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.

 

The Midnight Swim

An existential character study examining the relationships between three estranged half-sisters and their late mother, mostly showing instead of telling.

United States. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith, 2014. Starring Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur, Aleksa Palladino. 84 minutes.

Filmmaker Sarah Adina Smith takes a look at the complex family relationships between women in her feature-length début. Dr. Amelia Brooks disappears during a dive in the lake she lives near, the lake she spent much of her adult life studying and defending. Her body never found, she is presumed dead. Her daughters June (Lindsay Burdge), Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), and Isa (Aleksa Palladino, co-star of Boardwalk Empire and Halt and Catch Fire and singer of the indie-rock band Exitmusic), estranged from their mother and each other, return home to put her affairs in order, but each finds the environment–the town, the house, the memories, and of course, the lake itself–pulling at them in different ways. Especially June, who has her own obsession with the lake that claimed her mother’s life.

The Midnight Swim strikes me, first and foremost, as a somewhat existential character study, examining how women relate to each other as family members (half-sisters, in this case); a sort of female version of The Corridor, without the cosmic/Lovecraftian implications. The relationships take center stage and the film’s strongest, most memorable moments–June singing her mother’s favorite lullaby, leading into a re-enactment of a verbally abusive rant, for example, or a Spontaneous Stupid Dance set to “Free to Be…You and Me”–focus on the dynamic between the sisters and Amelia (the latter only ever seen on video, in the form of a “Save the Lake” political ad).

Smith’s script puts an emphasis on showing over telling, and she implies many of the characters’ defining traits instead of stating them outright (for example, brief comments Isa makes when discussing her sudden hook-up with June’s childhood crush suggests a history of bad, probably abusive, men). This generally works to the film’s advantage (except for one major semi-revelation toward the end of the film that really needed to come earlier). The performances are uniformly excellent, with Burdge, Lafleur, and Palladino having an easy chemistry with each other, and with Ross Partridge as the aforementioned crush.

However, while I wouldn’t call Midnight Swim an overt horror film, it does include elements that can only be described as supernatural, and much of film’s overall effect is, if not actually nightmarish, then dreamlike in an unsettling way. Unfortunately, while I appreciated some of these elements (the cinematography of several night scenes; Ellen Reid’s superb, discomfiting ambient score), I didn’t think they worked as well in the overall context of the film. Occasionally, Smith simply seems to be trying too hard to be strange or obscure. The best example is the final sequence, which, beautiful though it is, seems somewhat at odds with the rest of the movie.

Doing the film no favors is the film’s narrative structure, which, I must state with a heavy sigh, bases itself around a found-footage conceit. (June’s making a documentary, and her sisters seem content to let her record everything that goes on around her, except for the one token “turn the camera off” scene.) The format doesn’t add anything of value to the film, creates a level of disconnect between the characters and the audience (I very rarely see people holding video cameras in real life, so why is every third horror or indie film I watch about people who apparently have the damned things surgically grafted to their palms?) and makes the film’s c0founding final moments even less credible.

That all being said, when The Midnight Swim works it really works. I think I would have liked it better if it had jettisoned the weirder elements and was only about the family, but hey, that’s life.

THE MIDNIGHT SWIM poster

Dark Mountain

If Dark Mountain were any more cynical, more generic or simply lazier, it would be named Found-Footage Movie and be directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.

United States. Directed by Tara Anaïse, 2013. Starring Sage Howard, Andrew Simpson, Shelby Stehlin. 80 minutes.

About twenty minutes into Dark Mountain, one character turns to another and asks, “Are you afraid this will turn into The Blair Witch Project?” I kind of admired that. Dark Mountain is an obvious shameless rip-off from its first scene, which is Heather’s iconic “apology” sequence from Blair Witch without all the snot. I appreciated that director and co-writer Tara Anaïse was willing to fess up to that.

Lord knows there’s little else to admire or appreciate about Dark Mountain. It is, essentially, the mean average of every lackluster found-footage horror flick made since the industry fired up the bandwagon in the mid-to-late ’00s. (Trust me: I’ve seen AtrociousHollow and most of the Paranormal Activity sequels, so I know what I’m talking about.)

I wish I could keep the Blair Witch comparisons to a minimum, but I honestly don’t see how I can do that. Two-thirds of both films’ plot is functionally identical. The main difference is that instead of being set in a creepy fictional Maryland forest, Dark Mountain takes place in a spooky real-life Arizona mountain range.

The character outlay is the same: ambitious female aspiring documentarian bossing around two male techies who aren’t as emotionally invested in the idea. We get a scene where the characters interview the eccentric…I’m not sure they’re locals per se, but whatever the Superstition Mountains equivalent of a local would be. We get a scene where weird sounds happen outside a tent. We even get a scene where the Heather-figure (she has a name, but good luck thinking of her as anything other than “fake Heather”) runs around screaming another character’s name.

Okay, not every idea in Dark Mountain comes straight out of Blair Witch. For example, fake Heather and fake Josh are an item here. And everybody shoots video on their mobile phones, and Anaïse digitally processes the footage to make it look like it’s supposed to look like the characters shot it on a Super 8 camera in 1967. I’m not entirely sure why she does this, since the characters make no bones about the fact that they’re recording the footage on their phones. Maybe she thinks it looks cool. It kept pulling me out of the film and reminded me I was watching a work of fiction, which is the one thing in the world a found-footage movie must not do.

