Thursday, 17 July 2014

Littlerock Kinda Rocks!...Quietly (Shh!)

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.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Who Killed Johnny Doesn't Survive On Screen

The film:
Who Killed Johnny (2013)

The under-the-radar-factor:
The film has played at a number of smaller and specialized film festivals where it has won some awards and has aired on Swiss television but its main means of exhibiton appears to have been through streaming on Google Play and DVD sales through the production's website.

The review:

Two Swiss filmmakers try to come up with a script for their made-in-Hollywood micro-budget movie when a dead dude bearing a strong resemblance to a certain A-list celeb complicates an already chaotic situation in Who Killed Johnny, a first feature directed by European actress Yangzom Brauen.

As indicated, the story takes place in a film-within-a-film setting. A writing/directing team (Melanie Winiger and Max Loong) sit around their apartment doing alcohol, drugs and very strange conversation with the very strange people dropping by as they bounce ideas around for the script they are trying to write for a low budget movie. Imagined scenes go through numerous variations involving the male lead (Carlos Leal), while the creative team try to also put some focus on their real lives and desires. Providing unneeded distractions are the outré crew/cast members in waiting, Jambo (Ernest Hausmann) and his outrageously curvy gal pal Gudrun (Jordan Carver), who end up hogging the swimming pool. The production and the lives of all involved turn on their heads when a dead body shows up on the street outside. A Johnny Depp lookalike for hire (Ronnie Rodriguez) has apparently been run down by a car and his corpse creates problems and opportunities for the desperate filmmakers. Genuine principal photography of the film finally gets underway, where tensions rise and the lead actor gets a little too real with his intensity in the pivotal kitchen scene.

The problem with this movie is the same problem faced by the two lead characters in the film - what to do about the script? Who Killed Johnny spouts out a number of ideas and premises but never really develops any, jumping from one implausible circumstance (even for a comedy) to another. People with filmmaking experience that can relate to the agonies involved in trying to put out cinematic endeavors will be more amused by the frustrations of the two main characters than general audiences will. At the same time, the lackadaisical manner in which the protagonists try to throw together a movie project may be seen as insulting to dedicated film artists.

The movie does realize a needed focus in its last twenty minutes, as the cast and crew characters finally get around to trying to accomplish something tangible and the interplay between them works in an arresting manner. Unfortunately, it doesn't make up for the rag-tag nature of the preceding hour that gets the audience there.

This is all very unfortunate, as the cast is actually very likable and seems more than talented enough to take on a better developed project. And for a film that is obviously being done on the cheap (sticking to the one central locale of action throughout), the production values are first rate, with particular kudos going to the crisp photography and sharp editing on display.

Who Killed Johnny, like the film within the film, is a glimpse of what might have been if serious scripting details had been improved. Director Brauen and company serve notice they are capable of better things and should be encouraged to go forward with such.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Briefly - Puppet Master

Anytime you can get a film franchise that stretches into the double digits (ten and counting), one becomes curious as to how a series could have such enduring legs. In the case of the Puppet Master movies, success has come by way of the direct-to-video market, as opposed to line-ups at the local multiplex. Low budget and low-brow perhaps - but still... what's up with the ability of Charles Band/Full Moon Studios to keep churning out one offering after another?

I required a little more incentive to decide to spend time on this first production released in 1989 and I found it in the curiosity I had over the fate of its lead actor, Paul Le Mat. When one thinks of American Graffiti and the incredible career success enjoyed later by a number of its (mostly) unknown cast like Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron "Opie" Howard, Suzanne Somers (as well as decent career developments for Cindy Williams and Charles Martin Smith)...whoa! Head spinning! Not so for Le Mat. Despite a well regarded performance in the critically successful Melvin and Howard in 1980, the cinematic radar screen has rarely seen the former Vietnam veteran appear in anything truly noteworthy. Which made me wonder how he fared here. Oh well...

A puppeteer named Toulon ( in this production the honour goes to William Hickey) uncovers an ancient Egyptian spell that brings his creations into an anthropomorphic state but the little ones (Pinhead, Blade, Leech Woman, Jester, and Tunneler) are a pretty mischievous lot to be left running around on their own. Toulon has another reason to pack them away for safety in a wall of The Bodega Bay Inn where he's been staying, circa 1939. The Nazi's are a comin' for him and he decides to head them off by committing suicide (a chronology that is largely changed/distorted in later episodes of the series, I'm told).

Flash forward five decades - four psychics that were colleagues of Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs) receive troubling visions that they attribute to this person they've lost touch with. Drawn to visit the Bogeda Bay Inn where slimeball Gallagher had been staying, the quartet experience two shocks - the man is now dead (it seems) by way of suicide...and was also married to a gentle, soft spoken woman named Megan (Robin Frates). The four clairvoyants, a rude, crude lot with the exception of the taciturn Alex (Le Mat), conduct their own hi-jinks into the evening, unaware that Blade and the gang are on the loose. Murder and mayhem occur, with Gallagher's true status revealed and the puppets then taking turns at being both villains and heroes.

Directed with little panache by David Schmoeller and exhibiting an anti-atmospheric 1970's made-for-tv look throughout, Puppet Master is hardly a visually impactful offering for its genre. Throw in an unapealling cast (most of the actors playing the psychics are lively but in a self-conscious way that becomes irritating - except for Le Mat, who sleepwalks his way through his role) and a uninteresting plot with scant backstory/explanations when required and you have a recipe for boredom through the first 68 minutes.

