(Welcome to the soft launch of the successor to my FILM GUINEA PIG site. Check back often as I polish things up...)

Saturday, 22 July 2017

MAUDIE (2016)

Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins = Great Performances

So the story goes like this ... Racked with rheumatoid arthritis that affects her gait, Nova Scotia born and raised Maud (Sally Hawkins) discovers her asshole brother has sold the property of their deceased mom - the fink needs some of the cash to pay off their control freak of an aunt to look after the sibling he prefers to ignore. Devastated that she's not heading back to the one abode she considered a home, Maud (kinda) rebels; first by dancing solo at a local jazz club in the wee hours, and then by announcing that she is taking a powder on Aunt Ida's hospitality. Fate strikes as she finds herself in a local store just as grumpy illiterate fishmonger Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) arrives to whine his way into convincing the proprietor to write up an ad for a housekeeper. Maud answers the call, arriving at Lewis' no-frills shack of a domicile to a cold reception and a mountain of nit-picking doubts from her potential employer ... but you know he's going to eventually cave. Unfortunately, not all of Everett's criticisms of Maud's lack of attention to chores are expressed solely through words (the one such outburst shown in this telling of their story is difficult enough to sit through); nonetheless, an unconventional romance develops, leading to marriage. Everett has no use for the cheerful paintings of plants and animals Maud creates to decorate the cottage walls but a New York socialite staying in town commissions some work, which leads to fame (and a bit of coin), which leads to the insecure husband trying to keep his fragile ego in check for as long as possible ... which turns out to be not long at all. But even with all of their falling outs, Everett helps Maud learn the truth regarding an explosive situation from her past.

In my books the name SALLY HAWKINS on the credits creates an expectation of a performance that should not disappoint. No change here. You may have heard some Oscar buzz surrounding this gig and it is well deserved. She seems a natural to take on her role; what is particularly interesting (and highly impressive) is how Hawke manages to keep pace. In my books the guy is a little too Handsome-Hollywood-Leading-Man(ish) to have been an obvious casting choice for the role of husband Lewis - that's driven home by a brief clip at the end showing the real Maud and Everett from the CBC documentary alluded to in this movie. Nonetheless, eye-candy Ethan delivers the goods when it comes to conveying Everett's uglier internal moments. Put a star next to this performance on Hawke's curriculum vitae.

The cinematography displays several Left Coast scenery-so-crisp-and-beautiful-you-can-practically-smell-it moments (aside: Newfoundland actually stood in for Nova Scotia - follow them tax credits, ya all!). The pacing of the film is, for the most part, appropriate, although the threats of separation between the not always happy couple provides for some tedious junctures. While the storytelling is conventional in approach, director Aisling Walsh seems to sense that Sherry White's script would be well-served by hanging the narrative on the strong shoulders of the two leads and leaving it at that. Smart choice.

This film deserves a hug for ...

- standout performances.

- beautiful cinematography.

- a moving tale told without sappiness.

Friday, 21 July 2017

No hugs for BELLFLOWER

Thursday, 20 July 2017


(Another blast from the past review from the oldie blog, as posted on 28/05/2014. These days you can also locate the film for download/streaming on Amazon, iTunes and Vimeo.)

The film:
Tentacle 8 (2014)

The under-the-radar factor:
A first-feature by John Chi, the film's exposure has basically come through its dvd release in early 2014.

The review:

I adored the American paranoia films of the 1970's. Give me a night with Gene Hackman trying so hard to figure out what they're really saying in the distance in The Conversation. Let's see if Max Von Sydow is going to blow away Robert Redford this time...or if Cliff Robertson will be the real sell-out in Three Days of the Condor. And I want to watch John Huston go through that flag one more time in Winter Kills.

By way of lighter-weight, lower budget contemporary offerings in this sub-genre comes Tentacle 8, a film that succeeds more through atmosphere than by making any sense...which I found contributed greatly to the atmosphere. Getting confused? Good...now you'll be in the right frame of mind in which to regard this movie.

