Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Life, Animated (USA 2016: Dir Roger Ross Williams)

The viewing remit of DEoL continues to expand in the new year with this stunning documentary by Roger Ross Williams, who previously made the Oscar winning Music by Prudence (2010).

Life, Animated is the extraordinary story of Owen Suskind. Until three years of age Owen was a healthy baby (if a little overdistracted by his surroundings) but in his third year he withdrew from life and gave up talking - he was subsequently diagnosed with autism. Owen's despairing parents Ron and Cornelia (whose presence in the film shows just how much they have lived and breathed the ups and downs of their son's development) feared the worst for their son, but a seemingly gibberish utterance by him turned out to be a line from one of the many Disney films which he watched obsessively. Quoting whole blocks of dialogue from these movies became his communication lifeline and way back from silence to language. By using characters and situations from Disney films to help illustrate his feelings, he was able to navigate through a sea of confusion in a world where he was previously unable to relate to those around him. It must have been an extraordinary revelation for his family, all desperate for Owen to regain his essential humanity.

The Owen Suskind we see for much of the film is a confident, articulate young man who runs a class at his school for other kids whose disabilities limit communication. At one point in the film he's even invited to guest speak at at Autism convention in France (one can only guess at the challenge involved in learning enough French to deliver his halting introduction, in that the task of putting his own thoughts together for the address seem insurmountable in their own right). Disney hasn't 'cured' him but it has helped, along with armies of largely unseen support teams, to give him a chance of an independent life and eventually even a job - in a cinema, natch.

As always with documentaries like this there's a thin line between exploiting Owen and simply setting up the camera to observe him (Williams seems to favour a non interventionist approach - for example when Owen, newly moved into his independent living space towards the end of the film, pleads with the film makers to help him access his mail box, they fail to act).

Aside from the Owen's parents, whose fear for their son's continued independence after their death is understandable, perhaps the most interesting relationship is with his older brother Walt. They have a solid bond but the spectre of what will happen to Owen in the long run, and how that will impact on Walt's life choices, is well defined and very poignant. Walt clearly wants a brother he can relate to as an equal - at one point he has a 'birds and bees' conversation with Owen which possibly fires up the younger sibling and results in him coming on too strongly to his girlfriend (who is very sweet but seemingly quite immature) and who subsequently finishes with him; the break up is carefully managed by care workers looking after either side like solicitors in a divorce settlement.

Telling a story of a quarter century of living in just an hour and a half inevitably leaves more questions than answers. We see how Owen uses Disney characters to voice his concerns, hopes and fears (and the extent of how much these characters mean to him is clearly shown when two of the Disney voice artists turn up at his school), but that angle is only surely part of his development - other assistance is skirted around because it doesn't serve the central conceit of the film. But this is a minor quibble in an outstanding documentary which resists over Disneyfying the idea of Owen as a Peter Pan figure but does go some way to suggesting a greater value to the Disney stories than the schmaltz they are often seen to be.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

VooDoo (US 2016: Dir Tom Costabile) plus a short interview with the director

Like wow, as Scooby Doo’s Shaggy used to say. Tom Costabile’s debut feature is a low budget messed up gem.

New Orleans country hick Dani visits LA to stay with her slightly more streetwise cousin Stacy. Dani’s here to escape the car crash of her recent past – mother dying, split with an ex she found out was already married – but now she’s here in La La Land to party and forget. Over drinks Dani confesses that her ex’s wife Serafine was into voodoo (in a pre-credits sequence we've already seen what she's capable of), and when Serafine heard about hubby’s carrying on with Stacy’s cousin, put a curse on her. But that stuff’s a load of rubbish, right? And now she’s in sunny LA, all bikini lines and valley speak, where life is good!

Wrong. Seems that the curse has followed Dani to California, and Serafine’s about to up the ante on how miserable life can become for the girl from New Orleans.

What follows is a literal descent into hell; unspeakable acts, cackling demons, branding, sacrifice and all. The first half of the movie is filmed in traditional found footage style (Dani excitedly wants to document all of her west coast adventure) but in the last portion of the film, once Dani is taken prisoner and lined up for her own private room in eternal damnation, you really don’t want to know who’s behind the lens documenting the depravity in front of it.

