Tuesday, May 18, 2021

I Play With the Phrase Each Other (2014)

Director: Jay Alvarez                                        Writer: Jay Alvarez
Film Score: Evyn Oliver                                   Cinematography: Ray Buckley
Starring: Jay Alvarez, Will Hand, Megan Kopp and Alexander Fraser

I Play With the Phrase Each Other is an independent film by Portland actor-director Jay Alvarez that is comprised almost entirely of cellphone calls. It’s an interesting idea that’s not nearly as tedious as it might seem at first, especially in the hands of Alvarez, who wrote the screenplay as well. The screenplay is actually very literate, perhaps more literate than it should be, but then that’s part of its charm. There’s something playful about the film that juxtaposes carefully wrought dialogue--almost painfully so--with subject matter that ranges widely from sex to electrical pollution to retail sales and at times borders on camp. Alvarez wisely chose to film in black and white, which diminishes the emphasis on the sets themselves and focuses the audience on the dialogue and the characters. The cinematographer on the project is Ray Buckley, who worked very effectively with Geoff Stewart on his film Reverie. The hand held work isn’t distracting, and at times it’s barely noticeable. Buckley also does some nice work with lighting in the interiors, specifically the nighttime shots that are almost reminiscent of film noir of the forties. The use of music is minimal, as it only appears three times, again, as if to avoid competing with the dialogue. The first is on the opening titles of the film, and while there is none during the phone conversations that take place in present time, Evyn Oliver’s guitar work can be heard during the flashback that Hand narrates to Fraser, and then again on the closing credits.

The film opens with Jay Alvarez in his apartment at night, surrounded by the novels of Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs, telling his friend Will Hand in that same kind of language that he needs to get out of his hometown and come to the city. There’s definitely a sense of humor to the film as Alvarez finishes his adjective-drenched description of Portland and then pauses to take a sip of coffee. The next conversation is Hand’s friend Alexander Fraser confessing skepticism about him moving in with Alvarez, and the fact that Hand hasn’t told his ex-girlfriend, Megan Kopp, that he’s leaving. Hand’s dialogue, though not quite as arty as Alvarez’s, is peppered with the same kind of pretentious descriptions. More humor comes when the scene switches to Kopp at work at a book store when a customer tells her she’s not going to enjoy his phone call, then later describing to a man she’s beginning to date how much she wants to strangle the customers. Alvarez tells Hand he doesn’t need money or a job, and that he can assist him with his “sales,” a nebulous phrase that concerns Fraser. Later the audience learns that Alvarez’s sales involve musical instruments and the actor Big Dogg, a ghetto, black man who assists him by meeting his customers on the street and browbeating them into buying. Homeless man David Hudnall also assists by being on the phone with Alvarez during the sale while Alvarez watches them out of his window.

At this point the phone calls begin moving outward from the core group like concentric circles, to include a girl that Fraser knows who moved to the city, Kopp and her girlfriend Dana Dae, who thinks brains in men are overrated, and an extended flashback to Alvarez and his girlfriend Bonnie Auguston, as well as his meeting Todd Robinson who had just abandoned his wife that morning and moved in with Alvarez. The second half of the film primarily concerns Hand’s misadventures in the city, including his attempts to get a job at a chain restaurant--where one of the servers is Quinn Allan, a well-known face in Portland films. Alvarez is very good onscreen but seems to be enjoying himself a bit too much, as if he’s secretly delighted with the way that the movie is coming together and it’s distracting him from his own character development. Megan Kopp’s performance also suffers, delivering her lines in the way that beginning actresses often do by being too self-conscious of their own performance. Will Hand’s character is the most subdued, and this helps him to keep centered, but by far the best actor in the film is Alexander Fraser who has an easy and natural way about him that makes him the most believable of the bunch.

