You are currently browsing the daily archive for April 19, 2010.

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There’s nothing like a good throwback to the old 70s thriller. Not only does Christopher R. Witherspoon’s movie beg for comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s Duel, but it also contains two characters in an auto shop discussing that very film. What makes a good suspenseful mind trip is a simple yet taut storyline that relies heavily on reaction and the unknown. I was more riveted with RAGE than any horror film coming out the past decade because it refuses to use blood and gore as a way to shock, (don’t think there’s no bloody violence at all though). Instead, you become involved in the cat and mouse chase, wondering if Rick Crawford’s Dennis Twist will be able to escape the masked biker that has been terrorizing him nonstop in broad daylight.

The mood is set very early on with the grainy, stripped down visual aesthetic and a score full of wind chime-like sounds that make you believe Michael Myers or Jason will jump out of the bushes. Witherspoon is unafraid to shoot directly from the automobile driven by Twist or to follow alongside. There is no blatantly greenscreened fake backgrounds blowing by; everything has the feel and pace of neighborhood driving, complete with crowded parking lots and speeding through red lights and crosswalks full of innocent bystanders. You become trapped inside the car with Crawford—both your prison and your only mode of defense—feeling the pressure bearing down and the fear that double horn honk of the biker will instill as it sounds near by. It may not be as good a film as Quentin Tarantino’s homage Death Proof, but I do believe it is more successful in bringing that level of tension you desire from something like this. Without the witty dialogue or sexualized women, Witherspoon is able to devote all his efforts to the chase.

As far as story goes, there is more to RAGE than just the biker seeking his pound of flesh through anonymous maliciousness—a force of anger and aggression. Twist is a family man looking to correct the errors of his way. He loves his wife Crystal, (Audrey Walker), but he has strayed into the arms of a mistress. Always dreaming to become a successful novelist, his bride never let him down as far as affirmation and support, but once she opened up her own interior design business, Twist began to feel less and less worthy of succeeding. The day in question here is right after a revelation that he’s no longer willing to risk his marriage anymore, but going to the city in order to break it off with Dana is the event that puts him face to face with his eventual attacker. Menacing as he stares at Dennis while parking his car, the biker soon begins to follow him on foot, the stakes escalating higher and higher in the hour that follows. The quotient of danger increases exponentially from just blocking Twist from a green traffic light, to knifing the side of his car, to cutting the brakes, and eventually a full on confrontation in a men’s room. The biker has no boundaries and seemingly no signs of quit.

I’m not lying when I say how I was on the edge of my seat for much of the movie. If I look close enough, I’d be sure to find instances of poor acting, especially an early exchange between Crawford and neighbor Morton Lewis about a chainsaw stuck in a tree, but when the important moments come, all bets are off. Whether it’s the film work and precise pacing or authentic performances of sheer fright, you do feel Twist’s absolute helplessness, hoping it will all somehow end soon, but things get even darker when the chase finishes at the couple’s house and Crystal becomes involved in the horror. I’ll admit to never thinking they’d go as far as they do, a bit of Straw Dogs coming into play, but I do believe they earn it. The biker, assumed to be the recently released ex-boyfriend of Twist’s girl on the side, is out for retribution after all.

Besides the tone and style of the film, Witherspoon and company also come through with some pretty intriguing shots. I’m still undecided on what to think about an early lunch scene between Twist and a friend, filmed from an adjacent table. The odd thing is that the camera is behind the people eating, so while we watch the actors’ conversation together, we are seeing a blurry arm and wine glasses moving between them and us. If this was an artistic decision or a necessity for budgetary reasons and a covert shoot, I’m not sure. However, it is a memorable scene nonetheless. In almost all other sequences also, the camera is often allowed to linger and capture extended action with minimal cutting. This style makes abstract cropping a possibility, leading to a static placement facing a house wall while the kitchen is visible to the left and a stairway to its right, angles both inside and outside the driver’s seat of the car, and an unforgettable close-up of Crawford’s eye, framed to the bottom left of the screen as he watches the biker have his way with Crystal. RAGE lives and breathes as though it was made thirty plus years ago and that is the biggest compliment I can give.

RAGE 7/10

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You never know who is watching or recording your daily moves. Theodore Mali’s The Beneficiary, a short film screened at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, expresses this idea both in its storyline and visual flair. While we watch the characters move along through the days this movie spans, the screen regularly cuts to different surveillance cameras showing another vantage point, recording common activities that seem like nothing, but could be hiding a crime when pieced together. The entire plot hinges on such an electronic record of a seemingly innocuous phone call, a random stranger that was the victim of a mild case of road rage on behalf of a trucker passing him. Little did this man know his call would be the final straw to get the driver fired, causing Roy Vidrow to look up the complainant’s number for payback.

From the start, the film gets you somewhat disoriented by throwing you into the action as Julie Ann Emery receives the life insurance policy of her recently deceased husband. The ‘eye-in-the-sky’ camera on the ceiling records the exchange and leads us into the credit sequence, finishing on what we would assume to be the start of what this beneficiary will do with the money. Instead, however, we are rewound back in time to see how the husband dies and the events leading up to the event. The husband, Roy, (having a volatile disposition coated with a smile like most of John Kapelos’ roles), is the kind of guy you may think the world would be better off without. His temper definitely frightens his wife and risks spilling over into abuse if it hasn’t before. So, upon losing his job, you aren’t surprised to see Emery risk her own paycheck to go through company files and find the person responsible.

The Beneficiary is a dark story of deception, fear, and death. Collateral damage occurs everywhere, weighing on people’s conscience whether they tell themselves it was for the greater good or not. No one could anticipate that a phone call complaint would resonate so tragically, bringing a handful of strangers together for the ride. Vidrow’s bloodlust for vengeance and having nothing to lose—showing you how much he truly cares for his wife and their future together—snowballs into one murder and soon the attempt of another. But through it all, you can’t help but look at Emery and wonder how she could have prevented everything. It may be Roy’s temperament and anger that directly inflicts the horrors onscreen, yet when looking back, his wife is definitely not an innocent.

