Thursday, 23 October 2014

"American: The Bill Hicks Story" Is One For The Fans

The film:
American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009)

The under-the-radar factor:
A UK production, it was shown at the 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival and released in the U.S. as a 2 disc box set DVD with several hours of extras. Aside from that...

The review:

"I believe there is an equality to all of humanity. We all suck" - Bill Hicks.

I'm still rather astounded by how many people have not heard of this guy or are only faintly familiar with his work. Their loss. Hicks was a stand-up genius; when on the ball (and not so drunk) he was worthy of being compared to the subversive, shock likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce in making you think and laugh, even when it felt a little too close to home with your own beliefs and actions. Pancreatic cancer ended his life at the age of 32 but not before he left this planet with sizeable (and often funny) food for thought.

American: The Bill Hicks Story charts the history of its subject in great detail and with tremendous visual panache. Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas were able to convince Hicks' family to provide a stunning amount of photos spanning the comedian's life, which were then used in a type of cut-and-paste animation technique rendering impressive results. Family members, childhood friends, and the other stand-ups from the Houston area where Hicks grew up are interviewed at length, with a smattering of his routines. For a guy who lived such a tragically short life, there is a long and engaging story told here. After starting his live stage work in his teens (first as part of a duo, then going solo), his career accelerated to the point of at least being followed by fellow performers, if not the public at large in the U.S.A. (Hicks was to become in a way to the Brits what Jerry Lewis was to the French - an American cultural figure far more appreciated overseas than on his native soil.) The self-assured qualities he displayed in his earliest periods contrasted to the drunken ramblings he had to fight off later. Sadly, the height of his creative genius seemed to be obtained just as he reached his cancer stage and faced an infamous censorship incident on David Letterman's tv show. More on that shortly...

For those neophytes looking for an intro to Hicks the performer, this production is really not the answer. The major complaint to be had with American: The Bill Hicks Story is in the surprising paucity of actual performance footage (even though his personal territory is given full analysis). Those who have already come to know the man and his material will appreciate the intimate details that emerge regarding his short but accelerated life. While there is a fair bit of hero-worshiping taking place here, there are some unflinching looks at his down-and-out alcoholic period as well, helping to create a balanced portrait of the man at his best and worst.

Like I said, this documentary is highly recommended only for those who have already taken the Hicks comedic journey. Fortunately, there is a plethora of material to be found both online and in hard copy forms to initiate any rookie. A perfect example is the video below from the October 1993 performance on The Late Show with David Letterman that was never allowed to air...  until some 15 years later, when Letterman invited Hicks' mother on his show to apologize and run the clip. Have a look - if you're not into the pro-life campaign, anti-smoking messages... or Billy Ray Cyrus... you'll laugh a lot...

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Briefly - Tom Atkins Blues

It wasn't long ago in my part of the world that I observed a cozy, indie breakfast and lunch joint being blown out of existence by the arrival of one of those chain/franchise egg palaces across the road from it. So I was in more than a sympathetic mood for the goings-on in Tom Atkins Blues, a 2010 German based indie by British ex-pat writer/director Alex Ross.  Shot in 11 days with a crew of six and a budget that wouldn't come close to maxing out a college student's credit card, the film features scripted acting parts based on Ross' own experiences in Germany, with interviews with some of the actual locals who lived the life in his old neighbourhood.

Tommy (played by Ross) runs the Spatkauf (Late Night Shop) that he has been looking after in the former East Berlin since a bit after the fall of the wall. His gal-pal, a woman unimpressed with what she perceives as a serious lack of ambition on his part, leaves him. The pain of the breakup is eased for the shopkeeper by the community around his enterprise - people come to chat, buy a beer, and sit outside - maybe to play some chess or a musical instrument. Tommy's place is one of life and vitality - especially with drunks trying to raise the ceiling on the tabs they owe or lazy friends who hang around to pick up women. The bubble bursts for all when a refurbished supermarket around the corner signals the gentrifying tides of change that Tommy is powerless to stop. Customers disappear, business dives, and the eclectic multinational group of people who have regarded the shop as a kind of second home come to realize the worst is yet to come.