Alvarez has written a conversational film that demonstrates an ingenious construction at times, but sort of loses its way at the end. Actor Will Hand is the central character in the drama, complete with his obsessive-compulsive tick of keeping his phone away from his face and being afraid of electrical pollution. But the reality of the film is that it’s Alvarez who is actually at the emotional center, and I’m not sure he even realized it. The last twenty minutes is a conversation between Hand and Fraser about sex that is intercut with dialogue between Kopp and Dae in which both Kopp and Hand are telling the same story--something Alvarez also does at other points in the film. But it’s an unsatisfying way to end the movie, as the intrigue that Alvarez’s character has brought to the entire film is suddenly absent, and without it the dialogue sounds pedestrian. One of the knocks against the film is that people don’t talk on cell phones anymore, they text. But the black-and-white photography combined with touches in the set design like cassette players and flip phones gives it a feeling of being set in the recent past, when the primary function of cell phones was talking. While I Play With the Phrase Each Other isn’t for everyone, it can certainly be rewarding if the viewer allows the humorous aspect to dominate and it doesn’t become an overly serious My Dinner with Andre of the new millennium.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Untraceable (2008)

Director: Gregory Hoblit                                    Writers: Robert Fyvolent & Mark Brinker
Film Score: Christopher Young                         Cinematography: Anastas N. Michos
Starring: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks and Mary Beth Hurt

One of the problems with technology based crime stories is that the technology itself goes obsolete so fast that it dates the film prematurely. One only has to think of Sandra Bullock in The Net, to understand. Fortunately, Untraceable was filmed deep into the first decade of the new millennium and so the issue isn’t quite as obvious. It’s there, but it can be overlooked. Though one of my causes is promoting films by Portland directors, this isn’t one of them. It’s simply a Hollywood project filmed in Portland, but that in itself was interesting enough to check it out. In many ways it’s a fairly derivative story, a serial killer who murders his victims online instead of the delayed gratification of reading about them in the newspapers or seeing them on the TV news. But it’s essentially the same idea. I was also drawn to the film by a couple of actors, Colin Hanks, who had a brief but memorable role in the HBO series, Band of Brothers, and one of my favorite actresses, Mary Beth Hurt. Billy Burke is a new face for me, since I don’t watch the Twilight films, but being born in Bellingham, Washington, he’s sort of a local. Director Gregory Hoblit, on the other hand, is a Hollywood veteran who began in television and has since moved on to helm some very good second-tier suspense films like Frequency and Primal Fear. And he does a solid job with this story as well, though as in all of his films the screenplay is the weakest link.

The film opens on a high-tech video lab, with an unidentified man setting up a scene at the bottom of what looks like basement stairs to trap a cat. The scene then cuts to a rain-drenched street in Portland, Oregon. FBI agent Diane Lane grabs her backpack and heads into the Federal Building, where all kinds of computer analysts are at work investigating cyber crimes. Colin Hanks is a fellow agent who gets her up to speed on a recent case, but at the same time she gets a note from the Portland police about another site they want her to look at. She goes to the website and sees the cat stuck to a strong adhesive and apparently is going to die there for entertainment. Lane lives with her mother, Mary Beth Hurt, and her daughter, Perla Haney-Jardine. She checks the website before she goes to bed and discovers that the cat is dead. The fact that the site is local is not, according to Lane, a coincidence, but the head of the division, Peter Gray Lewis, feels there are more important crimes to be investigating. Then, in the parking lot at a hockey game, a fan lured by the prospect of a cheap online ticket is Tasered and pulled into a van. When he suddenly appears on the site, things get serious. While the Bureau handles the tech side of the crime, Billy Burke is the Portland homicide detective who deals directly with the witnesses, in this case the wife of the hockey fan.

The software the killer is using bounces the IP address around to servers all over the world, so the Lane and Hanks have no idea how to trace him. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, from Modern Family before that show began, is arrested but he has an alibi, and before long another victim is captured and the killer is revealed as Joseph Cross. Ultimately it’s his local connections that allow the detectives to find a way in, especially after he comes after Lane and her family. It’s a strange role for Diane Lane because of the way she seems detached from everything, her work, her daughter, her mother, even the crime itself. She had so much fire in her belly in The Perfect Storm, and while there are personal reasons for her character in the film that might explain her behavior, it’s yet another reason the film is unable to live up to its potential. The movie is competently filmed by Hoblit and his cinematographer Anastas Michos, including an abundance of really nice overhead shots, but it’s the screenplay that keeps the film from rising anywhere above merely interesting. And there are some incredibly bad lines in it, mostly delivered by Hanks. One groaner has him talking about the hockey fan who is bleeding out onscreen when he says, “It’s too bad this guy wasn’t a Boy Scout, he could just bleed Morse code and tell us where he is.” Even though this is a plot point that comes up later, it seems incredibly insensitive in the moment. And then, when the hockey fan dies, Hanks shakes his head and says, looking at his computer screen, “It’s a jungle in there.”

