Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A LIFE IN WAVES (2017)



Perhaps you're like me, getting pretty depressed about the way this world is going. It's not only the hate and confusion, the lies and deceit, the posturing and pretense ...

... it's a world that doesn't seem to have enough inspiring people in it. Or at least we don't hear about them often enough. Sure would be nice if ... wait!

This account of the life of Suzanne Ciani has arrived just in time.

Suzanne Ciani

So the story goes like this... In the end, all things come back to Buchla.

That is to say the Buchla synthesizer, the prime (but far from exclusive) tool used by Suzanne Ciani to forge a career (if not a name) that would find its way into every household.

Now, listen carefully to the music in the backgrounds:

If you've seen/heard a Merrill Lynch commercial featuring a bull walking through a china shop ...




... or traversed through the Atari universe ...




...  or played a Xenon pinball machine that made "oooh" and "aaah" sounds to its Ciani-scored musical accompaniment.



And here is a clip from the documentary itself; how refreshing does a Coke sound after Ciani gets through with it?



Okay, maybe you're not that impressed with all this Madison Avenue-type stuff. Hmm ...

I invite you to try this beautiful composition on for size and then meet us back in the review. The piece is called Neverland.




I guess I didn't mention Suzanne Ciani is a five-time Grammy nominee. Well, now you know. A bio-pic on the life of the person behind these music and sound design innovations has been long overdue. Fortunately, director Brett Witcomb and writer Bradford Thomason have now answered the call in top-notch fashion with A Life in Waves.

How do you create immediate interest and historical placement re: this largely unknown figure? Answer: start with a clip of Ciani's appearance on David Letterman's NBC show circa 1980, with the host looking bedazzled with the offerings of the effervescent musician. After some testimonials from New Age music pioneers/practitioners (including Tangerine Dream's Peter Baumann) the doc then catches up to its subject in 2015, with her returning to Wellesley College to accept the Alumnae Achievement Award, where her face fills with pride and admiration upon regarding the photos of past graduates who made their mark in many of the male-dominated professions (including a super-string theorist, an astronaut ... someone named Hillary Clinton). The career highlights that follow emphasize a similar refusal on Ciani's part to be held back from anything. There was no holding back on the pursuit of electronic music, despite the lack of support she received while attending the U of Cal at Berkeley. There was the determination to continue working in the studio of synth pioneer Donald Buchla, despite a misunderstanding that led to him firing Ciani after only one day on the job. (Not to worry - he still became a mentor and an inspirational force for much of her work.) She wouldn't allow male-dominated Madison Avenue stand in her way after her move to the Big Apple, and she didn't care if the record labels weren't ready when she did a piano-based neo-classical pivot - Ciani just found ways to release the music on her own. (The category New Age came along just in time, although she admits it was largely "a club nobody wants to belong to".) Needless to say, no one was going to tell this artist what to do when she came full circle to once again embrace the sounds of the Buchla invention.




By pointing out how the invention of music as effect took matters to a new psychological level Ciani proves her true trailblazer status. And while I'm hardly an electronic music aficionado (although I've always dug Brain Eno), I think it's safe to say Ciani has brought a particular feminine sense of sensuality to her compositions. The film is fascinating enough given the many self-determined twists and turns the woman's career has taken but there's more to it. Hers is a radiating spirit and exuberant personality that captivates; it's a pleasure that we're at least able to get this close to her through this film (although, as some others have pointed out, her private life remains pretty private throughout  example: her hardly discussed marriage. Sure, maybe it's none of our business, but...) And with only 76-minutes spent as it is, there could have been a little more examination re: the nuts-or-bolts behind some of her work. Nonetheless, we are treated to a smooth flowing presentation featuring solid production values as it is.



We may not all carry the genes this immensely talented person has but her "go for it" message serves all. As promised, Witcomb and Thomason have introduced us to an inspiring story in a world that seems to need such.

So now I'm not going to say anything more, because output on my part would seem very dry compared to the pleasure that comes from actually watching this film. The screener link was supplied by a PR rep who I will thank immensely - this was one of the most enjoyable films I have seen in a LONG time!

As you've already guessed from my gushing, this one is way high up on the recommended list.

This film deserves hugs for ...

- a revealing look at a great talent we didn't realize was around us. 

- an exploration beyond the traditional boundaries of what many regard as music and the means to create such. 

- offering seventy-six fascinating minutes with such a charismatic personality.   

(The first three videos in the post were embedded from Suzanne Ciani's YouTube page. Check it out.)

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

LIVING WITH THE DEAD (2015)

Emily Jackson and Benjamin Frankenberg


So the story goes like this ... She guzzles booze, hankers for hallucinogenics, and gets into a Lolita phase of one-nighters. These "good times" only end when she pops enough sleeping pills to take her to within a step of death's door. Eighteen-year-old Max McLean (Emily Jackson) hasn't been able to live in her skin since the suicide of boyfriend Adam (Benjamin Frankenberg). Her status-conscious folks brag about their girl going to Yale, while displaying thinly veiled relief in anticipation of the troubled one being out of their hair in the near future. Max decides to set her own schedule for leaving the nest, sneaking out in the middle of night, in spite of the efforts of her brother Gabriel (Chris Bellant), the only family member in genuine anguish over her state when he isn't being her harshest critic. A train trip with a destination chosen at random finds her in a township with a library ... not that she lacks for reading material; her suitcase is stuffed with the same books Adam used to mull over, penned by famous writers who had taken their own lives. Enter a chap named Ish (Craig McDonald-Kelly), a quirky local snapping Polaroid pictures of Max that annoy her to no end. Her unwanted follower does provide one bit of practical help, that being a place to crash - Max finds herself slumming on a library couch, having hid with Ish till closing hours. From there a relationship develops as the couple frolics through the woods, bantering philosophical musings when Ish isn't urging Max to climb trees as a sort of inner strengthening exercise. Alas, it gradually comes out that the lad has his own issues to deal with: a long-gone mom and an alcoholic father that has made Ish a pariah in the community. Throughout all of this Max continues to experience visions of Adam, with the tête-à-têtes the tuxedo clad spirit initiates not exactly being of the supportive kind.




