‘Smash: Motorized Mayhem’ review: Bus racing pic more promotional video than subject doc

An image of a scene from the documentary Smash Motorized Mayhem

“Smash: Motorized Mayhem” explores the unique world of school bus racing in Orlando, FL. PHOTO CREDIT: XLrator Media

“Smash: Motorized Mayhem” is a documentary about a particularly unique form of racing.  This activity takes everything a motorsports fan could love about stock car racing and demolition derbies, and ups the ante just a little bit more. Why watch a car get t-boned on a dirt track when it could be a school bus instead? And as the movie gleefully demonstrates, a bus is much more prone to end up on its side, what with its higher center of gravity.  And just like the majority of racing events, the occasional wreck is what brings the fans to their feet.  That’s what makes demolition derbies so popular: a higher frequency of collisions.  And school bus racing is no exception.

The documentary pushes the boundaries of what can be considered a feature-length motion picture, as it is only sixty-five minutes long.  Films of this length are sometimes included in festivals as well, but that doesn’t make the question any less pertinent: which category do they belong in? Should they be considered short films?  “Smash: Motorized Mayhem” feels short when one considers the details of its subject matter.

On top of the short run time, “Smash: Motorized Mayhem” feels like it belongs on syndicated television more so than a movie screen. It is reminiscent of something one might see on Whacked Out Sports or a similar clip show that pops up on local late-night TV.  During the final race at the track, director Kevin J. Burroughs lets the speedway announcer take over, instead of relying on the narrator or letting the footage speak for itself. The camera work is decidedly low-budget as well, as the majority of the footage is grainy.  And that’s’ not including the dirt and grime from the speedway track.

“Smash: Motorized Mayhem” focuses on four Orlando, FL men who spend most of their time around school buses or racing, and of course, the combination of the two. There is the man who runs the speedway, and the speedway’s mechanic. The mechanic spends his days repairing the buses to get them working for the following week’s race. Then there is the racer who drives a school bus by day, and an older, soon-to-retire busser for whom racing is a family affair.  The camera follows these subjects briefly throughout their daily lives, not particularly interested in finding a unique story thread to tug on.  Ramblings about rental properties and kids puking on the bus are obvious cries for an editor.  Character actor W. Earl Brown(AMC’s Preacher, Warren in “There’s Something About Mary”) narrates the film, and his band’s(Sacred Cowboys) music can be heard over the end credits.

“Smash: Motorized Mayhem” certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously. At one point, the speedway mechanic refers to himself as an ‘educated redneck’, which he interprets as ‘cheap.’ He had his wedding and the reception at the speedway, because he knew he could do it there for free. But it is hard to draw that line between laughing with the documentary’s subjects, and laughing at them, and the lax, amateurish style of the doc only makes it worse.

Admittedly, the trailer is funny, as buses are colliding and the fans in the stands are going crazy for it.  “Smash: Motorized Mayhem” often times just feels like a longer version of the trailer.  It gets swept up in the action and finds itself carried away.  When the final fifteen minutes is basically coverage of one particular bus race, the ship has long sailed on finding an interesting narrative among the wreckage.  “Smash: Motorized Mayhem” is more sports commentary and play-by-play than it is documentary, and it fails to find an interesting story once the final bus has coasted to a stop.

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‘Atomica’ review: Sci-fi mystery’s setting somewhat elevates cheesy production

An image of a scene from the movie Atomica.

The world runs on the harnessed power of nuclear energy in the futuristic “Atomica.” PHOTO CREDIT: Syfy Films

“Atomica” features the low-budget CGI effects that the Syfy Channel movies are often known for(so much so, that they were often mocked on the former E! Channel series The Soup).  It is, after all, a Syfy film.  While not comically bad, the computer-generated landscapes look something akin to a Playstation 3 game playing on a low-resolution television. The who-is-who mystery at the center of the movie isn’t all that original either. But the backstory behind “Atomica” is somewhat nuanced. It builds a setting that is ripe for further exploration.

Over the course of the title credits, the film explains the futuristic state of affairs.  A few years into the future, a company called Auxilisun has found a way to harness nuclear energy, using it to power most of the globe(what could go wrong, right?). And a unique system called the TriVision Engine was built at the site of a nuclear disaster.  This new technology is not only supposed to create new energy, but also clean up the nuclear waste in the disaster zone and convert it to clean energy as well.