It's not enough we have the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA to worry about - turns out there is a covert group called Tentacle 8 that may be behind the mother of all computer viruses that has wiped out records across the intelligence community. The man who may represent the likely problems and possible solutions with said virus - and the ability or inability for anyone to retrieve the information that has gone AWOL - is Ray Berry (Brett Rickaby), code breaker par excellence. When we first meet him, Ray has slumbered into bed with the clock reading 4:45. After a quick fade-to-black, the digital clock face is shown flashing "12:00" - there has been a blackout in power, time... and information.

The gap in facts continues and the so-called plot jumps around considerably. Ray finds himself apprehended and placed in confinement, where he's beaten to a pulp by some soldiers, but befriended by another, who helps to spring him. He falls for a jet-setting CIA agent (Amy Motta) who may indeed love him but who is also working behind Ray's back with those trying to track down the Tentacle 8 elements. A chap disguised as a homeless person may be leading Ray towards danger...or answers. A guy named Mitchell may be pulling most of the strings behind the scenes...but may not be able to get out of the ambiguous mess he's helped to create. Mystery builds upon mystery; one part of the puzzle appears as others slip out. Ray's ethical stances are a problem for some and a tool for others. There are references that go back to that horrible day in Dallas and the other one in NYC decades later. The tale goes nowhere and everywhere.

There are shortcomings in Tentacle 8 that would annoy anyone. The film is just tooooooo long! Especially hard to sit through are the drawn-out, stilted lovey-dovey banter scenes between Rickaby and Motta, with clumsy dialogue contributing to their stiff deliveries and absence of chemistry. And throughout much of the film Rickaby's performance comes across as somewhat robotic and non-emotive; for a guy who has had the crap beaten out of him and who has a number of lives placed in his hands there seems to be a little too much "oh, well" in his attitude.

There are other elements that the same folks would have to concede are undeniably strong points of the film. The production values are crisp and never less than professional, helping the movie transcend its modest budget. The supporting players - that is, the performers representing the various members of the intelligence community trying to sort out the mess and the few who have a real idea of what has transpired - are well cast and help contribute to the dry but convincing sense of political intrigue. Max Blomgren's score is effective in the dramatic scenes (but unnecessarily sappy in the Rickaby/Motta hook-ups).

Then there are the issues that particular audience members will be bothered by, but for others...not so much. The lack of a coherent storyline and dearth of elements that allow a viewer to surmise "well, this led to that and, therefore, the other thing happened..." - if that's you cup of tea in enjoying a film, you'll definitely be left thirsty by this baby.

But as much as some may think writer Chi has copped out in the script and created scenarios without plausibility or, at least, due explanation...as much as many will scream "baloney", others (see my hand up in the air? It is!) will be wrapped up and intrigued by the ambiguities. Perhaps that goes a long ways to explaining our world outlooks but many of us who buy into the notions that this planet doesn't lend itself to making itself understood and that even those who seem to be in charge are often clueless about what's really going on will want to hop on for this ride.

It's largely a forest vs. the trees/feeling vs. thinking division. If you demand that everything you come across in Tentacle 8 deserves an explanation, then you'll hate this film. If you're willing to have the whole package deliver the paranoia perception through how you felt about what you experienced, then you may get as much a charge out of this as I did.

Sunday, 9 July 2017


(Thanks to Criterion for bringing attention to what had been an underappreciated gem from Billy Wilder. This is my original review from 03/11/2013 as it appeared on ye old blog.)

The Film:
Ace in the Hole (1951)

When one thinks of the cinema of Billy Wilder, several titles jump to the tip of the tongue: The ApartmentSunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Stalag 17...

Less well-known (and not as appreciated at the time it was released) was Ace in the Hole. Thanks to Randy Roberts for suggesting it when the question of neglected quality films was raised on the Film Guinea Pig Twitter account.
The review:

In early 1925 cave explorer Floyd Collins found himself trapped in a crawlway in a Kentucky shaft. He died 18 days later before rescuers could reach him but his ordeal created a sensation as newspapers and the still infant media of radio covered his situation around the clock. His was, after all, a "human interest story".

