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.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Briefly - Familiar

Being led to believe by a voice in his head that life has passed him by, a middle-aged family man poses a danger to others and then to himself in writer-director Richard Powell's 2012 short film Familiar.

Robert Nolan
John Dodd (Robert Nolan) seems to be guided by an inner monologue convincing him that better times are just around the corner. His daughter (Cathryn Hostick) will soon be off to college, leading to the sinister narrator within John's frame to concoct an escape plan to take the fellow away from his wife Charlotte (Astrida Auza). Problem is, the lady of the house drops the bombshell that she is with child.

John is prompted by the sinister sermons going on between his ears to resort to some chemical weapons in the battle against Charlotte, first in terms of addressing her pregnant state and then by taking things even further. The one thing the evil side doesn't count on, however, is the "real" John beginning to question his own actions and stage an insurgence against that power which is trying to command him. It's at this point where the film truly does a flip from psychological thriller to body horror. If you've had a longing for the early works of Cronenberg, you'll be somewhat taken down memory lane by what's in here.

Familiar does have notable strengths going for it. While shot on an obviously low budget, the production values are pretty strong (with one unfortunate exception - see below). The storyline is intriguing and the pacing appropriate. The switch of the John character from unlikable menace to sympathetic victim comes about smoothly and believably. There are some genuinely creepy gore moments that deliver an impact towards the end of the flick. And, ultimately, the film belongs to Robert Nolan, who continues to display amazing gifts worthy of greater attention.

Criticisms? One is the running time - shorts have an important place on a cinematic landscape that is obviously biased towards features, but at 24 minutes this tale just seems too abrupt and more like a demo real for a longer, even richer examination. And while "the demon within" special effect at the end is genuinely cool and awesome, some of the earlier body manipulations have too much of a Halloween-via-dollar store quality to them to be taken with anything close to seriousness.

Defiantly worth checking out, Familiar serves as another example of how powerful an actor Nolan is and also prompts excitement as to where Powell and his Fatal Pictures producing partner Zach Green are headed next.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Willow Creek Runs Dry

The film
Willow Creek (2014)

The under-the-radar factor:
The films of director Bobcat Goldthwait, while often critically acclaimed (or at least highly recognized for their audacity), have never done huge box office or found a mainstream audience. This film had a limited run on the theatrical circuit before its early fall DVD release.

The review:

Back on October 20, 1967, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin were said to have shot some footage around Bluff Creek, California showing what appeared to be the infamous "Bigfoot" (aka "Yeti"). Some say it was a dude in a monkey suit but that hasn't stopped many from being obsessed by the topic. That fixated attitude leads a couple into trouble in Goldthwait's break from black comedies and into the faux found footage horror genre.

Budding documentarian Jim (Bryce Johnson) has dragged his girlfriend Kelly (Goldthwait stalwart Alexie Gilmore) along for a trip to Willow Creek and the site where Patterson and Gimlin had shot their famous/infamous footage. He is set on taking a camping trip to the exact area where Bigfoot was alleged to have been spotted; she supports her man but sports a high degree of cynicism in the subject matter at hand. Local townsfolk and people who are said to be in the know about the subject and its reverberations are interviewed - some take the legend more seriously than others but the whole area is basically a dollar store version of a Bigfoot theme park. In between chats with the natives the couple try to have some fun and take in the sights. (They seem to care for each other but it's also obvious their relationship may not be on as strong a ground as Jim would like.) Just as they prepare to embark on the real investigation in the woods, they receive warnings - one low-keyed and the other definitely not - to take the Yeti legend seriously and go back to where they came. Predictably, Jim is undaunted and convinces his gal pal to proceed.

Describing the goings-on beyond this point would be traversing into far too much potential spoiler territory...see you after the trailer.