Without the pressures of earning enough box office receipts to pay for a studio full of lawyers, Ross is able to take full advantage of the true freedom micro-budget filmmaking affords. The pacing is leisurely and the storyline is hardly stuffed but the results feel highly genuine. A charming tale of friendship and community, Tom Atkins Blues is firmly set in its German locale but has a universal voice that all can connect to. It greatly helps that the cast is well chosen and delivers likable performances throughout, matched by sharp production values and a highly appropriate musical score. Unlike many so-called indies that try to function as Hollywood studio cover letters, this film succeeds in showing that strategic plot points can't compete with earnest reflection and expression. What Tom Atkins Blues lacks in adrenaline, it more than compensates for with atmospheric richness and a warm spirit.

If you didn't catch this film's run on Cinema Zero (congrats to them for continuing to showcase such worthy independent work), you can always have a gander at the DVD.

Man, that Spatkauf must have been one cool place!

Friday, 26 September 2014

Manborg - Easy To Admire, Harder To Embrace

The film:
Manborg (2011)

The under-the-radar factor:
Shot largely in a garage (yes, a garage) against green backdrops, this chroma-key/stop-action extravaganza was put together in a piecemeal fashion for around a grand using whatever director Steve Kostanski and associates could get their hands on. After a go-round on the fest circuit, the film was made available on DVD and VOD.

The review:

The last few years have seen a multitude of motion pictures with nine figure budgets and the cutting edge technology that comes with them.

And then...there's the done-by-the-seat-of-its-pants intentionally campy sci-fi effort known as Manborg.  Think Troma mixed in with some earlier types of video games and some Ray Harryhausen touches and you kind of get the results of this micro-budget production.

Manborg and his buddy...
At an unspecified point in history, a war has erupted between humans and the forces of hell. A solider (Matthew Kennedy) seems to die in the line of duty against Nazi-stylized demons led by the evil Draculon. The trooper awakens a number of years later with the realization he has been changed. The half-man, half-machine decides to call himself Manborg. In short order he is introduced to martial arts expert Number 1 Man (Ludwig Lee, with an appropriately (and intentionally) hackish dubbed voice). This escaped prisoner gets to kick-ass with the help of the cyborg who doesn't yet understand the powers he has been given. After they've been recaptured by the evil ones ruling what's left of Earth, the other hero characters are introduced. A quasi-Aussie punk named Justice (Colin Sweeney) is incarcerated with his sister Mina (Meredith Sweeney, Colin's real life sibling), a chick who's more of a fearless fighter than any male in the tale. All you really need to know from here is that the Manborg character comes to know how he was created and what he's really capable of and, that after a period of a little mistrust, the four heroic fighters band together to take on the forces of Draculon for one awesome final showdown.

But Wait!!! Bonus movie time. After the 60 minute feature that is Manborg, viewers of the DVD and VOD get an extra treat - a five minute fake trailer for a faux feature called BIO-COP about a mutilated law enforcement official who cannot die and takes on some drug warlords. It is a very funny and entertaining appendage to the main movie and I want you to keep that in mind as you watch the real trailer for the real feature...

But wait again!! Because you're such nice people, let's look at a different trailer with a few different scenes. (There's a point to this, believe me.)

Hey, we're on a roll now, right? Let's keep watching. The folks behind this film have uploaded a few clips to their own YouTube channel (so it's legal and legit). Here's where the henchman character known as The Baron first lays eyes on the lovely Mina.

Okay, so what's with the trailer-thon?

Don't get me's not that there aren't things to admire in Manborg. These people put a great deal of effort into a project with the most limited of means. The end result is kind of dazzling (here and there), kind of funny (here and there), kind of good...

But remember what I said about the Bio-Cop faux trailer and how entertaining its five minutes were? Perhaps it's just as well that they never made the actual feature because I'm not sure any true additional entertainment value would have arisen. Okay, that's a dumb comment because, of course, who knows?...

