Reviews for Cinema Axis: Blood in the Snow 2017

An urban legend and a novel mockumentary

Real-life commitments kept me from contributing much to Cinema Axis’ coverage of Blood in the Snow, Toronto’s annual showcase of Canadian low-budget filmmaking. But I did find time to get a couple of reviews in:

Blood in the Snow 2017

Buckout Road (Canada: dir. Matthew Currie Holmes, 2017). Anybody who’s ever watched a movie will recognize the Coping with Grief (what is it with movies about grief this year? See also half the movies I saw at either CIFF or Cinepocalypse) and Living with a Difficult Family clichés. On the bright side, I found Holmes’ direction surprisingly atmospheric, and the always-awesome Danny Glover and Henry Czerny make up for the complete lack of chemistry between the lead actors.

Fake Blood (Canada: dir. Rob Grant, 2017) examines the relationship between horror-movie violence and real-life violence through the lens of a found-footage or “mockumentary” film (see what I did there?). It’s a novel idea (while not wholly original; see also JT Petty’s S&man) that might have worked better if their approach was more conventional. The filmmakers concern themselves more with what happened than what will happen, leaving the audience in suspense for events that never come.

 

Reviews for Cinema Axis: Blood in the Snow 2016

I wrote three reviews for Cinema Axis’s coverage of this year’s Blood in the Snow film festival.

Farhang Ghajar and Jennifer Fraser star in CAPTURE KILL RELEASE

Capture Kill Release (directors: Nick McAnulty & Brian Allan Stewart) may be yet another found-footage horror movie in a world that doesn’t need any more of them, but at least it’s a good one. Farhang Ghajar and Jennifer Fraser shine in this tale of a young couple making their own snuff movie. This is what House of 100 Eyes could have been had it been done right.

It wasn’t really my thing, but I heartily recommend Holy Hell (director: Ryan LaPlante) to all fans of outrageous, over-the-top, Troma-style gross-out horror-comedies. LaPlante stars as a mild-mannered priest who takes up the path of holy vengeance after barely surviving a night at the mercy of a clan of twisted, depraved freaks. If nothing else, where else are you going to find a gun battle between a man of the cloth and a drag queen in a kitten mask?

The Sublet (director: John Ainslie) finds an engaged couple with a toddler son taking up residence in a creepy apartment with a sinister past. This modern-day riff on The Haunting of Hill House gets a lot right, including a fine performance from lead actress Tiana Nori, but the story fails to come together in a satisfying way, and the film feels like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.

Goodnight Mommy

A genuinely shocking horror film and one of the best of the year

Goodnight Mommy

Austria, 2014. AKA Ich seh ich seh. Directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz. Starring Susanne Wuest, Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz. 99 minutes. 9/10

Humans seem to possess an innate aversion to change. As adults, we understand we must fight stagnation, but children rely on routine and the familiar for comfort and learning. To a child, even the most subtle shift or recontextualization can become a source of terror, particularly when they threaten said child’s sense of safety.

In Goodnight Mommy, Elias and Lukas (played by Elias and Lukas Schwarz), twin sons of an Austrian television personality (Susanne Wuest), find themselves confronting such terror when their mother returns home to recover from cosmetic surgery. Mummy’s frightening appearance–eyes bloodshot, face covered in bandages, nose braced by a splint–worries them enough. More disconcerting are the changes in her personality–especially her refusal to interact with, or even speak to, Lukas, and her insistence that Elias do likewise. The boys come to the terrible conclusion that the woman who came home from hospital is not their mother.

Under ordinary circumstances such a synopsis might indicate an ordinary thriller with a somewhat obvious twist, but writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala present a convincing case from Elias and Lukas’s point of view. In retrospect, the filmmakers dropped plenty of hints I should have picked up on, but I was so firmly on the boys’ side I didn’t even think to consider alternatives; the reveal left me genuinely surprised.

Using clever editing and cinematography, strong atmosphere, and a disquieting ambient score (one of the best of the year) from Olga Neuwirth, Franz and Fiala create an environment that should provide safety and comfort, but gradually generates unease until madness becomes the only logical response. Then they pull the rug out and things become intense. Violence is the inevitable result of everything that has come before, and the film earns its shocking conclusion.

Its character-centric focus requires Goodnight Mommy to rely more on its performances than other horror-thrillers; the filmmakers have a tougher row to hoe in this regard, as they tell from the children’s point of view. The Schwarz brothers are the hinge upon which the film moves—if we don’t accept Elias and Lukas, everything collapses. They succeed admirably, turning in two of the best young-actor performances of the year (second only, perhaps, to Jacob Tremblay in Room).

One of the best films of the year, Goodnight Mommy transcends the banalities of its basic set-up and becomes one of those rarest of horror films, one that finds a primal pressure-point in the unevolved subconscious and knows when to press its finger down. I can think of no higher praise.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.

The Dark Stranger

A good example of how not to tell a story like this

The Dark Stranger

Canada, 2015. Directed by Chris Trebilcock. Starring Katie Findlay, Alex Ozerov, Enrico Colantoli, Stephen McHattie, Jennifer Dale, Mark O’Brien. 90 minutes. 3/10

Horror fiction often is at its best when we can associate its fantastic monsters with our own concerns, frustrations, and anxieties. But outright allegory requires something of a deft touch to keep its subtext from becoming a sermon. Case in point: The Dark Stranger, the début feature from writer/director Chris Trebilcock.

