Monday, 30 March 2015

Just Another Gore-fest?...VANish The Thought!

The film:
VANish (2015)

The under-the-radar factor:
Actor Bryan Bockrader tries his hand at directing with this first feature. As with so many new indie titles, there are VOD, DVD, Bluray, and iTunes options available to check this one out. It seems the best way of keeping up with news on the flic is via its Twitter feed.

The review:

With healthy dashes of Tarantino/Rodriquez inspiration fueling it,  VANish is a micro-budget production that makes the most out of one environment - the inside of an automotive vehicle that serves as the setting for what at first seems to be your run-of-the-mill kidnapping for dollars scenario. But, as you may have already guessed, things are far from what they initially appear...

The movies' prologue reveals a love-bird couple being abducted (the significance of which is explained as the central story goes on) from their vehicle right in the middle of their midnight amour session. Their van resurfaces a few months later with a war vet named Jack (Austin Abke) and his obnoxious sibling Max (writer/director Bockbrader) taking it on the road. Small talk ("...onions have penicillin", " can get that from a hand job?" ya-da, ya-da) gives way to the bros executing their violent plan - the abduction of a potentially valuable young lady named Emma (Maiara Walsh). The bad boys are eventually joined by their unstable and unreliable accomplice Shane (Adam Guthrie), a dude who makes the other two crackpots look like rocket scientists. The one thing that then stays true and remains clear for the duration of the film is the intention of all to have the kidnapped victims' dangerous daddy (Danny Trejo) meet up with this foursome in the desert, allegedly to collect some ransom money from this cartel Carlos guy. This is in spite of Emma not being your typical damsel in distress and not having been on the best of terms with papa for a long time. By the middle of the story it becomes clear not everyone is on board for the reasons originally expressed, setting up a further layer of tension between those taking the thrill ride in what has become an increasingly beaten-up van.

Somewhat reminiscent of exploitation flics from the Corman era, with a sprinkling of black comedy satire, VANish has a clever (if not entirely original) opening and an ending that has more than enough going for it on the violence meter, if that's what you're looking for. Considering the whole movie was filmed in less than two weeks with a paucity of locations, the production values are truly commendable. The camera work is ace, the lighting in the few night time scenes does not come across as amateurish (always a concern for low/no budget works), and the sound track and editing are very sharp. The silly moments are usually more fun than irritating and the mix between times that make you say "ha-ha" and "Holy S**t!" are fairly well balanced. The gore effects don't look amateurish and the final confrontations, while not delivering anything new, will more than satisfy most action seekers.

The cast does a good job of keeping the viewer wanting to follow the ride, which is no easy feat considering how unlikable the main characters really are. Walsh is quite amazing - she gives (first with words, then with physical consequences) as good as she gets and proves she's a lot more than blood soaked eye-candy for a movie poster - a comanding performance. Abke handles a complicated role in admirable fashion and Bockbrader succeeds in making a disgusting character, for the most part, watchable. B-movie vet Tony Todd is a scream in a terrific cameo as a highway patrolman who is both menacingly cool and hysterically funny. And then there's Trejo (you know ...from the Snickers commercial. Hmm ...I think he's done something else ...maybe). He's ...well, he's Trejo! Guthrie struggles a bit playing the least interesting character.

As well executed (layers of meaning to that) as most of the film is, there's a serious bog down in the middle. Once the characters start articulating the real reasons they have for doing what they're doing, eye-rolling dialogue comes out with firehose force - what sounded nonsensical but entertaining early on gives way to the irritating and stupid here. And, in general, there's far too much yakety-yak going on in the centre scenes, causing this otherwise fast moving vehicle to hit some unfortunate and unnecessary speed-bumps in its pacing. Also, many will be disappointed that Trejo is there for what basically amounts to a cup of coffee in screen time.

Tough-as-nails sexy chicks. Crazy guys who might kill each other before their enemies. Drug cartel desperadoes ready to blow your brains out in the desert. For the crowd looking for this type of entertainment, VANish does a good job of delivering the goods. It also excites for the potential shown by some of its participants - Walsh looks like she's due for much meatier, breakout roles and Bockbrader looks promising in writing and directing his debut feature. Far more watchable than similar attempts of this ilk, VANish is one to recommend.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

William's Lullaby Strikes A Sharp Note

The film:
William's Lullaby (2014)

The under-the-radar factor:
Shot in 16 days for a reported $1800, this micro-budget production has won awards at some of the festivals it has played at and is scheduled to be made available via DVD and streaming/download options through, among other platforms, the movie's website.

