You are currently browsing the daily archive for April 21, 2010.

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Despite being a complete rip-off of The Blair Witch Project, I do think Elma native B.J. Stack’s film *Cemetery has a solid thriller within, unfortunately the finished copy shown at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival is not quite it. A handheld docu-style movie, the story involves three kids—a brother BJ, his sister Katlin, and her boyfriend Brandon—out to find a hidden cemetery housing the supposed bodies of a local abortionist’s deceased patients and babies. Driving to the woods in Wales, NY this threesome of friends has a fantastic rapport, infusing the proceedings with some great humor. Riffing with each other, telling drunken tales of late-night shenanigans, and pretty heavily mocking the stupidity of Brandon, I really began to have a great time experiencing to their conversations and natural chemistry. The problem, though, is that the film is a horror, it needs high stakes and emotional turmoil, two things that are sorely lacking for much of its duration.

Relying heavily on the three talking, the on-the-fly dialogue becomes the main driving force of the film. Amongst the stories come tidbits of information and thoughts on what it is they are doing. As described by a somewhat unnecessary prologue of text—the information read is repeated during the course of the film—this cemetery is hidden away and supposedly haunted by the spirits of the women who died during surgery. You also begin to understand who these characters are and anticipate their moves. BJ, played by Stack himself, is a cocky jock, always with a hot girlfriend on his arm, out for a good time to drink some beers and chew his tobacco away from home; Brandon, (Brandon Murray), is there for his girlfriend, trying his best be useful and not make a fool out of himself, which is very hard to do; and Katlin, (Katlin Stack), is the impetus for the trip, seemingly strong-willed to any supernatural manifestations she might see, but also the first to be frightened by the bloodied towels being found, the junked cars marked in red, and the haunting lullaby sung in the distance.

While all three actors do a bang-up job in keeping the audience’s interest, the construction of the film is what hinders you from watching the obvious descent into terror. For some reason we are shown footage out of order. Going from the happy-go-lucky twenty-somethings having a good time on the road, we cut to a day or two later inside a dark house with Katlin trying her best to stay sane and find her friends. We have no clue what happened to BJ and Brandon, nor where this house came from, but the fact that the scenes’ timestamps are future dates makes us believe we’ll find out. Somehow, though, we never do—the boys eventually disappear, but that’s about it. Those moments of terror are always cut short as we jump back to extended periods of happier times. Right when we finally get into the fear aspect, we’re taken out to languish in the comedy, causing more impatience than any added suspense hoping for a return to the future. The ratio is about five to one as far as length of exposition scenes with horror ones, way too large a chasm for my interest level. I do believe if *Cemetery was shown chronologically it would have been more effective. Whereas a steady move from carefree to fearing for their lives would draw you in; the mixture of emotions just tore me out.

Redundancy is also a problem, from the repetition of the cemetery’s origins at the start—I think one frame of text talking about the name being bleeped on request of the town would have sufficed—and during Katlin’s paper reading on the steps of its entrance, to the drinking stories that are humorous and different but still very similar in context and purpose, to an odd paper tombstone at the end conflicting with the epilogue text. There is also the very fake ‘broken glass’ filter on scenes at the house, making it seem as though the camera is busted. I’m not sure this would work, but perhaps putting a piece of spider-webbed glass over the lens would have made it more realistic, rather than the post-production effect that lacks three-dimensionality. Ether way, through all these issues, I did really enjoy the horror tropes utilized in the later footage. Katlin does a great job portraying her character’s fear against the closing doors, spooky sounds, and ghosts moving through the halls. The final scene is reminiscent to endings like in Blair Witch and [Rec], yet if used right could still resonate despite similarities. I think with a little extra editing and reworking of scene order—perhaps even making it all take place in one day since we never see them discover the house anyway—Stack could have a winner.

*Cemetery 5/10

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In a callback to broad horror humor of the 80s, like Gene Wilder’s wild ride Haunted Honyemoon, Tom Flynn joins in the fun with his short film Soulmates. Airing at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival to lighten the mood before a ghost tale feature, the movie relies on hammy performances to provide its laughs, utilizing a failed couples counselor who finds himself caught in a situation that needs him to get two lovers back together. Beginning with just one example in what appears to be a long line of divorces, we see how clueless Cameron Sawyer’s Barry is at his job, unsurprised to find out that his date for the evening was set via an online dating service; a date that will put his own life on the line.