Katie Findlay stars as Leah Garrison, a young graphic novelist recovering from the suicide of her troubled artist mother, which left her with a severe case of agoraphobia. When local art patron Randall Toth (veteran character-actor Stephen McHattie) approaches Leah’s father (Enrico Colantoni, perhaps best known as Veronica Mars’s dad) bout the prospect of showing Leah’s mother’s work as part of an exhibition focusing on artists and depression, Leah zealously pushes back, sensing Toth is not all that he seems. Moreover, Leah’s latest work, an allegorical fantasy based on her struggle with mental illness, is taking a strong toll on her. And is it just a coincidence that its villain, the Dark Stranger, looks exactly like Randall Toth?

While Treblicock certainly means well and handles issues such as depression, alcoholism, and self-harm with sensitivity, I can’t help but feel that the film’s supernatural elements distract from the main narrative. Indeed, the story gets along just fine for much of its running time without even confirming the Stranger’s existence outside Leah’s work. Speaking of, Trebilcock juxtaposes the main narrative with animated excerpts from Leah’s work in progress. While the art style has a unique charm, the parallel story doesn’t really tell us anything we haven’t already figured out, and often feels like padding.

The “real-life” story doesn’t fare much better. The film’s tone doesn’t convince the audience of the stakes or impart a feeling of danger; one never doubts that Leah will eventually overcome and defeat the Stranger and, by extension, her fears and anxieties. This leaves most of the suspense to ride on the identity and nature of the Stranger, who turns out to possess a perfunctory origin story. This leads to the film’s anticlimactic resolution of the conflict, made all the more disappointing by Trebilcock’s good intensions.

What The Dark Stranger does have in its favor is a strong cast with good chemistry, particularly between Findlay, Colantoni, and Alex Ozerov (as Leah’s younger brother Toby), who possess a credibly familial dynamic. Mark O’Brien and Jennifer Dale, respectively playing Leah’s love interest and therapist, do quite well with their somewhat underdeveloped roles. Only the usually-dependable McHattie disappoints, by coming on too strong as Toth and playing too much for camp as the Stranger.

Ultimately I feel bad about not liking The Dark Stranger, as Trebilcock’s goals are certainly laudable and his heart so obviously in the right place. But it simply doesn’t succeed in what it wants to do. If nothing else, it’s a good example of how not to tell a story like this.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.

Western

A vital examination of the unique benefits and challenges faced by residents of Texas border towns

Western

United States/Mexico, 2015. Directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross. 92 minutes. 

Documentarians Bill and Turner Ross begin Western by informing us that for generations, the border towns of Eagle Pass (on the Texas side) and Piedras Negras (on the Mexico side) have been joined in friendship, only separated by the Rio Grande. An important dimension of this alliance between two cattle towns is trade. Fifth-generation rancher Martín Wall—a Texan who pronounces his Spanish given name in the American fashion—is able to make an early-morning meeting on the Mexican side of the border and still get home in time to drive his young daughter to school. During an interview for Mexican television, Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster discusses the positive climate for American investment in Piedras Negras. Later, a Piedras Negras resident tells him, “I hope that one day the entire border is how it is here.”

“Welcome to Paradise,” Foster replies, “It don’t get no better than this.”

It’s not going to last. There’s a storm brewing—not one of the many thunderstorms that dominates Western’s B-roll, but a figurative one in the form of the encroaching Mexican drug cartels (fueled by the demand of American consumers) and the violence they bring. It seems inevitable that this violence will eventually reach Piedras Negras, a proposition which worries everyone. The U.S. government’s response is to build a $2.5 billion fence that stretches over 600 miles…including through Eagle Pass. The fence may keep the cartels out of Texas, but it also keeps American money out of Mexico. It makes it harder for ranchers like Wall to do business, and stymies Foster’s attempts to preserve the relationship between the two towns.

Foster is a genial subject (when he receives an email condemning him as a “rat traitor” for his commitment to “open borders,” he responds, “Happy New Year! Love, Chad”), the quintessential small-town politician, committed to both his own neighbors and the citizens of his city’s counterpart. The film follows him as he delivers bilingual speeches and attends bullfights and rodeos in Mexico. Wall is less idealistic, more practical, prone to bouts of swearing, devoted to his business, his family, his legacy. “This’ll all be yours one day,” he tells his daughter (“…or not. Whatever you want”).

Western is a vital examination of the unique benefits and challenges faced by residents of the border towns. Politics here are as multifaceted as they are in any other region, but it’s easy to reduce them to hot-button issues such as “drugs” or “undocumented immigration.” State and federal officials are more than happy to propose and enact quick “fixes” that pacify special-interest groups and some constituents, but fail to consider the needs of the citizens, whose livelihoods depend upon access to the border.

To Chad Foster, the moral of the story is clear: “If they’d do within the Beltway what they force everyone else to do along the border, we’d be a much better country.”

Originally published by Cinema Axis.