Escape from Tomorrow (2013)

2015 #189
Randy Moore | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15

Escape from TomorrowDisney meets David Lynch in this arthouse-y psychological thriller, best known for being shot on the QT (i.e. illegally) in DisneyWorld.

The high-contrast black-and-white cinematography is stunning, quite apart from the marvel of how it was captured. It depicts a “not for everyone” experience: a freshly unemployed dad starts to ignore his family, stalk two jailbait teens, get into bizarre scrapes, and possibly lose his mind.

Some find it aimless. Perhaps. The end certainly sinks to gross-out-comedy-level depravity. Others say it’s poorly made. I disagree. It’s at least a strong technical achievement… even if it’s a slightly-too-long, thoroughly peculiar one.

3 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Coherence (2013) + Circle (2015)

Coherence
2015 #156
James Ward Byrkit | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 15

Circle
2015 #157
Aaron Hann & Mario Miscione | 86 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English

This isn’t something I normally do, but certain factors made me want to review these two films together. They’re both low-budget single-location sci-fi thrillers, but they’re also both more about humanity than ideas — they use sci-fi high concepts as a way to expose, examine, and comment on human behaviour. That I happened to watch them back to back only highlighted the similarities.

They’re also both currently available on Netflix, and both of their titles begin with the letter “C”. I mean, it was meant to be.

Despite those similarities, they’re tonally different, but quite subtly so. Part of the point of this double review is to try to tease out and explain what I think those differences are, because it was interesting to me that I felt the pair were so similar and yet so different. We’ll see how that goes.

To introduce them in age order (as well as the order I watched), Coherence begins in a very normal situation: a dinner party for a group of thirtysomething friends, who have a smattering of interpersonal issues. Then odd things begin to happen: mobile phones lose signal and shatter for no reason; there’s a power cut, but there are lights on at a house down the street… Could it be related to the meteor passing overhead? The way the story develops was part improvised: the cast met in the same location for five days, were given story and character prompts by the filmmakers, and went from there.

Circle, on the other hand, must’ve been very tightly constructed. A group of fifty people wake up stood in two circles in a black space, with an array of arrows on the floor in front of them. Every couple of minutes, a klaxon blares out a countdown and one of them is killed. They soon realise they have some control over this, so together they try to work out what’s going on and how to escape, whilst constantly having to select who’s next. Broadly speaking, this is a high-concept thriller in the vein of Cube or Exam.

It’s in this respect that the two films most differ. Both take place in very obviously sci-fi situations, but only one is really about its high concept — that would be Circle. The way the characters interact and the decisions they make are rooted in human nature, true, and the film keeps you engrossed by exposing their prejudices and how that affects their decision making. But, in many respects, it’s operating with familiar stereotypes: the young people who think the old should die first because they’ve had their life; the rich businessman who has no time for immigrants; white-black racial tensions; and so on. As is almost always the case, stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason — if this were real, I imagine those kind of points would still be major factors — and writer-directors Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione manage to create tension and suspense nonetheless. This is more of a “what would I do?” kind of film, though; a high-concept thriller, rather than a true character exposé.

Now, Coherence undeniably has some similarities in this respect: the friends’ true characters are only revealed thanks to the sci-fi situation they find themselves in. It’s a more gentle kind of sci-fi, though; more domestic. It’s about how these particular people react to the strange situation, rather than being about the situation itself, a difference emphasised by them being slightly less archetypal than the characters in Circle. There are some scientific-y explanations for what’s going on, but writer-director James Ward Byrkit has said these were meant as a kind of inside joke — they’re a bit technobabbly and they don’t make complete sense. I have to say, I’m not sure I wholly buy this excuse, because I think you could look at Coherence as an exploration of a sci-fi-y idea, if that’s the way you were inclined.

However, it’s clear Byrkit’s focus lay elsewhere. Thematically, it’s about our fear of others, but, as Byrkit explains in this interview (which is very much worth a read for anyone interested in the film), “we’re projecting our fears onto other people, but the reason we’re afraid in life is because we’re projecting our own fears. Whether it’s fear of another country or another race, we’re projecting our worst fears about ourselves.” One character has this realisation quite succinctly in a “what if we’re the bad ones?” scene. But again, there are thematic similarities to Circle: projecting our pre-existing opinions and prejudices on to other people, and using that as a basis for decision-making, rather than assessing the actual evidence in front of us.