Hoping to meet a sexy young lady, Barry is completely taken aback by the older woman with giant glasses who opens the door. Insistently calling him Jerry, Cynthia Dane’s performance as Claudina steals the entire show—so ecstatic with the man she lured in, her nefarious plans to reincarnate her dead boyfriend in Barry’s body is working like clockwork. Drugged and about to have a portal cut into the back of his head, Barry watches as Claudina and Shannon Lee Holmes’ Jimmy Vega begin to bicker and reveal the not-so-match-made-in-heaven relationship between them, even alluding to the fact he may have committed suicide to finally get away from her. So, in order to save his own life, Barry needs to dig deep and reconcile these two, hoping a compassionate disposition will prevent them from harming his innocent soul. Unfortunately they only have a two-hour window before the transfer becomes null; quick thinking is therefore needed.

Soulmates is very much a fun little romp that entertains in its over-the-top comedy and stereotypical characters. The acting is effective with Sawyer’s affable naivety, Dane’s pushy lover, and Holmes best Fonzie impression. It’s all shot cinematically, using good camera-work to manufacture horror-type suspense despite the blatant comic tone that takes the place of cheap scare tactics. And while it may be slight when all is said and done, with it’s obvious and somewhat implausible finale as far as time constraints go, the craftsmanship shows the kind of talent Flynn contains, hopefully only going to get better as more projects are completed.

Soulmates 6/10

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Ever want to know what a mixture of The Fourth Kind, without the re-enactments, and Primer would look like? Well, neither did I. That doesn’t mean I was turned off at the prospect, however, especially since both those movies are highly recommended by me. So, sitting down at a Buffalo Niagara Film Festival screening of Lunopolis was one I looked forward to. Listed in the program as a Feature Film, but categorized as a Documentary on IMDB, its synopsis confused me into wondering whether this was a real or faux doc. The premise being about a secret society of humans from the future, capable of traveling through time to correct the errors of our history while living on the moon, would cause you to speculate it’s all a ruse, but there are some crazies out in the real world who may have conspiracies like that at their disposal. It didn’t take long, though, to find out the truth—an early caption onscreen says “December 9, 2012 < 12 days until the event”. I could now breathe easy and let the story wash over me, delving into this fictional yarn from the mind of filmmaker Matthew Avant, knowing it wasn’t the ravings of mentally imbalanced members of the public.

What struck me early on was how natural the actors appeared. Both Avant, as Matt, and Hal Maynor, as Sonny, are completely believable as two documentary directors chasing a conspiracy that began with a Polaroid. Sent to a radio station from a supposed escapee from the government looking to expose the truth about the moon, the photo contained GPS coordinates on its backside that led the men to a drowning house in the middle of swampland. Through all the craziness to occur as a direct result of this trip to see what’s there, the guys never fall into artifice, probably improvising most of the dialogue while playing off other actors and events cooked up for the film. Discovering a body harness time machine, contained within it a moon rock of unknown origins and power, the filmmakers soon find themselves on the run from a church of zealots called Lunology, people who follow the word of J. Ari Hilliard and his works of science fiction posing as first-hand fact. We are then brought into a world of heavy conspiracy, explaining how our own existence is the second go-round after our previous 2012 selves restarted everything to fix the wrongs that left our world in utter chaos. Yes, the world was even worse off then it is now.

A blatant chiding of Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard’s tax-break inspired cult religion turned phenomenon, Lunopolis is not only intelligent and thought provoking in its mythology and scientific backings, but also a humorous take on the question of whether something as absurd as sci-fi based religion could be true. The crazy idea of humans living on the moon at Lunopolis, a city painted over in every lunar photo taken and a sister of the lost Atlantis on Earth, is taken at face value with expert opinions to prove the hypothesis. And it all does make sense. What is more plausible after all—finding alien life at Roswell and covering it up or finding actual humans from the future? What would scare the general public more? Of course the government would cover the truth and create stories of extra-terrestrials, a subject that more than most officially reject without a second thought. UFO sightings are actually travelers from the future, able to redo past transgressions, but not vault forward. That is why the Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012; no one has ever lived past that date. It’s not because the world ends, though, its because it resets and begins anew centuries earlier, this time with the knowledge of having to kill Abraham Lincoln and even John Lennon. If Chapman didn’t go back in time, you don’t want to know what Johnny was about to do.

