, he sees what they used to be.
He sees this in the couple opposite, Anthony and Elise Colletta, who are also emerging from their house to face the morning. She's in a skimpy black slip that isn't hidden at all by her short and elegant gown and she's supping orange juice (or perhaps more) from a wine glass. He's hauling his golf clubs over to his Mustang. They're pretty young things, appropriately played by Colleen Hartnett and Seth Gandrud, who made it this far early on and have their whole lives in front of them. Jim can't help but feel that this insight is a reminder that he's getting old, his wife is getting old and their lives are mostly behind them now. Bleak Street may be a row over, but this is Bleaker Street and it's moments like this that echo that name to Jim. Of course, there's a lot more to this story and we discover that later when Anthony comes home to Elise. That section is shot very loosely, with handheld camera and jagged editing, at least until Elise passes out and the ripples in the piano we hear finally transition from stirring to soothing.

Looking back to that original IFP Breakout screening, I wasn't merely not seeing the point of the film until it was firmly presented, I was seeing the suggestion of a bunch of other red herrings which, for the most part, aren't really there. I must have brought some outside baggage into the screening that day, keeping pointers in my brain from whatever I had been watching earlier or just making inappropriate judgements on the fly about what I was seeing. Watching afresh, it's lot simpler and more focused than I recall and I wonder why I had problems reading it properly. Certainly there's a lot more to the stories of the Morrises and the Collettas, but this isn't that film; it's merely a reminder that, like my own personal experience of this picture, what we see isn't necessarily what's there. Bill Wetherill wrote, produced and directed and deserves much credit for doing so, as do Devin Berko for his camerawork and editing and Shari K Green for her script supervision. This one has legs for a good reason; I'll be seeing it again, I'm sure.

Monday 4 May 2015

Perorities (2013)

Director: Colleen Hartnett
Stars: Dakota DuVall, Stacie Stocker and Michael Hanelin
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
Most of the shorts made at Running Wild Films used to be directed by Travis Mills, with most of the rest by the production company's co-founder, Gus Edwards. In 2013, however, a whole slew of other folk came on board to take their turn in the director's chair, a bunch of whom only had experience on the other side of the camera. A few of these films stand out in hindsight for various reasons: Michael Coleman's I Don't Even Know Your Name was an IFP challenge film that won Honda King a much deserved end-of-year Best Actress award; The MacGruffin and Foster, You're Dead set the stage for Kyle Gerkin's notable career as a director, which with the feature, Seven Hours in Heaven, has now eclipsed his acting; and Perorities from Collen Hartnett, which became the first Running Wild short to be selected for a major film festival. It's far from the best thing that the company has ever done and it starts off on shaky ground, but it ends up as one of the most fun little films I've grinned my way through.

Much of that is due to Dakota DuVall, a scenestealing little boy whose lack of technical skill is more than made up for by his infectious personality, his amazing grin and his knack of pulling exactly the right face at exactly the right moment. He plays Sammy, a precocious child clearly enjoying the stuffing out of life even though he's suffering from a medical condition that is never named and never explained. It merely means that his mother, Celia, has to take days off work at the drop of a hat to take care of him, which, of course, puts a strain on her as a single mother and precludes her from having a love life. As she explains to Elizabeth on the phone, as she tries to set Celia up with David Walker from work: 'I don't have time to go on dates. I have Sammy.' He's her priority, so her private e-mail address is going to stay private. Celia is portrayed by Stacie Stocker, an experienced Running Wild hand who is as excellent here as usual, but she's up against a dynamo of a co-star who steals every shared scene from her.
Thus far it's been a little clunky. There's an imbalance in the sound between Stocker and DuVall in the first scene, which is annoying. There's an awkward shot that exists only to establish Celia's obvious worry and it feels out of place. Even the camera isn't as stable as it ought to have been. Yet, it's about to really kick in because Celia's conversation with Elizabeth is only the setup and now Sammy's about to exercise mad skills to make that potential date with David Walker from work happen. The cinematic trick that follows is an absolute blast and it's one that can't fail to elicit a grin from every audience member that's as huge as Dakota DuVall's. It's the funniest thing I've ever seen Stacie Stocker do and she absolutely nails it. As the potential love interest, Michael Hanelin proves yet again why he needs to do more comedy; it's a lot more sedate than what he got up to in The Test Case, but he's fun being PG nonetheless. Their dialogue is also well crafted, with some clever choices of words that mean different things to different ages.

