Friday, September 25, 2015


It's been several years since I've attended the Mill Valley Film Festival—a consequence of timing more than anything else—but, for their 38th edition, I'm making a concerted effort to participate and my timing couldn't be more fortuitous. This year's line-up includes a rich sidebar of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American entries—which remain my favorite "national cinema(s)" to date—and several of these entries are award winners on the international film festival circuit. What follows are the festival's program capsules supplemented with critical overview, where available. My thanks to capsule authors Rod Armstrong, David Fear, Michael Fox, Carol Harada, Shari Kizirian, Lucy Laird, Margarita Landazuri, and Brendan Peterson for their enthused guidance.

Alias Maria (dir. José Luis Rugeles Gracia, Colombia / Argentina / France, 2014)—Child soldiers risk their lives to ferry their commander's newborn baby to safety in director José Luis Rugeles' tense drama. The children are part of a band of leftist guerrillas battling right-wing paramilitaries in the Colombian jungle. Thirteen-year-old Maria; her boyfriend, Mauricio; Afro-Colombian Byron; and Yuldor, a scrawny preteen, face constant danger in trying to protect an infant whose very cries could alert the enemy to their presence. The pressure on Maria is even greater as she tries to hide her own pregnancy from her comrades. In her screen debut, Karen Torres makes palpable Maria's terror, tenderness, and determination, while Rugeles' camera captures both the claustrophobia and lush beauty of the jungle. No mere war drama, Rugeles and writer Diego Vivanco made Alias Maria to draw attention to the plight of the thousands of children—according to Human Rights Watch—recruited to fight in Colombia's decades-long civil strife.—Margarita Landazuri. In Spanish with English subtitles. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

Alias Maria screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival where it was respected by the trades for its efforts to expose the plight of child soldiers in Colombia, but criticized for failing to do so in a way that could emotionally resonate with audiences. As Boyd von Hoeij states at The Hollywood Reporter, "[I]ts unusual angle on the ongoing war in Colombia is certainly worthy of attention. But the filmmaker's tendency to pare back his narrative to its barest essentials makes it very hard to identify with anyone, with all of the characters despondent archetypes rather than real people." He adds that Rugeles' approach "comes down to removing practically all references to not only personal lives—which these extremely young guerrillas don't really have anyway, the occasional bout of sex between fighters notwithstanding—but also private thoughts or emotions. The 'cause' does indeed seem to be their only raison d'etre, which might be lifelike but doesn't necessarily make for a good story." Peter Debruge concurs at Variety: "In contrast with numerous recent child-soldier stories, from the manipulative Salvadorian drama Innocent Voices to the entire mini-genre emerging in response to similar issues in Africa (like the Oscar®-nominated short That Wasn't Me), Rugeles opts for an austere art-film style, rather than the more conventionally accessible melodramatic approach that might help the film reach the widest possible international audience. Though informed by research, Diego Vivanco's script withholds much of the essential context viewers need to make sense of its long, wordless stretches, while Rugeles' execution fails to generate the tension that approach requires." In gist, Debruge complains, "this film drags when it should electrify."

Blue Blood / Sangre Azul (dir. Lírio Ferreira, Brazil, 2014)—Mythological themes are mined from petty human dramas when the circus travels to a volcanic archipelago two hundred miles off Brazil's northeast coast. Exiled as a child by his mother, the Cannon Man returns home to find the years have not diminished the taboo attraction between him and his sister. Natural opposites—the brother is shot into the air in nightly performances while the sister spends her days deep-sea diving—their reunion completes a cycle of fate. Director Lírio Ferreira hails from Pernambuco, the Brazilian state currently incubating a spare, compelling regional cinema, but his inspiration seems to come from elsewhere, borrowing the make-believe aesthetics of Fellini and the soap-operatic intensity of Cacá Diegues. Conscious of its theatricality, the film employs disorienting camera angles, direct address, and stock characters (including a ghost rider and a blind seer played by Cinema Novo's Paulo César Peréio and Ruy Guerra) to ensure the fulfillment of preordained destinies.—Shari Kizirian. In Portuguese with English subtitles. IMDb. Facebook.

Winner of Best Film, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor at the 2014 Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, and best Cinematography and Costume Design at the 2014 Paulínia Film Festival, and featured in the Panorama section of the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, Blue Blood is deemed "gorgeous-looking yet narratively weak" by Variety's Jay Weissberg, who further qualifies that "the lack of script cohesion means that mood is better evoked than character." Jonathan Holland perceives the same at The Hollywood Reporter whose bottom line is that Blue Blood is "[v]isually stunning as film but largely unrelatable as drama." "High on style but low on substance," Holland continues, "The film is thus best enjoyed for its full creation of an isolated, remote and offbeat world, a world, however, in which it's hard to engage emotionally because of the broad brushstroke characterization." Lia Fietz interviews Lírio Ferreira for Indiewood Hollywoodn't.

The Club / El Club (dir. Pablo Larraín, Chile, 2014)—Wayward priests live their lives in shadow in Pablo Larrain's darkly comic allegory of long-delayed, fittingly carried out justice. The tension builds slowly in a drama where the clerics live among the dogs, gamblers, and beachcombers along the shore of a Chilean village. Shortly after a fifth reverend joins the household, their lives are thrown into turmoil first by a visit from a disturbed young man who levels shocking allegations against the newest arrival. Then when a church investigator appears after a shocking incident to "counsel" them, it's clear that the priests' isolated life of comfort and denial cannot continue. After examining the trauma of Chilean life under Pinochet in three recent films, including Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® nominee No (2012), Larraín turns his critical eye on the Catholic Church's cover-up of its most shocking scandal. The Club won the Silver Bear at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival. Co-presented by Latino Council and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.—Margarita Landazuri. In Spanish with English subtitles. IMDb. Wikipedia.

It's a shame that this Silver Bear winner has been booked exclusively at the festival's Mill Valley Sequoia Theatre venue. I don't drive and the venue is near-to-impossible to access by public transit. Why couldn't such an important title be shared among venues to increase availability? Cordoned off by restricted scheduling, it's further disappointing that the title is not available as a DVD screener or streaming link. I'll defer to Dave Hudson who has rounded up the reviews from Berlinale at Fandor's Keyframe Daily. The Club has been selected as the Chilean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards®. For that alone, it would have been preferable for the programming team at MVFF to make the film more broadly available with at least one screening in Mill Valley and the other in San Rafael.

Dirty Wolves / Lobos sucios (dir. Simón Casal de Miguel, Spain, 2015)—Under ancient yew trees in the Nazi-controlled tungsten mines of northwest Spain, a single mother decides to fight someone else's war—and ends up risking everything. Known mockingly as "The Widow," Manuela was abandoned by her baby's father and now works processing the wolfram (aka tungsten) that the Germans will use to tear through Allied flesh. But it turns out there is more than just the wolf of poverty to keep from the door as Manuela comes to realize that—unlike her country—she cannot remain neutral in a time of war. In a thrilling first feature inspired by actual events, director Simón Casal de Miguel imbues the unrelenting grayness of the Galician countryside with a mysticism as old as the twisting yews and howling wolves that roam beneath them. And in Marian Álvarez's steely, nuanced Manuela, along with the terrific supporting cast, he has mined rich and subtle talent.—Lucy Laird. In Spanish and German with English subtitles. IMDb.