VooDoo is truly nuts. It’s an audacious movie which knows it’s filmed on a shoestring but fails to give a toss. Costabile’s vision of Hades might only have cost a few thousand dollars, but it remains truly nightmarish. It may want to emulate Nobuo Nakagawa’s similarly themed 1960 movie Jigoku, or maybe the hell sequence from José Mojica Marins' 1967 'Coffin Joe' flick This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse, but it’s far closer to the zero budget chancer movies made by the late great Ray Dennis Steckler around the same time; films like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964), where partying teens run into monsters on a California beach.

Well done to Samantha Stewart as Dani, who as a wide eyed country girl undergoes a convincing transformation into terrified victim, and spends a good half hour doing nothing but screaming her head off. Constance Strickland as the voodoo priestess Serafine is also truly scary. I'm sure Ms Strickland is a very nice lady in real life but here she's truly nightmarish. And well done too to the cast of ‘hell’ – straight faces all round, which can’t have been easy.

Serafine L'Amour (Constance Strickland)
VooDoo is a recommended slice of devil may care genre filmmaking, the like of which I’d long lost hope of ever seeing again. So, rather blown away by this extraordinary film, I tracked down the director Tommy Costabile and asked him a few questions:

DEoL: Firstly, congratulations on the movie. I was bowled over. Are you happy with it?

TC: Thank you very much! I'm so glad you liked it. I show your review to everybody, it's awesome!! I am happy with it. Like any film there's a few things I would've liked to have changed or see differently, but in the end you let things go that won't dramatically affect the overall audience reaction to the picture. I'll always cringe in certain parts but it's only a couple things so I'm very happy about that. I've been working on the film since 2013 so it's definitely become a labor of love. 

DEoL: So can you tell my readers how you got into the murky world of film making?

TC: I was always enthralled with film making - writing, directing, producing, etc. Since I was a little kid watching all the Spielberg/Lucas fantasy films of the 70's and 80's (and all the films of that time that have them to thank) I was just amazed at how incredible an impact a film could have on me. Then horror came a little later and I was hooked for life. My mother loved Halloween and horror films and she really instilled that into me at an early age. The Exorcist, Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Phantasm, An American Werewolf in London, The Omen, The Amityville Horror, it was just a great time for horror, and horror is so fun to watch. You can literally jump out of your seat, scream, laugh, etc. When a horror film is done right, the audience can experience a whirlwind of emotions in a couple of hours, and to be able to create that is what we all strive for in any film.

DEoL: According to IMDB (not always the most accurate of reference sources, but hey...) VooDoo is your first feature - what shorts etc have you done before this?

TC: This is my first feature, IMDb was right! It took a long time to knock that out. I was very heavily into Real Estate when I was younger, in my 20's, and the financial crash of the late 2000's really put me behind schedule in getting my first feature done (I do Real Estate to fund my pictures). But there's a certain subjectivity to that as I don't think I had enough knowledge or patience back then to have pulled it off as I do now. Lo and behold, I'm very proud that VooDoo is my debut feature.

I did complete a few shorts in and out of film school that are on IMDb as well. One of my first ones got a lot of attention at my school which was called The First Time and was a music video to Phil Collins's 'In the Air Tonight' about a MySpace stalker who finds a date, kills her, and buries her. Black and White, pretty gruesome stuff. Dominic Matteucci, who's also in VooDoo, was actually the lead in that. Then I did a comedic take on the gay mafia with my friend Frankie called Al Cabone. That was hysterical. Very dirty and raunchy. We're actually trying to raise the money for this to be a feature.  If and when we accomplish that this may be one of my next pictures. The last short I did I served as Executive Producer on a project with Shia LaBeouf called The Smallest River in Almirante.  This was a story about a boy going back to his native country (Trinidad) after moving to the States and realizing Trinidad was his home. 

DEoL: To the movie itself. You've written, produced and directed it. How did VooDoo come about?