The true story of Collins is on the mind of Wilder's fictional Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) when an opportunity arises that may present the latter's meal ticket out of the boonies of the journalism world. Tatum arrived a year earlier in Albuquerque (a far less interesting version than Walter White's) after being fired by all the big city rags to the north. Chuck, who inhales story telling excitement with the same gusto as when tipping back the bottle, is professionally suffocating in Hicksville. He can pay the bills but he's really waiting for a headline grabbing tale that will reestablish his career. His boss almost mockingly sends him and a photographer to cover a mundane out of town rattlesnake hunt.

Along the way they come across a rural diner/gas station whose owner Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has been caught inside an abandoned mine shaft after a rockslide. Leo's wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) doesn't seem too involved with her hubby's situation until the wheels start turning in Chuck's head. Citing the coverage surrounding the Collins affair, Tatum muscles in and takes over the "rescue" of poor Leo. Despite being initially disliked (for good reason) by all who meet him, Lorraine, the local sheriff, the attending doctor, and the rescue engineer all find self-serving reasons for going along with the reporter's plan. Convinced Minosa can survive for at least a week, they opt for a more time-consuming drilling procedure. The rescue will take days instead of hours, allowing Chuck to stretch out the "human interest story"  he is selling to the wire services. The locale becomes a tourist and media circus in no time and everyone, except poor (and now slowly dying) Leo, rake in the monetary and publicity benefits. But, in the end....well, you know what they say about the best laid plans, right?

Some have suggested that if Ace in the Hole were being remade today, the film would have concluded with Chuck Tatum becoming an astounding success, retailing "news" stories as he saw fit for the political right...or  left...or whatever made a splash. Perhaps the audiences in 1951 just saw this satirical dramedy as being too over the top, too cynical, even for Wilder. Or perhaps things just struck too close to the bone. If art, by some definitions, makes the not-so-obvious into something obvious, Ace in the Hole made the obvious too unending, too multifaceted, too much of a mirror being held up to almost everyone's face. (European sensibilities were struck a little differently - the film won the International Prize at the Venice Film Festival.)

Today, we can just look at this movie and wonder why more of our contemporary filmmakers don't display the true brashness of Wilder (who, btw, was himself a journalist in a previous life). Some directors are  graphic in depicting what people do - Wilder goes beyond the skin's surface in showing the opportunistic and gawking, rubber-necking nature in all of us.

The fact that a movie with an almost total absence of likeable characters can keep the viewer riveted to the end is a testament to the strength of the execution of the material. Douglas slices the ham thick (as per usual) but is never less than fascinating in a role which leaves you shaking your head at the character's audacity, while in awe of his ringleader skills in running the human circus before your eyes. How he "befriends" the trapped man and still manages to look him in the eye is something to behold. And how he doesn't really have to twist arms to have others come around to his way of thinking is eery but sadly convincing.

Safe to say my enthusiasm for Ace In The Hole has come across here. This film was a wine that may have been opened before it's time but how amazingly (and fittingly) it has aged.

I say this film tastes - EXCITING.

Friday, 7 July 2017


(It's truly a pleasure to once again bring attention to this perseverance-pays-off gem by the Butler Brothers, featuring a power-packed performance by Robert Nolan. Since the original review appeared (17/09/2014), the film has been made available on VOD/download via iTunes, VHX and Vimeo.)

The film:
Mourning Has Broken (2013)

The under-the-radar factor:
This film, written and directed by the brother team of Brett and Jason Butler, is one of five financed with a $1,000 grant from an initiative put out by independent filmmaker Ingrid Veninger. It has made festival appearances (winning awards), had a week long run at a Toronto theatre and is slated for a VOD release in 2015.

The review:

The song "Morning Has Broken" holds a special place in the hearts of my wife and I. This Christian hymn (better known to many from the version put out by Cat "You Can Call Me Yusuf Now" Stevens) was played at the beginning of our wedding ceremony. So, I was certainly able to take a trip down memory lane with a recent screening of the micro-budget dark comedy Mourning Has Broken (clever play on words), where the song is given no less than six different versions/interpretations on the soundtrack.

Nice...but not the only nice thing about this spunky effort.