When the TriVision Engine station’s communications go offline, the recently-promoted chief facilities engineer, Abby Dixon(Sarah Habel), rings dispatch. But it’s Christmas Day, so no one expects that anyone will be going out to the site. Gung-ho about solving the issue at such an important facility, Dixon offers to go herself.  Soon she’s on one of the company copters, bound for the site.  Since she can’t call for a pick-up without communications being back online, she’s stuck there until she fixes the issue.

Once she arrives at the station, many things seem out-of-sorts. Only one of the two men who are supposed to be managing the station are present. Dr. Zek is missing, leaving behind Robinson Scott(Dominic Monaghan).  Scott claims that Zek is outside the facility, surveying.  But Scott seems to be acting suspiciously, asking questions about how to get access to deep burial, where the nuclear waste and second cooling fan are kept.

But when Abby starts dreaming when she sleeps at the station, Robinson curiously seems to have had similar experiences. He says that it is the place; that it somehow gets inside you.  Suddenly his odd behavior seems somewhat understandable.

Abby is attempting some repairs when she spots a man on the camera walking around outside the facility. Venturing outside, she finds an unconscious body. When she drags him back to the station, Robinson confirms that it is Dr. Zek(Tom Sizemore). But Zek also appears to be acting strangely, and Abby finds herself stuck at the base with two men she might not be able to trust.

“Atomica” is somewhat successful at drawing the viewer in, and it’s an entertaining back-and-forth mystery. The acting leaves much to be desired, even from an experienced actor like Sizemore. Due to his long history of legal troubles, his career has been mostly relegated to B-movies, and it shows. But Monaghan’s turn as the unstable Robinson Scott is probably the least subtle.  His character almost gives too much away right away, with his shifty-eyed answers.

A post-credits moment adds a little bit more to the story, and a prequel or sequel set in this new nuclear age could be enjoyable in the hands of the right filmmakers.  The world of “Atomica” is interesting enough to compartmentalize the cheesy acting and special effects.  It’s relatively mindless entertainment, but even the most mindless of offerings has some (limited)appeal.  Turn off your brain and step inside, but look out for those plot holes!

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SXSW Film Review: ‘The Archer’

Image of a scene from the movie The Archer.

Bailey Noble stars as the titular athlete in the film “The Archer.” PHOTO CREDIT: MarVista Entertainment

“The Archer” opens with a young girl walking through the woods, long scratches on her back that have torn through her white tank top, and her skin.  As she walks, she approaches a grisly scene: an bloody arm pokes up from behind a boulder at the bottom of a steep cliff, obviously belonging to a being who is no longer breathing.  The film wastes no time throwing the viewer right into the thick of things, and it quickly indicates the type of ride they are in for.  Death lingers around every turn, not just dished out by man, but the elements as well.

Who is this girl, who seems a little worse for wear?  Lauren Pierce, a teenager who is a masterful shot with a bow and arrow, and the star of her school’s archery team.  The film travels back to her latest tournament(or is it a meet in archery?), where she is able to clinch victory with several bulls-eye hits in her final round. A come-from-behind victory has never looked so easy.

Lauren and her teammate/best friend Emily are relaxing in their motel room that evening, and she thinks it will just be the two of them.  However, Emily’s been texting her boyfriend, and he soon shows up at the door, spoiling their alone time.  Lauren doesn’t like him, as she thinks he treats Emily poorly.  Her viewpoint is soon validated as he starts getting physically aggressive with Emily when she says she’s going to sleep.  Lauren ends up kicking him out of the doorway and clocking him before throwing him to the ground.  She then leaps on top of him, continuing to punch him.  Perhaps violence shouldn’t be celebrated, but this moment of vengeance is immensely satisfying.

This act of assault can’t go overlooked, so Lauren is soon in the court room.  However, her bestie and key witness Emily fails to show up to court, so Lauren has no witness on her behalf.  Lauren is sentenced to a camp that deals with troubled teenage girls.  When she arrives at the camp, Lauren receives even worse news:  due to her mother hastily signing papers without reading them, the camp has the right to keep her indefinitely.