Embrace of the Serpent / El abrazo de la serpiente< (dir. Ciro Guerra, Colombia / Venezuela / Argentina, 2015)—This urgent tale startles in lush black and white. Karamakate, "the world mover," is a lone shaman, the last of the Cohiuano people living in harmony with the rainforest. On two separate occasions 40 years apart, he's summoned to help a white man heal his soul sickness, his lack of dreaming. Despite the incursion of missionaries and rubber robber barons, he attempts to reassert traditional ways. The winner of the 2015 top prize at Cannes' Directors' Fortnight, Embrace of the Serpent's crosscutting stories are based on the travel diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes. In 1909, Karamakate attends to deathly ill German ethnographer Theo and accompanies him into the Amazonian heart of darkness in search of a fabled sacred medicine plant. Decades later, ethnobotanist Evan seeks the same plant with an older, less assured Karamakate. As colonialism cuts even deeper than before, will they be saved? Will we?—Carol Harada. In Amazonian Languages (Cuebo, Huitoto, Wanano, Tikuana), Spanish, German, Portugese, and Catalan with English Subtitles. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Along with its significant Cannes win, Embrace of the Serpent has likewise picked up honors at the 2015 Lima Latin American Film Festival (Best Film and a Critics Award) and the 2015 Odessa International Film Festival (Special Jury Mention in the International Competition). The film has been selected as the Colombian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards®. David Hudson has rounded up the critical response from Cannes 2015 for Fandor's Keyframe Daily.

Havana Motor Club (dir. Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, Cuba / U.S., 2015)—Declared an elitist pursuit after the revolution, auto racing in Cuba survives as a clandestine, cop-dodging activity on remote streets and highways. Drivers endlessly tweak the souped-up, tuned-up engines in their 1950s U.S. hotrods, dreaming of the day their underground sport is sanctioned again by the authorities. This vibrant, street-level documentary follows a handful of obsessed grease monkeys through the course of the Cuban Motor Federation's stop-and-go exertions to stage an organized drag-racing event. The top competitors setting engines—and hearts—racing are Reinaldo "Tito" Lopez Fernandez, the fierce gray-haired patriarch whose son drives their classic red-and-white 1955 Chevy Bel Air, and Carlos Alvarez Sanchez, blessed with Clooney-esque looks and a Cuban-American partner who flies in parts for their late-model red Porsche. To overcome the myriad bumps in the road, they and their fellow enthusiasts rely on a uniquely Cuban mix of determination, sacrifice, and macho swagger.—Michael Fox. In Spanish with English subtitles. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

At Vice, Brandon Harris talks to Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and driver Armando "Pity" Lorenzo Munnet at the film's Tribeca premiere. Most press on the film has been anticipatory from gearhead aficionados and racing publications.

Ixcanul Volcano / Ixcanul (dir. Jayro Bustamante, Guatemala / France, 2015)—With an indigenous cast and the power of a classic fable, Ixcanul tells the moving story of a Mayan family living in the shadow of a volcano in the Guatemalan highlands. In a rustic cabin, Maria and her parents eke out a living by harvesting coffee with hopes of improving their situation after the local overseer, Ignacio, proposes marriage. Pretty but naïve, young Maria has her eyes instead on a handsome itinerant worker who wants to travel to the States, and a rash decision imperils everyone's plans. In his beautifully shot debut film, writer-director Jayro Bustamante shows a world where nature is preeminent and rituals a part of daily life. An infestation of snakes that menaces their livelihood provides a rich metaphor for the various threats that face the family in a moving drama that was inspired by Bustamante's interviews with Mayan people about their daily lives.—Rod Armstrong. In Spanish with English subtitles. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Winner of the Alfred Bauer Award at this year's Berlinale, David Hudson offers his review. Ixcanul has been selected as the Guatemalan entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards®.

La Tierra Roja (dir. Diego Martínez Vignatti, Belgium / Argentina, 2015)—A stunning ecological thriller and intense love story, director Diego Martinez Vignatti's third feature explores the effects of harmful farming techniques on a rainforest community in northern Argentina. Workers cut down trees and haul them to a paper company for processing, then they cover their faces with kerchiefs and spray poisonous weed killer to increase production. Pierre, a Belgian supervisor for the multinational company, is involved in a passionate relationship with local teacher Ana, and neither can ignore the growing evidence that people are being sickened by the chemicals they're using. As Ana helps mobilize protests and gather evidence that cancer, birth defects, and other illnesses are related to the agrotoxins, Pierre must make a choice. Vignatti, a former cinematographer, captures the region's beauty—and menace. With a cast that mixes seasoned actors and local indigenous people, the film culminates with a dramatic face-off that changes the community, and Pierre, forever.—Margarita Landazuri. In Spanish with English subtitles. IMDb. Facebook.

Marshland / La Isla Minima (dir. Alberto Rodriguez, Spain, 2014)—A mesmerizing and moody psychological journey into the underbelly of a small town in 1980, Marshland evokes the energy of True Detective and the tone of Twin Peaks to create a fascinating and haunting first-rate thriller. After teenage sisters disappear from a marshland town in southern Spain, two contrasting Madrid detectives are on the case. As their investigation unfolds, we take a twisty, turbulent ride filled with colorful characters, offbeat situations, and surprising moments of personal revelation. From the opening frames, featuring breathtaking aerial shots of the marshland, it's clear that filmmaker Alberto Rodriguez is in complete control. Each scene is perfectly crafted to capture the emotional and physical reality of that moment while an eerie, understated soundtrack seeps into our subconscious. This meticulous, multilayered cinematic puzzle rewards careful attention by doling out information on a need-to-know basis, assembling a suspenseful and magnetic experience that gives the best kind of movie thrill.—Brendan Peterson. In Spanish with English subtitles. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

As reported by Alfonso Rivera to Cineuropa, Marshland swept this year's Goyas. At Variety, Jay Weissberg works with the film's plot failings to appreciate it as a "satisfyingly atmospheric neo-noir ... [s]teeped in a brooding transitional world of distrust, perversion, and disillusionment." Jonathan Holland's bottom line at The Hollywood Reporter: "This superbly crafted, richly textured thriller is one of the strongest Spanish films of the year." Holland adds: "Marshland merits international exposure as an example of ... how to fold significance into genre." At The Guardian, Jonathan Romney recommends this "slice of Ibero-noir" for those "weary of Scandi crime" and lays out the film's two distinctive elements: "One is the setting, the swamp regions of the Guadalquivir River in Andalucía: we could almost be watching a Spanish-language dub of a Hollywood thriller of the Louisiana bayous. The second is that the film is set in 1980, with the Franco legacy still a raw wound and causing divisions between the film's two homicide cops: younger, leftist Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) and his hard-boiled ancien regime colleague (Javier Gutiérrez)."

