Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Bucksville (2011)

Director: Chel White                                         Writers: Laura McGie & Chel White
Film Score: Tom Brosseau                               Cinematography: Marc Greenfield
Starring: Thomas Stroppel, Ted Rooney, Katy Beckemeyer and Tom Berenger

Bucksville is a fascinating film. I came to it through its star, Thomas Stroppel, and his incredible performance in The Falls: Testament of Love by Northwest director Jon Garcia. He is a compelling actor and it’s terrific to see him in a starring role. Chel White is another Northwest director who wrote the film along with his girlfriend, Laura McGie. Like Garcia, White is also a musician and wrote some of the music for the film with guitarist Tom Brosseau, who is also an actor. The big name in the picture is Tom Berenger who was one of the producers on the film. The tag line pulled from the Ashland Film Festival promotional material states that it “ponders the fine line between good and evil,” but the film itself really takes a stand that is quite unambiguous. It was entered in a number of regional film festivals and did quite well, earning a first prize in Kansas City and a couple of second place finishes in Europe. It’s a small, independent film that was certainly able to gain a lot of recognition through its association with Berenger, but ultimately it stands on its own as an interesting, if flawed, character study.

The film begins in the cabin of a white supremacist group in the Pacific Northwest run by David Bodin, the town barber, and his brother, Ted Rooney. After reciting an oath, they all put on hoods and leave the cabin. The next morning Thomas Stroppel tells his father, Bodin, that he wants to join the military and go to Germany, but he is prevented from even thinking about it. His mother has left them and taken his sister, who calls to talk to him, but there’s nothing he can do. At the next meeting of the brotherhood, they decide to kill a sex trafficker who has avoided jail time. They capture him and spin a wheel to see who will kill him. Stroppel is picked and gives him the lethal injection in the woods, and the body is buried. When the easygoing Bodin dies, however, and the hard core Rooney takes over, Stoppel wants out even more but leaving the brotherhood won’t be easy. At the same time Rooney has pledged his group to become part of a larger organization run by Tom Berenger, where they will be paid more for higher profile victims. Stroppel’s old girlfriend, Katy Beckemeyer, reveals in a brief reunion that the two of them were supposed to run off together. She did, but Stroppel stayed, but now that she’s back he wants to leave with her for good, and that will take some doing.

For a vigilante film, the plot is pretty tame, but that seems to be the point. These are small town folk who have been seduced into the right-wing idea that their guns and their religion entitle them to extra-legal authority to do as they wish to punish criminals who have been “under-punished” by the judicial system. In many ways they are naïve about their ability to sustain such an organization, and inevitably they fall into the quandary of any such fanatical group, that the younger generation doesn’t share their vision and eventually want to go their own way. In the context of the film, Thomas Stroppel is definitely a prisoner of a cult. And as good as their vigilante intentions are, their actions are not so clear cut. When Berenger gets involved the morality becomes even muddier. There’s a lot that could have been done with the script that was missed, and that’s unfortunate. The intent is to present a character study of Stroppel’s escape, but the attempt at realism here sort of works against the piece in that his own naiveté causes him to make some incomprehensible choices. The opportunity for far more introspection and explanation were there but weren’t taken. It’s not a huge flaw, but it could disappoint a lot of viewers. Bucksville is not a great film, but it is worth seeing, if only for the quality work of the cast and the director doing their best with a script that doesn’t quite measure up.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Population: 2 (2012)

Director: Gil Luna                                       Writers: Gil Luna & Jonathan Stark
Film Score: Edouard Brenneisen                     Cinematography: Kenneth Luba
Starring: Suzanne Tufan, Jon Ashley Hall, Shelly Lipkin and Meredith Adelaide

Small, independent films tend to be character driven, modern day dramas simply because they’re easier to film. So for any filmmaker, independent or not, to take on a work of science-fiction it has to be a daunting task. How much more so, then, for someone without studio funding? That’s what initially led me to Gil Luna’s Population: 2, and while there are certainly some challenging aspects of the film, what he was able to accomplish with the limited budget he had is fairly impressive. Of course the film has been lambasted online for it’s obvious deficiencies, but it’s the easiest thing in the world to criticize low-budge filmmakers for not being able to create something that’s up to Hollywood standards. But the fact remains that there are degrees of artlessness in film. On one end you have people like Michael Bay, who squander millions of dollars and ultimately wind up with artless tripe. And on the other end are talented filmmakers who don’t have choices, who are hemmed in by low budgets into taking whatever they can get in terms of cast and crew. Gil Luna is clearly one of the later, and yet managed to create a believable post-apocalyptic universe and a story that explains how it became that way, all seen through the eyes of a very compelling character and a talented actress to bring her to life.