The music by Christopher Young in the opening credits attempts to set the mood by replicating John Carpenter’s piano music from Halloween, but the score is pretty forgettable other than that. The color manipulation of the film is done to replicate a Hollywood version of a Pacific Northwest winter, and it looks pretty good. The streets are always wet and the cloud cover is an icy gray, with a blue-tinged palate in very sharp focus to represent the cold snap the city is having in the story. Most of the interiors were constructed in Clackamus, southeast of Portland, while the exteriors were filmed at iconic spots in the city. In assessing it overall it can’t really be called a bad film, because it does hold interest all the way through. But that’s about the best that can be said for it. The screenwriters seem as if they’re trying to generate a relationship between Buke and Lane, but that never really comes off. They also make Hanks out to be a sort of an oblivious FBI agent, which doesn’t really work either. The film received decidedly mixed reviews, which makes sense. There’s nothing really unique about the story, and the acting is only average, but ultimately Untraceable is watchable, with just enough to keep it interesting. Just make sure you watch it on cable TV rather than paying for the privilege.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Gray Area (2010)

Director: Chapin Hemmingway                        Writers: Chapin Hemmingway & Tyson Balcomb
Film Score: Jeff Broadbent                              Cinematography: Sean Rawls
Starring: Gavin Bristol, Morgan Lee, Ian McMilan and Jesse Henderson

This is yet another independent film made in Portland. Writer-director Chapin Hemmingway’s most recent feature is a fascinating look at a three friends returning home after the death of one of their group. But while the premise might sound familiar, the film is anything but as it delivers as powerful an ending to a film as I have ever seen. I came to The Gray Area through Jesse Henderson, who had appeared in Justin Koleszar’s One Foot in the Gutter. The other draw for me was the appearance of Benjamin Farmer who was so impressive in The Falls films by Jon Garcia. Like so many of the great films coming out of Portland, this has a decidedly autobiographical feel, and an emphasis on character and drama that seems unique to the filmmakers in that area. The one area where so many small films fail tends to be in the screenplay, but this one is quite good. Hemmingway and his producer, Tyson Balcomb, have written a believable script that gives the actors a natural framework on which to work. One scene in particular, where the three leads are saying a few words before scattering their friend’s ashes, is a clinic on how to differentiate characters in the writing, but this is just one part of an impressive overall production.

The film opens with some nice establishing shots around Portland, night gradually falling as the credits roll, and ending on a shot of the still body of Jesse Henderson in a car. From there the narrative begins with Gavin Brisol as small-time actor in L.A., picking up Michelle Damis by appealing to her vanity. The next morning he gets up from her bed--where she’s still asleep--and tries to write a note but has to look in her purse to get her name. He goes in to work as a barista at a coffee house, and soon finds out from a friend that Henderson has been found dead in his car. Bristol flies into Portland the next day and is met by Morgan Lee at the airport, who takes him to his parent’s house to wait for the funeral. That night Bristol, who has had a drinking problem, takes some pills and washes them down with whisky. While he’s in the pool ex-girlfriend Meredith Adelaide shows up, but leaves soon after when she realizes she can’t have an honest conversation with him about Henderson. On the way to pick up their other friend from the airport, Lee tells Bristol that Henderson’s death might not have been an overdose but a hot shot, a lethal dose of drugs that dealers sell to customers who get behind and don’t pay. Finally they pick up Ian McMilan, a soldier on leave for the funeral, and the group is complete.

Bristol is feeling the need to rekindle his relationship with Adelaide, though more out of physical familiarity than emotional desire. But the real drama turns on how the three friends decide to deal with Henderson’s death by investigating whether it might have been murder. The film primarily revolves around Gavin Bristol, an actor who had already made a couple of appearances in the Twilight films. He does a good job here, but the drug abuse aspect of his character seems a little clichéd and at times his affectations tend to stand in for acting. It’s really Morgan Lee and Ian McMilan who do the bulk of the heavy lifting during the film. The only other real questionable moment in the screenplay is when the friends are presented with Henderson’s ashes by his mother, Trish Egan, and McMilan doesn’t know what to do. With his military background, however, he should have been the one in the group to voluntarily take the lead. Other than that, however, McMilan does some solid work as the self-assured war veteran, especially in the ending. For me, however, Morgan Lee is the real standout as the former drug addict who feels survivor guilt for getting out of the life while Henderson succumbed.