Without mentioning her accidentally retrieving the wrong number at first, or her warning Joe O’Neil, (Matt Shevin, who also wrote the short), that someone was coming for him, Emery was the person that fielded the complaint over the phone. She could have erased it from her memory and saved her husband’s job, but she wanted to see him suffer, not to keep the streets safe, but for selfish satisfaction. Therefore, this simple tale of revenge and murder makes way to expose a much deeper sense of naming responsibility. You don’t always have to be the one pulling the trigger to actually commit the crime. And to have that level of contemplation for a 15-minute short, one can’t help but realize its power and success.

The Beneficiary 9/10

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With the inundation of paint-by-number romantic comedies these days, sometimes checking out an ultra low-budget Indie can be a breath of fresh air—even if said movie knows it. Jerry Cavallaro’s Stuck Like Chuck is a tale of collegiate love and missed signals that can be related to by anyone who’s ever grown up on the fringes of high school popularity. But the story of Charlie’s lust for his film class compatriot Juliet is only the vehicle for the writer/director to poke fun at Hollywood and Indie conventions, while also utilizing the exact things he is ridiculing. There may only be one instance of pure fourth wall breaking right before the title flashes onscreen, yet this entire endeavor breaks convention by wearing its shortcomings on its sleeve, jam-packing as many clichés and stereotypes as it can, ranting about what is right and wrong in cinema, and showing that it’ll do them all anyway. It’s Jerry’s damn movie after all.

Charlie is a film genius that seems to know more about the medium than his instructor who would rather play a movie, refer to the book for any answers his students may have questions for, and otherwise do as little as possible. The fact that this teacher is played by Chris Elliott—an actor I’ve never much been a fan of—shows perfect casting since he’s always been the consummate slacker, (and truthfully, the fact he got involved here to help a kid trying to make a name for himself raises the guy up a few notches in my book). Pining over the beautiful Juliet, a girl for whom he moves her seat each day to have a better vantage point of staring at her, Charlie wouldn’t dream of ever asking her out, no matter how obviously interested she is. Only comfortable when in the editing bay and around film, this introverted kid is the king of awkward pauses, a trait that only makes his friendship with loudmouth and obnoxious Rob more believable. Opposites do attract—that goes for friends too—and this coupling is a total send-up of Dante and Randall from Clerks, a film for which Stuck Like Chuck is a blatant homage to.

Joe Moran’s Charlie is a bundle of nerves and insecurities, authentic in his shy demeanor and film geekdom, while Patrick McColley’s Rob is a well-meaning prick without boundaries. If the jokes hit, they are mostly from Rob’s mouth, whether an Al Gore climate jab or the humorous acting out of what Juliet would look like conceiving a baby straight through to nursing, you won’t be able to help laughing. Some of the stuff may be crude—Rob’s wall of breasts for instance—but everything stays steeped in a sort of sweet meaning charm, especially the interactions of Charlie and Jocelyn DeBoer’s Juliet. When the two of them are together, you do sense the uncomfortable yearning of wanting to be close. At times you feel it too much as you watch Chuck become completely oblivious to his dream-Tina Fey’s flirting. I wanted to scream “KISS HER!!” numerous times during the film, but while I do believe it slows the pacing down in certain scenes, that dynamic of shy virgin male and former chubby-turned high school aristocracy (‘whore’—her word not mine)-turned abstinent woman trying to find a meaningful connection is necessary to pull this whole thing off.

To get beyond the nods to Hollywood’s failures, the obscure cult references like the inclusion of Lloyd Kaufman as a film professor, and the plethora of t-shirts that are actually commenting on the proceeds, (love the ‘Director’s Cameo’), you need to be invested and want these kindred souls to get together. Moran is the kind of guy that encompasses what it is to be on that line between good-looking and too geeky, someone you can see a girl like Juliet falling for with a sense of realism. As for her, DeBoer is not only a very attractive young woman, but she also has the acting chops to pull off the awkward silences you’d expect from Chuck. An extended portion of the movie sees the two locked in their classroom—a ruse hatched by the conniving and amoral mind of Rob—so the performances of these two are crucial. DeBoer overshadows Moran a bit, but then she is also given the meatier role with the ability to use her sexuality; and she does to make Charlie squirm a bit, hopefully breaking him out of his self-imposed shell. It is very talky, putting into practice the love of Kevin Smith that is mentioned throughout, and at times ineffectively so, but the actors are likeable enough to stick with it.

Sometimes Cavallaro goes a bit too far in ripping his own industry, especially with a credit sequence joke that may in fact be too on the nose. He is still making a film after all, on some level compromises must be made. Attempting to infuse a Hollywood happy ending as well as the Indie downer of realistic disappointment can appear as a cop-out rather than witty joke, but I understand where he was coming from and I applaud the effort to get as many clichés in as possible—even if I’m a total Indie snob and kind of liked the direction a letdown ending was heading. The sheer fact that he filmed an introduction specifically for the Buffalo Niagara International Film Festival shows the level of passion he has and confidence in his work to continue on towards the planned sequel Stuck Like Chuck Too. Many jokes do hit home and I’d be interested to see where he goes from here. A sequel that takes shots at the same industry sub-standards won’t necessarily make the cut, though, so I hope the plan is to break free from that convention and create a wholly original comedic tale that stands on its own merits. I think he has it in him.

Stuck Like Chuck 6/10

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Jocelyn DeBoer (Juliet), Joe Moran (Charlie), and Patrick McColley (Rob).
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