There's a quote from a Frank Sinatra song at the end of the credits that doesn't really apply to the story but does to the tone: 'Fairy tales can come true; it can happen to you if you're young at heart.' This does have its share of technical issues but it gets better and the joy that arrives when Sammy gets sneaky is a technical issue trumping sort of joy that stems equally from DuVall's voice, Stocker's acting and the script by Hartnett, who wrote and directed solo and produced and edited with Mills. While this was the first film she directed, it wasn't the last as she co-directed an IFP submission last year called And Then There Were Monsters and she's continued to rack up odd crew credits. However, unlike Gerkin, she's mostly remained in front of the camera, where she continues to shine, even if tears and red wine are not required props. It feels odd to watch a Hartnett picture that doesn't feature her on screen, but if she comes up with another odd idea like this one, I hope she takes another shot in the director's chair.

De' Lune (2013)

Director: Austin Moede
Stars: Nathan Rehm and Michelle Irei
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
I couldn't help but like De' Lune, even if its ambition surely exceeds its merit. It seems to follow Matthew Stiengrad, a young and dedicated pianist whose overt musical talent compensates for an apparent lack of social skills. When he has a keyboard in front of him, he immerses himself in his playing to the point of losing himself; when he doesn't, like his periodic trips to a quiet bench in the park, his eyes are shut and his fingers are moving just as if he was indeed back in front of those eighty-eight keys. And even though we follow Matthew to find a girl, or rather for the girl to find him, this really isn't about him at all. It's not about her either, a girl called Claire who enjoyed a piano recital he recently gave at the local community college and has a whole bundle of astute questions to ask him. It's all about the music, which makes it a simple but effective piece that merely doesn't go where we might expect it to go. Sure, it could be called drama and the sequel could be a romance, but really this is just an exploration of music.

And here's where it shines. The acting is clearly not the film's strongest point, with Nathan Rehm maybe a little stiffer than he should be as a distracted pianist and Michelle Irei decent vocally but unable to stop grinning her way through the film. To steal one of Matthew's key lines of dialogue: 'It's not about them.' It's all about the music and how it has the power to stimulate our brains into generating connections that transport us. Austin Moede, the writer and director, takes us along with Matthew to a set of these places in montages that are well done and would have been visually striking if only Vermillion hadn't played a single film earlier on in the very same set. Even Kitchen Sink Films can't send their drone up far enough to capture the majesty of creation in the form of stars gliding through the cosmos. Claire asks Matthew, 'What goes on when you play?' This film goes a little way into visualising the answer. It's merely a brief snapshot rather than an exhaustive answer, but it's a fun enough few minutes while it runs.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Vermillion (2013)

Director: Doug Bell
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
Surely the most beautifully crafted piece of video to come out of Arizona or pretty much anywhere else, Vermillion is certainly a whole lot of things. What it isn't is clear: it's not a story, however much the soft tones of Tim Stansell suggest that it will be in the opening narration. What it is is less clear, because it's so many different things at once that it's hard to figure out its primary reason for existing. It's a freeform piece of poetry, mixing the words of director Doug Bell with the startling visuals of Lee's Ferry, where the Colorado River separates Arizona and Utah. It's a test run of equipment, an exercise in composition and editing and a demo reel of technique: time lapse photography and slomo so slow that it can capture the wings of a hummingbird in flight, macro images and long shots so wide that it feels like they haul us into the frame, underwater and aerial footage, silhouettes and lens flare. You name it, it's here, to collate the appropriately named Kitchen Sink Studios collection of images of the architecture of man and of nature.