A talented archer himself, the camp’s headmaster is quick to demonstrate respect towards Lauren.  But when Lauren sees how the other counselors treat the girls on the headmaster’s watch, she realizes he can’t be trusted.  And probably the biggest offender is the headmaster’s own son, who(among other debauchery) utilizes a peep hole while the girls are showering.

Lauren finds an ally in Becky, who has attempted escape multiple times and knows her way through the adjacent wilderness.  The two devise a plan to break out together.  When they stop at the headmaster’s cabin to shower and load up on food, they uncover evidence of a conspiracy that would certainly bring the injustices, and the camp, to a swift end.

The story of the corrupt juvenile camp is based on actual true events.  In 2011, two Pennsylvania judges were convicted of receiving kickbacks for sending kids to a for-profit youth detention facility.  “The Archer” uses this as a jumping-off point, crafting a thriller that pits the mistreated youth against the unjust counselors.  The underlying concept isn’t knew, but some of the instruments are.  Casey Schroen’s screenplay gives Lauren enough depth to make her a protagonist worth rooting for, and the archery dynamic is a breath of fresh air.  Guns and knives are so passe in the genre these days.  “The Archer” proves bow and arrow maketh the hero.

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SXSW Film Review: ‘Pornocracy’

Image of a scene from the documentary Pornocracy

Feminist and erotic film director Ovidie explores the current state of the adult entertainment industry in the documentary “Pornocracy.” PHOTO CREDIT: Magneto Presse

“Pornocracy” is a documentary that leaves the viewer yearning for more. No, it’s not for the reason you might think: the film takes a far more serious look at the adult entertainment industry, and the negative effects of the Internet and its advent as a delivery model. It also investigates a mysterious corporation behind many of the so-called ‘tube’ sites, and this story alone deserves a follow-up documentary.

Director Ovidie sets out to investigate the current state of the industry, a project that takes her all over Europe, and even to the US.  As an adult film director herself, she documents the many changes in the industry since the Internet became a content delivery behemoth.  She speaks with behind-the-scenes veterans of the industry, such as a long-time producer who now does his own direction and camera work to save money.  Company reps now show up to annual trade shows just to visit with colleagues they wouldn’t otherwise get to see.  Their content is all online, so there is no longer a need for a rented booth.

The Internet as a delivery model has also given way to the rise of amateur talent in the adult entertainment business.  Ovidie talks with one couple who have shot over 500 videos for a particular webcam site, but the site takes 78% of the profits.  The popular cam site LiveJasmin is also profiled, but from two different angles.  The film visits the corporate offices, where over 200 employees are responsible for developing the technology and the platform the site depends on.  The viewer then sees one of the houses that the cam models share for shooting sessions.  It is clear there is probably more money to be made behind the scenes than in front of the camera.

Where “Pornocracy” really gets good is when it starts discussing Fabian Thylmann, a German programmer who began buying up all of the tube sites and creating somewhat of a monopoly.  Ovidie enlists the help of journalist Lars Marten Nagel from the German newspaper Die Welt for more information.  Thylmann was identified as the founder and CEO of a company called Manwin, who listed their headquarters at an address in Luxembourg.  But when journalists from the paper went to visit the office, it was uninhabited, with just a few pieces of furniture sitting around.

One popular actress known as Stoya met Thylmann once, but she never believed that he owned the company.  She said the whole operation seemed fishy; from royalties paid in wire transfers from unexpected places like South America, to men with thick Greek accents.  Thylmann was arrested for tax evasion in 2012.

Thylmann’s arrest wasn’t enough to slow down Manwin, and they quickly changed their name to MindGeek.  MindGeek’s headquarters are in Montreal, Canada, and was originally called ManSef.  But it is unclear as to who is actually leading the company.  And anybody on the inside, who might be familiar with how the multinational operates?  If they talked to the press, they often found themselves blacklisted from the adult entertainment industry, and unable to find work again.

“Pornocracy” is a rather short but compelling look at the business behind the industry, and how it’s gone through its own ‘industrial revolution’ in the days of technology disruption. But from one particular story perspective, it certainly feels like there is more to tell.  Her investigation into the MindGeek corporation is intriguing, and a second documentary could be built around that story alone.  Here’s to hoping that Ovidie is willing to keep on looking for answers, and that she brings her camera with her.