The film begins in the cockpit of a bomber, the pilot and his navigator heading for a target that they are set to reach in twelve minutes. The conversation between the two indicates that they are friends and that while they’ve trained for this mission, this is the first time the mission is real. This is followed by a quote from John F. Kennedy about man’s potential to destroy themselves with nuclear weapons. An image of a satellite above the earth is seen next, amid lots of chatter, one voice among them saying that, “a pregnant woman, that baby will not remain alive.” Then Barry Wilde is seen in a video from Seattle touting a mirror-based system that reflects sunlight out into space to deal with global warming. Finally, Suzanne Tufan is heard in voice over--with Olivia Klinetobe playing Tufan as a child, running through a field--talking about how innocent her childhood was in assuming the permanence of everything around her. Later, in adulthood, the bombs take it all away. Thus, by the time the opening credits roll, the three threads of the narrative--however vaguely--have been shown to the viewer. There is the pilot and his partner who will deliver the first of the bombs that will end life on earth, Tufan’s life with her husband before the bombs, and her life alone afterward. This last thread is hinted at during the titles, with scratches in the wall to indicate days, and accompanied by an absolutely beautiful piece of music composed by Edouard Brenneisen who provides an impressive score overall.

After another episode with the pilot, a group of media spots are shown. The first is an advertisement for an abortion pill featuring Meredith Adelaide, then two opposing viewpoints on two different programs cut together that discuss the faulty engineering of the reflective technology put in place to combat climate change--a project that was completely corporate controlled and so the people and the government can’t interfere. From there, the film cuts to a depopulated Portland, Oregon. Heading down into the basement of what looks to be an empty factory, a Hazmat outfitted Suzanne Tufan comes home after her daily search for food. Tired and dirty, she lays down on her makeshift bed to sleep the darkness away. From the pilot continuing to close in, the scene then fades in on Tufan before the bombs. Her husband, Jon Ashley Hall, works for the company and is being coerced into telling the public that everything is fine. As long as he does what the company wants, if things don’t improve and chaos ensues he and his wife will have a spot in some protective bunker owned by the corporation. The three threads alternate throughout the film, as Tufan gradually learns what the cost of being one of the chosen few is--and it’s far from an easy decision to make. Meanwhile her life afterward is a constant struggle for food and water. And all the while the bomber is getting closer and closer to its target.

The first thing that must be said about the film is that Suzanne Tufan is tremendous. All of her sequences alone are heart-rending. Without her, what little positive feedback the film has would be non-existent. She is incredibly believable, both in her scenes of isolation as well as the pre-war drama. But she’s also assisted by some solid supporting actors as well. Shelly Lipkin is particularly good as the CEO of the corporation, and while Jon Ashley Hall’s performance is a little too studied he’s certainly no worse than many Hollywood actors. The other impressive feature of the film is the art direction by Janet Beeson. To be able to create a realistically de-populated city for Tufan to travel through is what ultimately makes the film. Computer graphics will only get a production so far, and the use of them on the jet plane sequences is probably the weak point of the film. And it’s not that the visual effects aren’t good, but in contrast to the set design they do seem very artificial. At the same time, removing those scenes would only have diminished the film, as they provide an important counterpoint to the rest of the story. So it’s difficult to understand some of the severely negative criticism the film has engendered online. The film is as much a social issue piece as it is science-fiction, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and while it’s not the best post-apocalyptic film ever made, it certainly has a lot to recommend it. I’ve seen plenty of bad films in my day, and Population: 2 isn’t one of them.

Monday Night Gig (2005)

Director: Tyson Smith                                       Writer: Ian Smith
Music: Somerset Meadows                              Cinematography: Todd E. Freeman
Starring: Neil Kopplin, Seneca Relich, Ina Strauss and Aaron Babb

“We’re getting the band back together.” How many times have those words been spoken all around the country? And how many more times in Portland? Tyson and Ian Smith’s Monday Night Gig traces the improbable history of the band The French, as they attempt to make it big. It’s a goofy comedy in the style of so many independent films, but there is a serious undercurrent to the story that comes from intimate knowledge of the milieu, kind of like a low budget This is Spinal Tap. The title itself, in fact, is a major in-joke, as Monday nights are the nights when nobody goes out, and thus it is the worst gig of all. Microphones that shock the singer into numbness, arguments between band members, band meetings, bad opening acts, patron-less venues, a broken down band bus, and lousy accommodations on the road all come from a place of affectionate appreciation for the struggle of musicians with far more vision than talent. The Smith brothers bounced around the country as kids, eventually winding up in the Northwest. Ian earned an English degree from the University of Oregon, while brother Tyson earned his graphic design degree from Portland State. The two began by writing indie comics together--a skill that was put to use in creating the wonderfully humorous posters for the band--and quite naturally branched out into film. This is their second feature, after making The Sexy Chef in 2002.

The film begins with Neil Kopplin and Seneca Relich in the garage playing their guitars, and dreaming of the day when the name of their band, The French, will be up on a marquee for a sold out show. The title sequence is particularly nice, with a posters being stapled on a telephone pole, and the screen divided into multiple sections as the two musicians look for a bassist and drummer to round out the group. At their first gig they’re pelted with spaghetti and booed off the stage. Three years later Kopplin, now a junior high teacher, calls Relich, an accountant, with the good news: they’re getting the band back together. After chasing down the bass player, Aaron Babb, who is living in a cardboard box, and anarchist drummer Ina Strauss, who works at a pizza joint, Kopplin announces they’ve been signed to a local record label. Unfortunately, with the combination of personalities and a pot-head engineer Gray Eubank, the group never seems to get any actual recording done. Day after day in the recording studio goes by, and zany antics ensue, and when they finally do record a song Eubank forgets to turn on the machine. Then, once the album is finished, the repo men come in and take everything out of the studio, including their album. Four years later Kopplin and Relich are interviewed on public access television to announce a CD release party at the Mt. Tabor Legacy Lounge. When Relich has had enough and wants to quit, Kopplin convinces him to do one last show.

