Friday, November 6, 2009
This was a fascinating movie to watch. Its dreamlike movement from scene to scene was captivating. The film moved image to image like a series of still photos, each one worth the proverbial thousand words. For all this film expressed, however, there really wasn’t any discernible plot to speak of. There were two young girls, or maybe just one, and an older woman (she might have been the only one who was really real). Then there was the father. He was nuts but then he died, so he got what was coming to him. Or was it he who killed the young girl(s)? Maybe it was the older woman he killed, but only on the inside. And what was up with the puppets? Were they symbolic of innocence corrupted?
On an intellectual level, the film can get pretty confusing. However, if one just tells the mind to shut up and allows the heart to feel its through “Loma Lynda: The Red Door,” one quickly realizes why making sense can be overrated. In abandoning plot, time line continuity, and the laws of nature and common decency, only one thing remained: the reality of the psyche. It was like taking a tour through human thought. Images and the sensations they created blurred together, emotions rose and fell, sadness, fear, sensuality, perversion. Quick glimpses of a dejected future broke through the dreams and abuse like the very embodiment of self-doubt.
Make sense? It shouldn’t. That’s “Loma Lynda: The Red Door.” It was sexy, dark, and disturbing in a way something can only be when you suspect that parts of it, probably the worst parts, are true. I am without criticism in this sense if no other: when it’s well done and deeply moving, art endures no criticism. That is the sole duty of art, to be good and to move us. And, like it or lump it, this film was art.
One last brass tacks note: The acting in this piece was impeccable. The two young women in the film (Estefania Iglesias and Becky Altringer), though vague and detached, were lovely to watch. They seemed to yearn for connection and yet be incapable of achieving it. They were beautiful and damaged. David Fine, who played the father in this film, was tremendous. His violent fits of temper, homicidal threats, and disturbing sexual fixations were disconcerting in how believable he made them. Thumbs up to director, Jason Bognacki. Another SHOCKFEST must see!
Check it out at SHOCKFEST 2009, November 7 at Cinespace in Hollywood.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Based on the summary alone, one might expect to find “Family Recipes” sharing a Netflix queue with The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood and Under the Tuscan Sun. But this is SHOCKFEST, baby, so you know there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Hanna’s daddy issues run deep. She needs to be a great chef, she is passionate about food, but she just doesn’t have the talent of her old man. And she never will until she lets go of herself and gets in touch with her roots. And what roots!
Now, this film is filled to the top with spoilers. The reaction of the little girl in the opening scene, the boss saying that Hanna needs to give her customers something they can’t get anywhere else, even the film’s title, for heaven’s sake! Spoilers all. So it was wise of director Cosmos Kiindarius to install several plot twist redundancy systems in “Family Recipes.” I was so busy waiting for the surprises I knew were coming, it left me vulnerable to plot sneak attacks, and there were a few.
The script of “Family Recipes” was well crafted (though the dialogue got a little heavy handed in places) and largely well executed (struggles could have been more realistic). Very film-like quality to the shots. Even the lead actress, Amy Bloom, had that charming vulnerability that romantic comedy fans love so much in their heroines. She was never cold, always emotionally available, pretty, and sweet. When she smiles, no matter what the circumstances, she radiates a warmth that makes a person believe, truly believe, that everything is going to be just fine.
“Family Recipes” is a film for anyone who’s ever wondered if they really have what it takes to become great. It has a lovely mix of shock value and sentimentality that was, in the end, deeply satisfying.
Check out “Family Recipes” this Saturday at SHOCKFEST! 11/7/9 at Cinespace in Hollywood. Go to www.shockfest.eventbrite.com for tickets.
Monday, November 2, 2009
The scene opens on one man hanging upside down while another selects grisly tools with which to torture him. The tools are arranged on the kind of tray one might expect a doctor to use, or perhaps a butcher. The torturer is just about to get back to work on his victim. The amount of blood makes it clear he’s been working for a while. How bloody must that torturer’s hands be that he washes them in water that’s more realistically crimson than the blood in most low budget slasher films?
