“To Be Alone” – (Short Film Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ***** out of *****.

“To Be Alone” (2017), the seventh short film from writer-director Matthew Mahler, is a wholly unique, thought-provoking and brilliantly realized meditation on grief. Yet, it is as much about religious guilt, shame and the all-encompassing hopes of redemption which arise with theology. As a matter of fact, most of the sparse words spoken in the entirety of the twelve minute and forty-six second runtime are from unseen spiritual individuals. All of whom cry out from inside the television set to our lead, William (in a mesmerizing and quietly compelling turn from Timothy J. Cox). They angrily exercise the foremost element. In so doing, they almost immediately prompt William to run outside and engage in actions which suggest the last two latter stated emotions. Whether this is a symbol of the unquestioning fidelity or the apparently easy manipulation of the devout is left to the viewer. There is an equal balance of circumstances throughout the piece that could support both belief systems. Likewise, the non-judgmental tone Mahler crafts here, especially when dealing with such a touchy subject, certainly assists the piece. This is in evoking its continually haunting and meditative resonance.

What also helps is the underlying tension. This is erected most readily in a repeated sequence which involves law enforcement phoning William. Once this erupts, a certain darkness settles over the proceedings. This is as the audience begins to comprehend why he may be going through the previously stated catalogue of inward impressions. It also makes us understand how the pious personalities that are shouting at him have such swift control over his dealings.

The successfulness of these ingredients is a courtesy of Mahler’s deft, carefully constructed screenplay and same said direction. They perfectly compliment the material. What enhances this aspect is the inclusion of moments of sheer style. For instance, a spellbindly done sequence has William looking up the steps towards the closed door of his bedroom. The way it is shot, with Mahler’s ardently energetic music punctuating the bit with an electric fervor that makes it impossible not to step inside William’s nervousness at the unfurling situation, is reminiscent of what one might find in a classically designed opus of cinematic horror. Yet, there are other clever, smirk-inducing bits. For example,  there is a near climactic episode that features William carrying a cross. This is in a manner that is reminiscent of Jesus Christ in the tale of his crucifixion. The item William is holding is arranged with Christmas lights and other season appropriate decorations. Such details suggest a bit of playfulness amid this otherwise somber narrative. These items work immeasurably. They also add to the admirable and well-rounded qualities of the endeavor. This is while finding new ways to augment the representative essence of Mahler’s theme. It also makes for imagery that is as unforgettable as the fiction itself.

Adding to the immersive beauty of the project is Jonathan Giannote’s brooding cinematography. Mahler’s editing is also superb. The exertion also benefits from terrific makeup from Maggie Kurth and Morgan Mahler. Correspondingly, Jack Fitzmaurice’s sound contribution is exceptional.

Produced by 8mm Films, Mahler’s latest is among his most accomplished configurations to date. The brief undergoing is massively entertaining. Still, its lasting impact is undeniable. Best of all, it makes you ponder your own convictions. In turn, you can’t help but wondering if you would go through the same repetitive cycle of reaction that William himself is going through. This is if you were in an equally fateful circumstance. With “To Be Alone”, Mahler has fashioned a mandatory movie-going experience. This is one of the best storytelling fabrications of the year.

“A Dark Song” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.

Writer-director Liam Gavin’s invocation thriller A Dark Song (2016), is fascinating. This is true in the wide-spread knowledge of its subject matter that is dispensed throughout its one-hundred-minute length. Such a quality is also present in the manner Gavin keeps us questioning the motivations, actions and dedication of our credibly etched leads. These are the domineering Joseph Soloman and the vulnerable, audience sympathy-deriving Sophia Howard (Steve Oram and Catherine Walker respectively). This intriguing inquiry accrues in the deliberate lack of specifics in the early sequences. It is also spied in the authenticity of the unfolding event itself. Oram and Walker’s performances, Cathal Watters’ immersive cinematography and Ray Harman’s masterful, creaky and immediately classic score are just as riveting. Gavin’s ever-taunt guidance and meticulously crafted authorship of the project propels this factor. His dialogue is especially believable. The results are appropriately and endlessly eerie, unsettling and haunting.

In turn, Gavin’s impressive full-length feature debut calls to mind a decidedly darker version of several thematically related genre greats. These are Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) and Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others (2001). This is noteworthy in the methodical and carefully assembled structure inherent in these previously stated motion pictures. Such a comparison is also augmented in Gavin’s brilliant ability to immediately generate an unbroken mood of intensity and impending doom. This is while instilling an ever-extant sense of mystery. Best of all, Gavin avoids the easy trappings of narrative tropes, jump scares and clichés at every corner. As a matter of fact, the bulk of the nail-biting herein are held in the enigma of the unfolding plot itself. Such only immensely enhances the life-mirroring nature of the production.