Living with the Dead presents itself as a kind of existentialist sandwich; large parts of the meaty middle section find the two protagonists in a realm of their own in the woods where they can reflect, disconnecting with the outside world while pondering its metaphysical and spiritual makeup, as well as their own. The surrounding passages are the white bread territory with the characters involved with less abstract situations. The philosophical jargon that seems apropos in the out-in-nature settings comes across as cringe-worthy elsewhere, particularly when recited by Jackson, as if she was reading off a teleprompter supplying lines from brainyquote.com. This doesn't help the fact that the actress has some struggles in the early part of the film, coming across as too blank to suggest the torment the character is suppose to be going through. Getting past the twenty-minute mark one starts to yawn and wonders if there is going to be a payoff.

Fortunately, things improve as the narrative unfolds, particularity after the introduction of Ish. A theater prof I knew always said acting is really reacting; that holds true here as Jackson's performance improves substantially at the point McDonald-Kelly comes on the scene. Playing off her engaging co-star helps Jackson to peel off the layers surrounding Max while one becomes increasingly interested in the mysteries surrounding the backstory of Ish.

As noted, Jackson delivers a performance that improves with screen time and McDonald-Kelly is spot-on as the straw that stirs the drink of the storyline.  As naked as these two performances end up as the real emotional core of the film belongs to a short but memorable turn by Thomas Poarch as Ish's alcoholic dad. Rather than portraying the character as a stereotypical drunken lout, Poarch evokes sympathy and heartbreak as he muses on a life he found to be overwhelming. Unexpected and beautifully done.

The film is Christine Vartoughian's first foray into feature territory and for the most part it marks an impressive debut. I would have liked to have seen less cutting on dialogue and for the words spoken to sound more like they were coming from real human beings, but these unfortunate failings are not fatal. One may still be left at the end with a little head scratching as to why Adam did what he did but the film struck me as being more about effect rather than cause anyway. Vartoughian shows genuine promise and it should be interesting to see what follows in her career. The overall production values are impressive for a film at this budget category.

A timely tale told in a sensitive manner, Living with the Dead is, overall, worth the time spent to regard it.

Hugs go to this film because of ...

- generally good acting.

- a promising feature directorial debut.

- earnest exploration of a timely topic.


(Full disclosure: Producer Rebekah Nelson requested a review and provided a screener link to the film.)

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

LITTLEROCK

(This very indie-ish offering was originally reviewed on FGP,  17/07/2104)

The film:
Littlerock (2010)

The under-the-radar factor:
This small indie production has screened at over 40 film festivals and picked up awards at the AFI Fest, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Reykjavik International event, among others. In spite of crossing the globe at these gatherings and winning positive critical notices, this work has received extremely limited exhibition possibilities and nothing too significant by way of digital channels.

The review:

We've all encountered those people who you meet for the first time and they just can't stop it. The loquacious. The wind-bags. The gab-a-holics. People who talk a lot but really say little, if anything. But they go on and on. Then there's the quiet introverted types who feel drained by even attempting to put forward a welcoming remark.

And then there's the young Japanese girl who stares blankly with hardly an utterance since she can neither understand nor make herself understood in Littlerock, put out by Indie Spirit "Someone to Watch" winner Mike Ott. Fortunately, his film, a second feature effort for him, is itself mostly well worth watching.

Siblings Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) and Rintaro (a young gent named Sawamoto, also going by his real first name) are taking a trip across the United States, much to the disappointment of their father back home. He's detail driven and cautious - she's more relaxed and open to experiences when they come up. Bro speaks a tiny bit of English, which is lot more than his sister can muster. Their rental car breaks down in the Los Angeles exurb of Littlerock, a place which is about as anti-glamorous as California gets and the driest the state has been seen on screen since Polanski's Chinatown. While waiting for a replacement vehicle they first meet some of the shiftless locals at their motel in a confrontational manner but are quickly adopted by the populace at large as new friends. Much of this has to do with the fact that many of the Caucasian boys find Atsuko attractive and alluring. Two in this boat are Cory (Cory Zacharia), a somewhat effeminate fellow in trouble with the local drug dealer for having smoked most of what he was suppose to distribute, as well as Jordan (Brett L. Tinnes), a wannabe musician who can't suppress the glint he has in his eyes for the oriental visitor...for which she "glints" back. Together they take their new Japanese friends sight-seeing (in this town, that doesn't amount to much) for which two-wheeler bikes (not the motorized kind) are supplied. These same two locals blokes are not, however,  too broken up when Rintaro decides to go ahead with a visit to San Francisco without his sis. She proceeds to find romance with one fellow, artistic endeavors of sorts with another and gets to pass time alongside an immigrant cook (Roberto 'Sanz" Sanchez) that she can't talk with but can relate to. Rintaro eventually returns and, while I won't go into the details here, the last leg of the trip taken by brother and sister delivers a poignant (and unexpected) conclusion to their tale.



Ott seems at home delivering a film at this scale, which is not as easy as it sounds. Staying within smaller confines and resisting the temptation to paint bigger pictures is a discipline not everyone possesses. Littlerock is a simple and appropriately subtle tale. The characters in the film are neither saints nor satanic - they're simply real. The Asian girl finds herself alone with the guys of the town, instilling enough creepiness and suspense to her plight. At the same time, while Atsuko may be unworldly, she's not naive or stupid. It's obvious the local residents are their own worse enemies, particularly true of Cory. Even though he's the one who can speak English, he seems less clued in to what is going on around him than she does though surveillance and intuition. She discovers, he spins. It makes for a mostly interesting, if somewhat predictable relationship. (Unfortunately, you can see her rejecting of his advances from a mile away, one of the few significant weaknesses in the film.)

The town of Littlerock itself is an interesting ingredient in the movie, a place that seems to be in the middle of a desert and a fairly comical locale to drop off two foreigners "discovering" America. But it's on this blank slate of a nowhere town with a group of inhabitants going nowhere in particular that makes for an appropriate place for the protagonist to get her bearings. Littlerock is largely a film about communications and miscommunications, experienced by both the protagonist herself and observed in the dealings of others who supposedly speak the language.

