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.

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.