Additionally, Gavin evokes an unyielding focus on characterization. Such makes this brooding, quietly tense tale of a woman who will go to great lengths to contact her deceased son again and a questionable occultist who may be manipulating her a stylistic masterclass. Correspondingly, the elegiac and engaging concluding configurations are perfect. They emotively cap off all the varied sensations that arose beforehand.

Ultimately, Gavin has provided viewers with an uncompromising, mature and unforgettable reminder of why movies such as these remain ever popular. In a year that is shaping up to be incredible for cinema of this ilk, A Dark Song, which was distributed through IFC Midnight, is certainly one of the standout entries in this category.

(Unrated). Contains brief nudity, adult themes and some gory moments.

Available today in select theaters and video on demand.

A Brief Word on New Releases: “Patriot’s Day” and “Underworld: Blood Wars”

By Andrew Buckner

PATRIOT’S DAY

Rating: **** out of *****.

Patriot’s Day (2016), which chronicles the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the investigation it spawned, is an absolute knockout! Director and co-writer Peter Berg’s penchant for quiet moments of domestic character drama as well as claustrophobic, credible and tense action scenes shines through every frame of the film’s one-hundred-and-thirty-three-minute runtime. Stars Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon and John Goodman are especially good in their respective turns. This is even if their on-screen personas could stand to be better developed. They also should’ve been given more dimension. There is also no insight whatsoever into the reasoning behind our reality based antagonists’ tragic dealings. Still, this does little to dilute the exceptional overall result.

Though it isn’t quite on par with Berg’s masterpiece Lone Survivor (2013), this uncompromising and appropriately gritty work comes awfully close. Berg’s latest is an emotionally layered and transcendent exhibition of craftsmanship. The concluding minutes are especially poignant. This appropriate send-off nicely balances out the nearly non-stop intrigue and deftly executed chase story suspense that came beforehand. Such further creates a well-rounded and admirable cinematic experience. This is a harrowing journey. It is one that, though rather routinely structured, is certainly worth taking.

(R). Contains adult language and violence.

Available now on video on demand.

UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS

Rating: **1/2 out of *****.

There is always a sense of urgency in the full-length feature debut of director Anna Foerster’s Underworld: Blood Wars (2016). This endures even in the dialogue heavy second act. The ninety-one-minute effort also sports stunning, handsome cinematography from Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Furthermore, there is a wonderfully gothic feel, present in the four other movies in this series, which is as modern as it is reminiscent of an archetypically circa 1960’s-1970’s Hammer Films horror entry. Additionally, Kate Beckinsale does an adequate job in her portrayal of our Vampire Death Dealer heroine, Selene. This is considering the one-dimensional material she is once again handed. Also, the action packed climactic twenty minutes prove a satisfying distraction. Likewise, Foerster’s behind the lens contribution is slick and stylish.

Yet, it is hard to ignore the fact that if you have seen any of the other Underworld pictures, you have already seen this latest installment. The laughable computer generated imagery and uninvolving plot also hinders this ongoing werewolves versus bloodsuckers tale immeasurably. There are also plenty of gaping holes in the broadly painted and moderately written screenplay from Cory Goodman. When combined with recycled shots and footage, the unyielding impression that this is but another unimaginative, assembly-line Hollywood product prevails. The result is a fair, but mostly forgettable, experience. Skip it.

(R). Contains violence.

Available on video on demand today.

A Word of Dreams Recommends: “Skyquake (2015)”

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: **** out of *****.

Propelled by an intriguing and original plot as well as excellent execution, writer-director-star Sandy Robson’s Skyquake (2015) intimately crafts a haunting, meticulously paced portrait of mania from a plethora of genuinely unnerving horror elements. This is a primary courtesy of Robson’s afore-mentioned contributions. All of which are terrific. Relatedly, John Prowse is exceptional in his turn as Dr. Edwards. This can also be said of Bronwen Smith’s proficient enactment of Grace/Norma and Aidan Kokotilo-Moen’s phenomenal portrayal of young Jake. Byron Kopman’s cinematography, Keaton House’s foreboding music and Robson’s editing are also a highlight. Such results in the telling of tale of a man, Adam, and his obsession with a strange hum that is as eerie as it is engaging. This is augmented by the incorporation of a final act that satisfactorily balances characterization, narrative twists and accumulating tension. Regardless, the concluding sequence could’ve benefitted from less explanation and more mystery. Still, the high quality and sheer effectiveness of the production remains intact.

