Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Mason Brothers (film review - 4/12/17)

The Mason Brothers 

Compelling supporting roles, moody photography can’t shake the feeling that this dish is a little undercooked 
by Robert P. Young
April 12, 2017

Keith Sutliff, the baby-faced writer-star-director of The Mason Brothers, knows how to make smart moves. Setting his low-budget heist film close to home. Hiring an Oscar-winning cinematographer. Scheduling his shoots to accommodate actors with day jobs. 

It still isn’t enough to make his debut feature a great film. 

Setting us up for a Christopher Nolan-quality epic with drone shots of Los Angeles in the opening credits, The Mason Brothers lets us down with a claustrophobic, emotionally cold experience. 

A bank heist gone wrong, with a beloved team-member killed in a shootout—we’ve seen it before in Reservoir Dogs. But while Dogs convinced us that strangers united by misfortune can forge unbreakable bonds, The Mason Brothers makes us wonder: why do these brothers even work together? They bicker; they differ on when or whether to get out of the “business” (their euphemism for bank robbing); after years of heists they are still cash poor. Allusions in dialogue to a past of shared ups-and-downs are not enough to truly show a family dynamic of brotherly cohesion.

Admittedly, the crime genre is fun, especially if you’re a young man and you want to play with cash and guns. But showing the toll that a life of violence takes the pen of a more seasoned screenwriter.

To be fair, sometimes Sutliff hits it out of the park with casting. Michael Ryan Whelan, whose death sets the story in motion, brings life to a limited role with his background in stand-up comedy. Compared to his somber, overwrought co-leads, Whelan feels like a three-dimensional character whose death we can believe is heavily felt. 

Another standout is Julien Cesario’s crime boss, whose shark grin charms while plotting double-cross after double-cross. 

Alas, the main leads, including Sutliff himself, a blustery Brandon Sean Pearson, and a hot-and-cold Matthew Webb, are not nearly as interesting or deep as the supporting characters. Sutliff is a problematic choice for the leader of a gang of bank robbers—he looks not that far out of high school and fails to convey the image of a hardened criminal. Pearson and Webb (as well as the entire film) are plagued by repeating dialogue that does not advance the story or add shade to their characters (a healthy trimming of the script in pre-production would have helped a lot). 

Not surprising in this genre, women are given short shrift. Pearson’s argument with a superfluous girlfriend has no stakes (well, she is a gun moll), and Italian actress Carlotta Montanari is wasted as a go-between the brothers and her boyfriend Cesario. (She doesn’t even get a decent kiss, due to awkward cinematography.) With the limitations of budget forcing the story to depend on characterization, what a loss that we didn’t have a worthy femme fatale! 

Errol Webber as cinematographer sets the tone with noir-ish lighting, although the mood is broken when shooting exteriors and in daylight. Taking cues from famed Japanese director YasujirĂ´ Ozu, Webber’s framings create tension when the camera lingers on a face without a cutaway, or allows the actors to not-quite-leave frame while continuing heated arguments. This is a film devoted to close-ups—in order that we stay enmeshed in the interpersonal drama—but more shots like the beautiful view of nighttime Los Angeles during the opening credits would have given the movie much more production value and scope. 

With all this said, the completion of a first-time, low-budget feature film is a monumental achievement. There is definitely talent here. As Sutliff matures as a filmmaker—perhaps even trades the crime genre for something more personal—we’ll get some good cinema.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Guy Maddin's "Keyhole"

Guy Maddin is a tough filmmaker to recommend. Even among cinephiles, there’s a quality to his work that can be off-putting to some, and enthralling to others. Even those that love his work, like I do, have trouble recommending it outright. Much like the films of Bela Tarr, you can’t just sit down and turn on a Maddin film. You need to be in the mood for it. They are movies best viewed in dark rooms, in silence.  Maddin’s films are also hard to come by, just like the films of Bela Tarr, though Tarr is usually harder to find. So, when it comes to telling friends to go out and see a movie, you need to also offer a bit of a warning; you probably won’t find it anywhere, and you really need to have a full attention span. Also? It may be a silent film.

Maddin is a filmmaker whose style is set in the techniques of the 30’s and 40’s; he films mainly using Super 8 and 16mm film, in black and white, and occasionally without sound. The editing, framing, and composition of his movies wouldn’t be out of place in a movie from the 30’s or 40’s, save for the nudity. His last film, My Winnipeg, was somewhere between a documentary, a memoir, and historical fantasy; it was one of the best films of 2008. Still, his films are an acquired taste. Not just anyone will want to sit down and offer up 90 to 120 minutes of their life for something that looks like a relic from the past. And there is a slightly autobiographic aspect to his films that can be blunt, and treads through territory that some might not want to follow.

That is why I was intrigued by the concept of his new film, Keyhole, which has a fun-sounding genre premise, and actors who are somewhat recognizable. On top of that, Maddin has switched to digital film, after shooting all of his previous films in Super 8 and 16mm. Ok, I’ll bite.