Mainstream audiences who prefer their movies with popcorn and a heavy lathering of Michael Bay on top will be bored to tears by Littlerock. And even some of the latte crowd will accuse Ott of delivering less than meets the eye. But there are enough of those out there who will appreciate this quiet character study and the naturalistic acting style of the cast to make the trip to this nowheresville a destination appointment.

Monday, 31 July 2017

AMERICAN BOMBER

(A re-post via FGP from 06/12/2013. These days the film is also available on Amazon and iTunes.)

The film:
American Bomber (2013)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Low budget independent production is being released on VOD and DVD by IndiePix Films. The movie has picked up a few awards at a couple of lesser known  festivals.

The review:

A dishonorably discharged veteran agrees to become an American suicide bomber but romance and FBI surveillance may change everything in Eric Trenkamp's feature debut American Bomber.

The life of John Hidell (Michael C. Freeland) is recounted in mock documentary fashion in the early portion of the film. Accounts from his mother and others who knew him conflict; some seeing him as a good egg, others describing ill temper and violent behavior. Abuse seems to have been an element in his life borne outside and inside the home. It's made clear that John reacted badly to the news of the death of his half brother, leading to an internment in which he was exposed to the thinking of the persuasive Barry Aaron Speiler (portrayed in a enthralling manner by Kenny Wade Marshall).

Upon his release, John discovers employment doesn't come easily for a disgraced solider who will undergo background checks. Distant from the remaining family he has, he commits to the ideas of Speiler, a pseudo-brother teacher that has filled the void John feels. Hidell heads on a one-way trip to NYC with a wad of cash and a backpack full of explosives, determined to enjoy what he can in the last few days of his life. His big city contact puts him up for accommodation in the same building as an attractive bartender named Amy (Rebekah Nelson), who bums cigarettes and charms the troubled vet.  With her days as free as his, they spend afternoons together and become closer. As the scheduled time to take action comes nearer, John can't help but feel the possibility of a future with Amy, while also suspecting that he has already been detected by law enforcement officials. His conflicting feelings leads to a violent act that solidifies his status as a fugitive, jeopardizes what he has with his new woman and narrows the choices left to him.




The last indie fiction film I had reviewed prior to this one was Roulette, often displaying the opposite strengths and weaknesses of American Bomber. While that film came charging out of the gate and immediately demanded attention, Bomber takes it's time in setting up it's story and involving it's audience. While Roulette displayed fully developed characters, the real nuts and bolts behind the thinking and feelings of Hidell are never fully explored in Trenkamp's film.

On the other side of the coin, while it was clear Roulette had some technical competence, it also displayed unevenness in the level of acting, as well as some occasionally insipid digital imagery. American Bomber quickly shows a production value level substantially up from most films at this budgetary level with it's sharp cinematography and crisp editing. Also importantly, the acting skills become more impressive with the introduction of each character. While Freeland only achieves a status of being "ok" in the lead role, Nelson really commands the screen whenever she appears and Marshall has some impressive moments, especially delivering a mind-blowing "God is a farmer" monologue towards the end of the film.

There are other strengths as well; among them, a soundtrack that legitimately enhances the mood of scenes, rather than trying to force the viewer into what they should be feeling. The sound recording and editing is also done at a consistently high quality level. And the examination of the surveillance state the U.S. finds itself in post 9/11 times brings out the best and the worst of that culture; the fact John is spotted as quickly as he is upon arrival in the greater New York area could be seen as both reassuring, as well as unsettling...or creepy.

While the first half of American Bomber shuffles along without any sense of urgency, the last 45 minutes of the film becomes highly involving and makes the total effort worthwhile. I also like the fact the conclusion played out in a straightforward manner and left contrivances for other filmmakers who try to substitute being clever for being intelligent. While not perfect (even I'm not that), American Bomber has a lot going for it and I feel confident in recommending it to audiences looking for a solid indie offering. Also keep you eyes open for Rebekah Nelson in the future...coming across here as charming, sexy and intelligent, she has real potential.

RECOMMENDED.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE

(This documentary was reviewed on FGP on 06/06/2014. Well worth another look.)

The film:
Darwin's Nightmare (2004)

The under-the-radar factor:
Nominated for Best Feature Documentary at the 2006 Academy Awards, it's safe to say this film has never garnered the same attention or audience as the winner of the category that year, March of the Penguins.

The review:

I have lived in the city of Toronto for all of the years of my life and at this juncture find myself residing in an area with the Humber River to the west and High Park to the south-east. I go for walks and see different birds hanging out in each area. The Red-winged Blackbird seems to rule the Humber valley, with a fair smattering of Goldfinches to boot. Marsh birds, Woodpeckers, Blue jays, Cardinals and far more exotic species can be found around High Park, especially as one makes their way to Grenadier Pond. There are all sorts of flying creatures that one will find in either location at various times of the year because...they belong there.

As the documentary Darwin's Nightmare points out, there were once a plethora of different fish that belonged to Africa's Lake Victoria. Then about fifty years ago someone (identity unknown...or, at least, unidentified) began depositing significant quantities of Nile Perch into the waters. Goodbye to the indigenous species, as the predator fish virtually wiped out whatever else was swimming in the lake. The Nile Perch fattened up to the extent of making it a most desirable delicacy to be packed and sent off for European consumption. The resulting industry that grew in Tanzania created winners and losers...although some on the down side of prosperity still felt they were better off than in their previous circumstances.

