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A Study in Horror ...
Usually when you hear the phrase 'indie horror film' you automatically think 'Oh, crap another low-budget slasher movie.' Well, at least I do, but that's just me. But when I saw Mike Flanagan's intelligent, well-scripted and very scary film ABSENTIA I was willing to forget everything I had anticipated and more.
This tale of two sisters, one of whom is about to declare her 7-years-missing husband 'dead in absentia', is a real find a film that genuinely scares without the addition of oodles of gore and screaming.
Flanagan's script is tight, well-controlled and multi-layered, and with the addition of crisp editing and a very talented cast creates an atmosphere of dread. It's a slow, creeping sort of dread the kind of dread you get when your gut tells you something is there even though your head is telling you it isn't, and you can't bring yourself to turn around and look. The less you see, the more frightening it is, and Flanagan, both as writer and director, allows the storyline and his cast to take you slowly and inexorably towards well, something insidiously evil.
He also sensibly refuses to litter the storyline with constant pointless explanations, something of which the bigger studios and established scriptwriters should take heed. Audiences aren't generally stupid, and when an intelligent storyline hits the screen most eat it up with a spoon. With ABSENTIA, the audience is allowed to feel, to think and to react without anyone else telling them how to do so.
The cast is uniformly terrific, especially the two leads, Katie Parker and Courtney Bell as the sisters, who add great humanity and chemistry to the film. It also doesn't hurt any that there is an appearance from the great Doug Jones, whose heart-breaking scene is the one that really sets the 'creepy' quotient to a higher level.
ABSENTIA is notching up wins at film festivals all over the place (Quite rightly so), and has been snapped up by Phase 4 Films for DVD distribution later on in 2011 after a video-on-demand premiere from July 1st.
Never in my wildest dreams did I expect a horror film to be one of my 'must sees' for 2011, but ABSENTIA ran right over me and established itself firmly at the top of my list. It's one helluva movie.
The Indian Doctor (2010)
A real gem.
Finally, this excellent series makes it onto night-time viewing on BBC2. This is the kind of programme we British do so very well - a period drama with warmth and humour thrown in. Set in 1963 in a Welsh mining village, it revolves around a doctor newly arrived from India, eager to settle in and get to know the local community. His aristocratic wife, however, is less enthralled, having been used to a life of servants and hob-nobbing with folks such as the Mountbattens, and now having to cope with a cold, antiquated apartment and actually having to do her own cooking. Add a varied bunch of locals, from an outspoken but well-meaning union man to the decidedly iffy coal mine manager, and you have the makings of a gentle, nostalgic yet topical drama set in a time when the government was actively recruiting trained medical professionals from India.
Beautifully written and acted, with well-observed characters and a refreshing look at immigration, along with luscious camera-work and a fine sense of period, this is a delightful series. Well done, Auntie Beeb - and more please!!!
My Name Is Jerry (2009)
A tale of redemption and reinvention
Ever heard the phrase 'Life is what you make it'? Well, this independent film made by Clothespin Films in partnership with Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana takes that little homily and turns it into an award-winning feature that not only tugs at the heart-strings but also has charm and wit shot through with a profound understanding of the human condition.
The story is a quirky take on the mid-life crisis, with forty-something door-to-door salesman Jerry Arthur (Doug Jones) dealing with a job he's resigned to but hates, the unexpected return of his estranged daughter Trisha (Alison Scagliotti) and his sudden and, it turns out, fortuitous meeting with a bunch of twenty-somethings with a penchant for punk music.
Among them is Jordan (Katlyn Carlson), bar tending at a local hang-out while she tries to figure out where her life is going. Jerry suddenly realises that life is taking him by the scruff of the neck and giving him a sound shaking. His attempts to deal not only with changes in his working life but also with an antagonistic Trisha, who is mourning the death of her mother, leave him confused and scared. But his burgeoning relationship with Jordan and his awkward attempts to understand and become part of the punk world slowly lead him to begin to understand what he is capable of in his life.
Sounds odd, doesn't it? But let me tell you, it works.
Written by David Hamilton from a story by director Morgan Mead and Andy Janoch, it moves along at a fine pace, although it doesn't stop the film from having moments of thoughtful stillness Mead shows not only a knack for story-telling but also the capability of allowing his cast the time and space to create truly warm, well-rounded characters that lend huge substance to the story.