Of the other notable performances in the film, one is Benjamin Farmer as a drug dealer. The simple juxtaposition of his scene with that of fellow drug dealer Joaquin Fernandez during their interrogation shows Farmer to be the far superior actor. The other is by Manna Phommathep as a drug distributor, and his scene in the climax is also very well done. While Meredith Adelaide is breathtaking in her brief scene by the pool, she unfortunately has very little else to do in the story. The ending of the film is as disturbing as it is surprising, and is no doubt one of the reasons the film has had such positive reviews. In addition to the drama, however, there are also some nice bits of humor in the screenplay, beginning with Bristol looking for Damis’s ID in her purse. And when Bristol insists on taking his convertible to the airport, McMilan looks in the back and says, “Where am I supposed to sit?” But Hemmingway also has nice way with visual humor. The tableaux after the funeral where the friends are lined up on the couch and given the urn by Egan is terrific. Like so many of the films coming out of Portland, the cinematography is beautiful, especially the scene at the beach where the friends go to scatter Henderson’s ashes, and the montage where the friends go to the drug house is also quite good. The Gray Area is a solid piece of filmmaking from Chapin Hemmingway, and hopefully we’ll see more from him in the future.

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Falls: Testament of Love (2013)

Director: Jon Garcia                                     Writers: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Jon Garcia                                 Cinematography: Christopher Stephens
Starring: Nick Ferrucci, Benjamin Farmer, Thomas Stroppel, and Hannah Barefoot

This sequel to The Falls is another beautiful story by Jon Garcia. Unlike the first film, The Falls: Testament of Love is more of a gay film. The first was really for anyone and everyone, a love story about two people who discover themselves outside of the constraints of their families. It was so well written and filmed it really transcended the idea of gay or straight. The sequel is the continuing story of those two characters who shared a momentous time in their lives and chose very different ways to deal with that experience. And that experience, in this film, is being gay and how that affects the people around them. Also, while the first film was really Nick Ferrucci’s story, the second film focuses on Benjamin Farmer and his challenges. The first film was done on a shoestring, with a total crew of four people, and actors helping out on the technical side when they weren’t on screen. But with the recognition and success of that film, Garcia was able to get more financing and hire enough crew members to handle all of the technical work and allow the actors to simply focus on their craft. The results are stunning.

The film begins with Nick Ferrucci telling the audience very briefly about his experience on his Mormon Mission. There he met Benjamin Farmer and the two fell in love. Ferrucci left the church before he could be formally excommunicated. He moved to Seattle to write for a magazine and has a boyfriend, Thomas Stroppel. In his narrative he tells how he lost touch with Farmer and never heard from him again after a trip they took around the country together. The reason why soon becomes clear. Farmer took a different route after his experience with Ferrucci, confessing to church officials and vowing that he would never give in to such temptations again. He met Hannah Barefoot later and married her, and the two have a daughter who is now three years old by the time of the current narrative. One of the important people in their discovery of themselves from the first film was Brian Allard, an Iraq War veteran who was incredibly accepting of them and became their only real friend during that time. But each of the men receive a call from Allard’s mother telling them that he has died, and this becomes the second time in their lives when they are thrown together. Their meeting after the funeral is, as one would expect, awkward, with Ferrucci desperate for closure and Farmer bent on denial. But what eventually happens between them is as uplifting as one could hope for.

Once again the two leads, Nick Ferrucci and Benjamin Farmer are exceptional. In fact, they are so natural and so believable it actually makes the viewer aware that the other actors are just acting. But the supporting cast plays an important role in this film. In the opening sequences Ferrucci is joined by Thomas Stroppel, desperately in love with a man who doesn’t have the same feelings to give back. It’s truly heart rending to see the emotion that both actors are able to access. Benjamin Farmer’s partner onscreen is Hannah Barefoot as the trusting Mormon wife who begins to suspect something when she senses that things aren’t right between them. In fact, unlike the naked emotion of the other pair, Farmer and Barefoot have the more formidable job of keeping their emotions subtextual for the first half of the film. The other great pair, though they don’t work together, are the fathers. Harold Phillips plays Ferrucci’s father and is still disappointed with him after the revelation of the first film. But in one of the most moving scenes in the sequel, Bruce Jennings as Farmer’s father calls to blame the whole thing on Ferrucci after Farmer’s revelation, but Phillips instantly rises to the defense of his son. It’s inspiring how, when faced with the same disapproval from outside, he is finally able to articulate his true feelings about his son.