Runtime: 79 minutes.

(Unrated). Contains adult themes.

Available now on Amazon Prime.

Distributed through Brain Damage Films and Midnight Releasing on April 4th, 2017.

“Phoenix Forgotten” – (Capsule Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: *** out of *****.

Co-writer and director Justin Barber’s full-length feature debut, Phoenix Forgotten (2017), does an admirable job of blending fact, the mass U.F.O. sighting that occurred in Arizona on March 13th, 1997 that became known as “The Phoenix Lights”, with fiction. This creative component is the search for three teens who vanish after encountering the afore-mentioned incident firsthand. Co-produced by Ridley Scott (1982’s Blade Runner), Barber’s exhibition also beautifully mirrors a classically styled documentary, at least until about the one hour mark, far better than most found footage films. This is with an ever-inventive use of interviews and news reports cleverly providing the exposition. There is also a constantly smirk-inducing sense of 1990’s nostalgia present. This is as Barber, who penned the formulaically structured script with T.S. Nowlin, frequently references The X-Files (1993-2002, 2016-). Moreover, the first half constantly called to mind an extended segment of the popular cold case based television show Unsolved Mysteries (1987-2010).

Additionally, the lead performances are all credibly and charismatically etched. This is especially in line with Luke Spencer Roberts’ portrayal of our relatable, and alien obsessed, hero, Josh. Such can also be said of the high-quality depiction of his secret crush, Ashley (Chelsea Lopez), and fellow journeyer Mark (Justin Matthews). The narrative also meritoriously includes a lot of circumstances, such as sudden nosebleeds, which are much in line with what those involved in real life encounters with otherworldly entities undergo. The sparsely used effects are also undeniably effective. Jay Keitel’s cinematography is superb. Congruently, Barber and Nowlin’s dialogue comes off as natural. This is a courtesy of the fine authorship of the piece. It is also a testament to the authentic fashion in which these lines are delivered.

But, this does little to mask the underwhelming sensation which sprang forth with the rolling of the end credits. This is most likely a result of the concluding sequence. Such a configuration blatantly rips off the climax of The Blair Witch Project (1999). The story, which is involving as a horror and science-fiction fusion but transparent as a mystery, is also incomplete. This is as the exertion gives us a definitive answer to what fate befell those who were lost. Yet, it fails to include a satisfactory resolve for the individual conducting the search, Sophie (Florence Hartigan). Not to mention, the affair never tops the harrowing, grainy VHS enactment of the true event, which arises during a birthday party, that it is based upon. Such is melancholy considering that this transpires within the first ten minutes of the picture.

Correspondingly, even at eighty-seven minutes in length the runtime seems overlong. This is as the first two acts, which develop characters and pace in a satisfactory, if sluggish, manner, give way to an ultimate reveal which is obvious from the start. What is just as evident is the lack of any real suspense, surprises or scares. The result is a middle of the road effort. It is one whose mileage will vary between an enjoyable, if unmemorable, experience and a hair-pulling test of patience. This is based solely on your overall fascination in the subject matter. Given that extra-terrestrial tales have always garnered my attention, I, luckily, fall into the latter category.

(PG-13). Contains language and some intense sequences.

Released exclusively in theaters on April 21st, 2017.

“My Pet Dinosaur” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ***** out of *****.

Charming, playful and awe-inspiring, My Pet Dinosaur (2017), the second full-length feature from writer-director Matt Drummond, brilliantly evokes the essence of the early efforts of Steven Spielberg. This ninety-seven-minute triumph, distributed through Empress Road Pictures, has the heart and innocence of E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Such is manifest in its vastly compassionate and kind, child-mirroring perspective. Drummond’s latest masterpiece also shares a notable similarity to the afore-mentioned behemoth of popular culture. This is present in its general plot. The major difference of this being the exchange of an abandoned, otherworldly entity for a spontaneously growing, Styracosaur resembling fossil reptile named “Magnus”. There is also a continued comparison visible between these two photoplays. This resides in the varied small-town characterizations, structure and overall atmosphere of each presentation. Yet, Drummond’s exertion has the thrills, magic, adventure and respect for science that made Spielberg’s groundbreaking adaptation of Michael Crichton’s same titled 1990 novel, Jurassic Park (1993), an unparalleled movie-going experience. There are also elements of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) sprinkled throughout the proceedings. This is evident in the exciting and beautifully crafted final forty-minutes. They call to mind the last act of the latter stated opus splendidly. It is also inherent in the ongoing belief of space invaders in the region.