Something else has also been introduced in the Tanzanian landscape corresponding to the presence of the Nile Perch industry - planes. Aircraft fly into the region regularly and not often on a scheduled basis. The cargo crafts don't always arrive empty; some say guns are regularly brought in to supply those in battle in other parts of the continent. Before the planes fly back out with their loads of fish, the crews (mainly Russian and Ukrainian) take time to party with their "girlfriends" - the prostitutes they return to on a regular basis. These are the flashier women who are available for the visitors with the real big bucks but gals who have come in from the countryside with no other means of procuring income turn tricks for the local men looking for such distractions. Not surprisingly HIV infection and AIDS becomes an issue, helping to jack up the number of children living in the streets. The youngsters find their chief means of coping with the gloom around them comes by way of their makeshift means of sniffing chemicals found in the local refuse. And as far as diet for all are concerned, only the maggot-infested heads and other scraps of the Nile Perch are available, if that - the fillets that fly off in the aircraft are far too expensive to be considered by the indigenous population that finds themselves at the bottom of the economic totem pole of Tanzania.



Yes, there are all these specific references to what is happening in Tanzania but director Hubert Sauper uses the micro examination of the country in order to arrive at macro estimations of what the worst aspects of globalization/imperialism and the exploitation of those with lesser means amounts to.

Raphael still hopes.
Such an example is offered by the presence of Raphael, an ex-solider being paid a dollar a night to guard the fisheries institute. He "lucked" into the job when his predecessor was killed during an attempted robbery. Raphael knows an advanced education would help improve his standings but is aware that a more practical means for getting ahead would be the outbreak of war. If the government were to need him again, he could ditch his poisoned arrows and get equipped with real firearms and a better salary. It's kind of like an insane version of Thoreau's improved means to an unimproved end - better things can happen for some when bad things go down for others. But it's not the same means of amelioration he wishes for his son - Raphael would be pleased to see his offspring become a pilot, flying those planeloads of Nile Perch off to the well-heeled customers in Europe and returning with....actually, he's not sure what. Raphael just knows it would represent advancement, comfort...less of the nightmare.

Sauper hasn't constructed a let-me-connect-the-dots-for-you type of documentary, of the excellent Inside Job variety. There is also no Michael Moore-type intrusions, aside from some off-screen questions addressed to the participants. His film spools out more like an album - a collection of snapshots your regard from the beginning to the end and then arrive at your own conclusions as to what has really been broached. Perhaps an important missing element is the "before" picture - what life was really like for the people of Tanzania before the introduction of the Nile Perch. By way of omission of this examination, the inference seems to be that it was, of course, not as bad as now. Really? Perhaps it was more of a just-as-bad-in-a-different-way type of life, although it is safe to say the local eco-system was in better times. Perhaps widespread corruption has always been the issue, the force that kicks open the door for other evils? The film doesn't really try to reveal this significant type of back story.

Still, the bottom line becomes that what the locals go through now is plenty horrible and the exploitative nature of extreme globalized interests will not be the way out for these folks. It may not be the real cause of their troubles but it certainly ain't no cure. Even the Russian airplane crews seem to be a sad lot - while they enjoy the material benefits that come from their workload they seem embarrassed, saddened and perhaps even a little frightened by the ramifications of what they are involved in, even when they insist with a shrug that "it's business".

In spite of it's somewhat incomplete nature, Darwin's Nightmare is a film that refuses to leave the viewer unmoved. While this story may be set in what seems a world away, one is left with the creepy feeling that the Tanzanians are one of the folks who are first experiencing what may be to follow (or already has) for many of the rest of us in different ways. Look around...after you've first watched this film, of course.


Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Which neglected film deserves a hug?

(I'm issuing the same "call for action" that I did on the old blog, so please let us know if you feel there's an outcast offering that needs a cuddle.) 

Perhaps more navels were being gazed at but at least less cities weren't being destroyed...in 3D.

For better or worse, things are different these days.

I know I'm about to sound like the grumpy old film dork of yesteryear with all these historical references but allow this rant, please.

For many decades, the movie theater, while often an escapist refuge, was still considered serious and often high-brow, with a film like McCabe & Mrs. Miller not being that unusual a summer release. Conventional television, meanwhile, was cast as the "idiot box".

As far as "big" films went, I've always thought of All The President's Men as an example of the way so many movies used to be. You had a quality offering meant for "serious" viewing and featuring an important topic...which also happened to be great showbiz - two mega movie stars of their time and line ups around the block. Ah, I love the smell of popcorn in the morning...to me it smells like...popular quality entertainment!

But now, we seem to have what I call the "ping-pong" match. As with so many things in our 21st century world, the "middle" seems to be vanishing. (Where do you shop these days?  High-end boutiques one day and dollar stores the next? Haven't been in a traditional department store much lately, huh?)

In ping-pong cinema, Brad Pitt is running to one side of the table to appear in an Ocean's Eleven flic to be released in 120,000,000 multiplexes one week, then running to the other side to appear in Babel (not box office poison but not a mass-market effort either) down the road. Mr. Pitt wants to stay popular but wants to be respected as an actor doing exceptional work as well. Seems harder to do that in the same project nowadays. Directors too...Steven Soderbergh took more than a few laps around that table, as well.

Another example of the way it used to be was Chinatown - it afforded Jack Nicholson the chance to deliver a great acting performance as well as a great movie star turn at the same time.

But now, with the cable/pay tv explosion at one end and the "tentpole" and 3D mega-budget mentality of major Hollywood studios at the other, much of the finest quality in linear narrative storytelling can be found on the small (but getting bigger by the day) screen - an arena that actually supports and respects the writers. Go figure!

That's not to say there are no motion pictures made that emphasize quality over box office boffo - and in today's more fragmented world, many releases are aimed at niche markets. But in an environment like this current one, the chances of even more targeted offerings getting "lost" are in some ways greater than ever, even if there are more distribution channels and more voluminous (and better) independent films all the time. And with all the noise out there - a world filled with many publishers but no editors - the need to curate becomes greater than ever.

There are many bloggers and sites that do a tremendous job of analyzing the well-known films that everyone  talks about. Other movies deserve to be discussed as well...once people know they exist.

So that leads me, as they say in marketing, to this "call for action"...

If you have a favorite film that you feel has "flown under the radar" and deserves finding an audience, please  leave a comment below or drop a line at cinemacache@gmail.com. I might try to get a hold of it and have a look for myself. Pretty much all genres are cool with me.

Let's share the good stuff, shall we?

