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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Xavier Dolan's 'Tom at the Farm' -- A Haunting, Homoerotic Hitchcock Homage

Xavier Dolan in 'Tom at the Farm'
Made in 2013 but amazingly not receiving U.S. distribution until this month, Tom at the Farm is the fourth film by Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, who made his first film at age 20 (I Killed My Mother) and was 23 when he co-scripted, directed and starred in this dark Hitchcockian thriller.

Dolan’s Tom is a Montreal advertising executive who is grieving for his lover, Guillaume, whom he’s just lost in an unspecified accident. Arriving at the family’s farm to attend the funeral, he meets Guy’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), who doesn’t know who Tom is and has no idea her son was gay. Guy's sadistic, lunkheaded brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) knows the whole story, however, and has been keeping Agathe blissfully ignorant. He warns Tom under threat of violence that he must play it straight, deliver a nice eulogy at the funeral and then get out of their lives.

But Tom can’t bring himself to read the personal words he’d written and a song is played instead, infuriating Francis, who wants only to please his mother. At the wake, while Tom is in the restroom, he barges into the stall and orders Tom to return to their house and make it up to Agathe by helping to fabricate a story about Guy’s fictional girlfriend, Sarah, and her reason for not coming.

Tom sees his chance to escape and drives away, but something makes him turn around and go back to the farm. Thus the stage is set for a psychosexual drama whose characters feed off of each other in various disturbing ways, with Tom particularly succumbing to a profound case of Stockholm Syndrome.

Pierre-Yves Cardinal and Dolan
There’s certainly more than a few allusions to the Master of Suspense here, all smartly integrated. Agathe can easily be seen as Psycho’s Mother Bates with her domination of Francis, who in turn talks to Tom about having to “put her away.” There’s a false identity in the case of Sarah (Evelyne Brochu), who turns out to be a real person but hardly the love of Guy’s life. Shattering secrets are revealed, and it’s all carried along by Gabriel Yared’s string-driven score, so reminiscent of the work of Bernard Herrmann. And Dolan, with his scraggly dyed locks, has cast himself as his “Hitchcock blonde.”

Based on a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, the film has been liberated from its theatrical roots with a simultaneously rich and forbidding country setting, well-captured by André Turpin’s camera, but it remains a gripping three-person drama whose themes are as intriguing as they are shocking. During an evening of drinking, when Francis suddenly grabs Tom by the throat, the younger man asks, “Is that all you got?”, begging to be strangled harder. But then there’s the scene, beautifully lensed in a dusky barn, when the boys spontaneously perform an almost-romantic tango, and Tom practically swoons when Francis dips him.

Ultimately, it’s the tango that Dolan performs with the material — alternating scenes of blistering psychological drama with sequences of suspense — that makes Tom at the Farm so intriguing.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Indie Movie Insider: An Interview with the 'Moments of Clarity' Team

Moments team (l-r): co-writer and star Kristin Wallace,
 director Stev Elam and producer David J.  Phillips.
Photo by Jerry Sandoval.
Of the many films I saw at the San Antonio Film Festival, which took place July 28th through August 2nd, a standout for me was a feature entitled Moments of Clarity, a refreshingly offbeat comedy with a unique sense of style and a strong cast.