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SXSW Film Review: ‘G-Funk’

A scene from the documentary G-Funk

The opening moments of “G-Funk” feature hydraulics in action. PHOTO CREDIT: SXSW Film Festival

Editor’s Note: This review is based on a rough cut of the film screened at SXSW. This may not be the final version.

“G-Funk” should be enjoyed by many a hip-hop fan. The brainchild of rapper Warren G, Karam Gill’s documentary explores the early days of the G-Funk style, and the artists who first leveraged it creatively. While the film neglects to cover any of the more recent years in the sub-genre, the candid interviews with some of rap’s early pioneers make the film an entertaining and educational journey.

G-Funk is a style subset of rap that has its roots in funk, with slower beats, sung vocals, and often sampled tracks. This style was quite different from the rap music of the time, which was popularized by groups like N.W.A. and Public Enemy.  Warren G is probably best known for his hit song “Regulate”, but before he was a rapper, he was a producer. He and his high school friends Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg formed a group they called 213. Snoop had the rapping skills, while Nate Dogg was a smooth crooner.  They all grew up in the neighborhood of East Long Beach, California.

Warren G and Dr. Dre ended up living under the same roof, and it wasn’t long before Warren G was providing samples to Dr. Dre. Dre had started Death Row records, and he soon released The Chronic. Warren G ended up introducing Snoop Dogg to Dr. Dre, and eventually Snoop signed with Death Row.  This put Snoop on the map musically, and led to his debut album Doggystyle.  The film also briefly covers Suge Knight’s involvement with the Death Row Label, which contributed to the East/West coast hip-hop rivalry and the eventual departures of Snoop, Nate Dogg and Dr. Dre from the label.

In addition to Warren G, the documentary features interviews with influential artists such as Too Short, Kurupt, D.O.C.(who wrote lyrics for Snoop), Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Snoop Dogg himself. Notably missing is Nate Dogg, who passed away in 2011.  Def Jam Records co-founder Russell Simmons is also prominently featured, and Wiz Khalifa is briefly interviewed to discuss how G-Funk has influenced his music in the current era of hip-hop.  The rapper often sings the choruses to his songs.

While watching “G-Funk”, the viewer has to wonder about the noticeable absence of Dr. Dre. Since the seminal hip-hop producer played such a huge part in the story, it is curious that there isn’t any sort of commentary from him.  He speaks only through archival footage.  The film doesn’t even mention anything about him declining to be interviewed for the documentary. Since the concept of the documentary came from Warren G himself, it begs the question of whether the viewer is only hearing one side of the story.  He and Dr. Dre ultimately went their separate ways in the world of hip-hop, especially after Warren G was left out of any contract negotiations at Death Row.

The film doesn’t cover any of the later years of G-Funk, but perhaps that is because it has heavily influenced all of hip-hop(and to an extent, pop music as well). Warren G, Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg reunited as 213 in 2004 to release their only studio album, The Hard Way, but there is no mention of this in the film.  A look into the early lives of Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Nate Dogg, “G-Funk” provides a frame of reference for those who grew up listening to hip-hop in the early 90’s.  The documentary may not appeal to those who don’t follow the genre, but everyone else will thrill to hear the story, especially with a rare sit-down from the likes of Snoop Dogg.

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SXSW Film Review: ‘The Honor Farm’

Still image of a scene from the teen horror movie The Honor Farm.

A group of teens explore an abandoned prison work farm in the teen horror flick “The Honor Farm.” PHOTO CREDIT: Matthias Grunsky

Recently there has been a rash of directors who have cut their teeth on the short film format, and have just released their feature-length debut. And coincidentally, each seems to have issues with the screenplay, particularly when it comes to plot development. The recent “Stray Bullets” just seemed to run out of gas.  “Drifter” borrowed some elements from other films while failing to carve out a unique identity for itself.

Filmmaker Karen Skloss first landed at South by Southwest(SXSW) with her documentary “Sunshine”, which ended up airing on the PBS series Independent Lens. She is also an accomplished film editor. Her debut feature “The Honor Farm” gets ensnared in similar traps when it comes to the screenplay(which Skloss co-wrote with Jay Tonne, Jr and Jasmine Skloss Harrison). Where the writing runs into trouble is in the comprehension category. At a certain point, certain points in the story progression just stop making sense. Mixing such genres as teen horror and the coming-of-age tale, the film is described as ‘psychedelic.’ A more accurate description might be confusing.