The Pawn / La Prenda (dir. Jean-Cosme Delaloye, Switzerland, 2015)—Guatemalan teen Astrid was kidnapped and held for ransom. Her family paid and she was released, but the family still gets phone calls from her abductors, calling her a pawn and threatening to snatch her again. Desperate, she enters the U.S. illegally and faces deportation. In Guatemala, one person is kidnapped every day. Targets are frequently children who have family in the United States. Ninety-eight percent of the kidnappers are never punished. Swiss journalist and documentarian Jean Cosme Delaloye examines the problem of abductions for ransom by focusing on Astrid's case, and two others. A father mourns the murder of his kidnapped wife and struggles to raise two young sons who witnessed their mother's death. Fifteen-year-old Kelly was snatched, brutally raped, and murdered. Most of Kelly's family has fled to the U.S., but her cousin Karin remains in Guatemala, working with the Survivors Network group to put Kelly's kidnappers in prison. The film follows court cases that will decide the fates of Astrid and some of the kidnappers.—Margarita Landazuri. In Spanish with English subtitles. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

Eviator Bach and Jane Shi interview Delaloye and his subject Astrid Elías Macario for The Talon.

A Perfect Day (dir. Fernando Léon de Aranoa, Spain, 2015)—Humanitarian aid workers attempt to improve conditions despite facing bureaucracy, violence, cynicism, distrust, and a shortage of necessary materials in this tragicomedy, a kind of M*A*S*H comes to the Balkans, set during the waning days of the Bosnian War. The drama begins with Mambru (Benicio Del Toro) and Damir (Fedja Stukan) trying to fish a corpse out of a well. Lack of a proper rope complicates the situation—just one more absurdity for the two men and their co-workers, including wise-cracking B (Tim Robbins), as they go about the business of trying to survive while helping the region thrive once again. Spain stands in for Bosnia in Spaniard Fernando León de Aranoa’s gorgeously lensed, funny, and compassionate first English-language feature, a film as attuned to the comic potential of a booby-trapped cow in the road as it is to the challenge of doing the right thing in an impossible situation.—?. In English, Bosnian, Spanish, and French with English subtitles. IMDb. Wikipedia.

David Hudson has aggregated the Cannes reviews at Fandor's Keyframe Daily.

Viaje (dir. Paz Fárega, Costa Rica, 2015)—After 20-somethings Pedro (Fernando Bolaños) and Lucia (Kattia González) meet cute on the stairs of a costume party—he's in a bear suit; she's in schoolgirl overalls—the twosome spend the night together. The next morning, they impulsively decide to go on a camping trip; since he's heading out to work at a remote biological research facility and she's leaving the country, this may be the last chance they have to get to know each other. Filmmaker Paz Fábrega's romantic character study is like a Costa Rican Before Sunrise: The longer this couple muses about their dreams, desires, and how much this chance encounter has dinged their emotional defense systems, the downright sexier this film gets. Between its gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and the leads' breezy chemistry, this modest little gem of a movie packs more beauty, melancholy, and body heat into its 70-minute running time than most films twice its length.—David Fear. In Spanish with English subtitles. IMDb.

At The New York Times Stephen Holden anointed Viaje as the best entry in competition at the Tribeca Film Festival. At The Hollywood Reporter, John DeFore's bottom line: "An unpretentiously beautiful look at youth and how-casual-is-this? coupling." He adds: "Fabrega's script demonstrates the kind of feminist storytelling in which it goes without saying that men and women are equal participants in social life. ...The man and woman are peers in a way that's uncommon in romances directed by young men, working out in words and action the questions on both their minds: Is casual fun all there is? Is our youth ending if we make stronger bonds? What now?"

Tuesday, August 04, 2015


Orion (2015, USA, dir. Asiel Norton)—As a follow-up to his 2009 art-house western Redland, Asiel Norton has spent the last few years conjuring up a dystopian fairy tale set in a devastated post-apocalyptic world that resembles the medieval dark ages with its ruthless, unrelenting survival of the fittest. In other words, civilization has taken a giant step backward, the reign of misapplied science is over, and arcane magic prevails. Using divinatory cards to chapter his narrative structure towards traction, Norton guides us into an intricately-structured universe where an evil mage, a hunter, a pregnant virgin, a fool, and a wretched scapegoat are the quintet that set prophecy into motion. The archetypal strokes are broad but uniquely personalized in Norton's interpretive myth of the eternal return, which hailed its World Premiere on August 1, 2015 at the 19th edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival.

As the taciturn and troubled Hunter, or Wanderer, David Arquette is drawn by whispering inner voices to find and confront his "other side"—some synopses say his brother—who arrives in the guise of cannibalistic sorcerer (Goran Kostic) whose occult powers are bloodthirsty and formidable. Kostic not only plays a sadistic shapeshifter holding a virgin (Lily Cole) captive, but serves as associate producer on the film. The predestined conflict between the Hunter and the Mage plants the seed for the potential rebirth of civilization, which—during a solar eclipse—invokes the reanimating spirit of Orion to descend upon mankind. Christian imagery rears its head with predictable passion. Sure, there's a bloody crucifixion, but more importantly there's a pregnant virgin being led on a donkey into what can be conceived as the New Bethlehem where the world's last remaining survivors reside. The divine child is conceived as endendros, the life at work in the tree, Hellenistic Christianity in pure force, whose green sapling growing among the demolished remains of the old world approximates the spiritually redemptive imagery of Tarkovsky's wastelands.

In full disclosure, unable to attend the World Premiere, I watched a streaming link of Orion absent vital post-production, so am unable to comment on such technical credits as the film's cinematography, etc., although T.K. Broderick's percussive score is significant and strong, securing tension when action requires, while evoking long ago eras, not only medieval but Amerindian. Norton's skillful melding of the near-future with the ancient past judiciously converts the delapidated factories of Detroit into civilization's last stand. At Film Independent, Jennifer Kushner talks to Norton about his vision for the film. World Premiere. IMDb.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

FANTASIA 2015: SYNCHRONICITYThe Evening Class Interview With Jacob Gentry and Chad McKnight

Director Jacob Gentry, composer Ben Lovett, and key actors Chad McKnight, Brianne Davis, AJ Bowen and Michael Ironside accompanied Synchronicity (2015) for its World Premiere at the 19th edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival on July 22, 2015, in Montréal's J.A. DeSève Theater (with an encore screening July 30). John DeFore nailed it for The Hollywood Reporter's bottom line: "An atmosphere-thick time traveler puzzler." At Birth.Movies.Death, Meredith Borders enthused: "Synchronicity has some superb inspirations—the intricately nested timelines of Primer, the dusty, DIY science fiction of Alien, the vintaged futuristic anywhere city of Blade Runner and Dark City—but it's also very much its own thing." My earlier review.

While still puzzling over the film the following morning at breakfast, I spotted its lead actor Chad McKnight, who wandered over to say hello, providing a welcome opportunity to congratulate him on his compelling performance as physicist Jim Beale. He was preparing himself for the film's day-long press junket by walking to formulate his thoughts. That was my cue to book the junket's last 15 minutes for further discussion with Chad and his director Jacob Gentry.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I'm an old Jungian from way back and understand the term "synchronicity" to be a psychological term. I'm intrigued by how you've applied it to a sci-fi context. Why did you feel synchronicity applied to your tempo-spatial narrative?