It's constructed with care all the way to the typography of the end credits and the title screen, composed with custom fonts created in house. The former contain admirable texture and the latter is less like a title card and more like the label of a whiskey bottle, emphasised by having it overlay what is probably river water in motion. This care is constant, every shot framed like a print advert; maybe the film isn't a single story but a hundred of them, one for every shot, the sort of distillations of emotion that we expect to see in TV commercials. I certainly wondered throughout what would find centre stage at the end: the Arizona flag, a bottle of Bud or a Detroit-built penis extension. In the end, it doesn't hawk anything except the expertise of Kitchen Sink Studios which, on the strength of these eight and a half minutes, ought to be in serious demand from companies with deep pockets. Film festivals usually program films that either tell a fictional story or document a real one. This is a rare exception, hard to categorise but easy on the eyes.
And while the visuals will stay with viewers the most, adding the stunning vistas of Glen Canyon to their holiday list, this isn't just eye candy. Sure, every shot is strong and some are truly stunning, like the trout fisherman in silhouette casting into the shimmer of the Colorado River, the mountain goat dancing up a crazy gradient or the drone soaring over the heads of the filmmakers to leap over a precipice, but there's more to making a film than pointing a camera, however capably pointed it happens to be. The score is a well chosen set of three supportive pieces of music, the free poetry in narration adds to the pastoral feel and the editing is superlative. Doug Bell and Brandon Barnard are responsible for the latter, which plays fast early on to ensure that we devour this as impressions, slower as it settles and eventually cuts to the escalating beat superbly. It's hard to imagine a better demo reel than this, but its impressionistic nature means that all its details are quickly forgotten. Unless you fly fish; then this might the best film ever.

Vermillion can be watched for free on Vimeo.

Terminus (2014)

Director: Angel Ruiz
Stars: Angel Ruiz, Michelle Palermo and Carrie Fee
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
As soon as the Home Grown Shorts set finished at last year's Phoenix Film Festival, I sought out the man behind Terminus, Angel Ruiz, to seek his permission to screen it myself. Happily he allowed me to screen it at a couple of film festivals I ran at local conventions and it played well each time. That isn't to say that it's a perfect piece because it isn't and its flaws seem to add up each time I see the film, but none are of any real importance beyond the slightly metallic sound that mars some of the earlier scenes a little. The rest are merely details, down to my realisation on my latest time through that Ruiz must have changed a minor script element between producing his props and shooting his film, so that the closer we watch, the more little details stand out as wrong. The sweep of it is solid though, as are a few different bookends to keep us on our toes, and it remains more accessible and more accomplished than Interceptor, his film in the previous year's festival. Of course, neither are on IMDb, as Ruiz is apparently allergic to credits.

Terminus begins all sweetness and light, with a faux commercial for the company of the title, which bills itself as a people placement service. The recognisable faces of Michelle Palermo and Carrie Fee, with the new one to me of Joran Bean, hawk a company which guarantees results. Then the title card arrives in an ominous red on black with an even more ominous horror tone to highlight that this is a dark story and we need to watch carefully to figure out what's really going on. The title helps that too, as does the fact that the receptionist at Terminus is Glona, the example girl in the commercial who was placed 'in a prestigious company with locations around the world'. Yeah, the one she's advertising! So, as the soft jazz and exotic fish settle us at Terminus HQ, in comes David Keppler in the form of Angel Ruiz himself, straightening his tie before his eight o'clock with the CEO of the company, Diana Silver. Quite why he warrants the CEO for his evaluation, I have no idea; that's one of those odd details that stands out with repeat viewings.
This evaluation is the heart of the story. Silver, calm and professional to the degree that every line feels like it's crafted for another commercial, has him go through three tests. He's confident and flirtacious as he begins, but things soon change and we start to discover the darkness that the title card promised. It ends very well indeed, with a few quick twists that may seem obvious on a repeat viewing but aren't on the first time through; they're all telegraphed but not to the degree that we necessarily know how they will manifest themselves. My biggest problem initially lay in my being a trained touch typist so the third test was a gimme for me, so detracting from one of the twists. I presume it would also have been for the David Keppler who's detailed on the resume on Silver's desk, prompting him to change from a software engineer with a degree to a high school grad with an industrial background. Maybe the former would be more appropriate for a meeting with the CEO. Multiple viewings can be a benefit or a curse...