At least the film maintains a certain tone when it comes to the supernatural elements. When the picture opens, we find the heroine Lucy dressed in a white gown. She’s lying in a field when a man all of a sudden comes over, and the viewer doesn’t see his face.  He kisses her neck, and they begin to make love.  Unknown voices whisper her name. In the distance, a hooded figure with an animal skull mask watches from behind a tree. The scene is weird and illogical, but it is supposed to be: Lucy is dreaming after having nodded off while in the dentist’s chair.

The girl is headed to prom, and she and her friend Annie believe this is finally the night that she will lose her virginity to her boyfriend. But when he arrives to pick her up, he’s already drinking from a flask and having beers with his buddy. As the night progresses, he drinks more and more. Lucy’s vision of a romantic evening at a local hotel is soon shattered when her boyfriend doesn’t show up for pictures. Instead, he’s passed out in the back of the limousine.

The girls storm off to a nearby gas station. While smoking out front, another prom attendee hears their predicament and invites them to tag along on her adventure. She and a few friends are going out to an abandoned prison farm which, as local legend has it, is haunted. The place is called the Honor Farm.

When the girls meet up with a few other boys in the woods, it comes time for the obligatory drug scene. They all take mushrooms in a sequence that just delays the point of a horror flick(getting to the horror) for awhile. It’s too bad the scene isn’t all that amusing, and it feels like wasted time when it has to show each one of the teens tripping out.  By the time the viewer has to watch a pair of girls wigging out over a spider web, the gag is past its prime.  The film also fast-tracks a love connection between Lucy and one of the boys.  This development feels thin and rushed, especially when it isn’t entirely necessary for Lucy’s character development.

At the center of the story is Lucy’s sense of detachment, and it is her experience at the Honor Farm that is supposed to help alleviate it. The narrative sticks to that theme until the very end, so there is some consistency among the madness. Once the kids arrive at the Honor Farm, much is revealed but very little is explained. They come across a few people who seem to be attempting some sort of seance, but the teens are inexplicably thrown out of the situation in time for the credits to start rolling.  There is a strange transition to a campfire scene with a waterfall that takes all the momentum out of the story.

“The Honor Farm” wants to be a lot of things, but all these concepts feel like they are just part of a checklist when they don’t all (at least loosely)meld together.  And in the rush to pack it all in, there isn’t a lot of time for the ‘horror’ portion of the film. Lucy’s feelings of angst make her character more than one-note, but the other characters aren’t given much of a chance to escape their generic teenage identities.  And as teen horror flicks go, there is very little camp or attempts at any humor.  “The Honor Farm” has all the ingredients of a fun outing, but the execution and screenplay prove to be a recipe for a half-baked concoction.

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‘Trophy’ review: Wildlife conservation doc has brains, heart, and beautiful imagery

An image from the documentary film Trophy.

A South African rhino breeding sanctuary is just one of the settings featured in the new documentary ‘Trophy.’ PHOTO CREDIT: SXSW Film Festival

“Trophy” chooses to remain impartial on its hot-button topic, and is a better documentary for it. Director Shaul Schwarz and his co-director Christina Clusiau merely bear witness to the different sides of the animal conservation issue. The closest they get to being involved is listing some endangered species figures onscreen, but those are merely facts.  The subjects they film are enough to keep the story unfolding, and the emotion building.  The film also does wonders in capturing the beauty of the South African landscape.

The documentary approaches its subject matter from at least a few different viewpoints. Firstly, there is Philip Glass, an avid trophy hunter from Texas. When the film opens, Philip and his son are out hunting. When they spot a group of deer, Philip hands the rifle over to his son. It apparently isn’t his first time, as the child lands a shot on one of the bucks in the group. Phil then takes the rifle back to land another shot, bringing the animal down for good.