As is the case in so many independent films, the two leads are pretty good. The rest of the cast . . . not so much. Fortunately Neil Kopplin and Seneca Relich carry the show. Kopplin is a natural and the camera loves him. He’s goofy and irresponsible in a completely believable way. Relich’s acting is a little too character driven and, as the voice of sanity that is drown out by Kopplin’s idealism, he has to try too hard. Nevertheless, he does a solid job in support and the two work well together. Had Ina Strauss played a slightly different character, or been given different direction, she might have stolen the show. She has flashes of brilliance that are all too brief. Portland writer-director Mike Prosser also turns up as Relich’s boss at the accounting firm, and he’s given some terrific material. But the writing is also inconsistent. In among the plethora of easy jokes that don’t really make it, there is some extremely funny writing. Early on in the film Kopplin has been kicked out of the house by his wife for buying their son an inappropriate birthday gift. “I got him the five piece drum kit,” he tells Relich. “I was only cleared for Battleship.” The film is finally what it is, a send up of a garage band with dreams of making it big, and while one of the jokes seems to be on the audience who never hears the band actually play, that’s simply another choice that indie filmmakers have to make. And since there are very few actors who also play, the choice was ultimately a simple one. Still, if you know what you’re getting in to, and you’re up for it, there are laughs to be found in Monday Night Gig.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Lake Noir (2011)

Director: Jeffrey Schneider                              Writer: Abel Martinez Jr.
Film Score: Bentley Michaels                          Cinematography: Jeffrey Schneider
Starring: Geno Romo, Heather Wakehouse, Michael Gonzalez and Benjamin Farmer

Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t go anywhere near a film like Lake Noir. Low-budget, independent horror films are on a long list of things I don’t spend time watching at all. In the first place they’re too easy, meaning that most directors think that they can get more of an audience for a horror film than a straight drama, and that it will be easy to write and film. But there is an art to horror every bit as much as there is for comedy--or drama, for that matter. And while the initial audience might be larger the word of mouth is a killer, especially since the advent of the Internet. That said, however, two of the most impressive films I have ever seen are The Falls and The Falls: Testament of Love by writer-director Jon Garcia. And one of the brilliant stars in those two films is Benjamin Farmer. So in seeking out other things he has appeared in I wound up taking a look at this film by another Portland director, Jeffrey Schneider. The story harkens back to the camp-like atmosphere of the original Friday the 13th, and the host of imitators that came in the wake of the success of that film. For using a hand-held digital video camera the cinematography by Schneider is pretty good, but that’s about the only thing that is. The tagline for the film is, “Nothing good happens at this lake,” and unfortunately that would include Schneider’s movie.

The story, if you can even call it that, begins with Michael Gonzalez being beaten by Benjamin Farmer with a baseball bat and dumped into the lake while his girlfriend is raped by one of Farmer’s buddies. Flash forward and virgin Heather Wakehouse wants to go to the lake for the weekend with her boyfriend, Geno Romo, and some mutual friends. Her mom says no and so she lies and says she’s going to a girlfriend’s house, then jumps into Romo’s truck and they’re off to pick up their friends along the way. In another truck are four other late teens who stop off at a gas station to fill up and are told by crazy old man Bob Olin the story of Gonzalez, who enacted revenge on his abusers by killing them as well as everyone else who stays up at the lake at night. But the kids ignore the warning, pitch their tents in the woods near the lake and proceed to get drunk and have sex with each other. Everyone that is except Romo, who becomes increasingly frustrated with Wakehouse’s abstinence the more he drinks. Finally, as night falls, Gonzalez emerges from the swampy lake and begins working his way through the copulating couples just like every other slasher film you’ve ever seen.

Actually, that’s not quite right. Most other slasher films are at least somewhat inventive. Unfortunately Abel Martinez Jr.’s screenplay is absolutely pointless. The dialogue he has the actors speaking is the most inane I think I’ve ever heard in a film. I’m sure he was striving for something like “realism” but simply comes off as unimaginative in the extreme. And so are the killings. In most of them, you don’t even see anything happening. When Marzell Sampson is killed there is no blood at all, and the audience doesn’t even see what happens to the girl he’s having sex with. And when Calvin Morie McCarthy is beheaded it takes a few moments to realize that the mannequin head rolling in the dirt is supposed to be his. There’s not much gore to speak of, not much sex to speak of, and not much story to speak of. The acting, not surprisingly, is fairly poor as well. Geno Romo probably would have been the best of the lot had he had a decent script and some kind of direction. And while Benjamin Farmer is a brilliant actor--and the reason I watched the film in the first place--you wouldn’t know it as he is really wasted in a tiny role. Michael Gonzalez looks like a cross between Tor Johnson and Santo and, while he is fine as the killer, it probably would have been better to have someone else play the young boyfriend who is left for dead. Lake Noir is a bad movie, but then it was always going to be.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Falls: Covenant of Grace (2016)