But I did see all one hour of Manborg and have revealed here some four minutes or so of trailers and clips and, to be honest, if there was about two or three more minutes to show from other parts of the completed work, I'm not sure there would have been any great additional value in watching the full movie. Much of Manborg comes across as a private video game where you're not allowed to come in, interact and participate in what fun is to be had. The characters, while an okay enough kind of group, aren't going to get you all that wound up in their lives (although Colin Sweeney provides great comic relief in his semi-literacy moments - the film could have used a lot more of him.)

I'm probably just being a big stick in the mud and on another occassion would have had a different reaction. And there are probably folks out there that would get into the cheesiness of this movie and enjoy it immensely. I really wanted to like this flick but, for me, Manborg was an decent eight minute project wearing an ill-fitting 60 minute long suit. People with less stuck up their ass than yours truly can find the film here.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Mourning Has Broken...With No Time For Tears

The film:
Mourning Has Broken (2013)

The under-the-radar factor:
This film, written and directed by the brother team of Brett and Jason Butler, is one of five financed with a $1,000 grant from an initiative put out by independent filmmaker Ingrid Veninger. It has made festival appearances (winning awards), had a week long run at a Toronto theatre and is slated for a VOD release in 2015.

The review:

The song "Morning Has Broken" holds a special place in the hearts of my wife and I. This Christian hymn (better known to many from the version put out by Cat "You Can Call Me Yusuf Now" Stevens) was played at the beginning of our wedding ceremony. So, I was certainly able to take a trip down memory lane with a recent screening of the micro-budget dark comedy Mourning Has Broken (clever play on words), where the song is given no less than six different versions/interpretations on the soundtrack.

Nice...but not the only nice thing about this spunky effort.

A character known simply as "Husband" awakens one morning to feed his cat a gourmet meal before heading back to bed and to his wife, who, as it turns dead. The plethora of medication on the side table clearly indicates the woman was not well and her passing far from a surprise. Still, the loss is a shock and her husband doesn't seem able to cope with her departure. Putting his best face on and pretending that it can be "just another day", the widower finds the "to-do" list his spouse had made up and sets about to accomplish each of the tasks that would have been expected of him.

The problem is, "Husband" is about to encounter a multitude of assholes in the world outside on what has already started out as the saddest day of his life. His bully neighbour insists on coaching him on how to wash his car. The clerk at a clothing outlet won't allow him to return an unsuitable garment bought for his wife. Fellow motorists are either driving too slowly in front of him, giving the wrong turn signals or are berating him for not moving out of parking spots quickly enough. Once his vehicle shows a flicker of an issue, the nearest auto mechanic is more than willing to upsell the maintenance requirements to come. The audience at a movie house is too busy talking and texting to allow him to enjoy the screening. All along, a certain kind of cake he needs to acquire becomes as easy to locate as the Loch Ness Monster.

At first, our main character tries to keep his cool, taking the high road and staying polite. But eventually, the world around him becomes too much to bear for a man repressing emotions that don't need to be stirred any further. Vocal assertiveness gives way to physical reactions and before "Husband" knows it, he is planning on the kind of retaliations where baseball bats come in handy. His final actions allow him to return to the side of his deceased and conclude his long day in the way he feels he must.

With indie productions in general, and low/no budget efforts like this one in particular, scripts can be the strongest element if enough time and thought have been utilized. Production values are a less certain variable, given the obvious restrictions on what can be accessed and the conditions the filming is done under, far away from high-tech sound stages. The area that becomes the most problematic is the acting talent, since Benedict Cumberbatch probably can't be enticed to show up to your shoot, no matter how fresh you promise the coffee and bagels will be.