The nightmare begins in VooDoo
TC: VooDoo came about after the financial crash and me and some friends had nothing going on. We were essentially broke, unemployed, and I was able to focus on movies for the first time in my life. Something good always comes out of something bad. I wrote a script called 'SERE' which is a fast paced action film about aliens, kind of James Bond meets Close Encounters. I submitted that to the Nichol when it was finally finished and went right into VooDoo. 'SERE' I couldn't fund. It's way too big of a budget. So to be able to write, direct, and fund a film, it had to be a small budget. For the first time in my life I actually wrote the script with budget in mind and knocked out the script fairly quickly in just a few months. We were on set not much long after that. 

DEoL: How did you prepare your cast (particularly Samantha Stewart) for what was to come in the film? Did they know what they were letting themselves in for?

TC: We actually made a point of this.  The first person I cast to be Dani was actually from New Orleans. I really wanted someone from that city to play the part. I flew her out to LA so she could audition and it was apparent she didn't have it, and it became clear that Sam and Ruth (Reynolds, who plays Stacy) were perfect for it. We sat down with them after auditioning literally hundreds of girls and explained what happened in the story, namely in Hell. Sam was kind of taken back a little bit, I think. I don't think she ever did anything like this before. But in the end they were both down for everything and anything and we got the greatest leads we possibly could. The rest was history!

DEoL: Tell me how you created the 'hell' scenes in the movie. Also, how did you recruit the demon extras, considering what they had to do?

TC: Dominic (Matteucci) was working at a haunted house called 'Blackout' which is a very dark, intense experience. It isn't your standard haunted house by any means. While he was doing that it became apparent that the world was ready for the extreme kind of horror I always wanted to tell.  We began recruiting actors from 'Blackout' and 'Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights' (friends and co-workers of Dom) before the script was even done. So essentially almost every actor in Hell is a real life haunted house actor of some kind. It made a lot of sense to me for this to be our demon cast. 

When it came down to Hell in general, almost 100% of the budget was going to be spent there, and I didn't want to even shoot it if the first "half" of the film didn't come out ok. The first 6 days of shooting was essentially the entire movie but Hell. We wrapped the first 6 days and put everyone on stand by for Hell. We edited for a couple weeks and I loved it. Sam and Ruth were so incredible.  Their acting was natural, their improv. was great, I loved it. So we called everyone and told them Hell was on, including Adam Rettino who really was the architect for the whole thing. He was the Art Director, propmaster, set builder, you name it. Adam and his crew worked literally night and day for a month. They slept at the warehouse where we built the set. I was there everyday with them helping but without them, and especially without Adam, this never would've happened. Adam's been working in the business for years and he had all the connections and knowledge to pull it off and he did. He's a legend.

Ron Jeremy cameos in VooDoo with Dani (Samantha Stewart)
DEoL: Ron Jeremy. Nice walk on role - how did that happen and has he seen the finished movie? If so I wonder if it's given him any ideas for future, er 'action' movies of his own.

TC: Ron's an incredible guy.  He's a sweetheart. We were at the Rainbow on Sunset one night and I asked him to do it. It just made sense because he goes there almost as much as Lemmy did, and he had a reputation for being there. If the girls were going to run into a celeb at the Rainbow it really would've been him! He agreed and played the part.  He hasn't seen the film yet, he wasn't able to attend the cast and crew screening. Hopefully he'll be able to be at the Premiere...

DEoL: What are your plans for the film. Festivals, streaming etc. When might we see a UK release?

TC: So far we'll be in theaters and VOD on the same day - 24 February 2017. We may open in theaters a week prior, the theater booker is still working it. We'll be in at least 10 cities in the US, possibly more. For VOD it should be everywhere. ITunes, Vudu, Amazon, Cable Networks, Playstation, XBox, Youtube, etc. We don't have a foreign sales agency yet but we are wanting to take it to Cannes this May. Foreign Distribution should come right after that. Hopefully it'll be a theatrical release in the UK as well!

DEoL: And what's next for you. How do you top VooDoo?

TC: How do you top VooDoo, what an awesome question! I'm working diligently on a story called 'Killing Sam' about the Chicago Outfit in the 60's that centres around a gangster named Mad Sam Destefano. It's very unique. This man was like Hannibal Lecter, but in the mafia. It's a very interesting story and it ties into a lot of very famous historical events such as the death of JFK and Marilyn Monroe, as well as the Outift taking over casinos in Las Vegas, etc. I'm working with Frank Cullotta on the script who will also be co-producing. Frank was the story behind Scorcese's Casino and he personally knew a lot of the players in our story. I'm very excited about the project. 