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

IDIOCRACY

(Sadly, compared to when this review first appeared via FGP on 02/09/2013, this film, in the age of Trump, looks less funny and more scary.)

In a lot of ways it's not hard to see why Idiocracy, Mike Judge's 2006 satirical feature, didn't find an audience...but of course, right off the bat and more than anything, it didn't help that the film was given no promotional push. (A release in the late August-early September movie graveyard period in a small number of cities, sans a trailer or other advertising by Twentieth Century Fox.)

No, this film (which carries a strong aura of the Beavis and Butthead attitude from Judge's previous work) is a bright piece wearing Jackass clothing - it laughs at dumb-downed culture while itself encased in a dumb-downed looking package. The lowbrow crowd wouldn't appreciate the ribbing (...or wouldn't get a lot of it) and some of the upper-crust intelligentsia, while in full agreement with Judge's observations, wouldn't be caught dead watching it via this sort of presentation. (It's like a truly relevant and undeniable aspect of human nature being revealed as part of a wrestling promo on WWE Monday Night RAW , instead of showing up with the "proper" dressings on PBS.)

It's left to the open-minded and less self-conscious to appreciate how sharp Judge's observations are and to help find a larger audience than the cult following this film currently enjoys.

Luke Wilson portrays Pvt. Joe Bowers, an army clerk of average intelligence and slacker aspirations. The armed forces have an experiment in mind where Joe and a female recruit from the "private sector" (a hooker named Rita played by Maya Rudolph) are put into a hibernated state, to be revived the next year. The best laid plans go foul and instead the couple finds itself awakened in the year 2505, in a society where garbage has piled to the sky, a movie about farting has won the Best Picture award at the Oscars and the President of the United States is a former porn star and professional wrestler. Water is only used for toilets, as a Gatorade-type product is used for everything in it's place...including irrigation! (The corporation behind the beverage had no problem in meeting it's regulatory requirements...it already rolled the FDA and FCC into it's operations by purchasing them. Other corps get zinged as well - Starbucks is depicted as a male entertainment chain where getting a latte is given a whole new meaning and Costco has outlets the size of a suburb, where you can acquire everything from canned foods to a law degree.)

At first declared an enemy of the state for being unregistered (and talking "faggy"), Joe's situation changes as his aptitude test declares him to be the smartest person on a planet of imbeciles and the one picked by the porn President to help solve his problems. Joe goes along with the idea but only as a cover as he tries to devise a plan to somehow get himself and Rita back to the 21st century but his decisions lead to some missteps that threaten his safety.



As is the case with the best of satirists, Judge is taking the audience to a faraway place to comment on what is happening around us in the here-and-now (A planet's inhabitants in the dire straits depicted in this movie would have been forced to use their brains to adapt or perish.) The director is harpooning our own world's lazy, complacent (or is that enthusiastic?) decent into twerking, texting and tweeting ourselves into a Neil Postman "amusing ourselves to death" scenario, while allowing anything and everything to be commodified, despite whoever loses out. It's not surprising big corp Twentieth Century Fox got cold feet on the movies release, considering how corporatism is assailed in it. (There was a two-picture deal that both Judge and Fox had to fulfill after the release of the cult hit Office Space.)

A few of the gags fall flat and, as I've tried to indicate, for some the comic tone would not be the preferred means to these ends. Still, the relatively few people who have actually seen this film have been generally enthusiastic about this timely reminder of where we are and where we seem to be headed. Idiocracy is one of those movies where you feel nervous about laughing but laugh you must. Do indeed check out this faraway future to see what's a comin' just down the road. It's scary.

I say this film tastes - ASSERTIVE.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

RUBBER

(I'm planning on catching up on the Quentin Dupieux catalog. In the meantime it's a pleasure to re-post the review that originally appeared on FGP on 24/02/2014.)

The film:

The under-the-radar-factor:
Movies about car tires (in this case, one named Robert) who not only become sentient but develop awesome telepathic powers to boot never seem to have taken the multiplex box office by storm. Neither did this one - its haul in the U.S. theaters came in under six figures.

The review:

First, before going into the main course of the analysis of Quentin Dupieux's rather outré feature offering, I would like to serve up one of the best appetizers I can think of to set you in the right frame of mind for what will follow. I propose we take five (actually, eight minutes) to regard the amazing and deservedly legendary short by the great Norman McLaren of National Film Board of Canada fame. For those who have never seen it, and those who wish to relive the magic...Neighbours.



Now, I'm not trying to suggest Rubber is on the level of this masterpiece or that Dupieux is the next McLaren... but while I was watching 82 minutes of a car tire coming to life, I thought of Neighbours and believed the great Canadian animator would have enjoyed this 21st century cinematic experiment very much.

We've all seen films-within-films but this one goes a step further. At the start a police officer named Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella) pops out of the trunk of a car that's arrived out on a desert road to seemingly talk directly to the camera (we, the audience) about things in films and life that were done for no reason. (Examples: "...in The Pianist, by Polanski, how come this guy has to hide and live like a bum when he plays the piano so well? Once again, the answer is... no reason!" Also... "Why do some people love sausages and other people hate sausages? No fuckin' reason!") But it turns out there is another layer to this monologue - Chad is actually talking to a group of several people standing before him who are there to watch this "other movie" play out - a film that is a homage to the "no reason" - even though there is no actual film but just action taking place in the distance. The group members are given binoculars by an accountant figure and they use the optical aids to regard this third movie unfold. (Still with us?...)

What the spectators see in the title universe of these goings-on is Robert the tire awakening in the desert, taking his first baby steps...eh, spins....and later discovering he has the ability to make birds, rabbits and people blow up. Robert heads out on the highway where he comes across an attractive young woman named Sheila (Roxanne Mesquida), who he obviously becomes smitten with. The tire follows the girl to a motel where he takes over the room next door, watching television, spying on her in the shower and blowing up members of the staff. Meanwhile, the spectators in the distance comment on the proceedings before them, unaware they may be in danger from the nerd accountant. (I know you're going nuts reading this but I'm having a lot of fun writing it.)

