a zoo in hell


A Master Builder (2013) Film Review

Translating theater to film is often even more tricky than adapting a book. The surface similarities of these time-based forms can make it appear that all you need to do is set a camera in front of the actors and let it play out. Of course, in practice, this is far from the truth. A “stagey” film is removed from everything that makes cinema work, and care should be taken to make their be a reason the play is on film and not the boards where it comes from. “A Master Builder”, based on the Henrik Ibsen play, is the latest effort to bridge the two forms.

Photo by Declan Quinn / Courtesy of The Ibsen Project LLC
 In this film, like the original play, Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn) is an architect who is the “greatest in the land” and is approaching the end of his life. He’s still working, but is bed-ridden and tended to by nurses at the open of the film. There’s a series of lifelong dramas which circle his bed with the characters they spring from. There’s Kaia (Emily Cass McDonnell) an assistant who is somewhat romantically entangled with. She’s also entangled romantically with his hopeful apprentice Ragnar (Jeff Biehl), a man who Halvard sees only as a man gifted with numbers but not drawing. Ragnar’s father Knut (Andre Gregory) is long-suffering colleague of Halvard. There’s Dr. Herdal (Larry Pine) a professional friend who has a slightly ambiguous relationship with Halvard’s wife Aline (Julie Hagerty). Aline is estranged from Halvard, something he blames on her depression rather than his own narcissism.

Then, Hilde (Lisa Joyce) a vivacious twenty-something enters the home, draws him out of his hospital bed, and leads him into a series of confrontations with his past and the people closest to him. She’s come to make him fulfill a promise or bring a reckoning, it’s not completely clear.

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory are the minds behind “My Dinner with Andre”, a significant art film that only has the camera briefly leave the restaurant the two men are dining in. “A Master Builder” takes a similar approach, never presenting a scene outside of a handful of rooms in the house. There are moments in the beginning of the film when claustrophobia set in as I realized we might not be leaving the bed that Wallace is stuck in. As each character enters the room, the camera is given a new position and after Hilde enters the camera follows Wallace and Hilde’s movements through the house. More interestingly, many technical aspects also shift. Hilde brings with her a cinematic style absent in the “realism” of the flatter video segments that fill the first half-hour. The aspect ratio of the film, the size of the frame, changes to the more dramatic 2.35:1 as it cuts to Hilde for the first time. The taller 1.85:1 aspect ration doesn’t return until Wallace climbs the “highest tower” he’s built, near the end of the film. This is formally clever, but also shows us that director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) hasn’t forgotten this is still a movie. This attention to cinematic style lifts the rest of the film from it’s stage origins.

Photo by Declan Quinn / Courtesy of The Ibsen Project LLC
The film is largely driven by dialogue, and that dialogue is reliant on performance to give it full life. There’s a significant amount of innuendo and implication in this translation (created by Shawn and Gregory themselves) and it is on the actors to play these minor chords. All of them are up to the task, and Joyce does a remarkable job drifting between innocent hero-worship and stalkerish obsession. Rather than a one-dimensional monster we can lock the door in front of, we want her to be on the screen as much as possible. We can see why Halvard asks her to stay in the house at the risk of encouraging her fantasy of taking over “his castle”.

Ibsen is often mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare, and this adaptation offers this same level of depth and complexity. There’s a lot going in these two hours, and though it is not as heady as My Dinner with Andre, it’s clear Shawn and Gregory, by way of Demme and the cast, have a lot more than just the reconciliation of an old man on their minds. There’s nothing as hackneyed as a The Sixth Sense trick ending, but near the end of the film it becomes very clear that Hilde is luminous for more than her youthful view of the world.

This film was produced for under $1 million, but unlike most releases, it actually delivers well above its weight class. I don’t expect A Master Builder to be a runaway indie success story, but it will grow an audience and I imagine become an important part of Shawn and Gregory’s trilogy of theater. Rather than being merely a play that happens on film, Demme has used his many skills to create a film that is particularly cinematic. Halvard might appreciate that the filmmakers created their own high tower, yet somehow managed to not fall off of it. Happily, we can all enjoy the view.