It’s the story of the ever-cheerful Claire (Kristin Wallace), a naive young woman whose upbringing by an agoraphobic mother (Saxon Trainor) has kept her sheltered from the troubles of the real world. When she accidentally breaks a movie camera belonging to Danielle (Lyndsy Fonseca), the hostile daughter of her beloved pastor (Mackenzie Astin), she offers to replace it, prompting an unexpected road trip. Along the way, an authentic friendship develops between the two as they uncover some painful truths about their lives — as well as some equally joyful revelations.
Moments of Clarity has such a distinctive voice and solid production values that I wanted to know more about its development. Happily, the film’s star and co-writer, Wallace, its director, Stev Elam, and its producer, David J. Phillips, were all more than willing to answer some questions for me. Here’s the interview:
Lyndsy Fonseca, Eric Roberts, Saxon Trainer and
Xander Berkeley. Photo by Carol Sue Stoddard.
There are often parallels between works of fiction and real-life situations that spurred their genesis. Do any such parallels exist with Moments of Clarity?
Kristin Wallace:  Most definitely. Moments of Clarity spawned from my life experiences while I was going through this "quarter life crisis" of self-discovery. I met [adult film star] Ron Jeremy and had no idea who he was, which — even if you don't watch his movies — seemed ridiculous to others. I found it humorous how people perceived me versus who I thought I was. I wanted to explore these dualities in people and have it centered around fresh female characters.
Tough guys Eric Roberts and Xander Berkeley are cast against type as a loving couple in the film — and they’re really great. How did they become involved with the project?
Stev Elam: Xander is a friend of mine. We met in 2009 on a Museum installation project that I directed called The Gadfly, and Xander played Socrates. I called Xander and asked him if he was interested in playing a same sex couple that owned a bed and breakfast, and that we were thinking of casting him and Eric Roberts. He loved the idea. Xander and Eric know each other, but haven't ever worked together, so they both were very interested.
David J. Phillips: Thankfully, I knew Eric Roberts' manager Peter Young very well. Both Peter and Eric responded to the script really well and were helpful in making it all work out.
Moments does a great job telling what is essentially a serious story by placing its characters into absurd situations. How has audience reaction been?
KW: Thank you. We wanted the story to have humor and lightness to it. You are seeing the world through Claire's eyes, which is a very positive place, despite her obstacles. Boston had a very emotional response to the film, which was incredible, while San Antonio found it really funny, which was so much fun. We want this road trip adventure to be one of multiple emotions.
SE: You always hear all this talk about demographics, so I'm always blown away by the wide range of people who respond to the film. The thing I like to hear most is that people find it both funny and touching.
DJP: I love when I hear people laugh at the weird stuff we found funny while we were editing… that's always nice. Our film ultimately has a message of optimism, so its nice to see people affected.
What was the most challenging aspect of the film? What was the most fun?
Lyndsy Fonseca and Kristin Wallace.
Photo by Carol Sue Stoddard.
KW: The challenge was to not lose sight of the big picture, the heart of the story and characters. Playing Claire and being inside that childlike, optimistic world was an exhilarating joy ride. I had some fun!
SE: Most challenging thing for me was the shooting schedule. Some of our days we shot 12 pages a day. In regards to fun, nothing beats muffin day.
DJP: Yeah, the shooting schedule was tough due to locations and budget, but Evan Robichaud, our 1st AD, was a champ, working with Stev to get everything we needed. The most fun for me is now — seeing everyone's hard work pay off with good responses and getting into cool fests.
Where was the film shot? How did you secure locations?
DJP: The film was shot in California, and we begged, borrowed... and paid where we had to.
What was the shooting budget and how was it raised? Did you utilize social media?
KW: We shot the film for under 1M. We reached out personally to our network and worked hard to attach the right investors for this project. We've had a great time working with them.
DJP: Yes, we've been lucky that they believed in our quirky little movie and have supported our decisions.  As far as social media, we use it to keep fans and cast and crew updated on Twitter and Facebook.
What cameras and editing equipment did you use?
SE: Our DP Chris Robertson shot on a Red Epic-M 5K Mysterium-X, with prime lenses, 18mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. As for editing, our editor Gordon Antell used Avid Media Composer.
How long was the shooting schedule?
SE: We had a 15 day shooting schedule.
DJP: And a day of pick-ups…so I guess that technically makes 16?
The types of cameras and editing equipment available today make it so much easier for anyone with a vision to make a “real” movie. What words of advice would you give an up-and-coming filmmaker?
SE: Perseverance. Read and watch films everyday. Draw from artist who inspire you, painters, musicians, photographers, writers, architects, designers, and of course other filmmakers.
KW: Even though it's easier now to just jump right in, make sure your story and the foundation is as tight and seamless as possible before you begin shooting. Know why you are telling the story — that way you'll get the clearest message across regardless of what equipment you use.
DJP: Work with talented people, and let them use their talent.  The best work comes from collaboration — work with people you trust enough to put your ego aside, and if everyone does the same, that's where the magic happens.
How do you think the indie film scene will transform in the next five to 10 years?
SE: I'm optimistic about the future of Indie films, especially when you factor in multiple platforms like VOD and home media. I've seen my friends and families taste in films grow because of this new form of distribution. That said I still feel the best way to see a film is in the theater and I think new technology will push the theater experience for future audiences.
DJP: I see online indie festivals having a place — more niche markets where people can find people with similar interests and watch and review films together.
KW: I feel that female filmmakers and female voices are going to become more well known in the indie scene; they will be more accessible and more of the norm. I think there really is a movement to get female voices heard. With all the new ways to buy films, I think indie films in general will become more profitable and mainstream. Or I sure hope so — because I love them :)
Moments of Clarity will be screening at the San Diego Film Festival (Sept. 30-Oct. 4), the NYC  Independent Film Festival (Oct. 12-18) and the Napa Valley Film Festival (Nov. 11-15), with more engagements to be announced.