And then in comes David James (Dave Potter) to swoop in and enlighten the boys on what is actually happening to them. He tells the story of parallel dimensions and the different levels of ‘Awake’, the highest being where you can sense every level at once, even knowing when a change has occurred in real time. He also posits the conspiracy of Lunology founder Hilliard and his achievement of immortality. Utilizing the secrets he was privy to and the Luna Stone, he cracked the genome code for ever-lasting life, only to find how horrible that gift actually was. Desperate to go back in time and kill his doppelganger before he finds the key, Hilliard has tried and failed and at present fallen off the grid. The story is so far-fetched that it actually holds some water and captivated me even more into what it all was leading towards. Avant has created a completely original take on world history that is equal parts comedy and historical possibility. By entering the world with his two fictional filmmakers, skeptical of it all themselves, we are able to suspend our disbelief and soldier on.

I give a ton of credit to all involved for some really awesome effects to go along with the plot. The flying car scene is so abrupt and quick-paced that it works; the creepy Polaroid of a bald man with sunglasses, buried for decades yet having 21st century clothing, fascinates; and the test-run of the time machine is fantastic, from the noise of turning it on, the static of the digital camera feed, and the split-second disappearance of its wearer. However, the effects are also where the film fails. Some of the Photoshopping work of archival material is really bad cut and paste, taking any sense of realism away and, as a result, taking you out of the conspiracy. There is also the acting quality of Lunology’s muscle, treading very close to caricature, and the plethora of actors parading in and out during the ‘factual’ portion of the film. I believe it was a mistake having a different scientist arrive onscreen with each sample of evidence supporting or refuting time travel. It makes it appear everyone knows the joke, something that could have been avoided had they picked four or five professionals and kept going back to each.

The payoff supercedes any missteps along the way, though. In a “Battlestar Galactica” ‘all of this has happened before, and it will happen again’ kind of way, Lunopolis runs full circle. The amount of precise care that went into the orchestration of everything is very impressive—putting all the characters together on the day of the event, causing the biggest moment of déjà vu the world has ever known. Complete with a twist that works because of its appropriateness rather than its surprise, I couldn’t have been more satisfied with the conclusion. This thing could have the kind of legs that propelled Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity into blockbuster hits, but with such a tough subject like time travel, I don’t see it happening. Unfortunately, there are too many people confused with more mainstream examples such as Terminator and even The Time Traveler’s Wife to allow an indie gem like this see huge success. However, Primer saw its day in the spotlight, so there is always a chance. I wish Avant and company all the best in hopefully finding theirs.

Lunopolis 7/10

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Listening to David Crabtree after the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival screening of his film Broken Dreams, you can sense the passion and work ethic that consumes him. Enlisting in an acting class at the Beverly Hills Playhouse to learn how to be an actor’s director, after the television show he is managing editor on, “Psych”, passed him over to helm an episode, Crabtree not only honed his skills, but also made the connections to go for broke on his first self-financed feature. Right from the start you notice a sort of TV quality to the imagery, I’m sure due to his experience in that industry—I don’t mean it in a bad way, though, the composition of shots and technique just lend itself to that comparison. However, the film is not a made-for-TV-type story. Following a troubled young man named Johnny, we discover the meaning of a statement spoken by co-writer Jeff Wallace, that addicts don’t hurt themselves, it’s the people they love and whom love them that get burned. By seeing the amount of people in Johnny’s life that truly care for him, the final act of tragedy really hits home.

It isn’t always the screw-ups that decide to throw their lives away; oftentimes it’s the seemingly normal ones that get in way over their head. What makes Broken Dreams so relevant and easy to enter is that each character is relatable. Crabtree admits each role was written for the actor portraying it. Having worked with all in class, he was able to catalog their strengths and weaknesses in order to get the performances he needed in the finished film. As a result, the acting is generally believable across the board—I do think Johnny, played by Eddie Navarro, comes across a bit stiff at the start, but once we watch his decent into addiction, the introverted and detached character hits its stride. You look at the central trio of Johnny, Kelsey Ford’s Elisabeth, and Jake Olson’s Ryan, and see an authenticity in the fact they are best friends. The crush Johnny has on Elisabeth is obvious, only making the dynamic between he and Ryan that much more intriguing since he is her finance. They are the ‘Three Musketeers’ and have been together from a very young age, ever since casting her as the lead in Johnny’s first film.