A character known simply as "Husband" awakens one morning to feed his cat a gourmet meal before heading back to bed and to his wife, who, as it turns out...is dead. The plethora of medication on the side table clearly indicates the woman was not well and her passing far from a surprise. Still, the loss is a shock and her husband doesn't seem able to cope with her departure. Putting his best face on and pretending that it can be "just another day", the widower finds the "to-do" list his spouse had made up and sets about to accomplish each of the tasks that would have been expected of him.

The problem is, "Husband" is about to encounter a multitude of assholes in the world outside on what has already started out as the saddest day of his life. His bully neighbour insists on coaching him on how to wash his car. The clerk at a clothing outlet won't allow him to return an unsuitable garment bought for his wife. Fellow motorists are either driving too slowly in front of him, giving the wrong turn signals or are berating him for not moving out of parking spots quickly enough. Once his vehicle shows a flicker of an issue, the nearest auto mechanic is more than willing to upsell the maintenance requirements to come. The audience at a movie house is too busy talking and texting to allow him to enjoy the screening. All along, a certain kind of cake he needs to acquire becomes as easy to locate as the Loch Ness Monster.

At first, our main character tries to keep his cool, taking the high road and staying polite. But eventually, the world around him becomes too much to bear for a man repressing emotions that don't need to be stirred any further. Vocal assertiveness gives way to physical reactions and before "Husband" knows it, he is planning on the kind of retaliations where baseball bats come in handy. His final actions allow him to return to the side of his deceased and conclude his long day in the way he feels he must.

With indie productions in general, and low/no budget efforts like this one in particular, scripts can be the strongest element if enough time and thought have been utilized. Production values are a less certain variable, given the obvious restrictions on what can be accessed and the conditions the filming is done under, far away from high-tech sound stages. The area that becomes the most problematic is the acting talent, since Benedict Cumberbatch probably can't be enticed to show up to your shoot, no matter how fresh you promise the coffee and bagels will be.

Bravo, Robert Nolan
Flip those concerns on their heads and you have the strengths of Mourning Has Broken showing up in reverse order. The lead character is played by Robert Nolan and this guy totally brings it in a way most filmmakers dealing with minimal financial resources can only dream of. Nolan is practically in every single frame and delivers the right blend of inspired lunacy and moving dramatics throughout. His Howard Beale-ish movie house rant is a classic at one end; a flip-side three minute single take in a record store shows a suddenly taciturn man expressing everything in his emotionally wracked face. Nolan is so good that one may be concerned that he would show up the deficiencies in a supporting cast made up of amateurish personnel, but the Butler bros struck gold in that vein as well. The actors the husband character is required to play off of are pretty much all up to the challenge, with a special nod to Graham Kent as that all-too-familiar kind of shady auto mechanic you don't want nursing your wheels.

While there are are occasional signs this film was made for cinematic spare change, the overall look is sharp, with the Michael Jari Davidson's Cannon 5D MKII camera work complemented well by crisp editing. Sound montage and the aforementioned musical score are also of top caliber.

The least hearty aspect of the film is the script, which is pretty much a one-trick pony of sorts. You come to understand that the husband surveys the to-do list, sets off to accomplish a task and, along the way, has some sort of confrontation, to be echoed over and over again. The predictable rinse-repeat cycle is less successful in some scenes than in others. While the movie clocks in at 77 minutes, some of these bits feel too drawn out and often take their time arriving at any payoff. Fortunately, Nolan makes most of these periods worth the wait in the end.

Considering this effort was made for less than five figures, the results the Butler brothers have produced are quite impressive. Many times you've seen a film and said to yourself "I could do better than that!" This film will have you saying "with what they had to work with, how could I have topped this?"

But what does that have to do with it being a film to recommend, especially if folks out there are debating forking out some coin to catch it?

When Mourning Has Broken makes its VOD debut, it will be up against big studio cinema candy, flicks that cost a lot of money and, in many cases, ripped off the movie-going public for at least as much. There are great films to be had in the streaming/downloading world but there are also tons of insincere, dubious ones. A sterling example of how much can be done by extremely modest means, Mourning Has Broken puts many big budget motion pictures to shame.