Director: Jon Garcia                                        Writers: Jon Garcia & Rodney Moore
Film Score: Jon Garcia                                    Cinematography: Seth Wheldon
Starring: Nick Ferrucci, Ben Farmer, Bruce Jennings and Curtis E. Jackson

The third entry in Jon Garcia’s Falls franchise is an important film, not so much cinematically but for the message it conveys. The Falls: Covenant of Grace, is a very different film from its predecessors and so it can’t really be judged on the same criteria as the first two films. The series began with The Falls, a carefully crafted love story of two Mormon missionaries who find themselves swept up in the experience of being honest about their sexuality for the first time. The second in the series, The Falls: Testament of Love, was a tour de force of filmmaking, with the two principals finding themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum and gradually working their way back to each other almost in spite of themselves. In both of those films the conflict that the protagonists face is central to the story, but in the third film Garcia goes beyond conflict to focus on what the ultimate outcome for the two characters will be. The conflict that comes from the church and family is really only token resistance as Nick Ferrucci and Ben Farmer attempt to sort through the important things in their individual lives and make their own choices in order to decide what their future lives will be like, either together or apart.

The film begins with some breathtaking aerial photograph of the evergreen forests of Oregon. Nick Ferrucci is out for a run, thinking about how the rejection of his Mormon faith in the last film has not been the answer he thought it would be. It is a year after he went down to Salt Lake City to save the man he loves, Benjamin Farmer, from a life of deception and now Farmer is coming up to Portland to reunite with him. In a really wonderful sequence, Garcia has Ferrucci picking up Farmer from the airport and taking him to his house, and the awkwardness of their reunion is palpable. But this is something they acknowledge and ameliorate with shots of liquor. The two have clearly been dancing around the issue of whether or not to be together long term for a while, and Garcia’s comedic sensibilities are still spot on when the two are out looking at the lights of the city later, and Farmer says he thinks he could do the Northwest thing. Ferrucci says he already is, and when Farmer asks him how, he responds by saying, “You’re hanging out with gay, bearded men and drinking beer.” Later Farmer meets Ferrucci’s friends, including gay masseuse Curtis E. Jackson, and the inklings of jealousy from Farmer appear, but it’s to Farmer’s credit that he doesn’t let it go any further. The two have an unfortunate argument the day before Farmer leaves, and essentially he goes back to Utah with things still as unsettled as before.

Later, when Ferrucci sees online that Farmer’s mother has died, he goes down to see Farmer after the funeral accompanied by his father, Harold Phillips. The two are at first accosted by Farmer’s father, Bruce Jennings, who then inexplicably invites them to an impromptu dinner with Farmer’s disapproving brother, Andrew Bray. The conversation at dinner is able to demonstrate to Jennings that there is something between the two that has been beyond his understanding, as it’s also the first time the two declare their love for each other. Farmer, who has a small daughter with his former wife, is applying to law school in Utah, and the conversation between he and Ferrucci about their future together becomes the central theme of the film. Because of that the resolution to their dilemma is purposely left cryptic, as though for either of them to say definitively what he wants will force the other into saying no. So Ferrucci goes back home with things still in the air. When Curtis Jackson has a crisis in his life Ferrucci comforts him, and the happy resolution Garcia comes up with continues as a theme throughout the rest of the film, from the about face in Jennings’ character, the return of Farmer to Portland and the eventual happy ending for everyone, to the coda in which the director harkens back to the first film. But then this is the point of the whole film.

Rather than continuing to explore the roadblocks to happiness for gay Mormons, a reminder of the harsh reality they go through daily, Garcia decides to present a vision of possibility for his audience. It’s the kind of promise for the future that the director has always gravitated toward in his endings, but here he puts it front and center for the entire film. And the emphasis on the audience is an important part of understanding the film, because the trajectory of the three films has been moving increasingly toward a gay, rather than a general, audience. This film has many more sex scenes than the first two, as well as an immersion in gay lifestyle rather than the straight universe of the previous films. There is also plenty of Garcia's talent on display. As stated earlier, the director’s sense of humor is wonderful. In the dinner scene, for instance, he makes a terrific Northwest in-joke when Jennings wonders out loud how the two are going to make their relationship work with Ferrucci living in Seattle. Then, when Ferrucci tells him that he lives in Portland now, Jennings says it’s the same thing. The line drew howls of laughter from the Seattle audience at the film’s premiere. There’s also a nice moment after the opening, when Farmer calls Ferrucci to video chat before coming to Seattle the next day. After the conversation is over Ferrucci tosses his phone on the bed, assuming that Farmer has hung up, and criticizes himself out loud for not saying “I love you.” Then Garcia cuts to the phone, with Farmer still listening and a quizzical look on his face. The humor is a crucial element to the story that balances the intensity of the drama.