The question of Ryan asking for Elisabeth’s hand in marriage is what spirals everything out of control. Whether Johnny’s deep-seeded feelings would ever come out, we will never know, but those words flip a switch in his mind that the door would be shut forever. His friends’ PDA now starts to become awkward while his inclusion in their lives more strained and pandering. In order to combat these changes, Johnny buries his head into a documentary project he has been working on for years, a film about a wheelchair bound little person named Julie and her inability to go out into the world since her mother’s death. Not only is Nicole Gerth’s portrayal of this woman the highlight of the film, but her character is also the driving juxtaposition at its core. In a powerful scene, we hear her monologue of feeling like an outsider when around strangers, always pitied and coddled, never able to be treated like a real person. It’s a moving moment that effectively plays again later, without words, as Elisabeth watches a rough cut of the documentary, finally seeing the kind of genius at work with Johnny and his keen sense of being able to build trust with people, allowing them to take down barriers and reveal their souls, something he himself can’t do.

Johnny is also trapped into his existence, never being able to tell Elisabeth how he feels and end that chapter of longing, never able to stand up to his angry, unloving brother at home, and constantly being the guy everyone can count on, walked over at every turn. The only solace he finds is in the taking of drugs, allowing all that pain to be pushed back in order for him to become numb to his feelings and work longer hours unencumbered. Never thinking he is good enough for any of the love being poured out towards him, the lack of sleep means he is free from the dreams he aspires towards, dreams he no longer has to watch become shattered through his actions. A prisoner to his own psyche, he can’t see that everything Julie says is what he too feels—desperately needing approval and to finish the documentary in order to get it. So the drug use increases and the distance to those he loves expands. Even his dealer can see the abyss opening up beneath him, refusing to take all his money and only giving as much product as he thinks Johnny can handle. John Nicholas’s performance is a memorable one, so Zen-like in his demeanor and realistic in his actions. What dealer wants his clientele to OD? It’s about repeat business, not a quick influx of cash.

The third act showing Johnny hit rock bottom for the low sum of $500 definitely makes everything that came before it more important. Until the stakes get high with a sense of danger rearing its head, I’ll admit to feeling the pace drag, wondering where it all was going to lead. We see what the prospect of marriage is doing to the trio’s friendship, so the anticipation to find out the result soon becomes too much to overlook. In that regard, you do get a sense that Broken Dreams was a short later expanded to its current length. This fact leaves me with mixed feelings, though. While I believe it could be more effective with a tighter first two-thirds, matching the intensity of the conclusion, knowing that a main source of expansion was the Julie storyline gives me pause. Her relationship to Johnny is crucial to what’s going on, a mirrored character to break free of her restraints just as Johnny is dragged down by his. Knowing she is still there in the background as a simple cash drop goes tragically south keeps a sense of hope at the back of your mind, a hope that perhaps there is some good to come out of all this—one friend’s sacrifice another’s awakening. And the simple fact she’s around for a perfectly realized mini-epilogue concluding it all says Crabtree’s decision to go big was well worth the risk.

Broken Dreams 7/10

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Over the years Jennifer Lopez has been involved in some good films. I’m talking Out of Sight, U-Turn, and The Cell—movies that have a dark edge to them and stay far, far away from the romantic comedy genre she so readily takes roles for. So, let’s just say I had zero expectations going into her newest entry and CBS Films’ sophomore effort The Back-up Plan. I’ll admit to wanting to be anywhere else but in that theatre, anticipating a horrible affair that would fall completely flat. However, after a nice little credit sequence with charmingly crude hand-drawn animation, I began to realize I was laughing. Granted, the audience composed of mostly women who have probably gone through pregnancy were much more vocal in this respect, but the fact I began to warm up to the characters and their stories has to count for something.