“The Embalmer” has a great cast. Tom Martin and Kevin Will managed to do justice to extreme characters in extreme situations without becoming caricatures. Though the film opens with a scene of senseless violence, Martin and Will built these two men in such a way that in the end it all made so much sense. The emotional arcs were so well developed that by the time the credits started rolling I felt like I’d watched a full length film.
In the first few seconds of any film, expectations are established. The film makes promises. A promise broken is trust lost between the film and the audience. “The Embalmer” set the bar high (high quality, highly stylized), and it never deviated. In that way, this film feels a lot like a Hollywood film, effortless to watch. The acting, plot, and pacing worked together to keep the film’s initial promises. That’s a credit to Michael Regalbuto, who’s careful directing never let the audience down.
Though there is charm in the almost unified divergence of most indie film from the main stream, I believe directors like Michael Regalbuto are the future of indie filmmaking. He and others like him will produce well-written, well-acted, well shot, and well-edited pieces that, though outside the mainstream, somehow transcend it. Due to limited resources either in funding or talent, indie films can easily and irreparably drop the ball in at least one of these areas, forcing audiences to lower their expectations in an attempt to salvage the experience. Getting a film right can be tough even for studio pics, but “The Embalmer” doesn’t ask that of its audience. We didn’t have to suspend our belief in order to forgive Regalbuto’s mistakes because, by and large, he didn’t make any.
I have just one small criticism. I felt the flashback ended too soon. It was rather abrupt. Perhaps the torturer grabbing the closest heavy object, indicating a coming blow to the victim’s head, might have done loads to explain not only the short duration of the initial struggle between them but also the victim’s disorientation in the beginning of the film. I almost feel like a longer version of the flashback exist somewhere, like it was shot but was, I don’t know, cut for time or something? Bring it back, please, if it’s out there. I promise we won’t mind if this film is a little (or a lot) longer. To be honest, I could even see it as a feature.
Friday, October 30, 2009
We at SHOCKFEST like to think that shocking comes in all shapes and sizes. Well, if you give it a layer of lame stubble, coat it in chocolate, and wrap it in a berka, you've got a particularly offensive kind of shocking that calls itself, "Booty Sex." This music video is disgusting. I spent half the run time screaming, "Why? Why?" at the screen. It's not hard to understand "Booty Sex." The film is pretty one dimensional. One might see the use of a berka in a film about anal sex as some type of veiled social commentary, no pun intended, but it's not. It can't be. If it were, I think I'd lose faith in all mankind.
I do have one piece of praise for this film. Few things are as bad as an indie film that tries to overreach itself. Model airplanes with strings, explosions that are superimposed over what's supposed to be exploding, gun shots that don't quite come out of the front of the gun, fighters who just can't fight convincingly. The list of offenses could be a blog post in itself. So I'll just come right out and say it. "Booty Sex" looks cheep. There, it's out. But in a film that bills itself as a comedic spoof on home sex tapes, it works. Director Arthur Diennet does what he came to do, make a music video featuring a smarmy dork rapping about his favorite kind of sex. It's cheesy and ridiculous. Mission accomplished. And as far as shot quality and lighting go, to be entirely honest I wouldn't even want to see "Booty Sex" in HD. No, I would not.
As for you, make sure to take your ass to SHOCKFEST Film Festival November 7 to check out "Booty Sex," at Cinespace in Hollywood. Don't forget a chastity belt. Go to www.shockfilmfest.com for the details. See you there!
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
As awkward seconds stretch between the characters, the waiter pulls out all the stops to get as much face time as possible. He finally works up the courage to do what all waiters in LA eventually do, pitch a script to captive patrons. The actress is polite and patronizing. The director is uninterested and blatantly condescending. As the young waiter speaks, the he passes nervous and goes straight on to hysterical when he realizes he's bombing a once in a lifetime opportunity. When all the pressure and pretense of Hollywood come to a head, the consequences could be... shocking.