Of course, much like the house where all of the action takes place, things are not quite what they seem. Jason Patrick stars as a gangster named Ulysses, who brings his gang, a blind woman, and a kidnapped man back to his house in order to find his wife. Ok…that sounds a little strange, right off the bat. I did mention there were ghosts in the house, yeah? Lots of them. Also, one of them is an old naked man that is chained to a bed. You get a clear view of him, many, many times. Also, it’s pretty clear that most of the gangsters, if not all of them, are ghosts. Also, probably, the entire rest of the cast. Lots of ghosts.  Quite a bit of nudity.

The film is more like watching the dream of someone who binged on 1930’s silent films, gangster noire, and old Vincent Price films. If Dr. Mabuse decided to visit the House of Usher with his friend Al Capone, it would be something like this, but with more old man nudity. It is at times feverish and hallucinatory, leaving viewers to wonder what’s going on, and why they should care. It’s only around the midpoint that things start to clear up, as questions start getting answered. Thankfully, when answers come, they seem more like pieces of a puzzle falling into place, rather than odd contrivances. Still, the imagery and tone of the film will leave most viewers wondering what of that imagery, if any, has deeper meaning. It is possible that I’m completely overthinking it, while Maddin sits, somewhere in Canada, smiling.

In the end, though, everything comes back around to one of Maddin’s favorite topics; memory. This is all an exercise is exorcising the past. And while many of the reveals, if they could be called that, are telegraphed from miles away, the ending is still earned. There is a weight to the proceedings that isn’t quite apparent from the onset. Also lots of old man nudity. I may have mentioned that earlier.

But now comes the question: would I recommend this to the uninitiated? Actually, yes. If you can get past some of the more maddening aspects of Maddin - and the old man penis - it works as a good gateway into the filmography of an auteur that can be somewhat esoteric, and a bit eccentric. Still, I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone. It is a movie that requires a decent attention span, and it can seem somewhat impenetrable in the early onset. Also, there is quite a bit of old man dick. Still, if those are not deal breakers, I’d recommend giving it a shot. It is not one of Maddin’s best, but it is a decent gateway into one of the more original filmmakers of our time, even if most of his tricks stem from the 30’s. Oh, and old man penis.

Written by Mark Donovan

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bernhardt and Pahlen pen Uncle Jim

Arnie Messer of Phoenix Pictures is producing a title called Uncle Jim which Kevin Bernhardt wrote with Kyra Pahlen. 

The Logline is: An American teenage girl abandons her studies in the Middle East to live with her boyfriend in a religious cult there. Her helpless parents call in her favorite Uncle, a down-and-out ex-boxer, to appeal to her better senses. But once Uncle Jim arrives, he finds that she has not only been brainwashed but is also unwittingly taking part in a drug running scheme. As such this quickly proves to be the biggest fight of his life.

Recruited by an attractive man near the Wailing Wall, an American teenage girl abandons her studies in the Middle East to live with him in a religious cult. Her helpless parents call in her favorite Uncle, a down-and-out ex-boxer, to bring her back. But once Uncle Jim arrives to the Middle East, he finds that she has not only been brainwashed but is also unwittingly taking part in a drug running scheme - and getting her out quickly proves to be the biggest fight of his life.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reel Fest 4 dates announced!!!

We have dates for Reel Fest 4!!!
 Dec 26th to 30th at The Out of The Blue in Cambridge, MA!!

The Church of Love & Confusion: Cycle 1: Sleep Walk, is the featured feature this year, and will headline for the duration of the festival. (Dec 26th to 30th)

Go to Schedule page for more details.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

"Lo" - Film Review by Mark Donovan

Lo starts with the main character, Justin – or, as he’s called throughout; Dinner – performing a ritual to summon the demon Lo. The scene is framed and scored very seriously, and the entrance of Lo is plenty dramatic. The creature is first seem crawling out of the darkness, slowly revealing its form – an ashen gray, hairy beast that is essentially one large torso with ruined scraps of legs trailing behind, with a small patch of its skull either missing, or it has a slight touch of harlequin ichthyosis. It is a frightening moment that lasts for about a minute, and then, with a cough, all pretense of seriousness is dropped, and the true nature of the film reveals itself.

The friend that recommended Lo to me summarized it thusly, “A guy summons a demon to get back his girlfriend, and then they dance.” He wasn’t being entirely accurate, but he was honestly recommending it. While initially billed as a horror movie, Lo is far more of a quirky comedy. Or, more accurately, it is one part comedy, one part love story, one part musical, and a few parts community theater. That last bit is not a knock against it; while you can see various stage productions similar in theme to Lo, most tend to be lacking in one very important area: the script. The makeup effects also help. Think of it more as Buff the Vampire Slayer: The Play. While Buffy did take itself seriously, to an extent, it was always aware of what it was, and used its premise to make more than a few sly jokes. The same can be said for Lo.