Another plus is the cast. Doug Jones has a ball with the title role of 'Jerry,' a part written especially for him, and it shows. His richly multi-layered performance is tender, thoughtful and very funny, while also being achingly poignant as the character struggles with a life that has dealt him no favours. The long haul towards regaining self-respect is writ large throughout Jones' performance, and for an actor known for his expressive physicality, Jones can do more with a glance than most actors can do with pages of dialogue. It is a performance that has quite rightly brought him 'Best Actor' nominations and a win at the Strasbourg International Film Festival.
The supporting cast is no less impressive, especially Don Stark as Jerry's best friend David, a fellow salesman and Jerry's sounding board. Once again the warmth of the character shines through, and Stark brings immense honesty and solidity to the role. Why he hasn't yet been award-nominated for 'Best Supporting Actor' for his performance completely mystifies me.
Catherine Hicks does a great job as Dana, the ballsy sales exec who seems to be in charge of her life but is not all she appears to be.
Alison Scagliotti as Trisha is all anger, bitterness and hurt, and her scenes with Jones are painful to watch in the best way her anger makes you want to give her a sharp whack upsides the head, but you also want to just hug the hurt out of her. It's a terrific performance.
Newcomer Katlyn Carlson as the sassy, warm and intelligent Jordan is a delight, and bodes well for this talented young actor. She's quite a find, and hopefully this performance will bring her lots of attention she deserves it.
Director Morgan Mead may be young, but he has a visionary head on his shoulders and he has turned out a film that has both wisdom and heart no small achievement for any director, let alone one making his first feature film. Some of our more 'established' big-name directors should take note. And he did it on a small budget, too.
What makes the film even more unique is that it was made in association with Ball State University as an immersive learning project for students, who worked alongside established industry professionals to make a financially viable film. If My Name Is Jerry is the kind of film that results from such a collaboration, then more universities should take note and think hard about giving their media students the same opportunity.
My Name Is Jerry is a film to watch if you're up for some laughs, some tears, and thoughts about where you might be in your life. Do you need a change? And do you need to look Life in the eye and reinvent yourself? Sometimes it's hard, but it may also be fun pushing your own boundaries. It's a thought, isn't it?
Pickled Punks and Bearded Ladies ...
Set during the Great Depression, Brian Corder's low-budget indie film Carnies focuses on a hard-up touring carnival and its diverse (and decidedly quirky) members. From gentle strong man Virgil Handso (Chris Staviski) and his odd best friend Ratty (Doug Jones) the Ratcatcher, whose one love in his life are his snakes (for whom he catches the rats, of course!), to sword swallower William (David Markham) and the tough-as-nails Helen (Denise Gossett), who runs the whole shebang, the carnies are a strange and sometimes difficult bunch to deal with. Into a world peopled by pickled punks and chicken ladies comes Detective Conrad Ellison (Reggie Bannister), initially a cop on the take who gets his cut when he asks for it.
But something stranger and infinitely more dangerous stalks the carnival a killer is on the loose. Bodies begin showing up at an alarming rate and in gruesome fashion, and the detective soon has other things than his 'take' to think about as the gore begins to flow. But it soon becomes clear that something else is at large something not of this world
Sounds like a bit of bloody fun with a twist, doesn't it? And in a nutshell, that's what you should get, no more, no less.
The script is okay (if a little wordy in places, dialogue making up for action), and performances range from 'meh' to very good, but ultimately despite the best of intentions the film suffers desperately for lack of cash and it shows. Sound and editing need a lot more work, and it's a bit threadbare to look at in places, but if you can overlook all of this you will get the sense of a really neat story with a nice twist at the end.
Look out for fun turns from genre legends Reggie Bannister and Doug Jones (the latter's jittery, energised performance giving Ratty a big, brave heart inside that downtrodden and insecure exterior), and a sweet performance from newcomer Chris Staviski as Virgil the strongman. His inexperience shows in places, but he more than makes up for it with a genuinely touching performance he knows Virgil inside-out, and gives him a strength of character behind that theatrical waxed moustache that shows great promise.
If you want a popcorn video that doesn't take a lot of effort to watch and has a neat twist to it amid the gory fun, then Carnies will do just fine.
The spoiler is ... a monster attacks New York. The plot? A monster attacks New York. That's it. Add hand-held camera-work that is a gimmick for the first five minutes and then becomes downright irritating, and that just about sums up the movie. How in heaven did they pitch this one to the studio? The pitch must have been that aforementioned one-liner ... A monster attacks New York, but here's the thing - WE USE HAND-HELD CAMERAS LIKE WE'RE REALLY THERE! Gosh. The studios must be really desperate because they fell for it. No plot, no script as such (thereby saving a whole heap of money), lots of CG explosions and a very unhealthy-looking monster that sheds parasites and lumbers about New York knocking over buildings and eating people for the hell of it. Why? How? What the hell???? Oh, who gives a damn ...