I'm also working on another horror called 'Uninvited'. The protagonist is a filmmaker whose last picture opened a door to the supernatural. His house becomes haunted and his wife and child are in physical danger. The story centres around how his personal needs and wants attributed to this and it becomes more of It's a Wonderful Life but in a horror setting. I'm hoping to shoot 'Uninvited' this year as we wrap up the script and pre-production on 'Killing Sam', in addition to beginning shopping 'SERE' and 'Cabone'.

DEoL: Thanks very much for taking the time to answer my questions - good luck with VooDoo and your other projects!  

(A version of the film review above appeared in

Thursday, 12 January 2017

New Films Round Up #6 - Reviews of Beyond the Gates (USA 2016), Carnage Park (USA 2016), Pet (USA 2016), SiREN (USA 2016), The Disappointments Room (USA 2016) and The Monster (USA 2016)

Beyond the Gates (USA 2016: Dir Jackson Stewart) It's 1992 and estranged brothers Gordon and John are back in their home town to clear out the video store owned by their missing presumed dead father. Together with Gordon's girlfriend Margot they slowly package up the cavernous shop's seemingly endless numbers of bulky video cassettes. Stumbling across one of those interactive VHS/Board games popular a few decades ago (this one's called 'Beyond the Gates') and with the video tape still in their dad's VCR, they decide to play. The trio are immediately plunged into a fight for their lives where successive playing levels must be unlocked - with deadly and bloody consequences - before they can make their escape out of the game and the nightmare world it has created.

Although Beyond the Gates doesn't fetishise the VHS phenomenon in the way that, for example, 2008's Be Kind Rewind or 2013's curio doc Rewind This! have done (or even aim for cassette accuracy - the inclusion of 1996 flick Fargo on the shelves is clearly a mistake), the movie is otherwise consciously in love with its era. From the opening neon titles and Wojciech Golczewski’s spot-on synth score, to the use of former scream queen Barbara Crampton as Evelyn, the video guide to the game, this is an affectionately mounted homage, rather than a send up of 1980s creature features (the title even evokes the 1987 kids-meddling-with-the-unknown movie The Gate). Cleverly Jackson Stewart's debut directorial feature takes its time getting to the good stuff - and the characterisation of Gordon, John and Margot shows a lot of film-making confidence. But the gore, when it arrives, is definitely of the non CGI type that used to feature in the pages of 'Fangoria' magazine back in the day - and there's plenty of it. Pretty entertaining stuff.

Carnage Park (USA 2016: Dir Mickey Keating) Apparently based on a true story, Mickey Keating's latest movie mixes Tarantinoesque botched robbery stylings, a killer with gas mask straight out of My Bloody Valentine, and a heroine that could have passed as Tina Fey's sister, although not nearly as funny.

'Scorpion' Joe and Lenny, a couple of washed up herb-heads, hold up a bank, whose only customer seems to be winsome Vivian (played by skinny scream queen Ashley (The Last Exorcism and The Last Exorcism Part II) Bell), busy negotiating with the manager not to foreclose on her father's house. Joe and Lenny abduct Vivian but as they drive away from the scene of the crime, one of the robbers is picked off by a hidden sniper. Vivian makes her escape into a local mine where a cat and mouse game ensues between unwilling heroine and crazed gunman.

This is about as good as it sounds. The first half aims for a sub Tarantino merging of crazy camera angles, 'cool' music (including 'Big Bad John' - please) and narrative time shifts, although lacking any of the sizzling dialogue one might expect. Once Carnage Park becomes a chase movie, any stylistic pretensions are abandoned, and the focus moves to the overall bonkersness of the killer, one Wyatt Moss, and whether Vivian will get out alive. I don't know if the fact that the film was based on true events hampered the director's choices here, but this is a derivative, uninspiring film which can't settle on one style and just emerges, like a number of Moss's victims, as a bit of a mess.