The acting is solid, though a few lines should have been retaken early on. Ruiz wrote the film entirely so he could hurl profanity at Michelle Palermo on screen and, as always, he's strong in the tougher scenes. He does well in quieter ones here too, mixing well an overt cockiness with a little subtle self-doubt. Ruiz gives himself the story arc, so Palermo has to delve into her character. She gets to drop a lot of hints as to where the story is going and we realise that even if we don't grasp her meanings, so we pay her a lot of attention. The film is worth watching twice just to see her character from the new perspective that the first viewing gives us. Carrie Fee gets little to do except smile a lot as Glona, but she does get to end the film by thrusting her breasts at the camera (completely safe for work, folks). The story trumps the acting though, as the point is to put us in the same seat as Keppler to try to puzzle through what's going on. It's a successful and memorable piece on that front, even if you happen to be a touch typist.

Saturday 2 May 2015

The House on Pine Street (2015)

Directors: Aaron and Austin Keeling
Stars: Emily Goss, Taylor Bottles, Cathy Barnett, Jim Korinke, Natalie Pellegrini and Tisha Swart-Entwistle
This film was an official selection at the 11th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
The buzz was strong for The House on Pine Street and the screening I attended at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival was sold out. It had premiered in February at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, where the San Jose Mercury News called it out as one of the '6 Films You Need to See' from a schedule of two hundred from over fifty countries. Yet, while there are certainly a lot of positive aspects to the movie, especially given that it was made by a pair of recent film school graduates, Aaron and Austin, the Keeling brothers, there are also a lot of negative aspects that challenged my ability to like the film. While the end credits rolled, I found myself puzzling over certain scriptmaking decisions that broke what the film should have been. Most notably, while the Keelings had a strong and innovative idea to bring to bear, they were unable to really integrate it into their script, making the last third of the picture feel like a cheat and the ending much too drawn out. It should have finished twenty or thirty minutes earlier.

The idea is the strongest aspect, backed up by an excellent cast and some very capable crew, but it's not anything I can elaborate on without providing spoilers. Let's highlight instead that the Keelings are clearly idea filmmakers, with the synopsis of a previous film, Modern Ruins, not only intriguing on its own merits but surely influential on the evolution on this, their debut feature. It's a half hour short revolving around a young lady who struggles to stay sane at a friend's party while being followed by a camera crew that only she can see. That sounds like a surrealistic take on this feature, the sort of thing that Luis Buñuel ought to find interesting if he were still alive today, as this is a claustrophobic tale of another young lady who may also be less than sane and who also finds herself effectively trapped both in a potentially haunted house, into which she's just moved, and in the time honoured position of mother, as she's heavily pregnant. The strained relationship between her and her own mother may well be the key to the whole thing.

The young lady here is Jennifer and her husband is Luke. They're from Chicago, in which Jenny would love to still be living, but they're being set up in a house back in Kansas by her mother, Meredith. Jenny resists from the outset but doesn't appear to have much say in the matter, not least because Meredith isn't the sort of person anyone can say no to and make it stick, but also because she had a history in Chicago that is probably best left behind. The suggestion early on is that she had mental problems that affected more than merely herself and details provided later in the film emphasise that. So she's stuck in Kansas, close to mum and with Luke eager to help but reluctant to listen. That's an excellent setup for a haunted house film, which is what this quickly becomes, because Jenny is, of course, the only one who sees things, hears things or encounters things, most of which fall into the usual categories: mysterious knocks that can't be traced to a source, doors that open on their own and things that move about inexplicably.
Emily Goss is a powerful lead, gifted with most screen time by far and able to make it work. I bought into the emotions that raged around and within Jenny, especially because Cathy Barnett is just as outstanding as her mother, Meredith. I was shocked to discover that this picture is only Barnett's second IMDb credit, a full nine years after her first, in which she played the stepmother of the title character in Raising Jeffrey Dahmer, as she carried her part like a former star moving into character roles and demonstrating her true talent. For all that Aaron and Austin Keeling, who wrote, produced and directed the film, are brothers, this is a very female-oriented film, suggesting that their co-writer, Natalie Jones, had a substantial amount of input into the script. Men get very little screen time and, when they do, they don't get much to do with it. When one finally shows up in the script and the house with potential, he's exposed as a charlatan. That a man gets to expound the central idea at the end is somewhat offensive and certainly not appreciated.