Of course there are inevitable showdowns for all involved but anything else written here will lead you into an even more confused state, so I think it's time to regard the trailer, don't you?




This is not a review begging everyone to give this film a chance. Needless to say, a lot of folks will feel like they just can't be bothered by a premise this silly. Some will criticize the movie as padded (not deserving much more of a running time than, say...Neighbours?), and won't share the comedic tone established by Dupieux. Some could also be a little offended by what may appear to be an attitude of contempt directed at movie audiences in general and the horror crowd in particular.

On the other hand, if elongated Python-type absurdity is your bag, combined with a really well-executed look and sound that this film has...and if you are just tired of the usual mainstream paint-by-numbers predictability that we are surrounded by, Rubber could be the fresh air you seek. It may be true that someone can appear outré only by looking slightly less middle-of-the-road then the 99.9% of everything out there but in the case of this Dupieux offering we are really talking about something from another planet. As much as Rubber is preposterous it does not run amok - the deliberate pacing, exceptional framing of Robert in shot after shot and the lack of CGI technology (a puppeteer was used for much of Robert's motion generation, with some remote control augmentation) creates a very organic feel that demands that this absurdity be taken with some seriousness. This is where I see the closeness to what a genius like McLaren would do in a film like Neighbours. Also contributing to the feeling of verisimilitude embedded in the off-the-wall actions is the talent of the cast, hitting the right notes at the right time, regardless if sincerity or tomfoolery was required in a scene.

One of the things I also like about Dupieux is his embracing of the DSLR technology that's out there in a way that explores new possibilities rather than create pseudo-Hollywood-on-a-budget entries. It's a call to arms that I've heard expoused by Robert Downey Sr. (regard the beginning of this video interview) and seen followed in practice by people like the UK filmmaker Ben Woodiwiss - the look of the movie and the manner in which it explores physical settings suggests an expert control over the components in use.

Oh yes - even thought the film is a bit uneven and occasionally drags, it's funny. Often very, very funny.

Rubber is a film which will extract polar opposite reactions - for myself this was one of the more enjoyable pure cinematic experiences I've had in some time.


Friday, 21 July 2017

No hugs for BELLFLOWER

Thursday, 20 July 2017

TENTACLE 8

(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

ACE IN THE HOLE

(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)

The-under-the-radar-factor:
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

MOURNING HAS BROKEN

(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.

Monday, 3 July 2017

FLIPPED

(As reviewed on 27/07/2013 via the old blog. Proof that "gentle comedy" doesn't have to be a code term for "insipid".)

Back in 1992, Rob Reiner was strutting his stuff as one of the biggest mainstream directors in Hollywood with the release of the mega-hit A Few Good Men. The big three of Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore (yes, she once had a career...trust me!) made for riches at the box office and contempt from myself. I found the work contrived and forced, with no real sense of "wow" and suspense emerging through the predictable plot and scene-chewing by the ham-slicing Nicholson. Aside from the obvious appeal of Cruise (say what you will about him as a human being - I think he's a fair bit of a whack-job - the man has had enormous success and that doesn't come through luck), I was puzzled as to why this was such a big hit and simply wrote it off as being for the usual reasons - I wasn't bright enough to get what the masses were appreciating in the work of Mr. Reiner.

Then came the stumble period...no, not for me, although holding down a part-time job doing market research coding was my idea of stability. Reiner followed up his military court room triumph with the boy-divorces-parents mess that is the infamous North. Aside from the relatively well-received The American President, the good-ship Reiner sprung many more leaks over the next several years (although The Bucket List was at least a modest box office success) and left me wondering whether the cleverness of This Is Spinal Tap would ever rear it's head again.

One day at the Walmart up the street, my wife was rummaging through the $5 DVD bin and came up with this copy of Flipped. If this 2010 film had ever received a theatrical release in Canada, it had certainly flown under my radar.


I'm pleased to say that Flipped was one of the more enjoyable films I have seen of late. While perhaps a little too cutsey for some tastes, the movie won me over with it's strong performances and genuine warmth.

Bryce Loski and his family move into a new neighbourhood, where eager and over-attentive Juli Baker from across the street follows his movements to what almost resorts as stalking. As they become young teenagers, the pair (played by Callan McAuliffe and the charming Madeline Carrol) continue the process of her overwhelming him with attention that is rarely reciprocated. Once there seems to be a chance of Bryce changing his feelings for her, Juli has decided that some of his actions have resulted in too much hurt and it appears our two kids may never get along.

The narrative is done in a back-and-forth he-said/she-said manner - not the most original approach but it worked fine here.

For myself, this represented a Reiner comeback and I'm sorry it didn't attract a greater following (although I may be close to being in the minority regarding the good vibes I had - the Tomato Meter didn't exactly go off the charts on this one.)  Seeing how the two main leads change their perspectives on each other kept me involved to the very end. It was also nice to see Aidan Quinn (an actor who I always thought would get a little further ahead in the field) put in a solid and likeable turn as Juli's wannabe painter father. John Mahoney also delivers a good job of being the straw that stirs the drink in this film - his role of the recently widowed grandfather of Bryce puts him in a central position of influencing the dynamics between the Loski's and the family across the street. One wished for a little more redemption and less grating from Anthony Edward's character of Bryce's father - his appearances marked the only points in the film where I really felt my viewing time was being wasted by this stereotypical mean dad turn.

Overall, Flipped struck me as more sweet than sappy and with the winning performances in it, I can recommend that one can take a chance on a film from a director that I have previously viewed with wariness.

I say this film tastes - FRIENDLY.

Friday, 30 June 2017

BENNY LOVES KILLING

(This was one of my fave films to review on the old blog (30/10/2014) The VOD link is at the end of the review ... and yes, I highly recommend a viewing.)

The Film:
Benny Loves Killing (2012)

The under-the-radar-factor:
An independent UK feature that has been on the festival circuit, has won some prizes and is slated to appear on the American Online Film Awards with secure streaming access for two weeks in May.