The viewer then meets a woman holding a rifle, albeit one with a different purpose. She takes aim at a rhino, and connects with a tranquilizer dart.  She is a veterinarian, and this dart allows her and a team of nearly ten people to come in and lift the animal back onto its feet once subdued. They then saw off its horn so it won’t be killed by poachers, a harmless process they will have to repeat in another two years. This is a rhino sanctuary in South Africa, and the largest private rhino breeding facility in the world.  A former land developer named John Hume is the owner of the facility.

The film also introduces a man who breeds exotic animals specifically for hunting. There is also an interview with an ecologist, as well as time spent in Zimbabwe with a wildlife officer and anti-poacher.  Probably the most controversial figure portrayed in the documentary is what the ecologist refers to as a ‘shooter’: a hunter who wants to kill an exotic animal just to kill it, and doesn’t care about the actual sport of it.  The example on display is a man who ends up killing a crocodile at close range after it is dragged out of the water and held by a rope around its neck.

While there is violence and shooting of animals onscreen, the film skillfully maneuvers around some of the more gorier imagery. After Philip shoots an elephant, the locals divide up the meat for their families. Thankfully, the camera artfully shoots around a lot of the carnage, so the point of the scene still comes across without getting up close and personal to the butchery.  The viewer sees the axe swinging, but doesn’t have to witness the point of impact.

The film credits Luke Boelitz and Keith Sparks with ‘Additional Cinematography”; everyone involved in shooting the film certainly deserves some recognition. There are some beautiful wide shots, like a panning shot above the tiger enclosure at the wildlife breeding facility. Another shows the crisp, dark-blue South African sky overlooking a field while the rhinos are grazing, little flashes of lightning in the background. But perhaps even more impressive is the short-range camera work. Whether it be subduing a rhino or wrestling an alligator, the crew behind the camera doesn’t hesitate to get close to their subject matter.

“Trophy” is a thought-provoking status report of the wildlife conservation issue at hand, and proves to be an unexpectedly emotional quandary for all parties involved. Tears are shed many times throughout. But even with all that emotion running high, the filmmakers maintain their focus, and the result is a fair and balanced exposition. “Trophy” may not change many minds for those who stand steadfast at one particular end of the spectrum. But perhaps it will help viewers understand the opposing viewpoints just a little bit better.

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SXSW world premiere ‘The Honor Farm’ releases a new video clip

Still image of a scene from the teen horror movie The Honor Farm.

“The Honor Farm” sees its world premiere this weekend at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. PHOTO CREDIT: Matthias Grunsky

The filmmakers behind ‘The Honor Farm’ today released a new clip from the film, which has been dubbed an entry in ‘psychedelic teen horror.’  The film sees its world premiere March 11, as part of the 2017 South by Southwest(SXSW) Film Festival.  It screens as part of the Midnighters section, which focuses on the horror genre.

“The Honor Farm” is a mash-up of youth genres, including teen horror and the coming-of-age tale.  After her prom night goes bust, Lucy(Olivia Applegate) heads to a party in the woods.  When the party goers start wandering and stumble upon an abandoned prison work farm, they end up raising more than just a ruckus: they wind up summoning the dead.

Applegate(NBC’s Revolution) also stars in Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song”, the opening night film at this year’s SXSW.  Founder of SXSW Louis Black executive-produced “The Honor Farm.”  Karen Skloss directed and co-wrote the film with Jay Tonne Jr.  Skloss also directed the documentary feature “Sunshine”, which debuted at the SXSW Film Festival before airing on PBS.  “The Honor Farm” marks her first narrative feature.

The SXSW Film Festival runs March 10-18 in Austin, TX.  For complete screening information, download the SXSW Film Pocket Guide here.

Click below to watch a clip from “The Honor Farm.”

 

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SXSW world premiere film leaps from crowd funding to festival

An image of a scene from the movie La Barracuda.

Sophie Reid(left) and Allison Tolman star in the SXSW World Premiere film “La Barracuda.” PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Rusk

The South by Southwest(SXSW) Film Festival begins later on this week in Austin, TX, and will feature many world premieres across many genres.  “La Barracuda”, the new film from Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund, happens to be one of those films seeing its first-ever public screening.  This particular film also stands out for one other reason: it was the focus of an successful Indiegogo campaign that ended a mere week ago.