The review:

Hollywood is Hollywood. Many interesting, intriguing, and worthwhile efforts have been sabotaged by that monster called "The Hollywood Ending", that strange beast nervous investors, myopic producers, and equally astigmatic distribution channels deem to be what the public wishes to see.

News flash for the above mentioned interests: especially in this day and age, "public" is a plural. While many still wish to absorb the mainstream pap that is out there, others seek something with the honesty and integrity that the indie film circuit should deliver but, sadly, doesn't do often enough.

In spite of some shortfalls along the way, William's Lullaby stands pretty tall by the end credits after having delivered a difficult to watch but uncompromising look at a tragic tale. Hollywood it's not and here, in regards to writer/director Nicholas Arnold's sophomore feature, that's a good thing. Just don't be fooled by the title - this is anything but a gentle experience.

The film starts in the past with three teenagers in a school washroom and an incident that will have ramifications for the lifetime of the one who will grow up to be Thomas Splinter. The story jumps to the present to show Thomas (Richard Roy Sutton) as a recently widowed single parent, whose life is a pile-up of moments from the years gone by (and, possibly, the future) that has led to chronic depression and paranoia. The bills are piling up to the extent that his home's hot water supply has been cut off. Employment is precarious and once he does land work as a school janitor, his motivation to show up for shifts is far from assured. As well as dealing with the grief concerning his dead wife and the challenge of raising his five year old son, the William of the title (Toby Bisson), Thomas is also haunted by images and nightmares concerning the episode from his boyhood years. Raised by a cold mother who never encouraged emotion and expression, Splinter finally agrees to see a hypnotherapist (the late Robert Lawton) who tries to help. While William has enough trouble being accepted by others in his school setting, his equally isolated dad has difficulties trying to resolve his own issues - every step forward taken with the doctor treating him is met with one back ...sometimes more. One of the most haunting visions he has to deal with concerns William growing up to be too much like an acquaintance from the father's past. This only adds to the downward spiral in the relationship between papa and son...

I'll pull back from adding any more of the storyline for fear of wadding too far into spoiler territory ...check out the trailer for now...

Sure, it's true that the film is a tad long and could use some trimming throughout - the first half of the movie seems particularly plodding. A few of the performances in the first hour, while far from embarrassing, seem serviceable at best. The low-budget look to the lighting in some night scenes calls attention to itself and a conventional cut-on-dialogue approach exists in much of the editing.

None of these shortcoming sabotage the end result. What evolves is an earnest and powerful examination of a life probably not meant to resolve some or even most of the potential tragedies waiting so obviously around the corner for it. William's Lullaby tackles a troubling scenario without pulling punches or engaging in mainstream compromises. Its unabashed honesty is the antithesis of big studio canned pablum. Why seek out indie works if not to find the filmic fresh air corporate cinema smothers? Arnold refuses to indulge in feel-good cop-outs or contrivances regarding the subject of mental illness and the ending leaves the viewer feeling as shattered as the characters on the screen.

Sutton delivers when he has to, convincing in his portrayal of an individual who has lost his grip. Bisson is appropriately charming (if loud) as his son. As the tale continues the time-displacements, flashbacks, and nightmares combine effectively to drive home the disorientation the Thomas character experiences. Kudos also go to Paul Barton' score, adding richly to the atmospherics at play.

There have been solid examples of micro-budget indie work coming recently from Canada, in the form of films like The Butler Brothers` Mourning Has Broken and Christopher White`s I Fall Down. Add one more that can proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those worthy efforts. William's Lullaby rewards by refusing to turn away from stark truths in a way few other productions have the courage to follow.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Briefly - I Fall Down

Say "indie film" in this day and age and you're not actually talking celluloid - you're messing with video... unless you happen to be Edmonton-based writer/director Christopher White, who raised $20,000 and decided to shoot a feature in Super 16mm (Robert Altman, wherever you are, we know you're smiling) called I Fall Down (2013).