It seems with these faux found footage efforts that two crucial factors weigh heavily in the chance for a production to sink or swim in connecting with its audience. The first concern involves the matter of suspension of disbelief being severely challenged as to whether one will buy into a camera being turned on or left running at certain times. Even the most successful movies in the genre have at least one moment where the viewer reaction would be close to "yeah...right, lol" over the red light beaming away. The second component crucially needed for the semblance of cinema vérité illusion is that the performers don't appear to be actors acting but rather come across as unpolished everyday blokes going through natural motions.

Willow Creek has issues on both accounts. Some of the personal matters that the couple feel need discussing while driving seem like strange material to be recorded. They already know the equipment works, so why all the blabbering for the camera? A no-cost form of therapy? There are also the proverbial "I better run for my life...but damn if I'm not going to shoot this for the world to see" moments that will again send some eyeballs rolling.

As well, too many of the cast members fail to leave behind their thespian signatures for the world to see. A few actual (and obvious) non-actors are along for the ride but some of the professionals can't convey the same naturalness. The way people use language in real life - both the verbal and body kind - isn't the same as the way actors deliver the goods in mainstream fictional cinema. Actual folks run over each other's dialogue and interrupt each other; they also don't happen to pivot and pose to be perfectly framed by a camera that's supposedly recording them on the fly. Too many of these kinds of moments emerge in this film to go unnoticed.

Some films have you continually checking your timepiece to see if the movie will ever end; Willow Creek has you paying attention to the moments left to wonder if there is ever going to be a real payoff arriving. The elongated "tent scene" provides a few shutters, but while the concept of "what you hear can be more important than what you see" is an appealing tactic in theory, the execution here just doesn't produce enough oomph.

Clearly being marketed as a found footage horror movie, Willow Creek shortchanges on the scare aspect. Some may appreciate the amount of time dedicated to exploring the couple's relationship but these eyeballs found that to be a tedious experience.

They say a change is as good as a rest. I look forward to Goldthwait returning to his black comedic strengths after what seems to have been an unneeded cinematic detour.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Tesis Doesn't Go To The Head Of The Class

The Film:
Tesis -AKA Thesis (1996)

The under-the-radar factor:
Chilean-Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar has gone on to direct attention grabbers such as big-budget Hollywood fare (The Other), as well as Oscar winner The Sea Inside (Best Foreign Language Film). Not as widely seen through most of North America is this, his feature film debut.

The review:

We all start somewhere and in the career of Amenábar, his feature film lift-off was with this Spanish language thriller set in the world of academia.

Angela (Ana Torrent) is writing a thesis about the effects that violence in media command over its audience. The professor overseeing her work agrees to look into the contents of the university video library to locate any particularly appropriate nasty stuff for her to do research on. In the meantime, she has somehow become aware that a rather hygienically challenged porn/horror geek of a student named Chema (Fele Martinez) has gore to spare in his collection. He reluctantly agrees to give her a view of his own vile wares, which he of course enjoys and she can barely stand to watch. But she does...sometimes covering her face...but peeking between her fingers until she says she can't watch anymore...but does again. Like in the poster to the left. See, I wasn't lying.

It turns out that her professor not only has admittance privileges to the school's official VHS library but also knows of a hidden passageway to a secret room where other tapes are held. The asthmatic teacher grabs a hold of one to view in a screening room where the contents of the video apparently proves to be a little too much for him to handle. Angela finds him dead; she's shocked but also seemingly intrigued, wondering if he was provoked into death by what he was regarding. She not only doesn't report her mentor's passing but also makes off with the material in question.

Angela shares her discovery with Chema, who quickly gets the picture of what he's observing. It not only turns out to be an authentic snuff video but one where the victim is a former student named Vanessa who mysteriously disappeared a few years before. Further investigation concludes that the grizzly production had to have been shot on a particular Hi-8 camera ... like the one being lugged around by the obscenely handsome campus hunk Bosco (Eduardo Noreiga). While trying to determine if the dude with the smoldering eyes is a murderer (Chema is certain; Angela not so much), the replacement professor looking after the mentoring of the thesis brings a new round of twists and turns into the proceedings. Between dealing with her conflicting feelings over Bosco, the handsome devil's girlfriend that he may or may not have broke off with, a troublesome sister who may be the next victim, and the lingering suspicions over the new prof (and perhaps even Chema) ...let's just say Angela finds things to be mighty confusing. And increasingly dangerous for herself...