One of the funniest moments in the offering also occurs in this section. It involves Magnus taking down a military drone. Such is ingeniously framed to look comparable to a giant U.F.O. There is also a similar gag involving an underwater menace, which is glimpsed earlier in the labor, which is just as victorious. Such signifies a mere example of the successful and clever use of humor which runs through the photoplay. Much of this is also overheard in the witty banter among our lead, Jake Emory (in an exceptional turn from Jordan Dulieu), and his likable and courageous band of friends. Among them are the ever-hungry Max Merriman (Sam Winspear-Schillings) and the young alien enthusiast Charles Altman (Tom Rooney). There is also the highly-intelligent Dylan Finkelstein (in a stellar performance by Jack Mars). His general demeanor is equitable to an adolescent version of Egon Spengler (1984’s Ghostbusters and 1989’s Ghostbusters II). This only enhanced my nostalgia-infused enjoyment of the fabrication. Their chemistry, especially in the many sequences where they are all present together, is infectious. It helps Drummond’s emotionally layered, yet joyous and endlessly entertaining, affair become ever more transcendent. In turn, it will assuredly resonate with audiences of all ages. The result of these high-caliber attributes is the greatest cinematic love letter of this genus since J.J. Abrams’ breathtaking, 1979 set Super 8 (2011).

Drummond centers his action in the fictional district of Brightwood. Prone to making trouble to break up the monotony of his surroundings, Jake finds himself dealing with the passing of his father. Such causes a rift in his relationship with his mother, Jennifer (in a credible and well-wrought depiction from Beth Champion). With Jake’s older brother, Mike (in a terrific representation from Harrison Saunders), this familial problem is even more aggressive and verbalized. Yet, when a science project goes awry, the potential for these aforesaid difficulties to turn worse is amplified. This is as Magnus, who is initially shown at twenty minutes into the production, is accidentally created in Jake’s bedroom. Swearing to secretly keep the small, puppy-like creature in his room and study him, his promise to keep Magnus’ presence unknown to others quickly falters. As Magnus accrues in size, pandemonium reigns down on Jake’s once peaceful neighborhood. This is as a combative governmental squad, headed by Cornel Roderick (in an intense and commanding exhibition from Rowland Holmes), quickly takes over the area. As Officer Alan Farraday (in a riveting portrayal from Scott Irwin) fights this team for authority, tales of monstrous animals seize the area. It is a truth Jake and his school partner, Abbey Tansy (in an engaging and proficient enactment from Annabel Wolfe), are forced to face for themselves. This is all in an act of keeping Magnus safe.

Such a story is the perfect recipe for an exhilarating, robust arrangement such as the one Drummond cooks up here. He excels at this from the cryptic and visually alluring opening, which would be at home in any of the previously addressed Spielberg pictures, until the sweet and uplifting conclusion. Drummond, via his marvelously honed scripting skills and guidance of the project, handles the material in a manner that is occasionally tense, but never frightening. There is a necessary maturity to the more dramatic segments. Still, a sense of adolescent wonder, joy and even anguish is ever-present. This is observable in the treatment of the various types of relationships in the narrative. This makes for a certainly well-rounded and satisfying account. Such also issues a tone that only punctuates the Spielbergian feel.

Also, assisting matters is Drummond and Hive Studios International’s impressive and lively effects. They make Magnus lovable, curious and adorable throughout the endeavor. This can be spied in a memorable configuration near the half hour mark. It involves Magnus comically roaming his new owner’s home when no one else is around. The outcome of this is simply adorable. It is utilized with abounding slapstick. Even when Magnus reaches adult size in the second half, and is notably more massive and powerful, this unthreatening sensation remains true. This is also a courtesy of Drummond and Bradley Betts’ seamless animation. Chris Wright’s music is, akin to the images they accompany on-screen, ceaselessly daring, sentimental and magical. There is a certainly appropriate John Williams-esque sensibility derived in the scoring. Additionally, the sound and camera and electrical department offer mesmerizing work. Tina Boody’s make-up contribution is fantastic. This general magnificence is also augmented in the sleek and immersive cinematography. It is also summoned in the previously unmentioned roles. For instance, David Roberts is terrific in his brief bit as Doctor. The same can be stated of Joanne Samuel as Doris Mercher. Tiriel Mora as Trevor Brown and Christopher Gibardi as Dr. Fred Tansy are also spectacular. Congruently, Stephen Davis is astonishing as Will Spencer. He is one half of a pair of intrepid local fishermen whose screen time is consistently comic gold.