In addition to the fine acting, the work of Jon Garcia as a director really shines. His use of symbolic imagery in the picture rivals that of the great directors from the golden age of cinema. In the first film Farmer was so consumed by the Mormon religion that he had absolutely no other interests. When he confesses to Ferrucci in this film that he hates his job and Ferrucci suggests he do something else, he has no idea what that would even be. This is symbolized when they meet later in Ferrucci’s hotel room. Sitting near the window, the large red “M” from the motel sign outside in front of his face symbolizes how Farmer’s obsession with his religion has blocked out everything from his life, including who he really is. Ferrucci, on the other hand, has his face reflected in the window showing that he has embraced who he really is and is living his own life. Another wonderful use of a subtle symbol is after Farmer has confessed himself and stands before the window in his house looking out at the rain, symbolizing the cleansing effect that his confession has had for him. The Falls: Testament of Love is a masterful film that perfectly complements and extends the already brilliant work of the first film. It gets my highest recommendation.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Falls (2011)

Director: Jon Garcia                                    Writer: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Jon Garcia                                Cinematography: Christopher Stephens
Starring: Nick Ferrucci, Benjamin Farmer, Brian Allard, and Quinn Allan

I’ve come to a conclusion in my old age, that organized religion is all about hate. The only function it seems to serve these days is to give people a justification for hating other people. Religious people are the most hypocritical on the planet simply because they have the most to lose--but only because their religious delusions tell them so. The reality is that the gods they pray to are no more real than Santa Claus and that all of their posturing and hatred is for nothing. Except for the collateral damage they do, especially to young people who have been brainwashed before they are old enough to decide for themselves if they want to share in their parent’s fantasy life. The Falls deals with Mormonism, but substitute your own intractable, hate-filled religion and there wouldn’t be a lot of difference. Nick Ferrucci plays a twenty-year-old Mormon who is about to go out on his two-year mission. His mom and dad are happily married, and he has a younger sister and a girlfriend. His dad jokes with him about being a “world traveller” because he’s only going six hours away from home for his mission. But, like a dutiful Mormon, he goes believing “god” has a plan for him. Boy is he ever wrong about that.

Ferrucci rooms with Benjamin Farmer at his new residence. The ascetic lifestyle the two lead seems as vacuous as their lives have been up until now. When they’re getting to know each other and Ferrucci asks Farmer what he’s interested in, he can’t think of a single thing. They get up first thing in the morning and pray, then go for a run, then study their bibles, then go on their bikes into town and begin their monotonous routine accosting people on the sidewalk and at home. For fun at night they read through novels and cross out objectionable words. It’s very obvious from the beginning of the picture that Farrucci’s heart isn’t in it. He’s doing all of this because he is supposed to, not because he wants to. One night the two are sandbagged by a guy who had done his homework on Joseph Smith. That’s bad enough, but when they meet an Iraq veteran who lost his brother to a mine explosion while standing right in front of him, covering him in his brother’s blood, the real impotence of religion becomes obvious. In the face of that reality Farmer becomes distracted and distant, and when Ferrucci asks him about it the reason is just as obvious: he is having doubts. He is beginning to think for himself. Unfortunately, in his religion-polluted mind he believes that is a sin. But that’s nothing compared to the attraction the two have for each other, and their inability to stop themselves from acting on it.

This is just a beautiful movie. The boys are not grotesque, or caricatures, they are just boys, and they just happen to fall in love with each other. The two principals are perfect in their roles, and Nick Ferrucci is absolutely perfect. He’s able to convey that goofy, nervous quality of a teenager that is so real it’s eerie. Uptight “Elder” Quinn Allan notices that their numbers are going down since they stopped taking their mission seriously and, while they are a bit nervous about what will happen if they are discovered, it’s not enough to stop them. The ultimate irony, of course, is that the boys are supposed to be out converting people to Mormonism. Instead it is the Marine veteran Brian Allard who converts the boys to reality. But it’s a process that all brainwashed children must go through in order to lead healthy lives. It’s the ones who don’t, who believe in the fairy tales, and buy into the guilt and humiliation and hypocrisy who wind up leading miserable lives where all their true feelings and impulses must be kept on the down low--which is itself another metaphor for the closeting of gays, especially those who are members of the church.