Pet (Spain/USA 2016: Dir Carles Torrens) Judging by Pet's premise - twisted guy abducts woman and holds her captive in a secret room for pleasure rather than ransom - one would be forgiven for assuming that this was just another adaptation of John Fowles' 1963 novel 'The Collector.' Originally and memorably filmed in 1965 with twitchy Terence Stamp, the theme has been re-used down the years, including the underrated 1981 movie Tattoo, with Bruce Dern as a tortured artist and Maud Adams his captured muse, and 2007's Captivity, where Eliza Cuthbert is exposed to all sorts of indignities by her crazed abductor.

Pet starts slickly if unpromisingly: nervous kennel assistant Seth bumps into beautiful but glacial and aloof Holly on a bus, claiming they were at school together. Holly denies knowledge of him, leading to Seth finding out her likes and dislikes via social media and stalking her at the restaurant where she works. When he is again rejected Seth drugs and abducts her to the kennels, where he keeps her prisoner in a cage. So far so formula, but without giving anything more away the tables are slowly and cleverly turned, with the imprisoned Holly slowly waging a war of nerves with the distinctly unbalanced Seth.

Basically a two hander, Pet grips throughout its tense hour and a half - it has the same air of claustrophobia that director Carles Torrens brought to his 2011 spookfest Apartment 143. Strong performances from Dominic (TV's Lost) Monaghan as the just-the-right-side-of-bonkers Seth and Ksenia (Black Swan) Solo as Holly are aided by a Jeremy Slater's literate script and a nerve jangling score by Zacarías M. de la Riva (who also produced the haunting music for Evolution, one of my favourite films of last year). Pet was a big hit at festivals last year and will hopefully do well in the home market.

SiREN (USA 2016: Dir Gregg Bishop) Jonah, about to get married, is whisked off to a stag weekend by his effervescent brother and best mates. Disappointed in the choice of lap dancing joint picked for the start of their festivities, the group are persuaded to head out to a remote house where they're promised something a little raunchier. But when Jonah falls for a young girl who dances for him in a locked room, he decides to do the gallant thing and free her, little knowing that she is Lilith, the siren of the title whose benign exterior masks an ancient monster within.

I watched this fully aware that it was a feature length development of the 'Amateur Night' segment from the 2012 movie V/H/S. 'Amateur Night' was directed by David Bruckner (responsible for the excellent 2015 movie Southbound). SiREN was directed by Gregg Bishop, whose was responsible for the 'Dante the Great' segment of 2014's V/H/S Viral. Symmetry cries out for the feature length development of 'Dante the Great' to be directed by David Bruckner. But I digress.

SiREN is, surprisingly, a lot of fun. It has some genuinely laugh out loud moments and wears its horror lightly enough, but it's not short on tension. It has a decidedly old school feel (when I started watching it I though possibly that I'd acquired the 2010 film of the same name instead - is seven years ago 'old school'?).Hannah Fierman as Lily reprises her performance in the V/H/S segment and joins a relatively small list of actors whose claim to fame is spending an entire movie in the altogether. It's normal here to describe such a performance as 'brave' but Fierman inhabits the siren character with an astounding physicality not usually seen in Trowbridge, Wilts (from where she emanates). Far better than its origins suggest, then.

The Disappointments Room (USA 2016: Dir D.J. Caruso) If you're old enough to remember I-Spy books, well by the time you've got through this one I'm betting your page of  'things you always see in haunted house movies' will be fully ticked. Really, what terrible generic nonsense this is.

Kate Beckinsale (sleepwalking - how surprising that she turned in her brilliant performance as Lady Susan Vernon in Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship the same year as this - maybe it means she's 'versatile') plays Dana, an architect who with her husband David and son Lucas movie to a real fixer-upper in the countryside, to make a new start after the accidental death of their baby daughter. So get those pencils out and get ready to tick some boxes: on their first night Dana hears a baby crying; there's a locked room in the attic that she's drawn to; Lucas starts talking to an imaginary person; the house has a terrible history; Dana has had psychiatric treatment following the baby's death and David thinks she's going bonkers again; the steadicam prowls around the house constantly: a kooky local librarian provides all the information Dana and we need to understand what's going on.

There are so many films like this that have been made in the past few years, and I bet there's a load in production - astonishingly there does seem to be a market for them; this one is prolific TV director D J (The Shield) Caruso's first attempt. As you'd expect from his credentials The Disappointments Room is very well made, but I do wonder what film historians will make of this almost fin de siecle outpouring of the supernatural onto our screens in, say, twenty or thirty years' time? Will this ever be seen as good?