Deary me, what a pile of tosh this turned out to be. With a lead actor who sounded more like Sean Connery with every uttered syllable (and don't get me wrong - I love Scottish accents, being a Scot myself), coupled with lots of manly shouting, muscle-flexing, shaking of spears, shield-beating and limb-lopping, this was the most pretentious, pointless, plot less bit of guff I've seen in a long time. Oh, and a phalanx (NOT 'fay-lanx,' as someone pronounced it) that wasn't. And war rhinos. And dire tripe for dialogue. And I'm not even going to start about the dreadful historical inaccuracy, although it is apparently far more important these days to be faithful to a comic book - oops - sorry - graphic novel - than it is to actual historical facts.
It looked pretty, though. But good-looking visuals do not a fine film make. This was nothing but hoo-ha.
El laberinto del fauno (2006)
I saw the film at FrightFest in London a couple of days ago, and was pretty well sure I'd be seeing something special - but I ended up seeing a film that is downright extraordinary. Brutal but beautiful, magical yet earthy, it has a remarkable cast, with standout performances all round.
A special mention must go to Sergi Lopez, whose 'Captain Vidal' is indeed one of the most sadistic film creations ever seen. Yet he manages to make the audience understand why he is the way he is ... an astounding performance. Maribel Verdu's quiet but rebellious housekeeper is one of the strongest female roles I've seen in many a year, and she is supported by a wealth of talent. Young Ivana Baquero is surprisingly self-assured as 12-year-old Ofelia, and I especially liked her almost Alice-like approach to the magical creatures she encounters in the labyrinth. The icing on this warped fairy tale is Doug Jones, who gives a towering performance - and in this case literally, as well as figuratively - as the guardian of the labyrinth, a faun, full of grace and charm and latent menace. Although dubbed, his Spanish is perfect (Jones speaks not a word of the language), and his physical presence is incredibly powerful as his character teases, cajoles and harries Ofelia to fulfil her tasks. He also plays the devastatingly creepy and disgusting 'Pale Man' - a creature that almost equals Vidal in his terrorising habits.
But the cast is just one facet of this gloriously photographed film, with Javier Navarrete's hauntingly simple score weaving itself into the fabric of a film perfectly edited and written. The brutality of post-Civil War Spain contrasts with the world of magic to which Ofelia is drawn, yet everywhere she goes she has choices to make. In fact the film is about choices, good and bad, and one discovers that no matter how desperate a situation becomes, a choice is always available - although that choice may mean one's death. The film is violent - very violent, but each moment of brutality, although graphic, has a purpose - nowhere is it gratuitous.
I loved it - as I knew I would - and if the Oscar voters don't give this film at least a nod for Best Foreign Language Film next year, then I will know that they have lost any sense of reason or comprehension. Because this film is truly a masterpiece, and Del Toro's greatest work to date.
Hard-hitting yet stylish
Stark, simply told but 'in-your-face' effective Brad Furman's short film about date rape is a stunning creation describing a terrible act, with Rachel Bilson and award-winning actor/director Phil Donlon playing victim and violator respectively. There are no words that can describe such an act, and none are proffered here other than the murmurs of warm conversation during an evening that has turned into a nightmare, and glimpses of pleasure turning to violation in a moment. The black-and-white photography adds such gravitas to the subject matter, yet it isn't hard and glaring; instead it cradles Bilson's wounded soul and the impact is tremendous there is no compromise in 'Unbroken', nor should there be. Date rape is a fact it happens. And there is no way to make it pretty, or acceptable. It is devastating, soul-destroying and ugly. And it happens every day. 'Unbroken' is a graphic yet simple film, and it does its job perfectly. Well worth a look.
A Series of Small Things (2005)
Uncompromising but beautiful
Powerful imagery, rich performances, gorgeous camera-work and lighting, cracking dialogue sounds like a bit Hollywood blockbuster, doesn't it? Well, 'A Series of Small Things' has absolutely nothing to do with mainstream Hollywood kitch and everything to do with intimate, well-crafted independent film-making at its most heart-felt. Now, you wouldn't think a short film of around 23 minutes would have those attributes but 'A Series of Small Things' has them all.
Actor/Director Phil Donlon's project has a message that is both heart-wrenching and uncomfortable to watch and it is intended to be so. The film is at once both brutal and beautiful violence and calm battle it out in an uncompromising vision that instead of leading the viewer into chaos, leads to understanding, and, ultimately, redemption and peace. The final shot, incidentally, is arrestingly beautiful.