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Lucio Fulci's 'The Beyond' Review

I've returned to the Fulci fountain many times over the years that I've been blogging in the Village, reflecting on his cinematic high points (Zombie, Don't Torture a Duckling) as well as his unintentionally hilarious...erm...misfires (Murder Rock). But what I haven't done is complete my critique of his Gates of Hell trilogy. I chronicled City of the Living Dead and House by the Cemetery in detail previously, but the middle installment, The Beyond, had remained unwrit.

Well, thanks to Mondo and Alamo Drafthouse, that all changed. Last night I was able to see what many consider to be the director's chef d'ouevre the way it was meant to be seen — via a speckled 35mm print with visible reel changes. And although I've seen the film on DVD many times before, this analogue theatrical presentation makes it a more visceral experience — in more ways than one.

A bit of history — after the successful Zombie/Zombi 2 reignited the director's career, Fulci decided to defy audience expectations by making three films that reflected his personal taste. He idolized the French surrealist and playwright Antonin Artaud, whose "Theater of Cruelty" motivated him to make the "Gates" trilogy — a series of nearly-plotless films that concentrated more on tone and gruesome imagery as a way to provoke viewer response. Of these three, The Beyond/Seven Doors of Death/L'aldia is certainly the most hallucinatory.

Catriona MacColl had the dubious privilege of playing the lead in all three, and here stars as Liza, a down-on-her-luck New Yorker who inherits a rundown hotel in Louisiana and plans to reopen it as a last means of financial support.

Of course, the hotel has a history of sinister occurrences, not the least of which was the 1927 flaying and crucifixion of a painter named Schweick, accused of sorcery by a local lynch mob. And when a strange woman named Emily (Cinzia Monreale), who sports a pair of bizarre boiled-egg eyes, comes to warn Liza of impending danger, it gets pretty foreboding.

With Zombie stalwarts (cinematographer Sergio Salvati and composer Fabio Frizzi) along for the ride, The Beyond looks and sounds like the Fulci films of that era, but the barely-there plot and slow, deliberate sequences of mutilation transform it into something else altogether.

Examples: Liza's hotel is situated above one of the seven doors to Hell and, as such, is a gateway for all sorts of mayhem. The hired plumber, Joe (whom everyone seems to know and anxiously welcomes, including an unabashedly lustful maid) goes down to the flooded cellar to discover the source of the leak, only to be rewarded by having his eyes gouged out by a monstrous claw emerging from the wall.

The maid shows up and discovers his eyeless body with relative calmness, only to seriously freak out when she then sees a mummified corpse. This is one of many strange moments in the film. I mean, surely finding someone you had just moments before been panting after suddenly and violently deceased would be a lot more jolting than spying an obviously dead-for-years husk.

And in a hospital autopsy theater (as they call it), people keep ignoring the "do not entry" sign on the door. First, Joe's widow comes in to dress him in burial clothes, but when her young daughter, Jill, hears her mother scream (at what we never find out), she rushes inside to find the woman lying motionless on the floor with a large jar of hydrochloric acid slowly dissolving her face.

This is one of several sequences in which the victim seems to just lay there and allow the damage to occur. Furthermore, when a puddle of Mom oozes toward Jill in a crimson tide, she tiptoes away in  disgust.

Another wild sequence involves Liza's friend, Martin, who goes to the local library to find the hotel's original documents. Perched high on a ladder next to a shelf, he is frightened by a sudden and inconvenient lightning strike and crashes to the floor.

As he lay there immobile (of course), a group of tarantulas — yes, tarantulas — emerge from under a shelf and start to devour his face. As a combination of real aranchids and pipe cleaners attached to fishing line set about ripping out chunks of cheek and piercing his tongue, they make loud crunching noises and also sound like they're desperately in need of oil.

Much more mayhem occurs, including Jill acquiring a set of white peepers of her own and Schweick's corpse popping up at inconvenient times. Liza rushes into the arms of town doctor John (David Warbeck), who first doesn't believe her story until most of the mangled cast returns to shamble toward them in all their undead glory. They rush from the haunted hotel to the hospital to confront even more reanimated corpses, so they hurry down a spiral staircase to find themselves...back at the hotel.

Like its brethren in the trilogy, Beyond concludes on a grim and hopeless note.

There are two ways to take The Beyond. One way is to howl at Frizzi's inappropriately funky score during the stretched-out killings, as well as the obvious latex effects; the other is to get into the disjointed pacing and oppressive mood that Fulci was trying to convey, as well as admiring the truly fine frame composition and design of the film.

Whichever road you choose to take, The Beyond is a bizarre experience you're sure to remember. It's certainly not a quickie ripoff by any means.

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