The review:

"It seems that most guys that I run into who are making digital films are just auditioning to get to Hollywood...to make "that" stuff. (He shrugs) It's kind of weird...you have the opportunity with this gear to do whatever you want. What are you waiting for?"
   -from this interview with underground film legend Robert Downey Sr.

"A lot of people are using DSLR cameras...because they allow a lot of democratization of moving images...they provide opportunities that don't exist with film...instead of trying to use it to look like previous films, we take it and we try to go somewhere new..."
   -from an interview with Benny Loves Killing director Ben Woodiwiss.

Mr. Downey would be very happy to know that Mr. Woodiwiss followed his suggestion and then some with the British filmmaker's impressive feature debut being proof.

Benny (Pauline Cousty - after this you'll remember the name) never met a line of coke she didn't like. It's what she goes for the instant she experiences the least bit of stress - and she seems set off by ANY dilemma of ANY degree that comes her way. Benny complains about the condition of her mother's home even though she has own hygienic challenges. She expects academic funding for her horror film project even though she's going directly against the rules for her particular curriculum. She'd rather avoid mom's place and try to crash at the pads of semi-strangers, even when leading to eventual rejection or unwanted sexual advances. She has no use for other's views but complains no one is listening to her. She wants folks to trust her, even though she knows she's untrustworthy herself. Benny has issues that seem to be of her own doing. Perhaps. She leads a life that's easy to describe but not to understand, which is one of the challenges (and strengths) in watching this film.

The main protagonist is a French ex-pat in London. Her mom is there too, arguably more troubled than Benny, still addicted to heroin and insisting that she and her daughter are very much "the same person". This seems to have been one of the incentives for Benny to lift some different colored wigs from one of the places she has crashed at - she tells her filmmaking partner Alex it's like being a whole new person. The only thing she does easier than change her hair color is to break into people's homes, where she steals stuff to fund her drug habits and fill her grocery bag. But no matter what appearance she takes, Benny can't stop the same reoccurring dream from taking place - the one with the haunting voice coming from the other side of a door that always has her waking in a cold sweat. Her filmic endeavors...and her ominous sleep experiences...continue until there is a resolution, of sorts, with both.




Benny's character, in explaining her rejection of the use of a POV shot in the horror film she's directing, states "You sympathize with who you're looking at, not with the eyes you're looking through". And for all her illogical, erratic behavior, you end up feeling much of what Benny goes through - sympathetic with her to a degree and always never less than fascinated by the world she has made for herself.

Woodiwiss aims for being original and has done so to a great extent but, for a point of reference, there is a clear similarity in the look and feel of this film to the work of the Dardenne Brothers and, in particular, their critically acclaimed Le Fils. (It would be interesting to count which film had more back-of-the-head shots - in this one, it's predominantly male scalps being inspected.) The point being that, as with Olivier Gourmet's performance in the D-brothers flick,  the camera crowds into the face of the main protagonist (who is in every moment of the film) in such a way that any false sense in her portrayal of this troubled, multi-layered character would show up in a split-second. Cousty doesn't disappoint - her amazing eyes tell more than spoken words ever could and she gives Benny a verisimilitude in both her troubled real world and haunted dream states that is entirely convincing. It's fascinating watching her break into people's homes in a calm manner - even taking time to play with pets - but become unglued when the least provocation - real or imagined - confronts her elsewhere. The rinse-repeat cycle of snort-steal-lie would have become tedious in lesser hands - Cousty never allows you to take your eyes away from her in this captivating performance. (Kudos also go to Canelle Hoppe in her short but demanding appearances as Christine, the tormented mother.)

Technically, the movie is highly accomplished. Taking full advantage of DSLR mobility, Woodiwiss and DOP Markus A. Ljungberg take the viewer through different rooms of homes as if going through different chambers of the mind. And the care/attention to sound recording and editing goes beyond what one would expect in many productions with higher budgets - the echos provided by the clock in the mother character's home suggest both an anchor in reality and an eerie other world quality. This attention to visual and aural detail never lapses and, rather amusingly, contrasts to the slapdash, inept way the Benny character is trying to assemble her film-within-the-film. I was watching and waiting to see any stumbles in the movie as a whole but, while the pacing may be a matter of taste and some scenes may seem repetitive to some, I felt Benny Loves Killing felt genuine throughout. The character's explanation of her world towards the end of the story, in regards to the connection to the reoccurring dreams she's had, could be seen as either a shortcoming on detail or a necessary ambiguity to further challenge and involve the audience in the whole process. Depends.

I have been asked in the last several months to look at a number of independent releases and Benny Loves Killing is the most accomplished of these works. I'm excited to see what Woodiwiss and Cousty come up with next - in the meantime, they can both be very proud of what they have done here.

(Update 10/09/2014 - Benny Loves Killing is now available on VOD.)

Monday, 26 June 2017

THE LOVED ONES

(The original review posted on Film Guinea Pig on 19/11/2013)

The film:
The Loved Ones (2009)

The under-the-radar factor:
This Australian production won the People's Choice Award in the Midnight Madness section of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and then commenced a trek onto other events on the fest circuit. Nonetheless, upon regular theatrical release, it didn't do very well regarding commercial business domestically or in the international movie arena.

The review:

Pay attention kids...this is how it's done!

I've said it before and I'll say it again - too many horror movies are made by people who are horror fans and not real filmmakers (particularly true of those productions lower down in the budgetary scales)...or by paycheck directors who lack the real expertise and/or spirit to effectively bring out the potential in the genre.

Side note: this fact is sometimes lost on the best of us. I remember one of my York University classes with Robin Wood - the same man who wrote the American Nightmare essays and ran a similarly titled set of screenings one year at the Toronto film fest. Robin informed us that the slasher horror pic he had caught the night before (name escapes me) had a "surprising lack of redeeming value" to it. We students pointed out to this respected cinematic scrutineer that more than likely that was because, in the horror genre, they often make intentional pieces of shit! (Robin was a great intellect but also a stubborn guy who read meaning into all kinds of things - you couldn't tell him that, sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. Anyway...)

Even if you think you are not into graphic horror torture porn oriented flics, that may be because you haven't seen the Sean Byrne offering The Loved Ones. I recommend you do.