What this film is most of all is honest. There are no histrionics, no drama, and no sensationalism. It’s the story of people being themselves, trying to be honest, and facing up to the consequences for that honesty. As a result, the ending is about as uplifting as a film gets. Writer-director Jon Garcia had no previous knowledge about the LDS religion or community before writing his screenplay and had to do a lot of research once he realized that using the church as the context of the film was a way to really make an impact on audiences. As I stated earlier, what kind of church he elected to use is entirely beside the point. The consequences--namely excommunication--are barely distinguishable. One of the great characters in the film is played by Brian Allard. He not only doesn’t react negatively to the boys’ admission of their relationship, he encourages them to go further, exploring the world and themselves in the process, to find out who they truly are. Given their cloistered upbringing, it is sage advice. The film doesn’t actually bash religion as much as I would have liked, but it is that much stronger for it because it doesn’t have to. The church does that to itself through its behavior. The Falls is a small, quiet film with such a powerful message that it should be required viewing for everyone in this country, if not the world. It receives my highest recommendation.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Reverie (2009)

Director: Geoff Stewart                                     Writer: Geoff Stewart
Film Score: Ray Buckley                                  Cinematography: Ray Buckley
Starring: Geoff Stewart, Zach Sanchez, Ronnie Chittim and Shawn O’Brien

Reverie is the first and only feature film directed by Portland-based Geoff Stewart, who also wrote the screenplay and starred as one of its lead actors. Like the works of many of his contemporaries in the last decade, the film is a tremendously impressive achievement and stands as one of the major works coming out of the Rose City in the last few years. As the title suggest, the film is a meditation on many things, nature, friendship, mortality, and forgiveness. But the one thing that comes to the fore is the extreme visual confidence of Geoff Stewart, who on the surface has a deceptively simple style that is actually densely packed with imagery and meaning. I came to Stewart through his work on Justin Koleszar’s 2011 film One Foot in the Gutter. Both he and Zach Sanchez worked as actors on that project and did a great job, with Stewart in the lead and Sanchez in a supporting role. Prior to both of these, Stewart had directed a segment of the film The Experimental Witch, based on the novel The Witch of Portobello by Paul Coelho, which used ten different directors to tell stories about the main character through the eyes of others. Shortly after, both Stewart and Sanchez, along with Ray Buckley, would produce his first feature screenplay.

The film opens with Zach Sanchez in bed waking up alone because his girlfriend has gone out of town for three days. From there the scene shifts to Geoff Stewart at home, a fire going in his wood stove. He is packing up his fishing tackle, then goes out to his truck and takes off. Back at Sanchez’s apartment he is working on his computer and talking to a colleague, sending some architectural drawings to the office. An interesting juxtaposition begins to take place between the two characters, as Stewart is seen heading off into the woods to fish, while Sanchez works out on an exercise machine as his dog looks longingly out the window. While Stewart is fishing in the river, Sanchez takes his dog for a walk, ignoring nature and phoning his girlfriend about the project he and his partner may be commissioned to design. The next morning, as Stewart meditates on the surroundings at the bank of the river, Sanchez drives out to his hometown and when he finds his mother gone, goes to get a permit to cut down a wild Christmas tree for his apartment. He winds up in the same area where Stewart has been fishing, and drives by his truck. Stewart can’t get his truck started, but when Sanchez comes back he drives right by him without stopping. The intersection of the two characters is made more intriguing, however, when Sanchez does stop and backs up.

They know each other, but Stewart doesn’t want to impose on him and Sanchez is glad of it, driving away yet again. Then he stops again and gives Stewart a ride to the highway, accompanied by brief conversation but mostly awkward silence. The conflict is apparently about music. The night before, Sanchez was playing a song on his guitar and then abruptly stopped. When he is picking up the tree license the next day, childhood friend Shawn O’Brien asks if he’s putting the band back together and then acts as if he spoke out of turn. Finally, when Stewart is alone in Sanchez’s old car, he hears the same song on the CD player and as the vocals begin he removes the disc and flings it off the side of the road. When the two are stranded on the mountain after Sanchez’s battery goes dead, it soon becomes apparent that the female voice on the CD may be the real cause of the contention between them. While in some ways the resolution seems clichéd, it’s done in a way that feels incredibly fresh. The key to the ending is actress Ronnie Chittim, who acts as a sage, imparting wisdom without the demand for action on that wisdom. It is for the two principals to decide how they are going to use her knowledge. Both Zach Sanchez and Geoff Stewart are solid actors, able to bring a profound naturalism to their roles. And while their attempts at raw emotion may be less convincing, it’s certainly not to the detriment of the film as a whole.