The kind of interest the two films offer to the audience are quite different. Although the situation in Circle is mysterious, the mystery isn’t the point — it’s an excuse to kick off the situation, as it were, and the point of the film is the ‘game’ and how it unfurls. In that respect it’s more of a “watch once” kind of film; a thriller that will have you engrossed and on the edge of your seat (provided you’re the kind of viewer who goes along with the concept, rather than thinking “well that would never actually happen”), but perhaps has little to offer beyond that.

Coherence, on the other hand, feels more like a deeply considered film. The mystery of the situation is ever-present, asking to be kept track of and deciphered along with the characters — however much Byrkit may insist that’s not the point! Then those characters, the way they behave and evolve through the situation, are also more richly drawn. With fewer to illuminate they’re less quickly-sketched than Circle’s mass of ‘contestants’, and so feel more like rounded humans. By the end, they’re doing things that might initially seem out of character, but actually aren’t at all. (If you can take it, dear reader, there’s a crazy-detailed explanation of the ending (one reading of it, anyway) to be found here.)

Although the similarities between those two works are clear to see, I’m not sure I’ve illuminated their differences as much as I’d’ve liked. Nonetheless, I thought they were both engrossing sci-fi thrillers, driven more by people than by concepts (albeit people dealing with those concepts!) In terms of rating them, Circle is a solid-four single-location thriller, while Coherence is a sci-fi-mystery character-drama that butts right up against the five-star bracket.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

2015 #147
Steven Soderbergh | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Four acquaintances partake in duplicitous relationships and candid sexual discourse in writer-director Steven Soderbergh’s debut drama.

All four actors are good, covering every base on the spectrum of sexual openness, but, at the two extremes, James Spader and Andie MacDowell are excellent. They get the wealth of the material, the latter as a repressed, neurotic housewife, the former as an oddball whose truth obsession makes him both the strangest and most idyllic character.

26 years on, our world and attitudes have changed plenty — there are now whole websites dedicated to Spader’s weird, private obsession — but this is still strikingly frank.

5 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Before Dawn (2012)

2015 #86
Dominic Brunt | 82 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18

Before DawnDirected by Emmerdale actor and zombie aficionado Dominic Brunt (who also stars), from a screenplay by Emmerdale writer Mark Illis based on a story by Brunt’s wife, Joanne Mitchell (who also co-stars), Before Dawn is a mash-up between remote-farmhouse zombie horror and kitchen-sink relationship drama.

The story sees struggling couple Alex (Brunt) and Meg (Mitchell) leaving their kids with her mother and heading off to the aforementioned remote farmhouse for a reconciliatory weekend. As they clash and argue, we see the signs around them that All Is Not Right… until suddenly they’re being chased by the undead.

Unfortunately, Brunt and Illis aren’t quite up to pulling off the film’s original concept. The relationship drama is lightweight, with nothing strikingly new or engaging about it, just rote “couple argue but maybe love each other really”-type shenanigans. It also takes way too long to get going. The scene saying goodbye to the kids is interminable, with nothing to add to the narrative or characters. I guess it’s trying to establish a rapport between the parents and their kids, designed to pay off later, but it offers nothing you wouldn’t get from literally showing that they have kids. If you want us to have an emotional investment, give us some emotion, not just instructions about bedtime and requests for hugs. Then there’s the wannabe-artsy shots of driving, and… just get a wriggle on, yeah?

Cross countryAmateurish production values often let the side down. I don’t think Brunt’s direction would be too bad were it not for the cheap camerawork, although the action scenes are overrun with ShakyCam. There are some very good bits late on: the developments that come as a result of a stranger’s arrival; a phone call with the kids; perhaps even the very end, which is a bold climax.

Incidentally, no part of the plot has anything to do with something occurring “before dawn”, so I presume the title is a riff on Before Sunrise (relationship two-hander) and Dawn of the Dead (zombie movie) — in which case, the title goes from being oddly meaningless to quite neat. In that respect, it might be the best thing about the film.

The inherent idea of cross-pollinating these two genres isn’t without merit, so it’s a shame it’s come to pass in this fairly weak film. Maybe someone else will try it again someday.

2 out of 5

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

2015 #81
Colin Trevorrow | 82 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

WANTED. Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

Safety Not GuaranteedThe debut feature from the director of all-conquering box office behemoth Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed is a small-scale indie comedy that may or may not have a sci-fi twist. Inspired by a real newspaper ad (actually written by a bored editor), this fictional version sees three journalists from a Seattle magazine tracking down the guy who placed the ad in order to find out the true story behind it.