But as poor as the first hour-plus is, things really come to life at the end as the puppets finally get to do their thing unhindered. In an age of CGI overkill, there is something really magical in watching the Harruyhausen-ish touches put forward by the people in the puppeteer department. Blade and the gang easily steal the film - which isn't a big accomplishment among these humans - and clearly provided the incentive for continuing the series.

Puppet Master serves as the template for a franchise that showed amazingly resiliency but even though I have in my possession a DVD with the next two installments on it, I think I've concluded that one film in the series is more than enough for moi.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Signal Comes Through Clear Enough

The film:
The Signal (2007) - not to be confused with a more recent release with the same title starring Laurence Fishburne.

The under-the-radar factor:
Launched at the 2007 Sundance fest, the low-budget (less than six figures) hybrid horror/comedy/sci-fi film has had light box office returns (just over six figures) but, in-spite of having polarized audiences and critics, has attained a cult status. 

The review:

You know that Jerry Seinfeld joke that goes "Have you ever met anyone so stupid that they think you're stupid?"

In a way, The Signal asks the question "Have you ever encountered anyone so crazy...they think you're crazy??"

The film was directed by a group of three (David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry) and consists of...hmm...three segments or "transmissions".  I guess this leads to the idea that each person directed one act, passing the baton off to the next. This would certainly help explain some of the jarring tone changes taking place from one volley of action to the next.

A typical torture-gore preamble about a group of captured women gives way to anything but the type of archetypal horror usually found at this budget level. The real opening to the story that follows, set in a nondescript city known as Terminus, introduces us to Mya (Anessa Ramsey), a married woman lounging in the home of her sidebar lover Ben (Justin Welborn). She's contemplating leaving her husband Lewis (AJ Bowen) but in trying to contact him her cell phone cacks - the first of many tech items that are not up to their usual behavior. Ben's attention is more diverted to his flat screen TV which has mysteriously turned itself on, emitting odd sounds and strange patterns.

When Mya does return home she sees that the people in her apartment block are acting in a loudly disoriented manner. She finds hubby and a few buddies pissed that their ball game isn't on the tube, with their TV making the same strange sounds and patterns seen elsewhere. The guys are goofing around with a baseball bat but something seems sinister underneath their jocularity, a sign they are experiencing "the crazies" the rest of the folks in the building seem to be going through. When the bat is used with someone's head substituting for a ball, Mya decides it's best to escape Lewis, even though the world outside has become violently unhinged, lined with dead bodies in the streets. This first segment is done in a relatively straightforward horror manner.

Jump to the second,, "transmission"...and we find ourselves in Shaun of the Dead territory. A smiling woman named Anna (Cheri Christian) is still expecting guests for her New Year's party...even though she has killed off her husband. Her rather nerdy landlord Clark (Scott Poythress) has a geeky explanation for why people are flipping over the edge from the TV signals but his palaver runs long and says little that can be comprehended. Meanwhile, Lewis and others invade Anna's apartment, attempting to kill each other when they're not trading jokes. Self-awareness of being disturbed and recognizing the same symptoms in others becomes more elusive as the mayhem increases.

The uncertainty over what is real and who can be trusted (and if one can trust their own selves) comes to a fever pitch in the third act//transmission, as Ben has teamed with Clark to try to save Mya from the clutches of the now total madman that is Lewis. This final segment truly takes the existential examination to the hilt, combining the horrific with attempts at humour, while also bringing in some cerebral sci-fi if things weren't already complicated enough.

The trailer doesn't convey how goofy the tone of the second act becomes.

The Signal is one of those films that some will dismiss, citing the "just-because-you're-indie-and-different-doesn't-excuse-the-lack-of-quality" argument. It is true that the acting is occasionally flat and unconvincing (especially at the beginning). You may end up feeling the exploration of the high-brow concepts being thrown at the audience are superficially examined. Then there's the grab-bag approach of three filmmakers playing pass-the-dutchie-and-fry-the-viewers-minds with the wild tonal changes taking place. And I haven't yet mentioned the considerable gore (which, of course, will be one viewer's music to another's noise). Understandable criticisms...

But then there are the strengths of The Signal. The generic qualities of the city of Terminus setting that actually gives the film an existentialist vibe, suggesting the horrors that lurk there could be around our corners or in the back of our minds. The acting that often does work well, especially (and surprisingly) in the middle Shaun-ish segment that could easily have had me checking out if it wasn't as successful as it was.

Arguably the strongest (and creepiest) element in the film is the uncomfortably blurred line between the routinely rational and the impulsively rabid. Some of the characters, aside from their split-second descent into violence moments, don't really carry themselves much differently in normal conversation as some of the people you would meet on a daily basis in your life - they just carry through with whacking you in the end. In a world increasingly fueled by low tolerance for what the other person thinks and believes (hmm...can media in general and television in particular have something to do with that?), The Signal might have gone deeper but still raises enough on the matter to make its point.

The less subtle, wilder ingredients - low-budget gore horror on one side, outrageous attempts at humour on the other - may strike some as irritating but actually helps to contribute to the sense of disorientation the filmmakers are seeking. (Again, one person's music...) And providing the glue to this mercurial trip is the simple love story of two people wanting to be with each other. For yours truly, this all worked.

And, oh yes,, is daring and different the way true indie cinema should be.

In spite of some shortcomings (which, as I'm suggesting, may be more in the eye of the beholder) , The Signal was a film that I found myself intrigued with throughout, always wondering what was going to happen next. A truly wild ride, it's also an acquired taste but one I suggest you sample.

Many thanks to Kirsty (@twistedsista74) for bringing this one to attention.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Darwin's Nightmare Haunts Us All

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.