Jacob Gentry: What is the definition of "synchronicity"? Seemingly related things that are causally unrelated, right? That has everything to do with the theme of the movie. When I was landing the title, I read this definition, and I thought: "Oh, this is the movie I wrote." I wrote the movie first, and then realized there was this cool-sounding word that fit the movie and worked as a title. I'm a big believer in titles as a part of the writing process and building the idea of what a story is going to be through the use of a title. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a free movie in your head, just by the title, know what I mean? I loved the sibilance of the word "synchronicity", and it couldn't have fit thematically more. Did you feel the title fit the narrative theme?

Guillén: Synchronicity, for me, is (as you say) about seemingly unrelated things that are causally unrelated, but with the psyche's added impulse to read meaning into coincidence in such a way that it furthers individuation. Or as Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen once put it to me, synchronicity means the psyche is on the right track (what she termed the "tao of synchronicity").

Gentry: But if it's aware it's on the right track, it needs clues for that, right? It needs to see something and it has to do with—not only a dialectical argument—but a spiritual argument as well, right? So there's a connection there. Because these things are all theoretical, and because there's a disconnect between spirituality and science in a lot of ways, how do you explain these processes of basic human emotions like jealousy, longing and love?

Guillén: Much of that comes across through the wonderful atmosphere you've built into your film. My understanding is that you and Chad have worked together several times in the past? When you came up with the concept for this film, did you have him in mind?

Gentry: Oh yes, absolutely.

Guillén: So you wrote it with him in mind?

Gentry: Yeah, because first of all we've worked together before and I've always given him some kind of sexual hang-up in other characters he's played, so I thought it would be nice if he played a romantic lead. Because he's intelligent and handsome with a movie star quality, but he also has an intellectual quirk to go with those model good looks. I like that combination of weird and beautiful. Audiences have to buy him not only as a scientist but they also have to buy that this elegant woman would fall for him.

Guillén: I thought of it as a disheveled erotic. Chad's character, Jim Beale, had a disheveled look about him....

Chad McKnight: I love that.

Guillén: ...and Abby (Brianne Davis) was so precise. That tension between Beale's disheveled quality and her sensual precision created an erotic tension. That specific erotic also made him a little bit of a chump, which was a perfect articulation of the noir aesthetic. When you were building the character, Chad, did you have any noir icons in mind?

McKnight: That was my favorite genre for a long time and those actors are my favorite actors. They resonate personally with me. I've never been married and I'm constantly looking. The character of Jim Beale was that: looking for base booze and pussy. But falling for the same dame.

Guillén: And usually the wrong one. What I call the "chump factor."

McKnight: That's a huge thing. It's something I've told myself my whole life: "Don't be the chump. Never be taken advantage of."

Gentry: But that's what defines noir.

McKnight: I know. But what I'm saying is that in my own life I go into things and set them up so I don't end up playing the chump. I'm constantly considering how to keep the power so that I don't lose power to a woman. It's an interesting thing that drives me nuts.

Guillén: You and many other men. It's a challenge that has stretched out over the centuries.

McKnight: I'm on the shorter side in stature, so even when I walk the streets in L.A., I worry about being the chump in the group.

Gentry: But you're one of those guys who has manly, angular features. You have a masculinity like Dana Andrews, Humphrey Bogart, Sterling Hayden, or any of these actors who played chumps. They're usually street-smart guys who get in over their heads and become chumps, but the fun part of these performances is watching them get out of it.

Guillén: Much of Chad's masculinity comes across—not only through his unquestionable photogénie—but, also through the film's solid technical merits: Eric Maddison's lighting, for starters, and Jenn Moye's art direction. Purposeful shadowing enhances the masculine image, as do environments. I was intrigued with the film's use of Atlanta's architecture to suggest a near-future space, which reminded me of Michael Winterbottom's Code 46 (2003).

Gentry: Code 46 was a huge influence on my filmmaking in general because they did create a future world by places that exist now, just by going to Shanghai or other locations. That's exciting. You can actually create a future world without building anything if you just know where to look and find interesting architecture.

Guillén: Ben Lovett's music was likewise invaluable for securing your noir aesthetic. It reminded me of the Vangelis score for Blade Runner (1982).

Gentry: Sure.

Guillén: What was it like for both of you to work with genre icon Michael Ironside?

McKnight: I was intimidated at first. He had worked with all the other actors and when I showed up to work with him, he was sizing me up already, doing his thing, and I was, like, "Oh no." But once we had our first scene together, he softened and realized I wasn't some actor punk boy from L.A.

Gentry: I felt the same way. As an accomplished actor who has done as many movies as he has, he's become protected from people who don't know what they're doing; but—once he sees that people know what they're doing—he opens up. He's also the opposite of the characters he's most known for. He's a generous, super-sweet person.

McKnight: He was so generous in helping me with ideas, even with my lines, and helping me put the right pitch into them. Actors aren't supposed to direct other actors; but, whenever he'd offer a suggestion, I would say, "Yes, sir. Thank you for that." It was great.

Guillén: I was intrigued by his comment during the film's Q&A where he said that, as an actor, you're doing your thing on some minimal set and have to be within the zone of your own performance because you really don't know what the final image is going to look like. He seemed as pleasantly surprised as anybody by what the movie actually was and how good it looked.

Gentry: There's a big disparity between the size of the crew and what it seemed we were doing and what we ended up with, which had a lot to do with the cinematographer and set designer.

Guillén: I'm looking forward to watching the film again because it's a true puzzler. Chad and I touched upon this a little bit when we ran into each other over breakfast. How did you work with your cast—specifically your lead actor—to keep these multiple narrative timelines in alignment? I'm sure you didn't film in sequence?

Gentry: No. A lot of it was just both me and Chad trusting in the "me" that wrote the script because I did do a lot of work with research, and charts and maps, trying to work it all out beforehand. But then when we were doing it—it was hard enough just to make the movie on a daily basis—we had a lot of discussions. Chad did his own research. In those discussions we were able to talk about some of the bigger concepts. Neither one of us are scientists so we both had to—as writer-director and actor—believably create something for the audience.

McKnight: I did a lot of reading and research. I didn't want to come off as some actor pretending to be the scientist. I wanted to make sure my performance was believable. I mean, I knew I had to rely on the audience to suspend disbelief and do some of that work for me; but, in retrospect, I wish I'd worked further on some of the emotional mathematics of each character. When it came to that, I sometimes forgot. Actors can do all this preparatory work that they then throw out the window to stay in the moment. There were moments where I thought, "I don't have anything here. I can't remember anything. What did we talk about?" Keeping that math was difficult. It either came out naturally or didn't, or I had to keep talking to Jacob, or to Michael Ironside (who was good at that stuff), to help me get back on track, or it was fixed in editing. I had to keep asking myself: "Where am I? What world am I in now?"

Guillén: I presume you had someone handling script continuity on set?

Gentry: Ashley Patterson was our script continuity supervisor.

Guillén: Did she have a nervous breakdown?

Gentry: No, she's a genius and I would have been dead without her. She was so brilliant and probably deserves a directing credit for helping keep track of that.

Guillén: Talk to me about the dahlia. I'd recently watched George Marshall's The Blue Dahlia (1946) and so that visual detail as a noirish element popped right out at me in Synchronicity.