Brent (Xavier Samuel) is still grieving over the death of his father in a car accident in which the son was driving. Still, he's a teenager with raging male hormones and does have a diversion most boys his age would kill for - the loving Holly (Victoria Thaine), offering quickie sex in her car while really longing for a deeper relationship with him. She is of course the only logical choice to be his escort to the big school dance but that's not the way Lola Stone sees it. This outsider (played with gusto by Robin McLeavy) doesn't accept Brent's rejection of her invitation to be his prom queen.

While Lola may be an outcast at school, her father (John Brumpton) sees to it that his "princess" gets whatever her heart desires. Before he knows it, Brent has been kidnapped and brought back to not-so-stately Stone Manor, where the pseudo-prom plays out to the horrifying hilt!




One of the things that really impressed me is how layered The Loved Ones becomes as it proceeds. The more disturbing moments are going to be difficult for some to sit through but Byrne often displays the Hitchcockian touch of making you squirm and laugh, almost at the same time. A sub-plot involving Brent's pal Jamie trying to score with the school's hot goth Mia (Jessica McNamee) provides comic relief when needed; at the same time it's obvious all is not well with her character and eventually it becomes clear how that fits into the circumstances of the rest of the film. Suffering rears it's head in other ways as well. Brent may be using sex with Holly as an anesthetic for the pain he feels about his father's death but the markings on his body before Lola even gets her hands on him reveals the personal torture he is already under.

The acting is top notch, especially from the sicko Stone family side. McLeavy and Brumpton do a great job at making synchronous sinister sneers for the camera; at the same time they make it clear how they've allowed themselves to be so pathetically isolated. We may not sympathize with them but we understand the world they've tried to put together for each other. It's amazing to see Lola go from her fairly typical teenage girl pink bedroom to the hell pit outside that door. What also makes the film work is the fact that she is actually a very physically cute young lady, which sends the movie into the realm of a teenage romance story that has gone bonkers.

The film's production values, while on an indie scale, are exceptionally good. And the film has been well received by those few who have seen it, with the Tomato Meter flying off the charts. So why didn't The Loved Ones make a bigger splash at the box office in this age of Saw-gore success? Is it that people aren't as scary and creepy when they speak with Aussie accents? Am I getting closer to the truth when I'm speculating that it may be because this time out it's a female inflicting the physical pain on (as we discover) a number of males?

Perhaps the film flirts with the sensationalistic a few times but that's pretty much par for the course in this territory; on balance I have no major criticisms here. If you never thought you would be interested in seeing a torture-fest of a film but might be willing to try one, pick a selection where the talent rises to the top the way it does in The Loved Ones. (Mr. Byrne, another film? Soon? Please?)

I say this film tastes - DEVILISH.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

COYOTE

(Another film I originally reviewed on Film Guinea Pig (11/05/2014) which deserves a repeat examination,  particularly for the mind-blowing performance given by Bill Oberst Jr.)

The film:
Coyote (2013)

The under-the-radar factor
Director Trevor Juenger has seen his movie winning a few awards at some of the lesser known/specialized film festivals... and being banned from other screenings. This "art-house horror film" is scheduled for distribution this fall from Wild Eye Releasing.

The review:

'SLEEP IS THE ENEMY."

No two ways about it... Bill has issues.

Bill (Bill Oberst Jr.) has some "mommy" issues, typified by his inability to write her a correspondence to describe how he's getting along (which is...pretty lousy). This is ironic given that Bill is suppose to be a writer...but apparently is not much of a storyteller. He has issues with paranoia, imagining masked men coming into his home in the middle of the night to assassinate him. He has some issues with women in general - like the ones he calls up on cable shopping channel programs, threatening them. More than anything he has issues with sleep. He's an insomniac who seems to be petrified to fall into a peaceful slumber. He bangs away at his typewriter or does push-ups just to prevent dozing off. He yells at the woman he has just bedded - "Never let me sleep!" - after he has accidentally caught a few winks. "Victory" is when he tapes his upper eyelids to force himself to stay up. But Bill could be winning a battle that's only hurting him in the end. He loses more of his grip on reality the longer he goes without any shut-eye. We see him in two different versions of a job interview - each seemingly odd in different ways. We see him in the act of pursuing...or is he being pursued? What is the real world and what are products of Bill's warped, tortured mind become increasingly hard to distinguish as the story goes on, but whoever could be after Bill is gonna get a wupin' - he's in shape, has weapons, and is ready to rumble. As the trailer reveals (in all of its four-letter blasts) there is certainly a lot going on with this character...



There is no point in trying to explain the storyline in Coyote, as it remains a surrealistic knot to untangle throughout. You could describe every single scene in sequence and not be able to give an indication of what the film is "about". Fortunately, not "getting it" is not important here - Coyote grabs the viewer from the first scene and never lets go...no matter how hard you may want a release from the grip.

There is a point in repeatedly warning folks that this flick is not for everyone. In case you need further convincing of that, you should take a gander at this very NSFW clip...



Be grateful I didn't subject you to a scene of the character urinating into a bottle and then...

I will say I have grown tired of low budget filmmakers doing low budget versions of better financed offerings, rather than accept the austerity of their means to experiment and run wild with their imaginations. Juenger does not pass up on the opportunity and concocts a bizarre but captivating piece of raw cinema that I was more than happy to take in. For all its wildness there is a particular vision here: you may not know where the plane is going - and it seems to be going everywhere - but you're always convinced the pilot knows what he's doing. The imagery in the film is well done and often startling. The musical score by Michel Schiralli sets up the mood in each scene in a more than appropriate fashion. The ultimate strength of the film, however, lies with Bill Oberst Jr's rather amazing performance. He truly carries the movie on his shoulders in convincingly portraying the walking time-bomb this man has become.

The folks behind this film describe it as "art-house horror". Coyote scores well on that hybrid front, is deserving of an audience and can indeed be appreciated by the open-minded and resilient among us. For the rest of you, I'm sure the next Tyler Perry magnum opus is on its way soon.