 - T.A. Wardrope


Afflicted (2013)


Review: Afflicted (2013)

I really need to do more research before I rent a movie. Just grabbing stuff off of the shelf has its own pleasures and surprises, but you also run the risk of having two "found footage" movies back-to-back. I am almost as tired of talking about found footage films as I am with seeing them, so you can imagine my near panic when I realized this was a first person, found footage type horror movie.

The film doesn't start out like you'd expect, and over ten minutes into it I was wondering if I had gotten the wrong film. Seemed like a typical vanilla indie road trip movie shot on someone's DSLR and GoPro. The plot that starts the movie has Derek Lee (Derek Lee), a man who has a life-threatening illness, and his filmmaker friend Clif Prowse (Clif Prowse), setting off on a live blogged, film documented, trip around the world. One of the goals of the trip is to get Derek down and dirty with a hot European woman, but when he does get Audrey (Baya Rehaz) in the sack, she reveals herself to be something other than a normal woman.

I don't want to spoil anything, because the way this film handles itself after the scenes with Audrey are what makes it worth watching. Something that Audrey does to Derek turns him slowly into something else. As the affliction has its way with Derek, he becomes less and less human and more dangerous to everyone, especially Clif. Afflicted uses the aforementioned vanilla opening to contrast and set-up to drive the film forward. Even when they figure out what is happening to Derek, the more terrifying question about what to do about carries the film into its second and third acts.

The performances never really convinced me that Derek and Clif the actors were anything but young filmmakers making a found footage film with their DSLRs and GoPros. This wasn't particularly meta, this was often annoying. Yeah, its cool you're making a movie about a not real you making a movie, but can we get on with the movie now? None of the performances are top notch, but they make the film work. Renaz clearly enjoys her part, but something in character is too reminiscent of any number of heroines in b-movie genre flicks. She even gets an action sequence in the end to show how much of an urban fantasy badass she is. Not terribly frightening or compelling, but its all fun and hits the marks it was aiming for.

This isn't a high-end horror movie by any stretch,and if the filmmakers are to be lauded, it should be for knowing how to create a pop horror flick with just enough bro-daciousness to interest the mainstream, but clever enough to get the respect from horror fans.

The special effects are in a similar tier. Most of them are above Syfy movie quality, but occasionally they slide back into low-budget cheese. As this is a found footage film, there is plenty of bad and careless camera work. Images go out of focus and lose their framing. Over exposure, under exposure and wildly swinging camera views form the visual language of this film.

Somewhere in the heart of this is a horror movie that gets most things right. Making Afflicted without the found footage conceit would be difficult and much less interesting. I suppose you could say Afflicted was good enough to make me forget how much I hate this recent film niche. What redeems it for me was that they used a tired form to reinvigorate an equally tired kind of creature. Unfortunately, the limits imposed by the filmmakers and the form they chose prevent the film from becoming a really exciting discovery. Still, it's two hours of low-budget film viewing time I didn't spend watching Sharknado. That's pretty good right there. I'll take a found-footage film over Sharknado any day of the week.

The Sacrament (2013)

The Sacrament Review

Both Eli Roth and Ti West have come down a few notches in my own critical book lately. Hemlock Grove was kind of a miss and I haven't seen much else from Roth that has interested me. For awhile Ti West could do no wrong, but his segment on V/H/S mostly left me underwhelmed. Some horror filmmakers get it right a few times and then spend the rest of their careers trying to figure out what worked so well. I hope these don't have this problem.

Personally, I think the pressure of Blumhouse's genre machine is having a downgrade effect on other filmmakers. The Sacrament, with its low-budget DSLR feel and hastily concocted storyline feel like it was rushed through production, because, well, that's the way we make horror movies now.

I'm going to say this now, because I don't see it being said in the top hits on Google. This is a movie about Jim Jones and Jonestown. Instead of a Senator paying a visit, it is a video team from Vice Magazine. Sam (AJ Bowen), the reporter, brings his cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) to follow Patrick (Kentucker Audley) as he tries to rescue his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) from a strange commune. I am sure it is not a spoiler to tell you that this idyllic commune is not as it appears. If you know the story of Jonestown, you can predict the entire rest of this movie, right down to the shooting at the airfield.