Larry Wilson's spartan but right-on-the-nail dialogue complements excellent performances from an inspired cast Donlon's nightmare-ridden artist is balanced perfectly by the understanding and heart of Jenn Pae's bereaved sister of a missing brother. Doug Jones' mysterious yet angelic Homeless Man, his shabby and hungry-looking exterior hiding an all-knowing, humorous and multi-faceted persona, is a joy the glue that binds the 'small things' together to bring about the dénouement. This is just lovely stuff.
If I have one niggle, it's a small one, and is really intended as a comment rather than a concern. I wanted more MUCH more. There is a lot of storyline that I wanted to explore, to seek, and if the film had been extended to 30 minutes or longer, it would have been even more fulfilling. There was so much left unsaid, and it is a tribute to the film makers that they packed in such a lot in such a short time. And, it has to be said, that if a film leaves the viewer wanting more then it has done its job.
'A Series of Small Things' is a rare thing in film-making
it is a film with soul.
A Series of Delights
Let's be honest here many of the 'behind the scenes' documentaries made for films these days are intended to add 'body' to many a soul-less and noisy blockbuster and earn more for the studios in the way of DVD sales. So, what a surprise to discover this gem.
Mark Letchumanan's 30-minute 'A Series of Small Things: A Behind the Camera Look' is just that an astute, funny and sometimes edgy look at the difficulties and joys of independent film-making. The subject of Letchumanan's hand-held camera is the making of Phil Donlon's short film 'A Series of Small Things,' shot in Chicago and starring Donlon and Doug Jones, who recently starred alongside Ron Perlman in 'Hellboy', the surprise big screen hit of 2004.
In its four 'chapters' you won't find much information on what lens to use in a wide shot, but you will get a real insight into what drives people to make films. James Butler's inspired editing skilfully shows us just how tough it is to bring a film into being on a tight budget, driven only by the determination, talent and sheer bloody-mindedness of the film-makers.
Letchumanan spends his time following the crew and actors through their day, catching small, intimate glimpses on set and at producer Steve Ordower's house where the day's work is discussed in often candid detail. One moment you're watching filming on a pier by Lake Michigan where the high wind is endangering not only the schedule but also the cast and crew the next moment you're watching Doug Jones' impromptu make-up master class reflected in a mirror in Ordower's bathroom. The darkly intense Donlon sparks with energy through the whole film, fretting about tight schedules and having enough food laid on for the extras in a restaurant scene, and then heading off in front of the camera to work with the beautiful Jenn Pae. Things go right and a huge Donlon grin lights up the screen.
Lighter moments, including Donlon's much-discussed fascination with Sophia Coppola's shirtsleeves, mingle with the harder side of film-making with images such as producer/editor Steve Ordower's exhausted features as they try to make it through another long and fraught day. Sometimes documentary editor James Butler just leaves the viewer something to think about as the camera lingers on a telling dialogue from the owner of a funeral home.
In a short 30 minutes we get to know the people involved with all the foibles and character differences that entails and it also shows how much the making of the film means to them. Don't get me wrong, there's none of that pie-in-the-sky Mickey Rooney 'Let's put on a show!' thing this is serious stuff done by seasoned professionals such as cinematographer Jim Andre and production designer Wes Tabayoyong. Yet it is done with such determination and faith that one cannot help but be impressed by the fact that the film was made on the proverbial shoestring. Now I'm going to employ that over-used word 'dedication' - but here it means something. These film-makers are professional to the bone; they eat, live and breathe their craft, which is why young film-makers should see this documentary if for no other reason than to watch how it SHOULD be done with care, skill, attention to detail and a generous dollop of guts and tenacity tempered by healthy doses of humour.
One whole chapter is an homage to the tall, lean Doug Jones, an actor normally slathered underneath latex in such films as 'Hellboy' and 'The Time Machine.' Bring him out from under the rubber and we finally see a truly talented performer of remarkable skill and presence. He may be more used to luxury treatment by big studios, but here on a chilly, windswept location in Chicago, Illinois, his star really shines he is a superb actor, and it shows.
In fact it is his voice, rife with humour, that introduces the documentary his angelic 'Homeless Man' explains to Donlon's haunted artist 'Adam' that 'Great things aren't done by impulse - but by a series of small things brought together,' a quote by Van Gogh. And that is exactly what this little jewel of a documentary is a series of small, wonderful things brought together and molded into something very special. All of the wry humour, wit, weariness and tenacity that goes hand in hand with the skill of making a film of the caliber of 'A Series of Small Things' is showcased here in vivid intimacy. A real joy to watch.