Despite the unique-sounding premise, much of the film plays as a pretty standard indie romantic-comedy-drama. You’ve got Aubrey Plaza as the girl who never quite fit in; Mark Duplass as a geeky loner with a heart of gold who (spoilers!) she falls for; Jake Johnson as a thirtysomething returning to his small hometown after years in the big city to reconnect with a lost love… If it’s beginning to sound like a checklist of indie plot points then, well, it’s not that bad — this isn’t Indie Movie. While none of the story threads unfold with as much uniqueness as the initial set-up promises, and do occasionally nudge towards thumb-twiddling familiarity, they’re not so rote as to be a total write off. Towards the end, it’s even managed to build up enough steam to offer an effective and somewhat affecting final act.

Trevorrow’s direction is solid. There’s nothing wrong with it, but equally I saw little to mark it out from any other low-budget indie dramedy. I don’t see what here particularly earnt him the instantaneous fast-track move to mega-budget blockbuster-making — directors who previously made that leap at least had the courtesy to go via a mid-budget feature or two following their dirt-cheap debut. Not a DeloreanMaybe I’m missing something, I don’t know, but where other directors currently making a similar transition (Gareth Edwards, Josh Trank, Duncan Jones) showed some signs of a reason for the upgrade in their debut and/or sophomore features, I can’t fathom what singled Trevorrow out. He seems to have done alright with it though, so never mind.

Safety Not Guaranteed has enough tweaks to the expected format that fans of the genre will lap it up (as evidenced by any online comment section you choose to check out), and I guess casual viewers who are predisposed to its particular set of traits will like it more than they like other examples of the same; but, the closing moments aside, I don’t think it’s anything like as unique as some people seem to think it is.

3 out of 5

Safety Not Guaranteed is on Film4 tonight at 12:10am.

Violet & Daisy (2011)

2015 #34
Geoffrey Fletcher | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Violet and DaisyAfter winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Precious, Geoffrey Fletcher wrote and directed this zany hit-women movie. Or possibly he wrote it “in 1996, when everybody and their brother and their sister and their cousin twice-removed was trying to be Quentin Tarantino,” as Matt Zoller Seitz put it in his review for RogerEbert.com.

Indeed, the end result — which concerns two girl-ish assassins, played by Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan, in a chaptered narrative that’s mainly about their confrontation with a mark, played by James Gandolfini, who actually wants them to kill him — plays like Tarantino with a metric tonne of Quirk slathered over it. On the bright side, it’s sort of entertaining, albeit fundamentally derivative with a sheen of left-field try-hard wacky-uniqueness.

There are good performances from Gandolfini (in particular) and Ronan, who manage to pull some genuine empathy out of the oddness. Unfortunately, this aspect of character drama comes too late — the early part of the film trains us to expect a stylised genre movie, then suddenly shifts into a meditation on loneliness and death. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t gel. I’m all for tonal dissonance, but it needs to be handled correctly. Sleepy cellHere, Fletcher either needs to settle on one or the other, or clearly signal his intentions earlier.

Violet & Daisy is a bit of a mess, but one that at least offers a worthwhile performance or two and some entertaining, inventive, if derivative, moments. The sheer scale of its self-conscious kookiness will just grate for some viewers, though.

3 out of 5

Time Lapse (2014)

2015 #25
Bradley King | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Time LapseShallow Grave meets Primer in this indie thriller that sees three housemates discover a camera that takes photos 24 hours into the future. They initially use it to their financial advantage, but soon Things Go Wrong™.

Time Lapse has a sci-fi setup, but it’s a film driven by its characters rather than its high concept. The whys and hows of the machine are incidental (who created it and what happened to him is a plot point, but how he did it isn’t), it’s what it does to the characters that matters. The images of the future soon depict tableaux that throw their relationships with one another into question. Moments are seen that one or more of them wouldn’t like the others to see. But if they know the camera is there, why would they do that in front of it? And do they have to recreate it? What happens to Time Itself™ if they don’t?

So it’s a thriller, really, albeit one about three normal characters and their relationships rather than the usual thriller stomping grounds of terrorists or criminals (although there are a few of the latter). There are answers to the mysteries, and at least one game-changing twist that’s an absolute killer. Co-writer/director Bradley King does a first-class job of concealing its presence, only for its reveal to be damningly obvious and explain some things you mightn’t’ve thought would be explained — pretty much a perfect kind of twist, in other words.

Oh no...The very low-key nature of Time Lapse will put some people off. If you like your sci-fi full of action or scientists or world-saving/changing endeavours, it’s not for you. If you like sci-fi where an impossible concept throws ordinary people into dilemmas about themselves and each other, this is a well-conceived drama. Add in an engrossing mystery element that keeps you questioning and guessing until the end, and you have a minor gem.