My Pet Dinosaur is the perfect companion piece to Drummond’s astounding, Jules Verne reminiscent debut, Dinosaur Island (2014). Both presentations are wide in scope. Still, they are surprisingly intimate. They also showcase a strong focal point on their incredibly developed protagonists. There is also a palpable affinity for the subjects as well as the subject matter. These qualities make each respective undergoing increasingly illuminating. Correspondingly, they are genuinely good-natured and deftly constructed. These are the types of sincere and quietly moving children friendly ventures that infuse great lessons of life. This is while appealing to the often courageous spirit of youth. We rarely get these types of epic, blockbuster re-defining journeys anymore. Such provides more reasoning as to why Drummond is a talent to be watched. With My Pet Dinosaur, which was recorded partially in New South Wales, he has again provided audiences with an instant classic. This is the best family film of the year.

(PG). Contains some profanity.

In Australian Hoyts Cinemas theaters today. It will expand to New Zealand on May 27th.

“Triangle” – (Short Film Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ***** out of *****.

“Triangle” (2017), the debut short from sound mixer and composer turned writer-director Christopher Fox, is a triumph of the emotive power of minimalism on-screen. For five and a half out of the nine minutes which constitute the runtime of Fox’s effort, we sense both the confusion and inner-mechanisms of our hero, Dave (in a masterfully nuanced and purely convincing performance from Branden Macor). This is as he wakes up on a sidewalk and proceeds to survey his surroundings. There is not a stitch of dialogue during this section. Still, Macor’s facial expressions, clothing and often awe-struck gestures speak in-depth about the attempts of Fox’s protagonist to understand where he is in both time and place. Such is more than even an entire feature length picture of discourse into the subject would ever be able to do.

Fox also instills a quiet beauty to this section. It augments the transcendent impact of the work. Such is heard in the gentle, heart-stirring music from Nick Bohun. This sonic material highlights these afore-mentioned sequences. Such an alluring quality is also viewed in Fox’s immersive and illustrious cinematography. Such makes the many moments where Dave contemplatively looks out towards or treads alongside the nearby lake in this initial stretch increasingly astonishing and cerebral. Fox’s sharp editing and brilliant sound department contribution with Bohun makes these arrangements ever more affecting and encapsulating.

The destination Dave is seeking out makes this sentimental journey complete. It also continues the intimacy found in what came beforehand. Given that one of the wisest decisions Fox evokes, and one of the most breathtaking elements of the endeavor, is figuring out what is going on, I will not divulge this here. But, it is easy to state that the plot, which is given visual cues via brief flashbacks during Dave’s wanderings, is brilliant. It’s fusion of science-fiction and character-driven drama would make it wholly at home in a stand-out episode of Rod Serling’s groundbreaking American television series, The Twilight Zone (1959 to 1964). But, there is undoubtedly the core of a truly moving, independent fabrication glimpsed in every frame. The past, or possibly continuing, relationship between Dave and Diana (in a stalwart and charismatic enactment from Margo Goodman), which is unveiled late into the affair, moves the narrative spellbindingly into the formation of the title shape. The climax is just as clever and harrowing. What is most is noteworthy is its sincerity and subtlety. This is as the bit is propelled by two simple words.

The result is a complex, mind-bending and meditative display of Fox’s cinematic craftsmanship. All the previously addressed roles took over on this project are gorgeously administered. They demonstrate a new moviemaker who is certainly in top form. The rest of the cast and crew deliver just as well. Likewise, the resonance of all we encounter in the exertion lingers with fellow bystanders. It compels you to relate and become one with what Dave is undergoing. This fusion of enigmatic, anything but straightforward storytelling and sheer talent is just a fraction of what makes “Triangle” so exhilarating. For example, Fox’s latest demands multiple observances. This is to begin comprehending all its underlying themes and intricacies. Correspondingly, the dedication in the well-honed end credits also brings home the atmosphere of the depiction with profound strength. The result is undoubtedly one of the best presentations of its ilk I’ve witnessed all year. I highly recommend seeking this composition, which has been submitted to over fifty film festivals, when the opportunity arises.

(Unrated).