The end of this film totally delivers, suspense, fear, uncertainty without being completely random. But in a lot of ways, "Hollywoodn't" the film is very similar its lead character. It's awkward, and a bit of a slow starter. It really felt like the actors needed time to find their characters in the piece. The stilted dialogue attempted to portray the awkwardness of the scene and instead revealed the awkwardness of the actors. But by the time the characters were ready to leave the restaurant, half way into the film, everyone had found their stride nicely, especially the struggling waiter/writer, played by Danny Callaway. Though the credits listed Callaway as "introducing," his was definately the best performance of the film. J.Eddie Martinez also puts on an interesting though brief appearance as the seldome seen busboy.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
One night, Leftie doesn't go to sleep. As soon as Roman, the human he's attached to, closes his eyes, Leftie quickly wakes the Right Hand. Leftie demands changes to what he sees as an unfair balance of power between the two hands. They banter and fight, arguing about the merits of being right verses the unchangeable nature of being left. After all, how can a left hand ever be right?
A struggle breaks out. It quickly comes to blows. The hands are obviously both well trained in the art of combat. They employ a plethora of fighting styles against each other--wrestling, boxing, joint locks, and even the dreaded thumb war technique. The brawl is a violent homage to , particularly reminiscent of the legendary final battle in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon. In the end the film asks, when there is dissent among parts of a whole, how can there be a winner?
The comedic timing to this film is delivered through dialogue employing odd rhythms and jerky hand movements from actor Scott Gerard as he plays the arguing appendages. Beyond comedy, references to attempt to give this film about a sense of depth. The symbolism of the left hand being discontent with its position and envious of the status of the right is classically Roman--as in from Rome. The word 'sinister,' after all, comes from the Latin word for 'left' (left handed people of the time were looked down upon). The classical allusions don't stop there. At the end of the final battle, the lead character, Roman asks his hand, "E tu, Leftie?," a take on Caesar's famous dying words, "E tu, Brute?" And, hello! the film is called, "Becoming Roman."
Director Nathan Morse did a fine job of telling this tale of resentment. He certainly built a lot of tension into what was, after all, a fight between two hands. It really seemed like there was a lot going on. One has to wonder, however: We've seen stories about hands who take on a life of their own. We've seen the Cain and Abel story, and all its many incarnations, about a million times. Does combining the two make the story fresh? Do we really need to see what would have happened if Cain and Abel had been conjoined twins?
What works in this story, however, far outweighs any criticism. The filmmakers give an epic feel to a struggle that is ultimately very small. There is enough that is unexpected to keeps the audience's attention. Finally, even from the very first frame the commitments to the story is evident. It takes skill in film making to never miss an opportunity to communicate something to the audience. It will be worth keeping an eye out for future projects from these filmmakers.
In closing, many ancient civilizations believed that our fates were already decided, that they were written in the stars. "Becoming Roman" shows what happens when a someone small tries to rise above his station, tries to change his stars. Leftie learns the hard way that there's always someone bigger in charge.
Check out "Becoming Roman" at SHOCKFEST Film Festival of Hollywood, at Cinespace on Hollywood Blvd.
Monday, October 19, 2009
The set up is simple. A girl, played by Sonya Bender, wakes up chained to a chair. It could be the start of any number of horror scenarios, but then it gets weird. Waking up chained in a room with dead bodies isn't weird for a horror flick. Neither is it strange when the sounds of struggles attract the attention of a grotesquely masked captor. The strange part? This is a dinner party. And she's the guest of honor. Had she know that her meal would be a well-dressed dead couple, however, she might have declined the invitation.
Strings suspended from the ceiling hold open the chest cavities of the two victims while glistening green apples fill their mouths like two roast pigs. Her chains wrap up to the ceiling, through hooks, and down the walls behind her, where gray, grasping hands reach out from jagged cut holes. The girl, a typical pretty horror lass, is terrified and seemingly has no memory of where she is or what's going on. She too is daintily dressed, and the furnishings seem lavish, though hopelessly neglected. Somehow, even though she is in such a dehumanizing setting, her captor sees something human-or at least something different-in her.