After a prelude focusing on an abortion not going quite to plan, the storyline catches up years later to focus on the character of Annessa (played as a child by Jessica Hilbrecht and, in her teen phase throughout the rest of the tale, by Emma Houghton). Annessa suffers from many of the types (stereotypes?) of concerns that plague girls her age in films like these - picked on by her peer group at school, used as a sexual toy by both a boyfriend and someone at home, misunderstood and unappreciated by all, except for a fellow outcast - the man/child living in the woods (Tom Antoni). Friendship blossoms between Annessa and "Charlie", but the nasty world around intrudes, forcing an inevitable but poetic outcome upon them.

I Fall Down will be received best by those who buy into the descriptor of the film being "...a haunting character drama evocative of the tragic monster films from the Silent Age of Cinema." It could also be viewed as an adult fairy tale (due to the significant darker content - abortion, incest, etc.) displaying enough imaginative surrealistic elements and an ending that ties the elements together nicely to make for a satisfying experience. Others will simply roll their eyes, bothered by the sometimes stiff acting, a little too much predictability, and the fact that Charlie's make-up job is not the best (and that he doesn't sound convincingly "monstrous" and primal enough).

Emma Houghton
Most will agree that the (real deal film) camera adores Houghton and she does a commendable job of carrying the movie on her shoulders (her star may defiantly be rising) and that the story is fairly well paced. I Fall Down may not suit all viewing tastes (worked, for the most part, fine for me), but I think the majority will at least acknowledge White's back-to-the-cinematic-future effort as an admirable one. Thinking of taking that other film trip  "Into The Woods"? ...don't ignore this one.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

54 Days With A Whole Lot Going Down

The film:
54 Days (2014)

The under-the-radar factor:
Low-budget Australian production has run at a few festivals but its major source of exhibition has been through the download/VOD route via the film's website.

The review:

It's like this... go into a restaurant and you order one of the specials. It's been given a name that makes it sound like something you might be familiar with but when the dish arrives at your table, it turns out to be a little...different. You bite in - some ingredients taste predictable and cooked the way you had expected them to. Other aspects of the food may be a little on the raw side but still kind of enjoyable. You can't help but sense that there could be something missing that should have been added to the mix. Still, once you finish the concoction, you lean back and say to yourself - "Interesting. Not perfect...but interesting. It was worthwhile. Definitely worthwhile. Glad I tried it."

That's sort of what it's like watching director Tim Lea's indie effort 54 Days.

It's party time on a Sydney rooftop, even though the world seems to be going through some heightened tensions - based on what you hear on the soundtrack, things are about to blow as far as Chinese and Russian factions are concerned (hmm...sanctions against Moscow are mentioned...oops). Still, the wine is flowing here as Michelle (Michela Carattini) puts up with the presence of her less-than-warm husband Anthony (John Michael Burdon) but is really waiting for the arrival of her hotty lover Nick (Michael Drysdale), who has an intriguing additional reason to attend the party. Michelle's activist friend Elizabeth (Dianna La Grassa) makes her presence felt, as does Dirk (Gregory J. Wilken), gushing over a particullarly good glass of shiraz. But before you can say "hey...why are those rooftops burning in the distance?", the flash from an exploding nuclear bomb has everyone heading for the hills...well, actually, for the stairs. After stepping out to accomplish a sinister deed, Nick rejoins the gang (with fresh blood on his shirt...the plot thickens) and eventually steers the four other aforementioned individuals into a 1960's bomb shelter he knows only too well. Locked out of the safety of these quarters are the three men who have been in pursuit of Nick for his actions upstairs - they are left to die on the other side of the doorway.

From what can be gathered from an emergency radio broadcast and Nick's understanding of what the shelter can accommodate, the five survivors know this much; not only have Sydney and other major cities around the world been nuked but a biological weapon known as Agent Four has been unleashed, making the outside environment even less inhabitable. The sealed-tight shelter was designed for only two adults and two children to inhabit for a couple of weeks. And, in order to stretch out the scant food, water and energy resources available , lots may have to be drawn to see which one of the five people may have to be sacrificed in order for the others to try to survive. (But the cockroach who was the shelter's original inhabitant is safe - exalted and worshiped, in fact.)

Sometimes the weather changes unexpectedly and so does 54 Days at times too. There is the conventional linear narrative aspect that one would pretty much expect to see. You know that life in a fallout shelter with provisions running out and certain death beyond its walls is going to be grim and gritty and that's certainly the case here. Nerves are predictably frayed.