4 out of 5

Time Lapse is released in US theaters and on demand today, and on Blu-ray from Tuesday June 16th. In the UK, it’s already available on Sky Movies and Now TV, and to rent or buy through all the usual digital providers.

(Despite the latter, the film seems to have no official BBFC rating (Sky go with 15; Amazon say U; iTunes keep schtum), which I’m pretty sure is illegal…)

American Movie (1999)

2014 #73
Chris Smith | 100 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | 15 / R

American MovieA behind-the-scenes making-of with a difference, American Movie: The Making of Northwestern (to give its full title) is a documentary about wannabe-filmmaker Mark Borchardt attempting to produce a horror feature film with little more than some mates and good intentions, battling against a lack of money, interest, and dedication. It descends, quickly, into the kind of farcicality that leads some to assume it’s a This is Spinal Tap-style spoof. But it isn’t. It’s real.

It’s hard to know if you should laugh at it all, in fact. These are individuals whose lives are so quietly, subtly absurd that you can genuinely think they’ve been scripted or improvised by comedians — it’s funny, yes, but it’s also kind of sad. It’s a combination that could make for uncomfortable viewing, but for some reason it doesn’t. Maybe it’s the boundless optimism that Mark has; the belief that what he’s doing is worth pursuing and that it’s going to work out. Perhaps that’s less optimism and more naïvety.

I imagine this is actually a story that’s repeated regularly all around America — heck, all around the world: people who’d love to be filmmakers, trying to realise their dream, without really knowing what they’re doing. Hopefully not all those stories are as amusing and lightly-crazed as this one, but the vast majority will be just as unsuccessful. Whether there’s a lesson to take away from that, and what that lesson is, I’m not sure. “Don’t bother,” perhaps (to be pessimistic about it!)

Filming filmingWhatever you take away from it, American Movie feels like a must-see for certain sections of film fandom, particularly anyone who wants to make a movie themselves. Its appeal is broader than that though, an everyday story of adversity that isn’t so much overcome as temporarily averted. It’s not bleak or sad, but it is melancholic. And, whatever the morals of it, often laugh-out-loud funny.

Rarely seen (I hadn’t even heard of it until Film4 bunged on a late-night screening once last year), I recommend catching it if you can.

4 out of 5

The Kings of Summer (2013)

2014 #76
Jordan Vogt-Roberts | 95 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Kings of SummerFed up with their home lives, three school friends set out into the woods to build their own home. And kinda succeed.

I wasn’t sure I’d like this — it looked Quirky and Indie and Hipster-y — but I wound up rather loving it. It mashes zany ‘comedy’-comedy with indie drama — the kind of tonal disjunct some despise, because they like their films neatly Funny or Serious, but which I always have an affinity towards. Plus there’s an awesome soundtrack and frequently incredible cinematography — many shots are truly beautiful.

Surprisingly relatable, despite its outlandish storyline, this is a film to subvert expectations.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Alter Egos (2012)

2014 #30
Jordan Galland | 74 mins* | streaming | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Alter EgosYou might not think superheroes lend themselves to the ultra-low-budget indie treatment, but where there’s a will there’s a way, and clearly writer-director Jordan Galland had a will.

In the world of Alter Egos, superheroes are an everyday thing, blessed with unexciting powers and public disinterest. (Don’t look too closely — this is an indie comedy, not a “what would actually happen?” scenario.) Two of these chaps — Fridge and C-Thru (guess their powers!) — wind up at a quiet out-of-season hotel, where one has captured a wanted supervillain. While they debate what to do, Fridge falls for the hero-hating receptionist. A mix of romantic hijinks and complex backstory exposition ensue.

Anyone after superhero thrills isn’t going to find it here. The fundamentals of the plot wouldn’t be too out of place in a ‘real’ superhero movie, but the indie stylings don’t provide much scope for special effects spectaculars or indulgent action sequences. Equally, fans of the indie comedy genre may find it too silly. It’s a crossover between two niche genres that, rather than transcend such roots, ends up being even more niche — it may fulfil those who are in the area where the superhero/indie-comedy Venn diagram overlaps, but no one else.

Super? Heroes?Personally, I rather liked it. It’s a little cheap, talky, and not laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it has some charm, a healthy-enough dose of professional filmmaking (I’ve seen plenty of efforts that are more amateurish), and a brisk running time that makes for a pleasant diversion. If you think you might find yourself in the sweet spot of the aforementioned diagram, it’s worth a go.

3 out of 5

* The IMDb-listed running time is 80 minutes. That would make the PAL time 77 minutes, which the BBFC confirm. I watched it on Now TV, where it definitely ran 74. Did they PAL-speed-up the PAL-sped-up version? Who knows. ^