The aerial photography of the Oregon woods and the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City is really quite arresting, and though it doesn’t seem possible the cinematography throughout is even more intimate that Garcia usually achieves with his emphasis on close ups. If there’s a negative aspect to the film, it’s the way Garcia attempts to touch on all kinds of issues without really giving them any significant screen time. Gay marriage, interracial gay relationships, and gay promiscuity are all mentioned but never explored in any substantive way. To be fair, though, those kinds of challenges were never intended to be the central focus of the screenplay. In terms of acting Ben Farmer does his usual stalwart job, but the real surprise of the film is the incredible performance of Nick Ferrucci. His progress as a film actor has been remarkable in the three years since Testament of Love. Another notable performance is by Curtis E. Jackson, who flirts with stereotypical gay behavior throughout the film but never steps over the line, and manages to give an impressively genuine performance in the process. Also worthy of note is actress Rebecca Karpovsky in the role of Ferrucci’s lesbian friend. She adds another layer of texture to the film that the viewer didn’t even know was missing, but in retrospect is absolutely essential. With The Falls: Covenant of Grace coming three years after his last film, it’s good to see Garcia getting back to making the thoughtful and finely crafted films that he has been known for in the past.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Selfless (2008)

Director: Jacob Pander                                  Writers: Jacob & Arnold Pander
Film Score: Auditory Sculpture                      Cinematography: Kevin Fletcher
Starring: Josh Rengert, Mo Gallini, October Moore and Jennifer Hong

The Pander Brother’s film Selfless has taken a real beating online, receiving a meager four out of ten on IMDb, and a dismal zero percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But that’s a shame. Despite this being a first feature--with all the attendant problems that usually incurs--it is undeniably a visually stunning film. This should not be a surprise, however. The brothers hail from Portland and have been graphic artists involved in creating cutting-edge comic books since they were in their teens. They are among a number of young filmmakers plying their trade in the Rose City, creating music videos for the thriving music community as well as collaborating with Portland luminary Gus Van Sant. The film deals with the recent phenomenon of identity theft and takes that idea to the extreme. Josh Rengert is an architect who has it all, a great girlfriend, a model apartment, and a job working for a firm that’s about to close a major deal designing a new skyscraper in Seattle. The film opens at the airport in Portland, with the credits rolling over people going through security and having to reassemble themselves, belts, shoes, and suitcases, before heading to the gates across the iconic PDX carpet.

As Rengert is waiting for his flight to Seattle, he pulls out his sketchpad and begins drawing stewardess Jennifer Hong. A few minutes later Mo Gallini sets down next to him, irate over being fired while on his cell phone, and Rengert wastes no time in moving to another set of seats. When Hong strikes up a conversation with him and sees his drawing of her, she asks him to sketch someone else. The angry Gallini is still on the phone fuming, and so Rengert begins a quick caricature of him but is caught in the act. Gallini abuses him verbally, and there is a definitely the threat of physical violence before everyone goes their separate ways. What Rengert doesn’t see, however, is Gallini picking up his architectural magazine and getting his name and address off the subscription label. A few days later back at home, Rengert’s girlfriend October Moore has purchased a couch and Rengert’s controlling personality comes out as he wants her to take it back. It turns out he’s the same way with his partners. While the investors want him to make some modifications to the building design, Rengert absolutely refuses. But because of all this Rengert loses sight of the campaign being waged against him. Not only has he been tricked into giving up his social security number to a phony bank alert, but he suddenly discovers that Jennifer Hong is his downstairs neighbor.

As with so many first features, the Pander’s screenplay is easily the weakest part of the film. As supremely confident as the brothers are with their visuals style, their ability to render believable characters is very much the opposite. Even so, the acting in the film is solid despite the script. Josh Rengert does a good job in the lead role. One particularly nice moment is when he has lost everything and freaks out in his car. Pander pulls back his camera and the audience can literally see the car shaking. October Moore as the girlfriend is feeling the need to start a family, which Rengert balks at, being too wrapped up in his work. This drives a wedge between the couple that keeps her from supporting him later in the film. The real star of the film, however, is Jennifer Hong in a double role as the stewardess and her twin sister who has been smuggled into the country, forcing the stewardess to act as a drug mule to pay off her debt in return. She is an enigmatic figure in the film, and one isn’t sure whether she’s working for Gallini or not. As for Mo Gallini himself, he’s a credible villain who would have been helped a lot if he’d been given an equally credible motive.