And…okay, there was the Lost Dutchman mythos, which, as I think I said earlier, is a real-life thing that wasn’t invented for the movie. Google “Superstition Mountains” and “Lost Dutchman Mine” after you watch Dark Mountain (or, better yet, instead of watching Dark Mountain). There are some very cool ideas in those legends, ideas that would make for a pretty groovy horror film. Then weep, for Dark Mountain is not that horror film.

If Dark Mountain were any more cynical, more generic or simply lazier, it would be named Found-Footage Movie and be directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Seriously, don’t bother.

Dark Mountain poster

 

Toad Road

I should have loved Toad Road; what happened?

United States. Directed by Jason Banker, 2013. Starring James Davidson, Sara Anne Jones, Whitleigh Higuera. 76 minutes. 3/10

Are mood and perception-altering drugs a useful tool in transcending the traditional limits of consciousness? Or are they nothing more than a path leading to a dead end? And, at any rate, do the benefits of expanding your mind outweigh the risks? The debate has raged for decades.

It’s probably safe to say that James (portrayed by James Davidson–all the characters in Toad Road share their names with their actors) doesn’t give these questions much thought. He doesn’t seem to have much going on in his life beyond going to parties, taking drugs, listening to punk rock and engaging in outrageous antics with his buds. He just wants to get fucked up, have fun, and get even more fucked up.

That’s when he meets Sara (Sara Anne Jones), a new addition to his circle of so-called friends. A college student living on her own for the first time, she’s naïve, curious and highly impressionable. She’s ready to try new things, forbidden things, things previously denied her. Including drugs.

James and Sara begin dating, and she begins her experimentation with recreational pharmaceuticals–everything from weed, shrooms and acid to having someone blow the contents of a Vicks inhaler into her eyes.

One night, James describes a local urban legend. Out in the woods, he tells her, is an overgrown trail known as Toad Road. Long ago, seven iron gates stood along this path. If a traveler walked along this path, as he passed through each gate, his perception became more distorted, more frightening. If he were to pass the seventh and final gate, the traveler would find himself in Hell itself.

The path still exists, but the gates don’t–at least, not physically. Some stories state that you can see the gates at night…or while experiencing an altered state of awareness.

Sara becomes obsessed with the story of Toad Road, and becomes determined to walk the path while under the influence of LSD. It’s a decision that will have disastrous consequences–for her, and for James.

Altered perception, urban legendry, infernal mythology and a cute female lead. These things all live very comfortably in my wheelhouse. I should have loved Toad Road. So wha’ happened? Chalk it up to the hand-held, low-fidelity mumblecore aesthetic employed by the film’s “multi-hyphenate” (writer-director-producer-cinematographer) auteur, Jason Banker.

Banker adopts a documentary approach to both the photography and the editing. In fact, in the film’s early stages I thought it was actually supposed intended as a pseudo-documentary or found-footage exercise. In an early scene, as James depants a fellow party-goer and sets his pubic hair on fire, the actor playing the “friend” has his face blurred out. In terms of the narrative, what sense does that make other than to convince the viewer he’s watching documentary footage? But the narrative never acknowledges someone behind the camera. And I’m not the only person confused by this: I have read pieces on the film describing it as a “documentary.”

I assume Banker wanted Toad Road to have a “cinema verité” feel, to make it feel “real.” Instead, I was actually more aware of the mechanics of the filmmaking, causing me to wonder if Banker shot the footage intending to make a documentary and only later deciding to incorporate it into a fictional framework. (My research indicates this may well have been the case.) He fills the film with touches presumably intended to heighten the audience’s sense that they were watching something that actually happened; however, these elements only strengthened the Brechtian divide between me and what I was watching.

Characterization is minimal, and largely consists of people treating each other like garbage. Who cares? I don’t get anything out of watching this particular group of unpleasant jerks be unpleasant to each other. It’s not educational, it’s not emotionally powerful, it’s not scary, it’s not entertaining. In a scene late in the film, James stands on the street and practically begs passers-by to beat him unconsciousness, and I don’t feel bad for him because of his emotional degradation. I don’t even think, “Geez, what a fucking moron.” I don’t feel anything. Maybe I yawn, but that’s it. I simply don’t care.

And that’s because these characters do not seem real. Banker found a bunch of non-professional actors, named their characters after them, and allowed them to improvise their dialog and some of their scenes and it still doesn’t bring them to life.

I don’t blame the cast for this; it looks like they’re all playing themselves anyway, and nobody’s embarrassingly bad, so that’s not the problem. The problem is a story that is deliberately vague and withholds crucial information from the audience by the ton. Nobody seems to have much of a history, it’s hard to tell how the characters fit together, and almost impossible to tell some of the minor characters apart. Yet Toad Road expects to be patted on the head for being “challenging” and “intelligent” and “thought-provoking” and refusing to lead the audience by the hand.

And it’s a shame, because there’s something potentially really good at the core of Toad Road, something that Jason Banker obscures with his vague “script” and obtrusive stylistic touches. Maybe it is really there–like A Horrible Way to Die and Resolution, two films with similar styles that I also strongly disliked, it’s garnered critical acclaim. Maybe I just don’t get it. I hope so.

Postscript: Toad Road ends with a caption reading, “Dedicated to the memory of Sara Anne Moore.” She passed away in September, 2012, apparently of an accidental drug overdose. I rewatched it with that knowledge, and some additional details gleaned from this article about Jones and Toad Road, and I found that while it didn’t make me appreciate the film more, the fictional story did reflect, in a weird way, what little I know about her life.

Toad Road poster