Gentry: Well, there's that. Also, the size of it. The dahlia is a unique flower. It's not super-common. It has the obvious film noir connotations—whether it's real-life crime in Los Angeles, Black Dahlia, what have you—but then there's also some strange things about it. It's one of the most beautiful flowers, it blooms so big, but it also smells terrible. There's some difference inbetween the appearance of it and the actual flower. What's one of the most unique things one could imagine in a future scenario?

Guillén: Did you intend for the dahlia to visually replicate the film's wormhole?

Gentry: Sure, yeah. Because the dahlia we use in the movie is actually a fake dahlia. Once you see that transposed with the actual wormhole artwork, it has a nice vibe to it.

Friday, July 31, 2015

FANTASIA 2015: BITEThe Evening Class Interview With Chad Archibald

Chad Archibald's Bite (2015) had its sold-out World Premiere in a one-off screening at the 19th edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival on July 29, 2015, in Montréal's J.A. DeSève Theater. Aware that I would be unable to attend his premiere, Archibald generously provided a streaming link, and agreed to sit down and talk with me about his latest effort before I headed out of Montréal. We met on the terrace of Le Nouvel Hôtel. Within minutes of meeting, Archibald struck me as a no-nonsense fanboy making films for fanboys, down-to-earth, friendly, and amusingly candid about his self-taught filmmaking.

Director and owner of the Guelph-based film studio Black Fawn Films (established in 2007), Chad Archibald is a graduate of Humber College's Multimedia Design and Production program. At 22, he co-wrote and co-directed his first feature Desperate Souls (2005), which was picked up for distribution by Lionsgate Films and Alliance Atlantis. After a stint of working on seven episodes of the Canadian television series Creepy Canada (2006), he took what he'd learned from that experience and applied it to making his next film Neverlost (2010), which won the Audience Award at that year's Fantasia. In 2014, he returned to Fantasia with The Drownsman, following up this year with Bite.

As noted by Heather Buckley in her Fantasia program capsule for Bite: "Within the canon of contemporary horror is the woman-body rot cycle. Instead of iconic female beauty, the camera is here to destroy, distort and decay this form. ...Bite reinvents and meditates on Cronenberg's The Fly, but with a woman and without the existential death / AIDS metaphor of its predecessor. ...Black Fawn delivers on exquisite cinematography and excellent acting, and treads in a quasi-retro '80s space, creating something thoroughly contemporary while rooted in cinema's past."

While talking to Archibald, I kept eyeing and coveting his Black Fawn vest and asked if they were for sale; but, he made it clear they were only worn by key members of the Black Fawn family, much like the bandanas that the company parcels out—different color each film—to cast and crew. When one of their films premieres at Fantasia, it's not unusual for their whole crew to attend, sometimes up to 40 people "coming from Toronto and whatnot", and they all wear their bandanas so they can identify who's worked on what film, much like they do during production on set. When I asked how this tradition got started, Archibald recalled having an exclusive number of red bandanas made up as thank you gifts to the cast and crew of Neverlost. Everyone on the cast and crew was given a red bandana, which they loved. Anytime someone would be seen wearing one of those red bandanas, it signified they'd worked on Neverlost. The gesture generated such good will that Archibald decided to do it for every film, but in a different color. Towards the end of a shoot, he gathers cast and crew together and distributes bandanas. Some folks, he smiled proudly, have even framed them for their walls. It represents the camaraderie of the Black Fawn family.

Please be forewarned that my conversation with Chad Archibald is not for the spoiler-wary!

* * *

Michael Guillén: You consider your Black Fawn team to be a family?

Chad Archibald: Yes. We spend so much time on set together and are so close with everyone. Our films are made with pretty low budgets, so we rely on a lot of people working very hard for much less than they deserve to be paid, and with fewer resources. We really work hard at treating everyone with respect. We've been on sets before where we've seen people unhappy and how sour it can get and people being miserable. Luckily, we're blessed that we haven't had many situations like that.

Guillén: You trained in multi-media design? What exactly is that?

Archibald: Web design and stuff like that. I went to school for multi-media design and had one film course. Basically all they taught you to do was how to plug a video camera into your computer. It wasn't really part of my program, but I managed to get in the course so I could use their cameras and make movies on the weekends with my buddies. I'd always made home videos and stupid little shorts and stuff, but that was the first time I could actually plug something in. I had edited from VHS to VHS, trying to cut scenes together. They were fun to do. I grew up in the country and had nothing better to do. My folks got a video camera so I was like, "Okay!" I'd create little movies to pass the time, I guess.

Guillén: That first video was Desperate Souls, which—despite having a 2.4 IMDb rating—was picked up for distribution. What quality do you think you had in that first piece that attracted distribution?

Archibald: When we made that movie, I'd never been on a set before. I had no knowledge of what to do. We found a scriptwriting program online and me and Philip [aka Gabriel Carrer] started writing it, and we called all our friends and buddies and said, "Let's go! We're making this movie this weekend!" We didn't even know how long it would take to shoot stuff. We thought we could shoot a movie over the weekend, maybe a few weekends, something like that? But it ended up taking years to finally get it done and we made every mistake in the book. We had to re-record every piece of dialogue in the entire movie! [Laughs.] But it's those mistakes that make you a better filmmaker. Now I understand sound. Now I understand editing.

Guillén: After watching the streaming link of Bite you provided, I rented The Drownsman on VUDU. You have a keen ability to rework tropes. The Drownsman brought back the idea of a Freddy Kreuger-like supernatural villain. Bite certainly has touches of body horror reminiscent of David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986). At what point can you take an idea that's been worked before but somehow make it your own?

Archibald: It's so hard to come up with original ideas. I never really got that until this year because there have been a lot of comparisons between The Fly and Bite.

Guillén: I hope that doesn't bother you? It's meant as a compliment.

Archibald: No, no, no. I feel humbled by the fact that it's being related to such an awesome movie—if anything, it feels a little intimidating—but, no, I'm super-happy with it. I love horror movies and there are so many great ideas that go one way, but you think, "What if they went a different way?" The idea for Bite wasn't to try to do anything like The Fly. With The Drownsman, however, it was intentional. There were these movies that I had grown up that I had loved watching that had that supernatural bad guy that breaks all the rules. That's fun! We set out to make the character of the Drownsman one of those guys, for sure. We wanted The Drownsman to be a throwback. You just don't see movies with those characters anymore; villains that you can make toys from! Ry Barrett, who played The Drownsman, was in Desperate Souls, the first movie we ever made. He was my best-looking friend and I told him, "You look like an actor; c'mon!" We've been making movies together ever since.

Guillén: I'm intrigued that both The Drownsman and Bite feature female-centric ensembles. Can you speak to that?

Archibald: The story dictates it. With Bite, I wanted to write the story about a woman who isn't ready to be a mother; but, she's bitten by this thing and—as she transforms—she's forced towards her natural instincts. Her mothering instincts start coming through. I was excited to work with Elma Begovic, who plays the lead Casey in Bite, as I enjoyed working with Michelle Mylett who played Madison in The Drownsman. We write scripts and send them in and work with the studios to see what's going to work and what they like or don't. Some of our scripts are male-centric as well, so I don't think it's on purpose that The Drownsman and Bite have female-centric casts. I've been asked that many times. Basically, we love strong female characters. I just read an article where they interviewed several of the actresses in my films [Jeff Fountain's CGE piece "Black Fawn Films: Women Who Kick Ass"]. Gender equality is such a major issue in every industry pretty much, but this article brought it to the forefront and had some great things to say. There's nothing better than a bad-ass girl kicking ass. I don't think I would naturally write female characters who just run around in bikinis. I never look at women that way, so I would never write them that way.