It’s not difficult to see why ratings for the film are so low. There’s a great deal of incoherency in the plot. Aside from the lack of motive for Gallini, there is the problem of Rengert’s inability to comprehend an obvious attack on his computer. And when the viewer wants things to be ratcheted up on the identity theft, personal credit cards, utilities shut down, nothing happens until later, allowing the tension-building opportunity to slip away. The visuals, on the other hand, are stunning. Pander bathes the screen in the white glare of overcast Northwest weather, while the locations have been meticulously selected for their clean lines and uncluttered look. In one impressive sequence near the end of the film, the brothers use their graphic arts skills in a lengthy animated sequence where Rengert imagines himself walking through the building he has designed. The close ups and camera angles, as well as interesting montages, also suggest a graphic novel approach to the shooting of the film. Overall, it’s a very compelling film and, taking into account the missteps of first-time feature filmmakers, Selfless ends up being an impressive piece of work that makes one hope the Pander Brothers will be able to make more features and develop their not inconsiderable skills even further.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Roomies (2010)

Director: Jared Yanez                                    Writer: Jared Yanez
Film Score: Andrew Parish                            Cinematography: Westley Cornwell
Starring: Quinn Allan, Katie Mentesana, Benjamin Farmer and Geno Romo

The Roomies is another film from the crop of young, independent filmmakers coming out of Portland, Oregon. Director Jared Yanez and star Quinn Allan are part of a production company in Portland, Mongrel Studios, creating a tremendous variety of media projects. My entre into the film was through Allan and Benjamin Farmer, who had appeared together in Jon Garcia’s The Falls, one of the best films I’ve seen in the last twenty years. This film, however, has the distinction of introducing me to an incredible talent in Katie Mentesana, an absolutely beautiful actress who has a remarkable onscreen presence, and an honesty that positively leaps off of the screen. The film begins with Quinn Allan’s face beneath running water, then finally emerging in a baptism. But this is quickly replaced by him pulling his head out of a toilet, and being somewhat mystified as to why it was there. It turns out he’s drunk in a bar with his friends Geno Romo and Ben Farmer, who are all moving in together the next day. Allan is a new Christian and his friends are teasing him and talking about video games and getting drunk with Carly Carcione. The next morning he stuffs all of his belongings into a garbage bag, leaves them at his new apartment, and heads to church.

But in the next scene the housewarming party is underway with plenty of, sex, drugs, and drinking, and Allan still seems mystified by the emptiness of it all. He is apparently trying for some kind of change in his life, but living with his friends, the loud and obnoxious pothead Romo, and the musician Farmer, is not very conducive to a new way of life. It’s not until Romo’s girlfriend, Katie Mentesana, is about to move in that the audience learns Allan works online as a moderator for the discussion boards at a porno site. Then, at an open mic where Farmer is performing, Farmer’s girlfriend, Carcione, hits on Allan, and the gig is followed by yet another party at the apartment where Carcione calls Allan “dark.” What had been sort of a goofy comedy about roommates, suddenly takes a turn for the surreal. Romo drives Allan over to the house of a business man he’s trying to get to invest in Farmer’s band, but Matt Mascaro is actually an ex-con drug dealer who is more than a little strange, including Mascaro’s mother, Kim Page, huddled on one end of the couch crying. Back at the apartment Romo bashes Allan for stealing girlfriends away from him in high school, and later Farmer confronts Allan for the fact he’s not actually paying rent at the apartment. The crisis point comes when both of his friends decide to move out.

Writer-director Jared Yanez definitely has a distinctive visual style behind the camera. He has a deft hand at montage and his setups and composition are terrific to look at. This is easily the most compelling thing about the film. If there is anything lacking, though, it is the screenplay. But then that’s the case with a lot of independent films. There’s a certain banality to the dialogue that causes the actors to try a little too hard to bring life to it, something reminiscent of John Sayles' first film, Return of the Secaucus Seven. Quinn Allan’s work in the film is a bit inconsistent. It’s a good part, but it seems difficult for him to know how to play it. Ben Farmer starts out a little rocky as well, but soon settles into his role as the more financially responsible of the three. Geno Romo was the only actor I really had anything good to say about in an otherwise execrable film called Lake Noir, which also featured Ben Farmer in a bit part. The irony is, while he was the best actor in that film, he’s the least effective actor here. I get what Yanez is going for with the part, but Romo’s performance comes off as more of a caricature than a believable person.

While I had a difficult time warming to the story there is, however, one incredibly beautiful scene in which Quinn Allan and Katie Mentesana are packing up Romo’s things so he can move out of the apartment. The bed is too heavy, though, so they lie down and begin talking in a relaxed and casual way. Yanez makes an interesting choice here to build a bit of tension and, instead of letting the scene unfold by itself, he intercuts a brief scene showing Farmer and Carcione’s relationship hitting a snag. Then, when he cuts back, the tension is finally released as Allan and Mentesana begin to tease each other, get physical, and when she finally kisses him it leads to the inevitable. The chemistry between the two is tremendous, and pushes the film into some incredibly interesting territory. The problem is, this needed to happen twenty minutes into the film. As it stands, just as things really get going, the film winds to a close. In fact, the last act of the film is so good in comparison to the first hour and a half that it’s difficult to know how to feel about it as a whole. It’s not surprising that the film won a film festival award, as the last twenty minutes of the film leaves the viewer speechless. Though not a great film overall, The Roomies has a lot to recommend it and as a first film it is impressive. With any luck Jared Yanez will be able to direct some more features soon and build on this great start.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Kicking Bird (2005)

Director: Kelley Baker                                   Writer: Kelley Baker
Music: Don Campbell & Al Lee                     Cinematography: Randall S. Timmerman
Starring: Ian Anderson-Priddy, Andrew Ox, Don Adler and Lorraine Bahr