Lo, as played by Jeremiah Birkett, is all dry humor and sarcasm. Birkett is one of those ‘that-guy’ actors that has been acting in bit parts for over two decades - though he is unrecognizable underneath all of the makeup – and his experience is certainly evident in his timing and delivery. He is one of the reasons why the film works as well as it does. By contrast, Ward Roberts is less experienced, and when compared to Birkett, it shows. His delivery isn’t bad, but it lacks polish. He also looks like the love-child of Bruce Campbell and Marc Heap, and has more than a few moments where he seems to be channeling both actors.

The script does occasionally drop into camp - like the various song and dance numbers and a first-hand account of the tortures of hell as delivered by a bickering couple from behind a backlit bed sheet – but those moments are done willfully, usually as the setup for a joke, or just as the joke itself. Lo, in essence, is a one room, one act play and writer/director Travis Betz knows it, and uses that to his advantage. Half of the movie is set on a theater stage – if not all of it - with stagehands visibly smoking in the background, and occasionally reaching out to hand off a prop. The bulk of the action takes place on these various stages, and even the main circle, where protagonist Justin sits for the entire movie, looks like it is in the middle of a stage. Apparently there is an actual stage version in the works, which is surprising in that there isn’t already one. That is also one of the charms of the film; there is no reason for a film where the protagonist does little more than sit on the floor for the entire movie to work this well.

There will undoubtedly be a few people who stumble across this film on Netflix while looking for a horror fix, and those people will be disappointed. But those that don’t mind giving the film a brisk 80 minutes will find that there is quite a bit to recommend. It is no wonder that there seems to be a growing bunch of devoted followers on the film’s IMDB page. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Buddhists in Toy Land

I am lucky enough to have been enjoying the offerings from Reel Groovy Films and their prolific creator, John Mayer Hartman, for a number of years on the independent/underground film scene. Until now, I had only been exposed to Hartman’s quietly quirky brilliance in short-subject form. I have found these white dwarves of movie magic to be universally entertaining, artistically striking, and technically impressive. For all of this, I’ve been hard-pressed for a single, summative word for what this unique experience is. With my recent viewing of the feature Reel-Illusionary Zone, I have found the word that eluded me, and it is Fearless.

Zone is a powerful, stylistic fusion of classic German minimalist cinema, the New American Independent esthetic, Buddhist philosophy, and vintage stop-motion animation techniques. It approaches deep, introspective themes with both a subtle beauty and a genuinely whimsical sense of itself. In light of how risky being so true to one's art really is, fearless is the only fitting adjective, which is good, since 'Pygmalian Drops Acid' with the 'Vampire in Wonderland' as performed by the Buster Keaton Players is nowhere near as snappy or dramatic sounding.

The film makes the most of a mixed bag of low-budget, high-impact special effects, expertly chosen scoring and nuanced, high-theatrical performances. Bringing together these elements to highlight an otherwise very sparse, mostly black & white, silent production, the mad coven at Reel Groovy films present a truly affecting and enjoyable Odyssey of oddity. Hartman and Co. craft a psychedelic epic beyond the frontiers of the individual mind, through the interwoven fringes of our shared consciousness, across the assumed boundaries of what is ‘real,’ into the very heart of the human experience.

We embark on this journey along with the Toymaker (Hartman) a cursed, dimensionally displaced hermit. His only companions are his lovingly crafted, creepily human toys. When his beloved creations, Groovy Girl and Bean Pole, are lost and stumble into the Reel-Illusionary Zone, the mystical border between the land of toys and the ‘real’ world, the saga begins. First, the Toymaker builds replacement toys, including a disturbing, faceless creature and 2.0 versions of Groovy Girl and Bean Pole. The Toymaker charges these creations with finding their predecessors, and they, too, get lost in the mysterious landscape.

The two sets of toys have a variety of misadventures, my favorite of which involves a beautiful homage to the gold standard of German minimalist film, Nosferatu, complete with gothic European castle and buck-toothed vampire. Eventually, the toys each emerge into the ‘real’ world, attaining humanity as they do so. With all the new knowledge, and needs of humanity, the toys attempt to make their way in our world. Their travels leave them (in succession and ultimately mistaken for each other) at a movie set, where the story has its conclusive epiphany.

The Toymaker, for his part, has gone in search of his ‘children’ himself. Following the advice of a supernatural princess, he retraces the steps of his creations. His path is advanced by super-trippy visions, transcendental trances, saints, and sorcerers. He is challenged with his own fears, misconceptions, and prejudices of perspective. It is only by facing and overcoming these inner limitations, including his attachments to a lost love and his toys, that he is able to navigate the Zone and find his way back to his rightful dimension. When all the players are reunited on the movie set for the climax, the development and depth of the characters is fulfilled.

The Reel-Illusionary Zone is a deep meditation cleverly disguised as whimsical, art-house experimentation. Hartman and, indeed, all the talented creators and performers who bring this delightful fantasy to life can be proud. It’s a visual treat, a true work of art, full of thought and emotion that really shows off excellent mastery of classic minimalist film-making.

Written by Joseph James Bellamy
Editor: Deb Bellamy