Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Loon Lake (2019)

Ansel Faraj, frontman of indie studio Hollinsworth Productions, has had a gradual trajectory over the years. Starting out with some student projects (unavailable to find anywhere, which may be for the best, even if they do sound interesting), and continuing with two of the worst films I have ever seen (and you know that is saying something). Following projects were equally bad, or mediocre, but a few were pretty decent, such as the cheap but pretty hilarious short The Family Wolff. One of his latest films is Loon Lake, which I had high hopes for right out of the gate. Does it live up to them?...

Louis is a heartbroken man after the death of his wife in a tragic car accident. Feeling empty and dissilusioned with life in the city, he moves to the small Minnesotan town of Round Lake, and soon gets to know the townspeople, and the local folklore. Louis hears about a witch who supposedly cursed the town, and kills all those who disrespect her, and comes to realise he may have already done so without noticing. Now with only three days left, if the curse is true, Louis is tormented by visions, and races to find the answers before it's too late...

My faith in Loon Lake wasn't misplaced, as it's a pretty decent horror film! It's simple, and tells a pretty common story, but it does so in an effective way.

Loon Lake is an immediate upswing in quality compared to Faraj's previous output, since this one actually uses real locations! The dialogue is also clear to make out, the editing is sensible, and no filmmaking rules are broken (in fact I admired how well they were handled here!)! All in all a great effort in terms of an evolution.

Loon Lake wastes no time in getting to business. By only 15 minutes in it's already shown the big flashback, introduced its hero, meeting the neighbours, and him accidentally desecrating the witch's grave! From here on we gradually get further backstory, and character development.

The writing is fairly decent. The flashbacks are sparse but nice, especially when their story begins to mirror that of the present. My only issue is that their story is a little unfocused here and there, and it's at times unclear how we're supposed to see the witch. Is she an innocent woman wronged? Or really an evil witch? The order of these scenes is confusing too, and at times contradictory, almost like they're different tellings of a similar tale.

The ending disappointed me most. It's a bit of a downer, it has one huge cheat, and while it's not as depressing as it could've been (Gracie is lucky she disappears before the end!), it's still a dour note to end on, and I'm not sure what's really been accomplished.

The characters are fairly decent, but many of them suffer from gaps in their screentime, so it can be hard at times getting attached. The film has a communal small town feel, and while this diminishes as the plot focuses solely on a couple of people, it was still nice.

The location here is great. Shot on location in the real life Round Lake (where the titular Loon Lake is located), it makes for some great scenery, and it's all used well, as is the local mythology. It makes for a nice curio for those from the area!

The scares here are mixed. Some are pretty good, from the obvious RAHH moments to the subtler ones, but the film does have a few too many cheap jumpscares. Sometimes the music will shriek even when I couldn't tell what was happening. Often a character will see something we can't.

Nathan Wilson's performance is understated, but fairly decent. Past performances of his left me cold, but I thought he did well here. Brittany Benjamin is nice as the love interest, while Kelly Erin Decker gives a fun and ooky performance as the witch. The real star though is David Selby, with his effective dual role as Emery, and Pastor Owen. Not only is his acting different, but his whole mannerisms and appearance! The Pastor is a tall and imposing man, while Emery is scraggly and hunched over, with an unassuming look rather than a steely gaze.

I was a mix of surprised, yet not at all when I learnt he is a Dark Shadows alumni. Ansel Faraj must have what borders on an obsession with these actors, but I am happy for it! It gives them more work, especially for their senior years, and while a bad director can hinder good actors, they could also teach him much of the craft.

The music in Loon Lake is decent. There are spooky tracks, some effective and some to the detriment of the action. There are also a few pleasant tunes, with a rural feel that contrasts well with the visuals.

The direction here is quite good! There's one particular 'Go big or go home' moment, that I was equal parts impressed and annoyed by. It's a dizzying bird's eye view of a cornfield, and it's really good at first!...But then it just keeps going...and going! It's like Faraj was so happy to pull off a shot like this he wanted to get as much as he could out of it. Good on him, but less is more sometimes. Another element I liked is the lighting, from the at times vibrant colours, to the use of shadows. The film's standout moment is the ritual flashback, with its blue, orange, and green.

Loon Lake isn't the best, and has its problems, but I found it to be a pretty good time, and a good coup for indie horror, especially folk horror. This feels like something straight out of the 70s...

Monday, March 7, 2022

O Olmasın, Bu Olsun (1956)

In 1910s Baku, one Rustam is in trouble due to his gambling habit. To pay off his debts, he promises the loan shark Maşadi Ibad his daughter Gulnaz's hand in marriage. She does not take this lying down, and together with her true love Sarvar, they hatch a scheme to foil the plans of these old men, and live happily together...

O Olmasın, Bu Olsun, translating to the much longer "If Not That One, Then This One", is a quintessential example of Azerbaijan's cinema. Still one of their all-time classics 70 years on from its release, it's a jovial musical, all about young lovers and arranged marriage.

The film takes aim at misogynistic and conservative culture, in a very empowering way. I was surprised seeing a Muslim movie of this era openly and honestly criticise unsavoury aspects of old religious culture. But then I remembered this was made when Azerbaijan was part of the USSR, and had to be godless communists. Still, I doubt that had any effect on this film's message, especially when it was based on an older play.

What I really appreciate about this movie's message is how it tells it in such a light way. This can be a serious topic in real life, but Olmasin presents it in a gentle and lighthearted way, showing how it can be challenged. Despite a bad arranged marriage on the horizon, the characters are always happy, and positive things will turn out for the best, which you know they will in a 50s musical.