But there is one aspect of this story that doesn't add up, didn't for me even when this disturbing short was over. The girl wakes up, realizes she's a captive, and starts freaking out. Then why is there already blood all around her mouth? Clearly someone has been feasting on the dead couple on the dining table, but the girl is chained. She can't even reach them to do all the damage that's been done.
I'm not suggesting for a second that this is a film error. The shot composition and quality are too good for such amateur mistakes from the film's director, Jeff Speed. What I am saying is that this seeming anachronism hints at a much deeper psychological level than just the surface of raw terror. If she's just waking up, where did the blood come from? Is she blocking the full extent of her ordeal? Is there a greater symbolism to the characters and their rolls? Not knowing made me pay closer attention to the details of a film that might otherwise have been carnage wrote.
"Stink Meat" is the kind of film SHOCKFEST audiences come to see. It's a definite do not miss. Shot in 70s style, director, Jeff Speed, hits a horror home run with his whole trio of retro inspired short films, "Stink Meat," "Il Bruto," and "Municipal Waste 'Sadistic Magician.'" Catch all three at SHOCKFEST Film Festival, November 7 at Cinespace in Hollywood. www. ShockFilmFest .com has all the details.
So, as I said, "Stink Meat" was a nightmare. But the worst part about this nightmare is, once you've already woken up there is no escape.
Friday, October 16, 2009
When watching “Death in Charge,” a film produced through AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, one thing becomes clear. Writer/director Devi Snively knows what she wants her audience to be thinking every step along the way, and she knows how to make them think it. Her precision comes across in how she builds every frame. There’s an awesome, contemporary 50s vibe gives the film a definite style and edge.
The greatest challenge in writing about this film was deciding how much to give away. Though it’s only fifteen minutes long, small surprises and red herrings are peppered throughout. Marina Benedict’s portrayal of Death was one of those surprises, and not just because in this movie Death is a girl. Benedict’s portrayal of Death was wondering, resigned, and seemingly compassionate, more suited to a nun than the darkest creature in the human psyche. She was at once sensitive and deeply desensitized. Her wide-eyed melancholy had a girl next door charm, the kind of ghoul you want to take home to mama. (Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.)
No matter how fresh a concept, however, filmmakers should never rest on their laurels. If the film is good, it has to be good the whole way through. “Death in Charge” was well conceived, even better executed, but not without hiccups. Most of them added to the over-all murky, quirky atmosphere, but there was one that, well, didn’t. I am speaking about… a cliché.
In one scene the film’s co-star, Kylie Chalfa, imagines herself in jail. The young girl stands against the bars of a cell as a bigger girl in an orange jumpsuit pounds a fist against her hand and sneers menacingly.
Really? Pounding and sneering?
The scene comes during a particularly unnerving soliloquy by the Death character. It’s the turning point of the film, the point at which we begin to see who the real monster is. Yet the image of that pounding, sneering bully in the jail is cartoonish. There must be so many better ways to show that jail would be a terrible place for a child without breaking the tension.
Sadly, a lower quality film might have been able to get away with a few small flaws. This is really a case of a white car showing the most dirt. Audiences don’t like being thrown out of a story, and when you’re making something innovative, the quickest way to do it is to be predictable.
On a final note, for a movie about mistaken identity, I didn’t expect to think so much. “Death in Charge,” ultimately left me pondering compassion, duty, predestination, free will, and the cruelty of fate verses the cruelty inside human beings, all of them fresh and heartbreaking.