Bravo, Robert Nolan
Flip those concerns on their heads and you have the strengths of Mourning Has Broken showing up in reverse order. The lead character is played by Robert Nolan and this guy totally brings it in a way most filmmakers dealing with minimal financial resources can only dream of. Nolan is practically in every single frame and delivers the right blend of inspired lunacy and moving dramatics throughout. His Howard Beale-ish movie house rant is a classic at one end; a flip-side three minute single take in a record store shows a suddenly taciturn man expressing everything in his emotionally wracked face. Nolan is so good that one may be concerned that he would show up the deficiencies in a supporting cast made up of amateurish personnel, but the Butler bros struck gold in that vein as well. The actors the husband character is required to play off of are pretty much all up to the challenge, with a special nod to Graham Kent as that all-too-familiar kind of shady auto mechanic you don't want nursing your wheels.

While there are are occasional signs this film was made for cinematic spare change, the overall look is sharp, with the Michael Jari Davidson's Cannon 5D MKII camera work complemented well by crisp editing. Sound montage and the aforementioned musical score are also of top caliber.

The least hearty aspect of the film is the script, which is pretty much a one-trick pony of sorts. You come to understand that the husband surveys the to-do list, sets off to accomplish a task and, along the way, has some sort of confrontation, to be echoed over and over again. The predictable rinse-repeat cycle is less successful in some scenes than in others. While the movie clocks in at 77 minutes, some of these bits feel too drawn out and often take their time arriving at any payoff. Fortunately, Nolan makes most of these periods worth the wait in the end.

Considering this effort was made for less than five figures, the results the Butler brothers have produced are quite impressive. Many times you've seen a film and said to yourself "I could do better than that!" This film will have you saying "with what they had to work with, how could I have topped this?"

But what does that have to do with it being a film to recommend, especially if folks out there are debating forking out some coin to catch it?

When Mourning Has Broken makes its VOD debut, it will be up against big studio cinema candy, flicks that cost a lot of money and, in many cases, ripped off the movie-going public for at least as much. There are great films to be had in the streaming/downloading world but there are also tons of insincere, dubious ones. A sterling example of how much can be done by extremely modest means, Mourning Has Broken puts many big budget motion pictures to shame.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Briefly - Say It Like It Is

Old friends from middle school years have morphed into becoming adult strangers to each other in Maria McIndoo's micro-budget feature debut Say It Like It Is (2013).

Dylan (played by director McIndoo) is a Philadelphia based wannabe writer who accepts her plight as a bartender to make ends meet, dumping on the urbanized phony artists she labels as the "attack of the clones". She takes a trip into Long Island to meet up with old gal pal Brooke (Rachel Williams). The latter has just moved in with Bill (Alex Karfarkis), the same boyfriend she had been talking about dumping, but now finds herself in the abode he has inherited from his Florida bound parents. Dylan finds it hard to believe Brooke is into the suburban life (including unlocked doors) and talking about starting a family; Brooke seems surprised that Dylan wants to stick to the "writing thing". As if these two weren't out of sync enough, the homeowners are looking after discombobulating nephew Laden (Michael McIndoo), a standoffish kid when he isn't being exceptionally needy. Dylan's next few days feature schedules determined by the "happy" couple's shopping habits or Laden's tantrums. A surprise party for the writer attended by her old friends helps to accentuate how different the two main characters have become.

Some films try to be BIG - all-encompassing, all-knowing, here to have the planet and its seven billion inhabitants entirely figured out. Other flicks try the micro route, examining details in the most petite of proportions. Say It Like It Is refreshingly tries to stay on the same scale as life itself and does a pretty good job of it. The situations are not over-dramatized or carry on as being "important". They're also not drawn out in navel-gazing introspection. The situation here is one you can recognize, the verisimilitude passes the sniff test, and the whole production seems to be in the hands of a filmmaker who knew exactly what she wanted to capture and what to not bother with.

There are some bumps in the presentation - the acting is somewhat stilted at times and the editing has an unimaginative cutting-on-dialogue consistency. But for a production that apparently stuck to less than four grand in financing, the end results bring good value to the 75 minute running time asked of it. After seeing so many cinematic (self) delusions trying to be this or that, it's nice to see a feature which unspools as naturally as this one does. And that's how best to describe Say It Like It Is - it's simply a "nice" film.

(And this feature is currently (11/09/2014) screening over at Cinema Zero.)