What really stands out, however, is the photography. Nearly every aspect of the visual imagery is excellent for such a small production like this, especially in the nature scenes. Swift moving clouds presage a rainstorm that dapples the surface of the river and turns to snow while Stewart is fishing. Birds flying through a forest of spruce and fir, and a beautiful shot of the moon at night through the trees create a real visual feel for the Pacific Northwest wilderness. But it’s the flashback sequences that reveal the true brilliance of the director and his cinematographer Ray Buckley, and they are really the heart of the film. As Sanchez tells Chittim the story of his past, when the two men stay the night in her house in the woods, the scene behind them suddenly transforms to his childhood, but it is kept perfectly out of focus, allowing the impression of what he’s talking about to fuse with the story he’s telling, while keeping the specific images from competing with that story. Stewart does the same thing with Chittim’s story of her husband, and with her philosophy of life that she conveys to Stewart’s character. This style of cinematic impressionism is truly spectacular and is well worth the lengthy journey to get there.

If there’s a weakness in the film--and to be fair, it’s a weak spot in so many independent films that it’s almost expected--it’s in the screenplay. The first two thirds of the script are extremely minimalist, and it works incredibly well, allowing the visuals to do the bulk of the communication. Stewart doesn’t even speak until halfway through, and Sanchez only speaks when he’s on the phone. But when Sanchez is telling the story of their falling out his lines become poetry, which destroys the suspension of disbelief. They’re the kind of lines that one would imagine coming from an omniscient narrator in a novel, and just seem out of place spoken by Sanchez. I can see how Stewart might have been going for a narrative impressionism to go along with the visuals, but it seems to distract rather than add to the overall effect. It’s a minor criticism, however, as the rest of the film is so good. The film score by cameraman Ray Buckley is also very good. Not really new age, it is a guitar and keyboard based wash of sounds that underscore the meditative nature of the film without being obtrusive. I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming talent in the Portland film community, and Geoff Stewart’s Reverie is no exception. It is a strong, narrative film, visually stunning, that comes highly recommended.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Sex Weather (2018)

Director: Jon Garcia                                          Writer: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Mike Sempert                                Cinematography: Jon Garcia
Starring: Al’Jaleel McGhee, Amber Stonebraker, Alan Burrell & Marty Bannon Beaudet

Jon Garcia is back. Not that he ever stopped making films, but his latest project, Sex Weather, finds Garcia embracing the vital element at the core of all of his films to the exclusion of everything else: the love between people. When that is combined with the confidence of a filmmaker who is fearless in putting on the screen a vision that refuses to be compromised by the cinematic fashions of the day, truly amazing things are able to happen. In his first film, Tandem Hearts, Garcia has a scene that takes place in a bar between a male and female couple and a pair of musicians. He sets up the scene with an establishing shot of the bar, but spends the rest of the scene cutting between faces. Because of that the emphasis of the scene moves away from the setting to focus exclusively on the characters. In Sex Weather he has taken that same idea and made it the focal point for an entire film. While the premise of the film seems far from original, a typical one-night-stand, morning-after love story, Garcia manages to avoid all of the clichés and defies expectations at nearly every turn to create a unique cinematic experience that, while familiar in context, is anything but predictable.

The opening credits begin on an establishing shot at dawn of the Freemont Bridge in Portland, Oregon. It first appears to have been done with a crane, but as the camera continues rising it soon it becomes apparent that this is a drone shot—the sort of thing that used to be done with a helicopter, and something Garcia experimented with in his previous film, The Falls: Covenant of Grace, but is used to a much more purposeful effect here. Finally the credits end on the feet of Al’Jaleel McGhee and Amber Stonebraker as they poke out from beneath the sheets of the bed in her apartment. The first of Garcia’s unpredictable moments comes when Stonebraker gets out of bed to make a secretive phone call in the bathroom—preceded by a shot of her and another man in a photo, and ending with a painful declaration of “I love you” before she hangs up and hangs her head. This is typically something most films would reveal later in the story, and while there is more to it here than first meets the eye, there’s also a sense that Garcia has no interest in those kinds of cinematic tropes. Which doesn’t mean it’s not important to the story. Garcia’s mastery of the cinematic art form is such that it often doesn’t reveal itself until a film is over—and sometimes not until after a second viewing. His films are much more like novels in that respect. The reality is the phone call is incredibly important. In fact, it’s the center around which the entire film revolves . . . it’s just not important yet, and it’s that kind of patience that is the hallmark of Garcia’s best work.