While Jenny, and everyone else in the film, is American, I felt that she was portrayed with a great deal of European flavour, not only through her character but in how she's treated by the camera. It's an original story, but it would be believable to read it as an American remake of a French film; that's how focused it is on women and the depths of their characters. Even as what can only be described as the victim of the piece, the lead character who is tormented by the house which she can't escape and ignored by anyone to whom she attempts to relate this, Jenny is still a strong woman fully capable of strong acts. Of course, her manipulative mother is just as strong, which is neatly ironic, given where this really goes in the end. This is a power struggle as much as anything else, merely manifested in supernatural ways, and there's enough depth to explore to provide the basis of a worthy thesis. It's surprising for this to show up in an American horror movie and I doff my hat in respect to the Keelings for making it happen.

The unfortunate flipside to all this oestrogen-drenched suspense is that the men are almost worthless in this picture. Taylor Bottles is perfectly capable as Luke and Jim Korinke does a solid job as Walter Vance, a friend of Meredith's whose self-proclaimed paranormal abilities suggest that he's that one male character with potential, but neither of them really get much to do. Luke, in particular, is written very strangely. He feels like a plot twist always ready to happen but which never does. Sure, he's obviously stuck between a rock and a hard place, but that doesn't excuse many of his actions. If anything, he feels more out of place in Jenny's story than the potential ghosts haunting his house. Compared to Meredith's terminal bitchiness and Jenny's frustration, it's often hard to focus in on the fact that he's even in some of these scenes. He could easily have been cut entirely or reduced to a mere egg donor for a lesbian Jenny and an imaginary girlfriend. That would have made more sense in the bigger scheme of things.
The biggest changes needed are certainly to the last third of the film, which arguably should have been cut too. For the entire running time, we're presented with a situation and asked to fathom whether it's all really happening or whether it's just in the broken mind of its lead character. Both angles are built well, through clever construction of tension by the Keelings (Aaron also edited), strong cinematography from Juan Sebastian Baron and a decent score by Nathan Matthew David and Jeremy Lamb. Everything would have worked much better if we had been left to figure out which we favour, internally as the end credits rolled and verbally with fellow patrons after the screening. There's even a single shot, perhaps twenty or thirty minutes from the end, that would have served as the perfect point to finish. However, it carries on regardless for a protracted finalé that includes an explanation delivered out of nowhere (that isn't either of the two angles we're weighing) and a set of small endings that only serve to diminish the film.

I have to congratulate Aaron and Austin Keeling for putting together and completing an indie feature film in the US that had so much potential to do something different. For all the layers of haunted house cliché we wade through, this is never a conventional haunted house story. In fact, truth be told, it's not really a horror movie at all, more of a drama that wears horror clothing for effect. The first apparition, that shows up tellingly right after the housewarming party that Meredith springs on her daughter, apparently out of spite, is superbly handled; no wonder Walter says that the house has an interesting energy! The addition of a neighbour, Marlene, who drinks when talking about the house, brings welcome cookies but won't set foot inside and who has a pair of daughters with selective mutism, adds magnificently to the freaky feel. There's so much effectively set into motion that I can't help but look forward to the Keelings' next movie, because there's greatness in them. They just need the experience to know what they have.

And, for all that they do so many things right here, it's that lack of experience that wins out in the end. I was caught up in their ride for a long while, but they couldn't bring it home and, in trying to add more to the film, they only managed to throw a lot of it away. What they should have thrown away was twenty or thirty minutes of footage and ended the film that much sooner. This could have become worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as other challenging genre explorations of the female psyche like Wound, The Babadook or, most closely, House of Good and Evil, but in the end it falls apart on itself. People have told me in the past that reviews of mine that I felt were negative inspired them to go and see those films rather than avoid them. I can imagine this one being another such review, so I should end it with a note of caution. I'd recommend that, if you find this review intriguing, you seek out The House on Pine Street, but leave or switch it off when there's a body on the lawn. It'll play so much better that way.