Guillén: Your lead character Casey is refreshingly complex. She's due to be married, but she's not really ready or committed to the idea, so while vacationing in Costa Rica she acts out and fools around with another guy and even carelessly loses her engagement ring in the process. That sexual abandon and excess becomes the segue to her being "stung", with all its horrifying repercussions, and moral insinuation.

Archibald: There are some characters who are extreme in Bite, like we have one scene with the mother before things get out of control.

Guillén: She deserved everything she got.

Archibald: But that's it, we were like, "Good. Let's just make her horrible." Let's not beat around the bush here. We've got this fun scene: let's make her horrible. People who are going to watch this are going to say, "I can't wait to see her get her's."

Guillén: I genuinely enjoyed Denise Yuen's performance as Kirsten, Casey's good friend. She was likeable. Where we could say we wanted the mother to get her comeuppance, I really didn't want anything to happen to Kirsten.

Archibald: That's important. People aren't good or bad. People are generally right in the middle, y'know? Nobody's perfect. People make mistakes. But it's more relatable when it's someone that's real. Casey screwed up, but she's not a bad person. That's the key with making a character like her's. You want to go far enough to make them real but not so far that the audience goes, "I don't like her. No. I don't care about her. I want her to die."

Guillén: Many years ago Kiyoshi Kurosawa attended the screening of his film Doppelganger (2003) at the San Francisco International Film Festival. In that film, the protagonist's doppelganger breaks the law, causes a lot of trouble, even murder, and gets away with it. During the Q&A after the film, someone wanted to know where the police were? How this guy could get away with all this? Kurosawa seemed very bemused and admitted his movie was never meant to be "real." Movies are not real, he argued, even if they try to appear real. His movie was set in an alternate world, in which there were no cops, precisely so that the doppelganger could create chaos. That was the core of his film. Ever since then, I've paid attention to what directors leave out of their narrative worlds and the conventions they ask audiences to accept.

In Bite, as Casey transforms, she turns her apartment into a webbed nest of eggs. There's a brief complaint about the smell; but, then that's never brought up again and I got the feeling that in your movie's world, there were no neighbors. That's why nobody else was complaining about the stench and why the nest just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Can you speak about that?

Archibald: Yeah, sure. Some people have watched Bite and reviewed it as a horror comedy, while others have watched it and said, "It's a serious film." We were aiming for the middle. When you make some movies that are a little more fun, there's more leeway with your audience. If Casey had just gone to the doctor right away, it'd be a different film, she'd be in the hospital. That's not the film we wanted to make. We tried to play it in a way that these series of events happened so quickly that her instincts took over before she could actually end up in a hospital. Another example, when they walk into the room, anyone who would open that door would go, "Hell no, I'm not going in there" and back away.  But our characters have to go in. Otherwise we don't have a movie.

Guillén: It's the infamous "don't" factor.

Archibald: Exactly. Why are they running up the stairs? There's a back door. It's just the suspension of disbelief. That's where the craft of filmmaking comes in. Hopefully you make a film where the audience gets drawn in and they don't think about those things so much. They enjoy it as is. It's so true, though. You can watch any movie and ask, "Where are the cops? Why don't they do this? Why don't they just call 911?" Or it's the classic: "Oh, all our cell phones don't have reception." That problem's solved. It's so hard because we're living in an age where everyone's connected all the time through cell phones. We talked about that a lot with Antisocial (2013). There's not a moment when you can't get help.

Guillén: That reminds me of the one movie that I've long felt would be nearly impossible to remake: Peter Bogdonavich's Targets (1968) with Boris Karloff.

Archibald: It's funny you bring that up because so did the studio when we were making Antisocial.

Guillén: Well, the thing about Targets is that it's about a sniper in a drive-in theater and everyone's trapped in their cars and can't call for help. That would be unheard of today in a contemporary setting and who even thinks of drive-in theaters anymore anyway, let alone not having a cell phone?

Archibald: It can be interesting to play with period pieces, with films that take place in the '80s, when everyone wasn't connected. I feel like people are such wussies today, including myself. I imagine myself going back to the '70s and '80s when you had to find a land line to phone someone. Especially kids who are growing up now have had cell phones all their life, almost as soon as they've learned to talk. They can't even comprehend the idea of going on a trip and not having a phone. Or using a map to find directions.

Guillén: One of the things I've enjoyed about my time at Fantasia is that I don't have an international calling plan so—to avoid roaming charges—I just keep my iPhone in airplane mode and don't use it for anything but a camera. It actually feels comforting to be a little old style and out of touch.

Archibald: You just put it away? So nice.

Guillén: Let's talk about your make-up and practical effects. Who did them for you?

Archibald: Jason Derushie, who also did The Drownsman, worked on this with a team of assistants. For her make-up effects, Elma would get in super early before the crew or anyone. She'd show up and basically have to strip down and stand there for six hours and get covered in special make-up, and then another two to three hours to get it all off. She would be in make-up for nine hours out of 12-hour shifts. Whenever we got her on set, it would be, "Go, go, go, go, go!" She had some really long days and was such a trouper about it. She's very beautiful and it's interesting to watch the movie and see her transform into this creature at the end. It's only when they're looking back at found footage of them in Costa Rica that you remember how beautiful she is.

As for the actual set, we had buckets and buckets and buckets of goo. We had a room that was full of buckets of goo. Every day I was like, "More goo! More goo!" [Laughs.] Because it would dry out. We had a very small budget and one of our biggest challenges was, "How am I going to fill up this apartment with eggs?" What the hell would we actually get that would be like eggs? I was looking online and found this website that makes what they call spitballs. They're little pebbles that you put in water and they absorb the water and turn into little jelly balls. Kids spit them at each other. I bought a pack of them and took them into my bathroom and put them in a big bowl of water, went to sleep, and the next day they were overflowing. I ordered like 30,000 of them! We had buckets of them and put them in a mixture of coffee and maple syrup. We had endless eggs and had people filling ping pong balls with silicone, anything we could to figure out more and more how to create the illusion of all these eggs.

Guillén: Talk to me about Black Fawn. Why that name?

Archibald: A Black Fawn is a rare creature and exciting to see! It started from there. Me and Cody Calahan own Black Fawn, and then we have Jeff Maher and Chris Giroux. Jeff's just directed Bed of the Dead (2016) for us, but he's been our DP on pretty much all our films, almost. Chris has been producing with us for a long time as well. We've been in operation since 2008. Right now we have a slate of films with Breakthrough Entertainment. We signed an eight-picture deal with them over two years, which is a challenge.

Guillén: How did you negotiate such a lucrative opportunity for Black Fawn? Did you go through the market here at Fantasia?