“La Barracuda” tells the story of a British woman named Sinaloa who travels to Texas in search of Merle.  Sinaloa is apparently Merle’s half-sister; they both share the same father, a deceased country musician.  Merle soon starts to warm up to Sinaloa, who is also a musician.  But Sinaloa’s songs hint at something darker in her persona, and her presence soon introduces chaos into Merle’s stable life.  Allison Tolman, Sophie Reid, and JoBeth Williams star.

Music is an important part of the Austin-set “La Barracuda”, which is partly why the Indiegogo campaign was started after the picture became a SXSW selection.  Part of the raised funds went to the live music’s clearance fees.  The film’s music consultant, Texan singer/songwriter Colin Gilmore, assembled music from artists such as Butch Hancock, Bob Livingston, The Harvest Thieves, The Mastersons, and Richard Bowden.  Many of these artists appear in the film.  Sophie Reid(who plays Sinaloa) is also a royally-trained musician.  The campaign also notes funding for post-production sound and color.

“La Barracuda” screens as part of the Narrative Features Competition at SXSW March 11 at 1pm CST.  The SXSW Film Festival runs March 10-18.  For complete screening information, download the SXSW Film Pocket Guide.

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‘Lavender’ review: Repressed-memory thriller light on frightfulness and fun

Image of a scene from the movie Lavender.

Abbie Cornish and Justin Long star in the thriller “Lavender.” PHOTO CREDIT: AMBI Media Group/Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Lavender” never feels like it runs too long, but at ten minutes shy of two hours, it seems odd that it takes the new thriller that much time to get around to making things happen. The film is part ghost story, part psychological puzzle; either side can’t break free from its procedural-like fate.  It is also a bit self-serious, leaving little room for fun or genuine scares.  In the suspense department, it doesn’t really do its job:  it won’t manage to spook even the biggest genre scaredy-cats.

Abbie Cornish plays Jane, a photographer with a fascination for capturing old houses. She’s also a bit flighty, easily forgetting to do everyday tasks like picking her daughter up from school.  This is cause for tension between her and her husband, exacerbating an already-stewing marital strain.  But this absent-minded behavior soon indicates a larger issue, when Jane begins seeing things that may or may not actually be there. These visions are only amplified after she is involved in a car accident.  She rolls her SUV, complete with the oft-used slow motion-from-inside-the-car-shot when the vehicles starts to tumble.

Jane manages to escape the wreck with very little injury(remarkably, there isn’t a scratch on her), but she doesn’t recognize her husband and daughter when she wakes up in the hospital. Her doctor calls in a dedicated psychiatrist(Justin Long) to support her recovery, as the wreck appears to have revived the dormant lingering effects of a head trauma from a long time ago.  In turn, this means that Jane may be able to recover any memories that may have been repressed since the original injury.  While she’s in the hospital, Jane also happens to learn that she has the deed to her childhood home.  She then meets an uncle(Dermot Mulroney) who has been looking over the property through the years.

The visions were enough to indicate that Jane had something hidden in her past, and it was affecting her mentally. The memory-loss plot point doesn’t make a lot of sense, as she almost immediately remembers her married name, and remembers her family moments after that. This is a strange screenplay decision, and one that is immediately rendered unnecessary; the viewer should be smart enough to connect the dots on their own.

The screenplay goes out of its way to contort itself once more for a twist at the climax, but this manages to play out slightly better than the super-temporary memory loss. The twist is multilayered and has elements that surprise, and some that don’t given earlier story cues.  The actors do a fine job of selling the material, except for the child actress portraying Jane’s daughter.  Her lines are often stiff and awkward, but at the same time, the screenplay frequently has her speaking in bland generalities as opposed to timely, relevant dialogue.

“Lavender” is a mostly acceptable thriller that doesn’t offer much in the way of suspense. And minor glitches like Jane’s lack of bruises or facial marks after her car accident forces the viewer to deduct some points. Another example: at a certain point, a series of flashbacks take over.  During the sequence, it appears there was no attempt to make one of the characters involved appear any younger.  Usually, the lack of polish wouldn’t be much of a concern, but with an underwhelming story, it becomes the thing that sticks out.  At least the title of the film is explained.  “Lavender” is just unremarkable enough for it to quickly fade from memory after watching it – no head trauma required.

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