At the same time there are some interesting sidebars - the cockroach follies, the murky murder sub-plot surrounding Nick and the creep factor that establishes to his character, the infidelity storyline - all of these details help make the film watchable throughout, even when the pacing challenges one's attention span.

For a lower budget production, 54 Days manages to side-step most of the common pitfalls. The acting range of the five main thespians is, for the most part, solid. Productions values are good, with considerable skill shown in the videotography and editing. Considering that almost the entire film is shot in one location, the end result is highly cinematic and avoids smacking of canned theater.

There are some script holes which produce some less shining moments (where did that gun come from?) and the movie may not win over a lot of fans in some parts of the world with its portrayal of Chinese interests in the scenario. Also, the short film Lea had previously done that inspired the feature (feel free to watch it - it's significantly different enough from the larger project so that it doesn't act as a spoiler) contained a game of Russian roulette that had considerable dramatic impact. Something similar would have been a welcome addition here.

But, by and large, Lea's admirable first feature is atmospherically rich and intriguing throughout. VOD dollars and cents would be better spent here, compared to many higher budget offerings. Worth checking out.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Dark City Is One Silly Town

The film:
Dark City (theatrical release in 1998 - this is a review of the 2008 Director's Cut)

The under-the-radar factor:
Box office receipts were fairly soft for this New Line Cinema effort on its theatrical run. Safe to say not a lot of eyeballs have laid eyes on this DC version. (It apparently features an absence of narration and a few scenes moved around.)

The review:

And you think you have trouble remembering things...

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub with blood spilling from a puncture in his forehead. Nearby is the body of a dead prostitute. What's up with that? - John has no idea. He has no recollection of how he got to this apartment, or, for that matter, any other memory. He doesn't even realize his name is John Murdoch until he finds the appropriate i.d. Soon enough he is informed that he is suppose to be married to a lounge singer named Emma (Jennifer Connelly), that he is the prime suspect in a string of murders involving other call girls which Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) is looking into, and that he is being chased by some really weird looking characters who look like relatives of Nosferatu (They're called "The Strangers"...ooh, scary, huh kids?). The one person who appears to be really capable of helping John - or betraying him - is the geeky shrink Daniel P. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) who supplies him with some information, but is obviously also holding back on a lot of other very important details. And then there are the constant references to Shell Beach - a place everyone has heard about but no one seems to remember how to get to.

Murdoch is eventually able to piece this much together... 1) the metropolis he's in stays in darkness and never sees daylight, 2) the inhabitants of this artificial excuse of a city regularly go through a process where they fall asleep and then identities are switched with new memories planted in their heads (this is called "tuning" - one day you're a down-and-outer - the next you're a filthy rich aristocrat) and, most importantly, 3) Murdoch seems to possess the same supernatural powers that the evil ones pursuing him have.

Dark City had a lot going for it at the time of it's theatrical release. Director/Co-Writer Alex Proyas was coming off his rather mesmerizing Brandon Lee vehicle The Crow. A pretty well known dude named Roger Ebert stepped up as a major cheerleader for the flick. The times seemed right with the table being set for other movies with similar visual panache like The Matrix. So...?

One of the major problems with this film is the porn-type approach to its art direction/cinematography  - one stunning visual "money shot" after another eventually becomes boring and then irritating. The movie seems to exist more for the excuse to blast as many spectacular images as it can, instead of being there to tell a coherent and involving story on the topics of identity and the like. And in case you didn't see the landscape of the city being profoundly changed the first time, happens over and over again... and then some. Dark City comes across as a collection of outakes that even Terry Gilliam thought were too much and ended up in a never ending loop, ad nauseum. In the spirit of making sure everything in this production is ridiculously overdone, the so-called battle scenes between the characters have the kind of hyper qualities Vince McMahon would be proud of.

It also doesn't help that Sewell is in a bit over his head and doesn't really have the range needed for his role, that Sutherland's grade-B Peter Lorre bits aren't always up to snuff, and that Hurt spends much of the time apparently trying to stay awake. Connelly is there as lovely set dressing and not much more.

As far as visually excessive cinematic experiences go, the neo-noir sci-fi Dark City isn't nearly as bad a film as Juan Solanas' wretched Upside Down ...but that's like saying the six dollar bottle of wine was better than the four dollar one. With movies, as with wino, save your pennies for the good stuff. It ain't here.