Archibald: No, we went into the studio. They were nice enough to sit down with us, and Cody actually pitched the idea of what if Facebook started turning people into zombies? They liked it. In all honesty, the industry is looking for content, but good content. For anyone, if you have something good, you can get it found. The only real problem is creating great ideas. That's what got our foot in the door: a good idea that they loved. Did it matter to them all the stuff we'd done in the past? We obviously brought that to the table to show them before we made the movie and started working with them.

Guillén: I was given a piece of advice that you should never arrive with just one idea, but at least 15 ideas, to broaden your chances.

Archibald: Good advice. We have the eight-film deal with Breakthrough but we don't even know all the films that we're doing and people say, "Oh, it must be nice to just go out and make whatever you want"; but, for every 30 ideas that we put into treatment and really work on and try to get them in, only one goes through. Content is king. Content is currency.

Guillén: Do you depend on the studio to handle distribution for you or do you self-distribute?

Archibald: I've done a lot of films over the years and have always worked closely with sales teams and whatnot. I also own Black Fawn Distribution, which was created (again) because we had gone through the wringer with so many films and had been screwed by distributors in the industry. We'd give our movie to people and they'd sell it across a country and we'd never see a cent from it, which is so common these days. Back in the day, like when we sold Desperate Souls, we sold it to Lionsgate and Alliance Atlantis. I couldn't give this film away, it was so bad, but we made a ton of money off of it because every film is guaranteed to have those sales to outlets like Blockbuster. You just have to put a cool cover on it and get it out there. But there were a lot fewer movies being made back then. Since the industry's gotten so saturated, distributors have closed down. I ran statistics and there are only about 13% of the distributors left that were around in 2000 that are still around. All the rest have either been bought up or gone bankrupt and closed down.

Guillén: Who distributes for you in the U.S.?

Archibald: Breakthrough is our sales agent there as well. Tim Brown organizes everything. We make the films, hand them over to Breakthrough, they go to all the markets, and sell them.

Guillén: Do they also serve as aggegator to get your films on streaming platforms?

Archibald: Yeah, the distributor usually does that. For example, with The Drownsman—which sold to Anchor Bay, U.S. and Canada—they put it on iTunes and Blu-Ray / DVD.

Guillén: How important, then, is a theatrical run for you?

Archibald: In all honesty, it's very hard outside of festivals without a huge advertising budget for a small film to do well in theaters. We go through the festival circuit and that's how we get a film out and it gives people an opportunity to see it on a big screen as well. We've traveled all over the world going to festivals and pushing our films that way. We've done short runs in theaters in Toronto. With Neverlost we actually traveled right across Canada. Cody and I went to Vancouver and from Vancouver to Montreal and just rented out Cineplex Odeons for one night.

Guillén: That must have been hard.

Archibald: It was very difficult to get people in seats. Some places were fantastic and some places were total bombs. Filmmaking is a difficult industry to survive in, especially as an indie filmmaker. It's very saturated; but, making films is like a drug. I love being on set. I love what I do. Every day I wake up, there are times when I'm like, "I can't wait for Monday."


Tuesday, July 28, 2015


The Dark Below (2015, USA, dir. Douglas Schulze)—With only one line of dialogue (“Love is cold”), Douglas Schulze delivers a harrowing aria of feminine survival through evocative visual storytelling reminiscent of the slo-mo prologues of recent Lars von Trier films, with flourishes of Stanley Kubrick for added citational texture. Rachel (Lauren Mae Shafer) is overpowered and abducted by a man (David G.B. Brown) who immobilizes her with injected drugs while he suits her up in ice diving gear, and drops her into a hole he’s hacked out of a frozen lake. With sadistic precision, he clearly intends for her to die slowly and torturously. As the ice seals above her, Rachel has to figure out how to survive, while piecing together the shocking revelations that have, perhaps predictably, brought her to this life-threatening situation. Struggling not to succumb to frostbite and numbing hypothermia, the arduous physicality of Shafer’s performance is impressive.

Without giving away the film’s reveals, The Dark Below harkens back—as Ian Olney has laid out in his essay “Dead Zone: Genre, Gender, and the ‘Lost Decade’ of Horror Cinema, 1946-1956” (published in Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces Of A Lost Decade. Eds. Mario Degiglio-Bellemare, Charlie Ellbé, and Kristopher Woofter, Lexington Books)—to a precedent of post-war movies of the 1940s that “tell women’s stories that are addressed to women. It is masculinity that is shown to be monstrous. Female protagonists must match wits with male villains—typically patriarchal authority figures like fathers, husbands, or guardians—who plot to deceive, entrap or murder them.” (2015:50-51)

The Dark Below becomes, then, a hyper-stylized melodramatic allegory of the conflict between the woman as protagonist and the man as antagonistic monster. As Olney continues: “Postwar horror films do not simply feature female protagonists doing battle with male villains, however; they also frequently invite us, via a variety of cinematic devices to identify with their heroines, to adopt a female gaze.” (2015:51)

Cinematographer Robert Skates accomplishes this in The Dark Below by submerging us into the water and under the ice with Rachel so that we intimately share her frantic desperation. Further, David Bateman’s intense orchestral and choral compositions underscore Rachel’s panic, while Jonathan D'Ambrosio provides an edited point of view through Rachel’s flashbacks and revelations. Determined to survive, Rachel is motivated by revenge, which has never been served icier than in this experimental thriller that formally challenges the conventional boundaries of genre. Fantasia correctly asserts: “You haven’t seen anything like it.”

One final alignment with Olney’s thesis is that—even as the female protagonist is valorized for confronting the monstrous-masculine, she does not do this alone. Instead, she fights the male monster with the help of another woman, as it is “only in collective feminist action” that there might be hope for success. (2015:55-56)

This is where Veronica Cartwright, who plays Rachel’s mother, squares off to the aggressor with a gaze as fierce and protective as a lioness. This casting coup has assured the film credence and pedigree, as Cartwright—a genre icon in her own right since as early as Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), through Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), onto TV’s The X-Files (1998-99)—has proven her unerring eye for choosing intelligent properties, no less here in The Dark Below. As Rachel’s mother, she and Rachel, and Rachel’s daughter form the collective feminism that will never stop glancing over their shoulders, fearful of masculine threat. World Premiere. IMDb. Facebook.

The Dark Below from Festival Fantasia on Vimeo.

Monday, July 27, 2015


She Who Must Burn (2014, Canada, dir. Larry Kent)—In his introduction to the World Premiere of Larry Kent’s She Who Must Burn (2014), Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis claimed Kent as a national treasure, and described him as the Godfather of Canadian underground film and its first independent filmmaker of confrontational countercultural films. For over 50 years Larry Kent’s movies have given a regional voice to political outlooks that have—as Paul Corupe concurs in his program capsule—“infuriated uptight Canadian cultural guardians.” Theaters had their doors padlocked by censors attempting to keep audiences from watching his 1962 film The Bitter Ash, and when his 1969 film High screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, then executive director Shirley Temple Black resigned in protest. David Cronenberg has credited Kent as a major influence in his youth. At 82, Kent shows no signs of letting up and returns to Fantasia with what Davis suggests might be his most confrontational film to date.