Kicking Bird is writer-director Kelley Baker’s third film. Unlike some of the more polished productions coming out of the Rose City, Baker’s films harken back to the indie features of the seventies that contain more grit than glamor. Unfortunately the first thing one notices when viewing Baker’s film is that the digital videotape robs the story of the warmth of film. It’s probably something that could have been corrected in post, or perhaps wouldn’t have happened with a different camera, or it could have been the best he could do at the time with the limited budget he had, all forgivable sins. Unfortunately it does nothing to ameliorate the deficiencies of the visuals, and for the most part it has the look of a high school media class production. In some ways, however, it’s appropriate considering that high school is the subject of the film. The opening shot of a brick schoolhouse is accompanied by a ringing bell, and followed by Ian Anderson-Priddy racing out of the building and down the street and a punk rock song pushed to the front in the soundtrack. Soon his reason for running becomes clear as a shot from the front shows him being chased by a bunch of other boys. Sound quality is an issue as well as the visuals, when one of the boys is barely audible on the soundtrack.

Anderson-Priddy makes it into his house just ahead of the others, and immediately his grandfather, Danny Bruno, yells at him to bring him a beer. Bruno chews the scenery in his first scene, a poor man’s Bill Paxton, and it’s difficult to discern whether he’s going for laughs or not. After a brief scene in the boy’s bedroom, the scene switches to coach Don Adler at school that afternoon, finishing cross-country practice and then detention. At the end of his day he is ridiculed by some acquaintances for choosing a career as a teacher. Andrew Ox, a goth friend of Anderson-Priddy’s stays the night, and they eat dinner in front of the television with his grandparents. All the acting to this point, with the exception of grandmother Lorraine Bahr, is far too exaggerated for the medium, as if all of them had come from a stage production and were unable to adapt their acting to film. What comes out about the young man in the film is that he’s very intelligent but doesn’t apply himself in class, his father has disappeared and his mother is in prison. The title of the film comes from the bullies calling him “bird” as a diminutive of jailbird. Why Baker chose kicking as the adjective instead of running remains a mystery. When Adler sees Anderson-Priddy being chased by his star--and never close to being caught--he calls off the bullies and tries to recruit him for his team, something on the order of McFarland, USA from ten years later.

Once the film finally settles in after twenty minutes or so, it’s almost possible to forget about the deficiencies of the production and focus on the story as it unfolds. Anderson-Priddy goes with his grandparents to visit his mother in prison and has a teenage meltdown, but Bahr has a really nice moment calming him down and getting him back in the room. Teen delinquencies follow, stealing beer from a convenience store and pouring sugar in the gas tank of car of Ox’s mother’s new boyfriend. But nothing really comes of these events and the viewer gets the strong impression of having seen it all before. Baker definitely has a confident visual style, which makes one wish even more that he had done something to fix the starkness of the videotape because it causes a lot of the shot selections to make it look like a television show rather than a feature film. As with most independent filmmakers, the writing lags well behind the visuals. For the first forty-five minutes the screenplay can’t decide if the boy’s missing father or joining the cross-country team is going to be the main thrust of the plot. As a result, the episodes of delinquency drag on long after the audience gets the point, which dilutes what could have been an interesting story if handled differently.

At the end of the day the success of a film usually comes down to the acting, and there just isn’t a lot to say on that score. Other than a nice performance by Lorraine Bahr, the rest of the acting was average at best. But it also must be said that the screenplay didn’t help the actors either. In trying to write what Baker clearly feels is realistic dialogue, it wound up being rather pedestrian instead. Anderson-Priddy probably would have come off better had his character not been so clichéd, but there’s really nothing original there. Baker also tries for something like a Karate Kid ending, but by that point it’s far too little and much too late. Worse than that, however, all of the moral high ground that Anderson-Priddy had gained throughout the film is completely thrown away when he acts every bit as unprincipled as the rest of the adult cast in the film. For this viewer it destroyed everything it seemed the film had been building toward. It must be said that any independent film production is a labor of love, and the time, effort, and money that go into it are worthy of respect. Baker certainly must get credit for that, but his artistic choices from the music to the lack of post-production--whether forced upon him by a paucity of funds or not--are questionable. As a result, Kicking Bird remains a flawed film.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Tandem Hearts (2010)

Director: Jon Garcia                                      Writer: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Toby Nathaniel                           Cinematography: Jeff Hammond
Starring: Quinn Allan, Heather Harlan, Rebecca Teran and Nick Ferrucci

While Jon Garcia’s first film, Tandem Hearts, is definitely a first film, it is also a harbinger of the greatness that would follow. Produced in 2009, but not completed until nearly two years later, it is the story of a young couple who have run out steam and attempt to jump start their relationship by moving to a new city to start a new life. Unfortunately, once they get there they realize they have brought their moribund relationship along with them. While the tendency in Hollywood might have been to manufacture some kind of happy ending for the film--even in the sense of simply moving on--Garcia allows the viewer to wallow in the pain. But it’s not a masochistic experience because of it. There’s a wistfulness to the story that is undeniable, and though the description bitter-sweet has lost its meaning through overuse, there seems no more accurate phrase to describe the experience. While many small, independent films painfully attempt to portray reality--and to be fair there’s some of that here--there is also a sense that the purpose here is somewhat larger. The emotions that are pulled from the audience have been done so in a very careful and deliberate way by a thoughtful artist with a distinctive vision that would fully show itself in his very next film, The Falls.