As far as that goes, the film does a decent job of bringing this horror to fictional life. Father (Gene Jones) is one of the better Jim Jones I've seen and he also manages to work in a little bit of Kim Jong Un too. Amy Seimetz delivers a decent blend of psychosis and girl-next door charm. The sets are clearly drawn from the actual compound and most of the rhetoric is as well. I cannot figure out why there isn't a "Based on a True Story" title card because there is no escaping the deep shadows of Jonestown that fall across this entire film.

There's not a lot of traditional horror either. The poisoning sequences are gruesome and painful. There is one pretty bloody end, but even the worst of that is taken off camera. Mostly The Sacrament is gunshots and threatening doom, with not much else actually happening.

There is very little in the found footage genre that interests me these days, and I thought these guys were further ahead of the curve, so this film seems like a giant step backwards. Hopefully, this is just a short vacation before both of these horror stars return to the worlds they are so good at creating otherwise.

The Sacrament


#MyWritingProcess Blog Hop

#MyWritingProcess Blog Hop

Thanks to fellow travelers Mark, Dave and Evan for including me in this tour. Here we go.

1) What am I working on?

Right now it is 50/50 prepping for the launch of Arcadian Gates on Blastgun Books, and the other time is spent on revising short stories and writing new ones. I've got a novel-length project that I am doing background and generative work on. It's kind of science-fiction, but also creative non-fiction.

Additionally, I've got some flash stuff congealing for the Cesspool graphic novel/art book.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I feel like my writing has developed enough that is "my voice" within the context of whatever story is being told. So, in as much as I am an individual it is different. I suppose that doesn't answer the question, though. I feel like what I do is sort of slipstream, trying to merge my favorite genre forms with philosophical and metaphysical issues. Which much of SF does, of course, but I feel like I am bringing it with a particular surreal aesthetic.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Honestly, I write the stuff that I know I cannot film practically. Writing offers an opportunity to create worlds that are consistent but do not have to worry about budgets, casting or art politics. Things can be done with words that cannot be done in a controlled way with imagery alone.

Also, I love the environments of genre writing; the fantastic and the horrible, but I dislike the lazy writing that is associated with those forms. I am a bit of a frustrated poet and I need to get that kind of thrill somewhere!

4) How does your writing process work?

Hmm. My rituals have changed over time. I usually do a bit of reading to see what is going on in the larger world of writing, maybe do some research for whatever I am working on. I put on iTunes and listen to either metal (Mastadon) or shoe-gaze psych music (Mogwai). Then, I jump into the writing and write until I get into a puzzle that I need to think about some more. I've found these breaks from the writing allow me to have the really creative solutions I want.

Sometimes, though, there is just a lonely whispering voice that begs me to listen. I do, of course.

Up Next: Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Abra's Bio:
"I grew up in Africa, India...and Kansas. Then I married a mad scientist and moved to Minneapolis, where I fold time and space to be a full-time fiction writer, part-time freelance photographer, part-time work-from-home employee, and full-time mother. My next project is learning to fold time and space to make this all physically possible! I've had short stories accepted by publications including Jim Baen's Universe and Tor.com. I specialize in dark science fiction, cheerful horror, and modern fairy tales."


The Naked Critic

The Naked Critic

Over the last couple of weeks I've noticed recurring discussion, or blogging at least, about the changing face of media criticism. I suppose this article here was the first bit of the current wave that I read, and as you can see in the comment section, I thought it was a very well-considered piece about the direction online criticism is heading. In summary, the usual mainstream media outlets are cutting back or eliminating paid criticism while unpaid or freelance criticism is creeping back to feature length. This is cool for several reasons, top of which in mind is that for once there is evidence to suggest that the entirety of humanity isn't getting stupider with every click of the trackpad.

Honestly, when I started posting my online reviews here I thought it was even more of windmill joust than posting poetry or fiction. I mean, who reads other people's reviews online? You can forgive me for thinking the forces of "THIS SUCKS" or  "the first one is soooo boring and old"were destined to dominate the comment fields and product reviews for the rest of our lifetimes. Ironically, the only intelligent conversations I can usually have are with my friends in real life, or occasionally via social media. Forget about hive intelligence, we're dealing with cyber-herd consciousness on a daily basis.

