Tag Archives: low budget

Letterboxing: Silver Bullets

[This review originally appeared on my Letterboxd page as part of an ongoing effort to watch 365 new movies in 2015. Yeah, I know.]

Joe Swanberg & Kate Lyn Sheil in Silver Bullets [via]

Maybe my favourite Swanberg picture yet, though perhaps that’s why the star rating is so high. None of his films have blown me away, but Silver Bullets (along with, say, Hannah Takes the Stairs) feels like the writer-director’s articulating exactly what he wants to say with both economy and honesty.

Or, in the case of Silver Bullets‘ characters, dishonesty. No-one wants to hurt anyone else, but they’re not going to purposefully avoid hurting them, either, and the core relationship (between Swanberg’s filmmaker and Kate Lyn Sheil’s rising star) is punctuated by long silences after which discussion of the tensions between them are tossed aside in favour of spontaneous lovemaking.

I admire Swanberg’s commitment to these moments, scored by skittish strings that aptly reflect the high anxiety clearly playing out in both characters’ minds, along with his willingness to play with formats and let the filmmaking speak as much as his characters. The subtext in this movie isn’t very deeply hidden, but it’s still rooted in enough human drama (and ironic conversations about ‘art’) that it’s still effective.

All of the director’s films feel intensely autobiographical (often uncomfortably so), but Silver Bullets feels like the most authentic reflection of his opinion of himself. Which is not to say that he’s playing himself but the version of himself he sees, which is far more interesting. Not to mention rather unflattering. This movie’s Swanberg is someone who can only truly experience life through a lens, a screen or a pre-fabricated conflict, often remaining perfectly still as he witnesses (more than participates in) these moments. This contrasts wonderfully with Sheil’s constantly shifting actor who takes on different personas based on the whims of the person she’s with. When she finally does decide to act upon her own impulses, she’s rejected, which is something of a pessimistic metaphor when applied to film actors as a whole.

But Swanberg’s always going for some kind of melancholy, and in Silver Bullets he keeps that from overwhelming the narrative with sentimentality more than other outings. We’re left feeling the same way as the characters in a brief epilogue: wondering who was really to blame, whether there was anything they could have done to fix things and, most importantly, if these failed relationships are doomed to repeat themselves.

Which, now that I think about it, is really the meta-narrative of all Joe Swanberg films.

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Review: The Shoot

[Originally posted on Nerdly]

Stars: John Adams, Toby Poser, Sam Rodd, John DiMaggio, Claire Denis, Doug Spearman | Written and Directed by John Adams, Toby Poser

The-Shoot-cast

Put simply, this is a mess. And not the good kind of cinematic mess that’s so overflowing with ideas the filmmakers can’t fit them all onto the screen without throwing coherent storytelling out the window. No, this is the other kind of mess – the kind where the script runs out of gas halfway through and the film carries on anyway.

What story there is in The Shoot concerns Tommy and Dougie, a pair of middle-aged rockers in dodgy debt up to their ears who decide that robbing a fashion shoot in the desert is their express ticket to solvency. Tommy’s wife Maddy works as a costumer for the shoot so it’s pretty obvious things aren’t going to go well. Things take a turn for the violent when the hired security/slumming actor with a gun starts taking shots at the duo and the corpses begin to pile up. Dougie inexplicably executes one of the crew and decides that, in order for him and Tommy to get away clean, all the witnesses need to die. Seems reasonable enough.

What follows is not a series of tense stalking sequences punctuated by searing violence but forty-ish minutes of aimless wandering, mean-spirited gross-out comedy and cod philosophising about binary states of morality. Some of these elements could work if the script had a consistent tone or any of the actors seemed vaguely interested in anything happening onscreen, but as it happens everyone just looks like they’re waiting for the next bus.

It says a lot that the best performance in the movie is given by John DiMaggio (the voice of Bender and Jake!) as a politely menacing loan shark. This would be a good thing, except that he only ever appears in one scene early on. Frankly, the rest of the film is so contrived, aimless and frankly boring that I would have much rather the plot shifted focus to DiMaggio’s character and left the utterly charmless leads far behind. Unfortunately we’re left to Tommy and Dougie, who inevitably turn on one another after it’s clear the film’s about to end soon.

Things turn out well for some of the characters until you remember that nothing whatsoever was resolved, but that’s apparently okay because – according to a perfunctory enough final shot – Tommy’s relationship with Maddy was supposed to be the main thing the whole time. I guess that’s why there was that protracted, otherwise completely gratuitous shot of the two having sex at the beginning. Right?

Except Maddy doesn’t have anything to do in The Shoot except be threatened with rape by the loan shark and let the leads know that there are expensive jewels on her set. Her superfluity to the film’s story – other than as a plot device – is even highlighted in that first shot, in which her ceiling-stretched legs are the only part of her visible. She’s barely half a character, which is still more than the rest of the flattened showbiz stereotypes that populate the supporting cast can say.

All of this would be par for the no-budget pet project course if not for the fact that The Shoot was written and directed by John Adams and Toby Poser, who play Tommy and Maddy respectively. You’d think a male/female directing team – especially one that’s presumably also a couple – would push each other to do better when it came to fleshed-out characters, but evidently they got stumped at the earlier roadblock of making their damn film entertaining.

I find it hard to write about this film because it’s difficult to remember anything of importance or interest that happened in it. When even the cast look bored by the movie they’re being paid to be in, how can an audience be expected to put up with this shit? I appreciate the amount of work Adams and Poser put into The Shoot, because according to the credits they did most everything on set. But it seems that at some point they started spreading themselves far too thin to make anything worth seeing, and unfortunately hard work is but one of many ingredients required to make a good movie. If that was all it took anyone could be Stanley freakin’ Kubrick.