When Stonebraker returns to bed McGhee wakes up and heads to the bathroom himself. Afterward he looks around the apartment, at her latest script and her awards for acting, and then they have the inevitable awkward confrontation. One of the expectations for a comedy or drama like this one is the predictable conflict between two people who have had sex but don’t really know each other. In most of these stories it is the centerpiece of the film, but Garcia is happy to get it out of the way early and get on to what really matters. McGhee can’t find his phone, and has Stonebraker call the Lyft driver to see if he left it in the car. Then, with time on their hands while they wait for the driver to return her text . . . they start talking. And the thing that becomes apparent almost immediately is the quality of that talking. Al’Jaleel “A.J.” McGhee is a phenomenal actor, and his co-star, Amber Stonebraker, is nearly his equal. Because of that it’s powerfully clear from the outset that this is no indie production populated by local dinner theater actors. Rather than characters, McGhee and Stonebreaker actually become people. They are alternately funny and serious, concerned and dismissive, naked and partially clothed, and beneath it all emerges the conviction that their sexual encounter the night before was no accident. Their compassion for each other—rather than passion—becomes far more important than their differences.

The dialogue ebbs and flows quite naturally, and both actors are visually compelling on the screen. But because the screenplay is so highly autobiographical, it is McGhee who is the most startlingly original in his characterization. When Stonebraker expresses disappointment at the quality of McGhee’s lovemaking she says she thought it would be different because of their history together—McGhee is an independent filmmaker and she had worked on one of his films, then they reconnected at the premier of his most recent picture the night before. When she says she had certain expectations about him, he immediately fires back about her, “Well, so did I.” Even more endearing is when he says the same thing after Stonebraker chides him for not trying hard enough with his previous girlfriend—“You know, women like to be pursued”—and he responds with, “Well, so do I, right?” It shakes viewers from their complacency and puts them in the position of Stonebreaker, seeing McGhee as an individual rather than a composite of all the negative expectations women have of men. Eventually the two come up with rules for the bed, one being that they can’t leave the bed all day. Their self-imposed isolation in the apartment and on the bed is beautifully symbolized by the frequent juxtaposition of the drone shots that float effortlessly over the rooftops of the neighborhood, a different kind of isolation but one that matches their separation from the rest of the world.

One of the major challenges of making a film this intimate, shooting on a set that barely ventures out beyond the confines of a queen-size mattress, is how to make it interesting visually. Shot selection and editing, in that regard, are crucial in order to keep the audience from feeling as if they are seeing the same shots over and over again. To that end editor Zach Carter is to be commended. A long-time collaborator of Garcia’s he has taken Garcia’s wide array of camera angles and woven them together in a way that feels fresh and yet never loses sight of the fact that the actors are at the center of the story. As a cinematographer Garcia indulges more than ever his penchant for pulling focus, but it really works in this context. It’s the same effect one experiences in bed with a lover, so close to the other person’s face that it’s impossible to focus. The subdued film score by Mike Sempert is also supportive in the way he reflects the nature of the visuals, but little more. Garcia has scored large chunks of his previous films and, though it seems just one more responsibility to ask from an artist who already takes on nearly every task in his projects, one has the profound desire to see the director at some point make the commitment to score an entire film with his own music.

It’s difficult to resist giving the ending away, because that is the most remarkable part of Garcia’s story. It’s not until the very end of the film that everything finally makes sense, and Garcia’s purpose suddenly washes over the viewer to reveal the true nature of what this experience together has meant for these two people. Garcia’s film isn’t perfect, but that isn’t the point, any more than it is to expect people to be perfect. But in spite of people’s flaws, everyone carries around isolated perfections within them. In fact, it is ultimately those perfections that we see when we fall in love and, ironically, what we initially perceived of as flaws can become some of the most endearing qualities of the person we fall in love with. Garcia’s latest is just that kind of film. There is something about it that resonates deep inside, and so we find ourselves compelled to take it home with us. But don’t be too quick to kick it out of bed the next morning and send it on its way. It has much more to tell than might first meet the eye. It has much more to teach if we just give it the chance. Only by opening up and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable will we reap the benefits to be had by this chance encounter. Sex Weather is a film you could love.