Anyway, I've gotten good traffic on here. Nothing fantastic yet, but I've never really wanted it to be huge. Obviously, I didn't start this because I thought people would actually read it. I started posting these reviews because I enjoy writing them and because it helps me sort out my own feelings in reaction to any given work. I know people are out there and reading, some of you regularly, and I hope you find some satisfaction or illumination between the lines. Because of this audience, I've had to think a little bit more about why I am saying things the way I am saying them. Regardless of what some writers might like to think, knowing that someone is reading your work does make you think about the work differently.

When I was writing film studies papers as an undergrad I made a conscious effort to not discuss whether or not a film was "good". As a matter of art and culture, there is no real value outside of commerce for saying if a film is "good". The word doesn't mean anything because it is too relative. What is useful is deciphering what the filmmakers sought to do versus how that worked for any given critic. Comparing one film to another is fair in as far as they can reveal things in contrast which may be invisible in isolation. I guess I was ahead of the curve in some ways, because as this article points out, no one really reads published reviews as part of a purchasing decision anymore. People read reviews to understand, to put into context and to be entertained. My reviews have always been as much creative non-fiction as they are "considerations," so I am pretty exited that this kind of criticism is gaining an audience out there in the interwebs.

If a friend asks me if a film is "good", I will give them my abbreviated thoughts, like most normal people do. If a stranger asks me, I feel the need to qualify and put it into context, because they have no idea what my tastes are and also because I have no interest in convincing them I am right. I am not selling them tickets and this ain't debate club, sunshine. The best of my opinion, allowed to take its full form in these "considerations", is the ability to have someone understand, maybe feel, my perspective like you might in the original work itself. Anyway, the short version. I am thrilled that criticism in a broader world is starting to value this more subjective, but more rewarding, way of considering the flashing light you watched uninterrupted for two hours.

Tom Cruise Theory

As another example of this, here is an interesting article about Tom Cruise's career. On one level it is about how the movie star has risen and fallen over the decades of working in what remains of the studio system. On a more interesting level, this is a look at how a modern critic constructs meaning out of a body of work. The writer, Amy Nicholson, has some great access to people who witnessed key points in Cruise's public life. The implication of her article is that Cruise is a noble actor who has been defeated in part by loyalty, and in part by a lack of awareness about how this new media works. She's constructed a counter argument to the prevailing narrative of "Tom Cruise the scientology crackpot who had a really good agent for a while."

I can't say I agree with her entirely, but I enjoyed and was very entertained by the way she constructed her case, her story about what Tom Cruise wanted to do and what actually happened. I don't believe in the Hollywood that she does, and there is a vague hint of nostalgia for the machinery and madness of old Tinseltown in between her words. Tom Cruise is crafted to be a noble, but still tragic hero. There is every possibility the whole essay is a very clever bit of marketing on Cruise's behalf, but it doesn't matter because the case that is presented is interesting. Maybe Mr. Cruise wrote it himself?

This is also worth noting because it constructs a narrative across many of his films, it creates Tom Cruise the character as it disguises it as biography. The author also tells the story of marketing mainstream cinema, about the changing notions of what a blockbuster can be, and how the handsome leading man, the right profile, is becoming the very thing many of us believed it to be already. The leading man is a naked emperor, something we always thought we needed but really don't. Tom Cruise will have to be an actor like every other actor, and all of us will be the better for it. Very soon big media  film criticism will have a similar reckoning.


Dungeons & Drag Queens - Review

Original Site: http://hellnotes.com/dungeons-drags-queens-book-review

Dungeons & Drag Queens
M. P. Johnson
Eraserhead Press
ISBN: 978-1-62105-103-9

Reviewed by T.A. Wardrope

“Dungeons & Drag Queens,” the latest novel written by M. P. Johnson, is a sword and sorcery tale that plays with genre in much the same way that its drag queen protagonist, Sleazella, plays with gender and her own sexual proclivities. Once the most powerful drag queen in all of Green Bay, Wisconsin, she finds herself teleported to the fantasy world of Houmak in order to become the bride of the great old god Houmak itself. Sleazella doesn’t think this sounds so great, and her escape from the wizard Dravor sets off an epic adventure that spans the lands of Houmak and beyond.