The Monster (USA 2016: Dir Bryan Bertino) Back last year the only criticism I levelled at the otherwise very good South Korean movie Train to Busan was the arguably exploitative way that the young actor Kim Su-An was made to cry her eyes out for the last twenty minutes of the film. Well there are child's tears aplenty in writer/producer/director Bryan Bertino's stifling modern fairytale The Monster. Oh and rain. A lot of rain.

Lizzy (an astonishing Ella Ballentine) is a young girl living with her dysfunctional booze and drugs addicted mother Kathy (Sarah Michelle Geller lookalike Zoe Kazan). Kathy can no longer parent Lizzie, who is to be shipped off to her grandmother's house. But en route their car is involved in a night time collision with a dog. Mother and daughter must await roadside services, but there's something in the woods that's large, hungry and has very big teeth.

The Monster wears its fairytale elements a little heavily (Lizzy mistakes the injured dog for a wolf; the visit to granny's house etc) but there's no doubting the integrity of the two central performances. I may be getting older and a bit over-protective, but I wasn't sure that having long scenes of Lizzy getting soaked to the skin in the rain while crying her eyes out was a particularly healthy way to add drama to the piece. And the simplicity of The Monster very nearly kills it. At times the setup feels like an extended homage to a scene from Jurassic Park but its metaphoric power, never overstated but always obvious, lets us know what this film is really about. It's powerful stuff, carried by strong performances, some very effective monster sequences, and such a bleak world view that it's only at the end you'll realise how tense the whole thing has been.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

We Are the Flesh (Mexico/France 2016: Dir Emiliano Rocha Minter)

Mariano, a lone man living in a squalid apartment (in a possibly post-apocalyptic near future, but nothing is explained), invites a young brother and sister to live with him, in return for helping him turn the flat into some kind of cave like dwelling. Mariano, who has manipulative, Charles Manson like tendencies, encourages the pair to lose their inhibitions (starting with that outmoded idea that siblings should never do the nasty with each other) and go through various degradations for him. Mariano is killed, only to be reborn for no specific reason, and the brother and sister pair eventually turn to murder as they cast off any remaining vestiges of morality.

“There’s no such thing as love. Only demonstrations of love” says Mariano at one point. Well we get quite a few (real) demonstrations of this in the course of We Are the Flesh (aka Tenemos La Carne), the debut feature from Mexican director Emiliano Rocha Minter, as well as ponderous dialogue, copious nudity, and a lot of primal screaming.

I have no idea what most of it’s about. My guess would have been that the whole thing is some impenetrable social satire on Mexican society (although the 26-year-old Minter has rejected this idea during interviews – in fact even he doesn’t really profess to know what’s going on).

The closest thematic comparison I could offer to assist any appreciation of We Are the Flesh would be Claude Faraldo’s dialogue free 1973 movie Themroc, in which a middle aged worker smashes up his flat, howls at his neighbours and has a relationship with his sister. And indeed there is a strong comparison between Michel Piccoli’s completely unhinged performance in that film and Noé Hernández’s as Mariano; he also reminded me of the Mexican director José Mojica Marins’ Coffin Joe character (especially the 2008 film Embodiment of Evil, where Joe aka Zé do Caixão encourages his disciples to give in to their wildest urges). 

But if Hernández could be described as brave in his acting, the performances of Diego Gamaliel and particularly Maria Evoli, as the brother and sister, have to be seen to be believed. Not only are they frequently naked, but they indulge in real sex acts (one wonder whether Minter has possibly seen any Gaspar Noé movies), a lot of slimy clambering about, and in one scene Evoli pees direct to camera. 

While this does feel like a now rather outdated attempt to shock the audience, it is directed with some flair and the art direction, with the flat gradually becoming a beautifully lit womb-like cavern, is very impressive for a film presumably with a limited budget. But while the movie starts off reasonably coherently, by the end, with its baffling final scenes, this writer was totally lost. I’m sure the director would be happy with that reaction, but unfortunately I found it an opaque, quite tiresome viewing experience which isn’t as shocking as it would like to be.