Make sure you catch “Death in Charge” at SHOCKFEST Film Festival (Nov. 7 at Cinespace in Hollywood). For details, check out http://www.shockfilmfest.com/.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
This film I knew of by reputation long before I saw it. Film writer/producer/director, Shant Hamassian, has taken both "Spaceman On Earth" and his previous film, "The Slowww Zombie," to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and "Spaceman On Earth" was also a winner at Action On Film earlier this year. The film was pretty well hyped, so I expected it to be good. But as good press tends to snowball (people who wouldn't risk creating a trend are often happy as little clams to follow one), I also expected it to be at least a little bit over hyped.
I was wrong.
The fun mix of retro humor with a contemporary edge somehow kept a film built entirely on cliches super fresh. Hamassian skillfully created a world that was so easy to buy into that the illusion was never broken, not even when he'd suddenly change the rules with anachronistic bits of comedy and laughably archaic special effects.
But perhaps Hamassian is on to something. While recently at the movies, I made an unpleasant discovery. Every scene in the film looked like it was happening, I mean almost exactly like it was really occurring... and I just didn't buy it. It was too perfect. The movie magic flickered. It was worse than seeing strings tied to an airplane. There was something cheap about shots that were so expensive. I almost felt like, 'So, that's it? You imagine this stuff then you just go out and do it? Is that all? Where's the artistry, the struggle, the stretch? Where's the mystery, that moment that makes us hold our breath in anticipation wondering if you're going to pull it off? Where's the damn story telling? Why don't you just shove my head in your ear so I can see what you're thinking?' Filmmakers who can do anything will soon begin to find themselves facing audiences who are impressed by nothing.
Hamassian may have found the cure to the CG blues. He employs puppets, stop-motion animation, and miniatures, none of it convincing. But audiences don't want to be convinced. They want to be entertained. "Spaceman On Earth," far from hiding it's effects, embraces the campiness of its genre, the 1950's superhero spy comedy. (What? You've never heard of it?) The effects are even used as punchlines, changing the timing of movement and dialogue, keeping the film unexpected.
Just to be clear to many would-be filmmakers, I said many of the film's effects were archaic, not crappy. The director's background as an illustrator came through in his eye for detail. And not all the effects were archaic either, but all were appropriate and all well done. This is not a case of something being so bad it's good. So there.
Finally, I could talk about how the film gives an old fashioned slant to current issues like American over-involvement in world issues and immigration, making a social statement that's far more accessible and so perhaps more convincing than all the shouting pundits one could cram into a burlap sack, but that would be boring. Instead, I'll end with this:
Longer is seldom better where indie film is concerned. Plots can begin to lag, good ideas become either convoluted or redundant, and longer films mean more time for filmmakers to muck around and be self indulgent. With "Spaceman On Earth," however, I kind of wished it was a little longer. What? It made me laugh! I can't help what I feel.
Monday, October 12, 2009
In "Liminal," two women fight for control in their relationship, or is it a fight for control of a single person's consciousness? This sort of mind play common for the film's director, Stephen Keep Mills, who makes quality his calling card. Mills combines talented actors, vivid locations, enigmatic dialogue, and old-fashioned film to create pieces that truly embody the artistic identity of independent film. "Liminal" is no exception.
But all the trappings aside, the real question one has to ask about a film like "Liminal" is, the nudity... Does it work? Does it enhance the authenticity of the lead characters' argument (the two women are, after all, fighting over a sweater) or, as any decent filmmaker would have to ask him/herself when employing such an eye-catching device, does the nudity come across as pretentious? This is a common sin in indie film and can quickly alienate people.
The basic symbolism of employing naked characters is pretty obvious; they are stripped, literally, down to the raw emotion. They are vulnerable. Because of this alone, using nudity in films can be tempting. In "Liminal," the nudity also adds a sexual tension that heightens the sense of danger when the two women's confrontation starts getting violent. Finally, the two women seem more like a real intimate couple because they are naked together. The authenticity of their relationship is further strengthened by Mills's dialogue which, far from being on the nose as (another indie film sin) is often vague, giving the impression that the characters are building on the meanings that already exist in their relationship, adding to ongoing conversations.