Published by Eraserhead Press, filed under Bizarro fiction, and featuring an image of a pink-haired drag queen holding aloft a skull on the cover; there is nothing about this book that should make a reader expect a standard fantasy adventure story. This adventure contains enough tropes to be recognizable as fantasy, though. There’s a wizard with a familiar; there are gigantic monsters, strange creatures in the forest, warrior tribes and a mercenary hero with a heart of gold. However, Sleazella’s way of the world leaves all of this drenched in sex and raunch. Fans looking for a “straight” adventure should pretend they never even saw this cover.

Though it is still a young sub-genre, Bizarro contains a broad range of works of varying degrees of estrangement from mainstream storytelling. Accusing some of these books as shock for shock’s sake is fair and often the reach toward absurdity and surrealist confrontation get too much in the way of narrative. Happily, M. P. Johnson does not have this problem. This story, as driven by cartoonish satire as it is, still moves at a brisk pace and is always entertaining. Sleazella is a character with depth and she develops as her challenges force her to. Much more than a stereotype in high heels, she brings heart to a story that could’ve been a hollow parody.

There are a few gags that get a little long in the tooth, and some Sleazella’s one-liners aren’t as hilarious as the others, but I took this as all part of the campy fun of this book. This book is spawned from a cult cinema sensibility and it should be enjoyed with that spirit. There are scenes to be horrified by, to laugh at, and to find sympathy with in “Dungeons & Drag Queens,” but if you are tied to more traditional kinds of sword and sorcery this will not be your cup of pink blood. Sleazella is a master of swordplay, certainly, but it’s not the kind of sword you are probably thinking of.


A Field in England (2013) - Review

A Field in England


The conceit of mainstream cinema is that everyone should or will have the same experience in front of the screen, whether it is fabric or plasma. A few minutes standing in a theater lobby as any movie gets out should reveal the misconception in that thought. A set of attentive viewers can agree on the basic plot and arc of the story, but dig deeper than that and you will see how personal the dream of cinema can be.

I enjoy experimental, avant-garde, surrealist, or whatever, film because it plays with this sense of shared dream-making. Some films will send the viewer into their own trip, others will somehow create a consensual sense out of meaningless elements. A Field in England, directed by Ben Wheatley, works at both edges of that polarity.

If I had to tell you what this film is about, it would go something like this. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), a holy man in service to an alchemist, is sent to capture a rogue occultist during the English Civil War. Whitehead falls in with a group of deserters from both sides (Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover), eventually convincing them to forego their quest for beer in order to help him find the occultist O'Neil (Michael Smiley). They find him or he finds them, the film is (intentionally) unclear on this point. O' Neil captures them, with the help of his henchmen Cutler (Ryan Pope) and puts them all to work to find a treasure hidden somewhere in the fields. What they find is uncertain, but it unleashes a spiritual and formal storm which makes everything topsy-turvey.

There are long stretches where the characters do little more than talk and walk. This would be annoying if it weren't for the crafty dialogue and character work that is revealed in this banter. Furthermore, I believe most of the "hints" to the what is really going on in all of this can be found in the actual dialogue.

This is a strange little beast of a movie. Part existential new wave, part surrealist, part supernatural horror and part historical drama, it seems dead set on telling its story on its own terms. Of course, the further into the mushroom (yes, that kind) filled field our merry band gets, the harder it is to tell exactly what the story is. Visually speaking, we see people get shot, people get killed and the climax of it all is a several minute psychedelic tour-de-force which blends stroboscopic effects (flicker film), art film tableau, and multiple exposures. There is a Jodorowsky vibe to all of this, but the imagery is all drawn from the narrative of the film, not an external "object of desire", so Bunuel's narrative films are worth mentioning. The immediate experience of this is a bewildering spin of WTF that leaves the viewer groping for a thread of sense.

This is where it gets interesting and remarkable. As disorienting as the film is, it does communicate the story quite well. Well enough, that with the exception on one historical detail, I left the film understanding most of what Ben Wheatley explained in a bonus feature on the disc. In a sense, I "got it" without really knowing that I understood the film. A Field in England works on you like the mushrooms in the strange field. Disoriented, transmogrified, and beyond sense; it communicates like a soft hallucination.

T.A. Wardrope

3.75/5 Stars