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Review: Blood Soaked

[This post originally appeared on Nerdly]

Stars: Rachel Corona, Laina Grendle, Lauren Myers, Heather Wilder | Written and Directed by Peter Grendle

blood-soaked

I’m not sure where exactly to start when talking about Blood Soaked. I considered including a brief plot synopsis so that I could more freely associate with whatever other elements of the film I felt required more discussion. I thought about opening with my surprise that there was archive footage of Adolf Hitler in the opening credits. I even wondered if I’d be called out for bad criticism form for considering just second-screening the rest of the movie ten minutes in.

But really, I can’t talk about anything in Blood Soaked before I talk about its technical limitations. And, really, “technical limitations” is a generous euphemism. The quality of filmmaking on show in much of the film is on par with the worst of what some of my classmates were doing in film school (and I didn’t even go to a good film school). The entire first scene, in which two young girls attempt to resuscitate their dying father using a syringe of a formula that we’ll later learn turns folks into zombies, is barely comprehensible due to a combination of epileptic camera movements and the monotonous screams of the two girls. Fortunately, the first issue is resolved fairly quickly. Unfortunately, sound problems plague the entirety of the film that follows.

Now, the screener I was given to review may not be the same version of the film that everyone else who’s seen it was subject to, but the fact that it was packaged and endorsed by the film’s distributor, Wild Eye Releasing, doesn’t give me much hope. The sound kept going slightly out of sync in the first ten minutes, with characters’ dialogue barely matching up with their mouths. I thought it was a problem with my browser, paused and unpaused the video repeatedly to try and fix the issue. But halfway through, I knew it definitely wasn’t me, as there was a chasm between onscreen actions and their accompanying sounds. Not only that, but the audio clearly wasn’t mixed to a standard level as I needed to keep changing the volume in order to hear the dialogue comfortably. These kind of problem makes for a pretty unwatchable film, in my opinion. It’s hard to know whether the movie I watched was the one its creators intended to make or simply the result of a series of cock-ups at every stage. From what I could gather from this muddled vantage point, Blood Soaked is full of thinly-drawn characters, near-comedy violence perpetrated for the sake of the most basic social commentary imaginable and a fatal lack of tension.

It may seem like I’m picking at relatively unimportant threads, but let’s be serious here: when we’re being entertained, there’s a baseline of quality we expect, even with low-budget grindhouse fare such as this. The fact that Blood Soaked couldn’t live up to even my lowest expectations of a no-budget slasher should set off alarm bells to anyone. And are we really okay with being presented with frankly amateurish fare like this and being told it’s good enough to be on our shelves? I don’t mean to come off as elitist – I’ve worked on my fair share of micro-budget productions, and I have no delusions about their quality – but I’m afraid that with the current wave of independent films, self-distribution and a move away from studio-controlled properties that there’s no clear indicator of the watermark for movies like this any more. I want films to be good, and I’m not inclined to let one get away with being far less than that just because it was independently produced, because indie filmmakers have more to prove, not less.

All of which is to say that Blood Soaked isn’t deserving enough for a proper critique as it’s not really a proper film. I couldn’t tell you who to blame – though the director, production company and distributor would probably all be good bets as they’re all responsible for letting such a shoddy product work its way into my eyes and ears – but whoever’s responsible needs to start trying a hell of a lot harder if they want people to start treating their movies like movies.

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Man, I Get Sent Some Bad Films

El Mariachi has a lot to answer for. As does Clerks. Both were made in the early ‘90s on incredibly low budgets ($9,000 and $30,000 respectively; Clerks filmmaker Kevin Smith famously maxed out all of his credit cards to finance the film) and achieved previously unheard-of success from new directors, as supposedly ‘independent’ film budgets of that era – like those of Reservoir Dogs and Sex, Lies and Videotape – came in at around the $1million mark. This helped to kick-start guerrilla movements and independent movies proper, and surely had some impact on bringing us to our crowdfunded present, where dead TV shows can be resurrected by the cash of fans and a boatload of promises. It also sent an unfortunate if optimistic message to the general populace of the world:

We made a feature film with no money. Why don’t you?

From my The Fallow Field review on Nerdly.

It is, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, atrocious. It’d make a great birthday present.

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Zomplugs

Those cats over at ace York-set web series Zomblogalypse have been hard at work writing their feature [adaptation? follow-up? reimagining? who the hell knows/cares?] of/to the series over the past eight months, recently completing the eighth draft.

They put this video up to talk about the process and share some juicy deleted scenery:

My favourite bit’s when they all segue onto egg and chips.

And Tony’s hair, natch.

If you haven’t a clue what’s going on in this post, FRET NOT! For I have links that will satisfy your intense desire for enlightenment.

Here’s the Zomblog site, here’s MilesTone Films’s YouTube channel (which also hosts a veritable smorgasbord of videographic delights) and the obligatory Twitter and Facebook plugs. Check ’em out.

A few months ago (it was probably a lot longer) I was involved in a photo shoot to promote the movie in Cannes (snoot snoot), one of the results of which is thus:

Spot the blogger. Think Oceanic.

[Courtesy of friend, enthusiastic camera boff and beard-owner Dave Beveridge’s ace spinner. He’s in the yellow. I forget who pulled the cord. Sorry!]

So yeah, I’m pretty excited about this thing. As I am for the other two films these guys have got coming out before this’un.

It’s almost enough to make a guy feel like he needs to catch up or something.

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