I know I'm in the minority but I found The Sea Inside to be an overrated soap opera, cajoling to middlebrow cinematic sensibilities...or worse. Sadly, Tesis strikes me as being very much the same in spirit, if not genre.

No denying that this is a strongly cast film - the three leads are all up to giving this effort a go - but being well-suited doesn't matter much when one is not well-supported. While the production values are professional, the overall presentation is pretty conventional, including the cutting-on-dialogue routine one usually sees with more pedestrian projects. The twists and turns the script introduces start off as intriguing, progress to confusing. and, ultimately, graduate to exhaustively irritating, particularly after one's initial suspicion of each character's role in the tale turns out to have been pretty accurate in the end. Angela often comes across as being a doofus, such as telegraphing her obvious panic around Bosco (her first attempt to flee his presence results in a ridiculously presented chase-down-the-halls scene), among other brain-spasm moments. For a so-called thriller, the results are not all that suspenseful.

And the film's seemingly grand statement, that we live in a hypocritical society that denouces violence in media while also willfully lapping it up - that's about as big and original a revelation as exposing that professional wrestling matches are fixed. The fact we have moral contradictions is news? Motorists are disgusted with themselves for rubber-necking at the scenes of accidents but continue to do so. People are appalled that Jennifer Lawrence's nudes were leaked onto the internet - and then search endlessly for a peek. We really know ourselves more than Amenábar gives credit for and no ground-breaking territory is being exposed here.

Tesis provides nothing original in either content or presentation. I do have a few more Amenábar flicks to catch up on - I hope he doesn't end up joining David O. Russell in my "strange why people make a big deal about this filmmaker" club.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Briefly - Le Fear II: Le Sequel

After creating a movie about a particularly bad filmmaker making particularly bad films in the 2010 production Le Fear, writer-director (and sometimes actor) Jason Croot brings back the character of Carlos Revalos for Le Fear II: Le Sequel, a low budget comedy/mocumentary/movie-within-a-movie effort to be released in 2015.

Carlos (Kyri Saphiris) falls for a pitch from his executive producer and ends up putting a substantial sum of his own money into the horror film they will be making. Revalos is a kind of reverse Ed Wood - he too makes crap but at least he knows when things are going wrong and will come out like shit. The flick he's working on turns out to be quite the international effort; the producer on set (actually, there isn't a set as promised...only a van) turns out to be a Nollywood import with a bargain-basement attitude. Mixed in with Brit, French and, eventually, Japanese talent, the production hardly has world harmony going for it. The special effects person provides offerings that are anything but special; the make-up person goes into heat and wants to have sex with just about anyone she comes in contact with; the French actress gets fed up with the chaos and is replaced by an oriental substitute who really can't speak English, and so on...

At one point a frustrated Carlos thinks out loud that he might just take the material he has and at least get a short out of it. Some watching Le Fear II: Le Sequel may think that would have been a good option for Croot's feature. The film has a talented cast trying to handle what appears to be an entirely ad-libbed effort but the same kind of scenes are played out endlessly. "ACTION!"... (something goes wrong) ..."CUT!" ... (curse) ... (argue) ... (despair) ... (rinse) ... (repeat) ... get the picture? The fact the characters come across as too predictable and stereotypical also doesn't help.

Le Fear II: Le Sequel will hold some entertainment value for those of us who have been on film productions of various scales who know only too well that what can go wrong will. And there is a certain build of interest that comes from wondering how the Carlos character will try to overcome all the obstacles. But for many viewers, the entertainment value of this effort will not be regarded as impressive. And certain folks could be uncomfortable with the way the Nollywood contingent are portrayed.

Still, if nothing else, Croot is determined. He already has plans for additional Le Fear/Revalos sequel efforts. Perhaps that perseverance will pay off if it meets up with a little more originality and inspiration.