Olmasin is a very funny movie, from the story, to the characters, their dialogue and actions, etc. I enjoyed the one song where Rustam is trying to butter his daughter up for marriage, and she very sweetly sings positives...until he asks if she wants to get married. The sense of humour is surprisingly cheeky in places. One great example is the number when Gulnaz and her maid confront Maşadi Ibad, which is hilariously blunt, and contains some brutal put-downs!

The plot is simple in the best ways, and moves along nicely. It's brought to life by its great cast of characters. There's the young couple, Sarvar and Gulnaz, who are lovey dovey, yet also not at all naive. Then there's her hypocritical father, who is willing to sell his daughter to pay for his gambling debts, and faces unexpected opposition. The film's highlight is its antagonist Maşadi Ibad, who's not a good guy by any means, but is also portrayed in such a goofy and almost pathetic way he's never truly hateable.

The setting is very interesting. It's already exotic enough, being set in Baku (well, unless you're actually from Baku, that is), but there's more on display here. The film showcases a diverse culture, with Turks, Georgians, Armenians, Russians, and more, all milling about in this melting pot of a city.

This is a great film visually too. The sets, modelwork, and real locations are all fantastic, and 1920s era Azerbaijan is recreated so well you forget this is from the 50s! This is never a cheap film, and can equal anything Hollywood was making at the time, which is a real pleasant surprise!

The songs in Olmasin are really good. Musically they are nice, and always enjoyable to listen to. I particularly liked their role. The segues are great, and they often take the form of conversations. Another thing I noticed was that the music here sounds very classically Indian! If you've seen any old Bollywood movies, or more likely, if you've seen that one episode of The Simpsons ("I hope you enjoy this. It made every Indian critic's top 400 list!"), you'll find this familiar. For that reason I highly recommend this to Indians! It should give them a nice cosy feeling, as well as getting to see how their neighbours lived.

O Olmasin, Bu Olmasin is a lovely film, and if you've gotta make anything your first film from Azerbaijan, make it this one! It's charming, funny, and bound to be a favourite...

Park (1984)

Marat is a regular guy living a humdrum life, when one day he meets strange girl Vika. After helping her out of an unwanted arranged marriage, he lets her stay at his apartment, where she quickly becomes smitten with him, despite his efforts to shoo her out before the neighbours think poorly. Things soon take a turn for the dramatic with the arrival of Marat's childhood friend, and Vika may not be as nice as she seemed...

Park (translated extensively from Azeri, it means...Park) is a movie I went into expecting something very different to what I got. For some reason (probably the plot description and title) I imagined the movie as a lighthearted comedy romp, where a bunch of young friends in a park have comedic misadventures, and a love triangle, and everything is resolved nicely by the end. That couldn't be further from the truth. Park is actually a pretty downbeat drama, about a toxic relationship, and how crappy life can be.

Marat is a good lead. There's nothing unique about him, he's just your typical homegrown worker, doing the best he can. Vika starts off as an odd and somewhat quirky girl, and falls in love far to quickly, but her true colours soon show with her increased instability and mean streak.

Despite her temperamental nature and irrational outbursts of jealousy, Marat does soon fall for Vika too. This turns out to be a mistake. For all her bluster about committing suicide if he so much as looks at another woman, Vika doesn't think twice about ditching him for the first guy with a big house she sees, without so much as a goodbye.

Vika returns in the conclusion to speak with Marat, and acts all very sweet, while trying to lay down a guilt-trip on the guy, like trying to gaslight him. Luckily Marat sticks to his guns, and gets in some simple but effective comebacks. Probably the only honest thing Vika says during the scene is that she's not happy with her life, and we really get a sense of 'Well you made your bed, so you've gotta lie in it now'.

Park is kinda subversive, in that the big love interest doesn't end up being the one, and actually ends up being a villain in a way. And the estranged friend really is estranged for a reason, and Marat has every reason to be pissed off at the sucker. It's a slow progression, but you do come to realise that the guy was never really his friend. And when he saw an opening to steal Marat's chance, he jumped at it the first chance he got.

Something thing that confused me about the movie was its timeframe. How much time is supposed to have passed between then and now? We get a couple of possible indicators, which make sense in some ways, but then not others. Has Marat been moping for 10 years? I can't imagine it. I also wasn't sure if the romantic meeting at the end was a first reunion or if it's something that's been going on for a while now.

While Park may have its more downbeat moments, and is never really a happy film, the conclusion is a positive one, showing happiness in the present, and hope for the future. I'm sure those who prefer depressing Soviet endings with no hope will be able to spin things to say the film simply ends on the unattainable delusion of happiness in a world of sorrow, but for those who enjoy life, I think the ending's message is clear enough, without being overdone or saccharine.

While many foreign movies showcase their country well (or just the opposite), Park is a much more street-level centred movie. You won't get a grand picture of the entire country, but a smaller more personal feel. As for my impression based on this movie, it feels like Turkey and the Balkans mixed together. It has a communist bloc feel (yet not totally Russian, hence the previous comparison), with a Turk population/culture/language.

There's an understated score here The score here is understated, with a melancholic nature. There are also a few nifty rock'n'roll tracks, showing that the Azeris have good taste in music!

Park is a pretty interesting film. Nothing great, and you could easily manage without watching if it doesn't appeal to you, but it is a good showcase of Azerbaijan's cinema, albeit the more maudlin side...