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.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

THE FINE ART OF FALLING APART

(One of the reviews from Film Guinea Pig (13/06/2015) I wanted to share again. This work and others are available for viewing on Film Rabbits.)

The film:
The Fine Art of Falling Apart (2014)

The under-the-radar factor:
Done on a budget of $2,500, the debut feature of Ace A. McCallum features a (mostly) non-professional cast of performers. The flic is currently available through the online screening company Film Rabbits. Additional information can be found through the production's website.

The review:

While the mid-1960's to early 70's saw French Canadian cinema win accolades with the (comparatively) prodigious outputs of the likes of Gilles Carle, Denys Arcand, Claude Jutra and others in the Quebec scene, their English counterparts struggled to receive critical and popular domestic attention. Still, there were notable releases in a vein that came across in what could be described as "English Canadian Neorealism". Donald Owen's Nobody Waved Goodbye, Don Shebib's Goin' Down The Road, and (if one regards it as the neo-fiction side of the same coin with neo-documentary on the other), Allan King's A Married Couple, were critical standouts, if indeed still hard pressed to find large audiences. (Side note: watch Owen's classic for free on the NFB website). The look and feel of these films could, of course, be largely attributed to their paltry financial resources but one could also see the intention to chronicle lives in as straightforward and real a manner as possible, Hollywood plot contrivances be damned.

With its black and white visuals, scant soundtrack (although music is used appropriately, à la Dogme 95) and naturalistic acting, The Fine Art of Falling Apart looks and feels like the kind of throwback a previous generation of English Canadian filmmakers would be proud to accept as a cinematic kindred spirit. That's to say that it is a film with integrity, while hardly being a groundbreaker.

There isn't much of a plot to speak of here - Daryl and Faye (Rich Piatkowski and Nelia Amaro) can't agree on burgers vs. tofu but they both seem committed to starting a family ...although by varying degrees. She frets that there may be medical circumstances to explain why she hasn't been able to get pregnant but seems unaware there are other reasons to worry about their family life. Daryl's growing attention towards an attractive fellow employee at a watch and jewelry store signals where his priorities are. Once the couple receive the diagnosis revealing where they stand on the possibility of parenthood, Faye goes into a tailspin. What ends up filing the void for the shattered pair includes swinger parties, cocaine, infidelity, separation, more cocaine, more infidelity, ...and the list goes on.



Some may find the ground covered here to be too overt but there's no doubt that the film takes off as the lifestyles of the two main protagonists become more extreme; this is done without succumbing to sensationialism. Others may appreciate that the delusions we place on ourselves and others need to be recognized more often and this movie documents that well.

A realistic slice of life project that doesn't subject one to the same sort of day in, day out things most of us suffer or celebrate through,The Fine Art of Falling Apart is a more than competent film that gives it a solid try in depicting a couple that's doing all the wrong things and keeping that interesting enough for 71 minutes. The production values are very solid (the framing of some shots tells you a lot more of the character's inner states then they ever could articulate themselves) and the performances are done in an appropriately unshowy style.

That bit about Hollywood plot contrivances be damned certainly shows in McCallum's debut. A production that will hold a good level of interest with fans of indie cinema, perhaps it's a film that's hard for some mainstream tastes to get excited about but should be easy to admire by most. In other words, it's worth taking a (viewing) chance on.