For all intents and purposes, this is a generic rom-com dealing with boy meet girl, love is found and then torn apart, and eventually the opportunity to start over knowing exactly how much they care for one another rears its head to either be taken or left behind. But it does have something a little different in its make-up, namely the fact this couple are having a baby together practically on just their third date. The elephant in the room isn’t anyone’s past history—although trust issues do play a role—but, instead, the artificially inseminated bun in the oven. I seriously do think this change-up in the relationship dynamic is exactly what made it interesting enough for me to get invested. Sure, some of the fights they have and anxieties are trivial, but oftentimes it is the pressure they are unintentionally putting on each other as well as knowingly on themselves causing strife. Here is a successful businesswoman looking to begin a new chapter in her life—willing to do it alone—and along comes a man that has lived a charmed life, but who is just getting around to college and unsure if children are in his future.

These two characters are therefore more complex than just sexual beings that will inevitably fall for each other and live happily ever after. That cliché is still here, don’t get me wrong, but the fact both understand very early on what is at stake in the relationship, we as an audience are able to skip over all the surface snags and delve right into the psychological motivations and hindrances, as well as the changing mood swings and rocky months leading up to the birth. Lopez is actually quite effective, bringing a good mix of feminine vulnerability and strong-willed woman ready to conquer the world. You constantly see that no matter how involved her Zoe gets with Stan, the baby is first and foremost on her mind. Yes, she can use it as an excuse to keep the boyfriend at arm’s length, but there is something refreshing in an authentic feeling, successful woman who is down to earth and owns a pet shop. This isn’t some television personality or high-pressured attorney, she is the kind of girl you can meet at a farmers’ market or in a cab—much like is done here. And, as far as Stan goes, Alex O’Loughlin is pretty great as the dorkily romantic goat farmer and cheese creator with a keen sense of his own ego. So sure of himself and cocky, his demeanor still remains steeped in compassion and nerves at the situation he finds himself in; it’s a role that easily could have gone too far into caricature, becoming a jerk that you don’t want the heroine to end up with anyway.

As with most in this genre, the love story is never going to be enough to make the film self-sustaining. It’s a comedy, and therefore the romance part can’t go too far or else it become schmaltzy and utterly avoidable for anyone with a Y-chromosome. So, to keep things light and humorous, a cast of eccentrically crazy supporting characters is a must. The Back-up Plan has them in spades from the dry-humored gynecologist unafraid to say ‘vagina’ in order to scare Stan; a handicapped dog in a wheelchair that is prone to falling over sideways; an overtly bubbly Single Moms and Proud group leader played by Melissa McCarthy and her man-hating zealots; a kindred spirit to Stan in Anthony Anderson’s playground father, teaching him the way of raising children—“it’s awful, awful, awful, awful, and then something special happens … and it’s back to awful”; and Zoe’s own best friend (Michaela Watkins) who’s profanity-laced rants about motherhood are well-executed. With all these people coming in and out of their world, you never feel overwhelmed by the romance, knowing some form of comedic relief will soon arrive.

Director Alan Poul has made a career working on some well-received HBO shows and he does shoot this one a bit nicer than most romantic comedies done with uninteresting angles and static two-shots. So one shouldn’t discount a few brilliantly orchestrated sequences to bring some big laughs too. The ‘firsts’ in our lead couple’s relationship, (dinner/sleeping over/etc), are disastrous and ripe for comedy between a fire, a water-hose war, the realization of Zoe’s friend’s joke about horny pregnant women, and the use of a maternity pillow. But the coup de gras is the brilliant birthing sequence of a single and proud mother in a kiddie pool at her apartment. Lopez becomes her focal point and as a result needs to stay in front of the mommy in labor, bringing about some fantastic reaction shots rendered even funnier when O’Loughlin enters the fray. Moments like these are what make a film such as this worthwhile for a guy who’d much rather stay home watching sports on TV. I’m not saying this is a suitable replacement, but I did surprisingly have a good time with it. Just don’t tell anyone I said that.

The Back-up Plan 6/10

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[1] Alex O’Loughlin (as “Stan”) and Jennifer Lopez (as “Zoe”) in CBS Films’ THE BACK-UP PLAN © CBS Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Michaela Watkins (as Mona) and Jennifer Lopez (as Zoe) in CBS Films’ THE BACK-UP PLAN © CBS Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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