This is a fine line to walk, however. There were points during the film that the illusion broke down. The intimacy of the nudity was at times actually undermined by what sometimes became stilted dialogue. When this happened, it seemed as though the actors were conscious of creating art rather than being in the moment. A few cuts, perhaps, could pick up the pace toward the middle of their argument and mitigate this.
Technically, the film was beautiful. Shot in 35mm, entirely in black and white, it was lovely to watch and highly entertaining. Unlike many big-budget indie films lately that play chameleon with big studio pics, I left "Liminal" feeling I'd seen something truly independent.
I won't, however, pretend I spent the whole film so thoroughly wrapped in the dialogue and plot that I forgot the two main characters were naked. We're all grown-ups, so we're told, and I think we'd all like to believe we could see beyond naked bodies to focus only on the deep meaning of the film. Alas (or perhaps, hurray), that is not the case. I spent more than a few minutes during this 14 minute short simply looking at the women, their shapes, sizes, movement, parts. It was novel, but afterword I wondered why it should be so. That, for me, was the greatest psychological aspect of "Liminal." The nudity was artistically handled, but it was still shocking. Small movements of the actors were amplified as nothing was left to the imagination. On one hand, am I still so juvenile, is our culture so prudish, that two women at home having a lovers' argument about wardrobe could boil down to, naked. On the other hand, realizing I wasn't completely desensitized was a good thing. "Liminal" shows us that we're not so analytical that we can't still be scandalized from time to time by something that does not set itself up merely for shock value. The difference here, I believe, was violation. "Liminal" does not seek to penetrate the audience; it merely invites them in for a look. In then end, perhaps nakedness, sex, and violence don't always have to be dirty.
Real parents, unlike film parents, can at least be assured they will get honest feedback about how their child is progressing, report cards and teacher conferences. Film parents get little more than an acceptance or rejection. It's akin to sending one's child to school only to have the child returned a few hours later with a big red "No" stamped on Junior's forehead. How's a filmmaker supposed to take that? What does it mean?
It isn't cruelty that drives festival selection committees to accept some films and reject others. They are simply working to create the best schedule possible for their festival. Most filmmakers are savvy enough to understand that even before they begin to mail out screeners. But that doesn't answer all their burning questions. Likewise, it is not the indifference of the selection committee that causes a sudden black hole to form in the pit of filmmakers' stomachs when their films are rejected. It is the lack of answers. In this void created by the lack of concrete answers and, ultimately, the lack of resources (time and $) needed to provide those answers for every submission, filmmakers are left either to languish or to make up their own answers.
Though rejection stings in itself-and the questions arising from rejection are more acute-this black hole is created whether a film is accepted or not. It's an information black hole, and it's created when a film's acceptance status goes unexplained. So, they rejected your film. Is it really because it sucks that hard or because, as filmmakers often tell themselves, it wasn't quite what the festival was looking for (too silly, too serious, too long, too short, too damn brilliant for those idiots to understand)? Or, on the flip side, sure, your film was accepted, but why? What caught their attention? You need to know what you did right so you can duplicate it in later projects. You also need to know what about the project, even though it was chosen, could still stand improving to tighten its appeal and marketability.
I've had the annoying privilege of sitting on the other side of this problem, too much information and no where to put it. I have watched mountains of indie films in my time as a festival director, and until now have never really had a streamlined way of providing feedback to filmmakers, their markets, and their fans. As co-director of The Montana Independent Film Festival and Mockfest Film Festival of Hollywood for the past four years and Shockfest Film Festival of Hollywood for the past three, I have watched every film submission that has darkened our doorway. I've seen scores of films that simply weren't ready for acceptance for one relatively small reason or another.
Here's what to expect from this blog:
1. Indie Film Reviews: Focusing on films accepted and rejected by our festivals, but I'm open to review suggestions.
2. Insights and Trends: As the films roll in, I'll keep you informed.
3. General Film Advice: Common dos and don'ts that can give your film an edge with selection committees (at least with ours!).
4. Questions Answered: Can't predict what this category will contain. That's up to you!