In full disclosure, She Who Must Burn is a project that Kent has been talking to me about for years. He first pitched a treatment of the story over lunch two years back, and I’ve witnessed firsthand how difficult it has been for him to achieve institutional financing after his crowd sourcing campaigns failed. He would be the first to admit that—were it not for the efforts of Executive Producer Pericles (“Perry”) Creticos (who served as producer on Kent’s 2005 film The Hamster Cage), and the loyal support of his Vancouver associates Shane Twerdun (who helped produce, co-write, and acted one of the main leads) and Andrew Dunbar (also a producer and actor in the film)—She Who Must Burn would never have been made. Include among his supporting contributors filmmaker and Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, who moodily scored the film for Kent.

With its revealing title and even more revealing poster, She Who Must Burn upsets narrative conventions by letting you know straight off what’s going to happen, such that focus lies more in the film’s percolating issues and how they build to achieve suspense. It's a masterwork of signposting and negotiating suspense through anticipation.  An exercise in genre, She Who Must Burn would probably best be categorized as arthouse horror, but exceeds that categorization for skillfully addressing the fact that nothing is quite as horrifying as reality itself. Though a Canadian entry, the sense of the film is an American critique of the fanatical right wing Christian constituencies attempting to destroy democracy’s separation of church and state under the guise of religious belief, emboldened by the fervor of conversion. Who isn’t horrified every morning in the U.S. reading front page articles of fanatics killing presumed “non-believers” in the name of a vengeful God?

In Kent’s harrowing tale, Angela (Sarah Smyth), a counselor at a Planned Parenthood clinic and common law partner of deputy sheriff Mac (Andrew Moxham) infuriates the local pastor Jeremiah Baarker (Shane Twerdun) who believes it is his God-given duty to rape his wife Margaret (Jewel Staite) to fulfill a divine decree to procreate. When he discovers Margaret has taken Angela’s advice to be on birth control, the good pastor goes berserk and beats her viciously. Margaret seeks shelter from Angela who arranges for her to be taken to a safe hiding place. Refusing to reveal his wife’s location, Pastor Baarker and his fanatical cohorts threaten Sarah and her clinic with violent retribution.

As the obsequious, religiously-deranged Jeremiah Baarker, Twerdun does a 180° turn from his previous performance in Kent’s Exley (2011), thereby revealing his significant acting range. Kent, in fact, is well-known for his masterful handling of actors and the ensemble in She Who Must Burn uniformly deliver honest, meticulously paced performances, from the put-upon Angela who seeks to help troubled women with sensible, medical advice to Baarker’s kin Rebecca (Missy Cross) who suffers from postpartum depression, speaks in angry tongues, and receives a vision that God wants Angela to be burned alive. There’s not a false note in any of these performances, nor in Kent’s handling of this controversial subject. One of the members of the pastor’s congregation objects to what the pastor is asking him to do. “I’ve been a religious person all my life,” he says, “and this is not that.” Thus Kent is not trying to set up a kneejerk enmity between Christians and non-Christians, far from it; he is focusing on the danger of fanatical evangelists to the Christian faith, as well as secular democracy.

With the local sheriff unwilling (or unable) to stop the rising tide of violence, and Kent’s admitted atheist position disallowing him to lean on a supernatural solution to his story, Kent instead provocatively suggests a kind of secular martyrdom of health care practitioners dying for their beliefs (not so distant from the midwives and herbalists sentenced and burned alive during the Inquisition witch hunts). What emerges as the most horrifying element of his film is its continuing relevance regarding women having the right to determine the fate of their own bodies, and there’s no question but that She Who Must Burn will agitate militant anti-abortionists and Bible belt patriarchs, particularly in the U.S. All the more reason that this movie should be seen far and wide to remind Americans that civil liberties are under determined assault. World Premiere. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

She Who Must Burn - Teaser from Elad Tzadok on Vimeo.

Sunday, July 26, 2015


Tales of Halloween (2015, USA, Multiple Directors)—Eleven filmmakers (who call themselves the “October Society”), 10 tales, and 80+ actors made the Fantasia World Premiere of horror anthology Tales of Halloween (2015) a veritable bag of treats. There is so much to snack on here. For starters, Tales of Halloween imaginatively captures the nostalgia for a holiday that’s lost traction in recent years. It only took one urban myth of a razor blade hidden in an apple to ruin it for everybody. Nowadays, to be safe, parents take their children to circumscribed, chaperoned Halloween events held in school or church parking lots, if the kids aren’t already hopelessly distracted by their cell phones and tablets and can’t be bothered. Three years running, I’ve sat patiently in my living room with a bowl full of candies waiting for the doorbell to ring and not a single kid has shown up, let alone in costume. One year, I even made homemade popcorn balls because—when I was a kid and going through my bag full of treasure on the kitchen table—popcorn balls were always the best, among bite-size pieces of Snickers, Tootsie Rolls and Butterfingers. That was the year I overdosed on popcorn balls and sadly realized Halloween was a holiday that had seen its day. Kudos to Epic Pictures Group and all of the talent involved in this anthology for limning my memories with the smiles of childhood.

What could have come across as a patchwork affair has, instead, been thoughtfully reined into a tightly structured mise en scène—suburban twilight through nightfall in Anywhere, America—with crossover casting providing an interstitial cohesion, as characters from one story show up in another (let alone that each filmmaker makes cameos in each others’ segments). Technical marks—set design, costuming, period detail, lighting, sound—are pleasingly even and consistent. The final result: a fun evening pulled together by a winning collaboration between the best and brightest of L.A.’s genre filmmaking community.

Taking my cue from the kickoff segment “Sweet Tooth” (a cautionary tale to not eat all your candy at once), and to keep this review brief, I’ll single out two of my favorite segments, though all warrant due praise. Mike Mendez (who thrilled me with Big Ass Spider a couple of Fantasias back) offers a hilarious mash-up of Leatherface and alien visitation. Even with chainsaw in hand, Leatherface is no match for a trick-or-treating stop action animated creature from another planet And the popcorn ball of this bag of treats? Neil Marshall’s “Bad Seed” where a genetically-modified pumpkin carved into a jack-o-lantern comes to life and wreaks murderous revenge. This mash-up mocks police procedurals with (literally) biting wit.

The brainchild of Axelle Carolyn (Soulmate), fellow October Society contributors include Darren Lynn Bousman (Repo: The Genetic Opera; Saw II), Mike Mendez (Big Ass Spider), Paul Soulet (Grace), Adam Gierasch (Night of the Demons), Neil Marshall (The Descent; Centurion), Dave Parker (The Hills Run Red), Andrew Kasch (Never Sleep Again), Lucky McKee (May), John Skipp (splatterpunk actor turned director), and Ryan Schifrin (Abominable). Schifrin deserves an added shout-out for convincing his father Lalo Schifrin (famous for the Mission Impossible theme) to compose an eerie piece for the film.

In front of the camera are the likes of everyone you’ve ever enjoyed being victimized or victimizing others (including, to name just a few, Joe Dante, John Landis, Stuart Gordon, Barry Bostwick, Lin Shaye, Noah Segan, James Duval, Booboo Stewart, Barbara Crampton, John Savage, and—in an especially inspired piece of casting—Adrienne Barbeau reprising her role as the radio DJ from John Carpenter’s The Fog). Out of sheer fear, I leave the rest of this wicked, smart and fun bag of tricks and treats to Sweet Tooth. World Premiere. IMDb. Facebook.