This film begins in an old garage, with Quinn Allan walking over to a covered, tandem bicycle and pulling off the tarp. This is followed by a very nice 3-D animated title sequence. Each act of the film is also prefaced by Allan taking out a fresh CD and writing on it. The first section, in Boise, Idaho, is labeled Track 1. It begins at a going away party for Allan at the house he’s living in before he moves to Portland, Oregon. Later that night in bed his girlfriend, Heather Harlan, seems a bit nervous about the move they’re making, and they turn away from each other to go to sleep. But the next morning they finish packing the U-Haul trailer and hit the road. During the trip, however, there is a sense of unease working in Harlan. While Allan takes the trip in stride, sleeping in the car or the hotel, Harlan is restless, as though she’s stuck on the back end of that tandem bike with someone else steering. Track 2 begins outside of Portland at a gas station, stopping for supplies. Once they reach the furnished house they’re renting, a certain gender stereotype creeps into the shots, with Allan checking out the TV and pulling down a giant sword from the wall, while Harlan takes a look in the kitchen. After unpacking they go to a bar and a couple of locals give them the lay of the land.

From there the daily routine of existence begins, working on the car, going shopping, and finding jobs. Harlan goes to a party without Allan, and talks about moving to Portland because she wanted a change, the subtext being that she may want a change from Allan. When Harlan gets a job, however, things settle down and the audience gets its first glimpse of what the couple is really like together as they make dinner, sing together, and watch TV. Garcia wonderfully transitions into the couple’s problems by showing the first rain in the film. Then Harlan engineers about the most awkward sex scene on film. Nothing dramatic, but emblematic of the couple’s lack of intimacy, especially considering they haven’t had sex since they left Idaho. The story is not a unique one, and in many ways a simple recounting of the plot does a real disservice to the film. Right from the opening, the viewer is aware that this is a director who has a passion for visuals. The glow of the sunlight washing out Allan’s features in the opening shot as he enters the garage is beautiful. And the road sequence on the way from Idaho to Oregon begins with a terrific montage.

But there are also some questionable choices as well. Garcia has his cinematographers pull out of focus frequently and while the effect is interesting in a way--like Terrence Malick’s elliptical editing--it soon becomes a cliché that draws attention to itself rather than something uniquely part of his directorial vision. And there are standard problems with the screenplay, a typically weak point in many first films, and young actors working too hard to play normal. In many ways Garcia attempts to do more here than he’s capable of, but rather than failing it comes off as young director stretching himself, working at the edge of his abilities, and as a result it is far more admirable than amateurish. For one thing, his use of close-ups is particularly distinctive, a trait that he would carry through to his later films with great effect. For another, his use of space makes the set--in this case a rented house--become almost another character in the film in a way that few directors of any stripe are able to do. Garcia also has a penchant for unique songs on his soundtrack, some of them written by him. But where in other independent films the lyrics can become intrusive, he seems to have a deft touch with knowing just how to use these songs for maximum effect

Quinn Allan, in his only his second feature, does a respectable job but seems to have the same issue that he did in his first film, The Roomies, in that he gets better as the picture progresses. In the early scenes he looks adrift in terms of how to play them, while in the later half of the picture he finally settles down and does some very good work. A similar effect haunts Heather Harlan’s work but again, after the breakup, she really begins to get comfortable in her character in a way that makes her much more believable in the second half of the film. Rebecca Teran is the friendly barista that Allan has a crush on, and she does a terrific job later on in the film, while Nick Ferrucci has only a small role as a guest at a couple of parties. Tom Stutzman begins his first scene, as a musician friend of Allan’s, as a stock character, but quickly makes an impact as someone who’s very genuine. The title of the film, along with the visual of Allan riding the bike without a partner, had the potential to be a lot more powerful symbolically than the way in which it was actually used, but the symbolism is still there. The most powerful stamp of the director, however, is in the way he ends his films. Can I call it “Vintage Garcia?” Tandem Heats may not have been the best cinematic meal I’ve ever eaten, but the dessert Garcia serves at the end is the most satisfying I could ask for.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The PDX Film Annex

I've been thinking about starting this blog for a long time. My interest in independent films coming out of Portland has increased exponentially over the last few years and while many of these posts are also found on my E List movie blog I'll be moving all of them over here over the course of the next year in order to put all of my Portland reviews in one place. I also want to branch out into documentaries and web series coming out of the Rose City, as well as other independent projects filmed elsewhere in Oregon. Though I haven't decided whether or not this is something I will do, I've also been thinking of doing actor and director profiles on the blog, and there may be other things that I haven't even considered yet that will be appropriate to write about. My hope is that this will eventually become a resource for films produced by Portland directors, as well as independent films made in the state, all things film and Oregon.