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...

Thursday, March 10, 2022

A Spanish Spelunking Double Feature: Adventure in the Centre of the Earth (1965), and The Fabulous Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1977)

Adventure in the Centre of the Earth

After a caving trip goes terribly wrong after an attack by mysterious creatures, the scientific community sees a valuable chance to study man's origins, and discover what lies deep within the planet. A team is assembled, and are determined to capture one of these creatures. But will they succeed, or is the whole mission doomed to failure?...

Adventure in the Centre of the Earth is an interesting movie in theory. A classic Mexican adventure, in the vein of Jules Verne, with a few monsters thrown in for good measure! In practice the film feels less like Verne, and more like an adorable proto version of The Descent. It has its share of suspenseful moments, but is a bit slow and plodding overall.

There's a subplot of intrigue and treachery, with the discovery of diamonds. This is alright, but only serves to pad out the runtime, and the heroes never even become aware of it, as the conspirators kill each-other first, framing the monsters. Poor things! Then again I suppose it's not a big deal if they're blamed for murders they didn't commit, because they still killed everyone else indiscriminately. It's not like their reputation was spotless beforehand.

The climax has some death-defying setpieces, and your typical monster romance. Nothing gets a homicidal beast's heart swelling than a beautiful senorita, and here is no different. Despite killing everyone else, the main girl is taken alive to their lair. This leads to a rescue mission, and a final attack against the subterranean creatures before everyone makes their escape.

The ending doesn't really resolve much beyond the basics, which I suppose isn't a huge deal with a story like this. The only characters left alive care more about getting back to the surface than fulfilling any scientific ventures. It does still feel a bit pointless that nothing was really accomplished though.

The setting in Adventure is the most mixed element of the film. In terms of appearance, they really hit it out of the park. The film is shot on location in the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa Caverns, and this detail does show! The problem though? The whole movie is shot there. I'm not saying a movie can't be set entirely in a cave, but the title does promise more than just a few tunnels. It begins to feel a bit limited as the movie goes on.

The acting is all decent enough, albeit over the top, in a predictably Spanish way. The girl who plays Julia is particularly hilarious with her overwrought reactions, often screaming before anything's even happened.

The costume design in Adventure is mixed. To sum it up quickly, A for Effort, B for Execution. The thing about these costumes is that as utterly unconvincing as they are, I liked the design! They are good looking, and it's like the creators pooled their resources into making the design fun rather than convincing. The best thing about these outfits is also the worst thing-How adorable they are! It's hard to take them seriously as a threat when they make your heart melt.

The music here is all fun stuff! Very traditional adventure music. I liked a lot of other little touches the movie has, such as the nifty intro sequence. I was less fond of its treatment of animals though, whether real or fake. Talk about overkill!

Adventure in the Centre of the Earth is an ok movie, and worth checking out if caving horror is your thing. Otherwise there are dozens of Mexican horrors that could be watched first...

The Fabulous Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Spanish director Juan Piquer Simón had an extensive and eclectic career, ranging from controversial 80s slasher Pieces, to the 'beloved' E.T. copy Pod People, as well as Slugs: The Movie. His films are known for the wild excesses, and flair, but also an interesting mix of tones. He'd make brutal horror films, then turn right around and make a lighthearted boyhood adventure! Or indeed an awkward mix of the two, as Pod People is proof of. One of his earlier entries is an adaption of the classic Jules Verne novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth...

In the 19th century, debate rages over what exactly lies in the centre of the earth. While most agree that it's a mass of gas, rock, or metal, the discovery of a unique journal leads Professor Otto Lidenbrock to believe there may be something more. Together with his niece Glauben and her young boyfriend Axel, they journey to an Icelandic mountain range. There they discover the once-a-year passage that leads them inside, further than any man has gone before...

The Fabulous Journey to the Centre of the Earth (aka Where Time Began) is a wonderful time! It has a quintessential British adventure feel to it. Which is impressive considering it's actually a Spanish film, based on a French book. And it was very much made with this in mind. The movie's providence is occasionally clear though, not only from the dubbing, but how olive brown a lot of these 'Brits' look (to say nothing of their bushy Latin moustaches).

The film lives up to its title well. We get cave systems, underwater oceans, prehistoric beasts, and giant gorillas. Some have complained about the lack of dinosaurs until quite a way in, but it's not like this is The Lost World. The Journey to the Centre of the Earth book promises some dinosaurs, but not necessarily a whole movie of them. Overall there's a great balance, and an effective air of mystery by the end. A touch of fantasy and sci-fi.

The dialogue is a hoot! The film has a great sense of humour, which balances well with the action.

Glauben disapproving of her boyfriend's job: "Because if there's a war, you might get killed, and if there's no war you'll never be promoted. All in all I call that a silly profession."

"Will the trip be long? How shall I know what to pack?" "Marta, we are going on a journey. A journey to the centre of the Earth." "In that case I won't need to pack your umbrella."
"It's not your fault, Uncle Otto. Under the earth you have to expect the unexpected."

The main trio are a likeable bunch, with distinct personalities. The professor is scientific, but open to new ideas, while his niece is a pragmatic girl with plenty of book smarts. Axel is less knowledgable on such matters, and has an uncurious mind, but a good heart.

Smart as they are, I do question their intelligence in not having the book copied, so they're not carrying around the ratty dogeared single copy in existence. How they lose it is really dumb. They're caught in a gale, so Axel asks how they can get through this. The professor has the bright idea of consulting the book, which immediately flies away in the wind! Another moment has the professor let off a flare gun in a delicate cave for no apparent reason, resulting in an immediate rock slide.

Another amusing scene is early on, when the two men don't being along their eminent geologist simply because she happens to be a young girl. The two dopes though manage to forget their tickets, money, and luggage! So aren't they lucky when she tagged along with everything they left in tow.

The fourth member of the team is Icelandic shepherd Hans. A man of few words, and a tough guy who loves his sheep. It's endearing. The final member is the mysterious and enigmatic Olsen. He is cold at first, but a mutual respect grows between he and Lidenbrock, that becomes a deep connection by the end. Much is unspoken, and comes through thoughtful glances rather than any big speeches.

I really liked the soundtrack here. Not only are there traditional adventure tunes, and plenty of whimsy, some have a surreal music box quality. One track reminded me of Castlevania 64, which is a major positive!

The locations in Fabulous Journey are nothing short of breathtaking! While British films may occasionally feel a bit stuffy when confined to sets, the Spanish had no such constraints, with sweeping mountain vistas being only a short drive away. The first 20 minutes are set in sitting rooms and the great outdoors, while the next 20 explore a cave system, and the rest of the film is in the inner earth. Here we get mushroom groves, turtle 'fields', a petrified forest, and more. We also have a volcanic eruption at the end, seamlessly edited into the action, as if the crew was really there!

Juan Piquer Simón's direction here is fantastic. He films indoor drawing room scenes and close-quarters cave journeys just as expertly as wide establishing shots out in the open. The locations and vistas of the inner earth are captured splendidly, and our regular earth is also given great treatment, including one dizzying shot.

The effects are likewise very good. A little cheesy here and there, but that's not only to be expected, it can be seen as a plus! There's so much variety (both in terms of places, as well as creatures) on the screen too, it's laudable.

The cast here is good. They get across a lot of emotions, from humour, to awe, desperation, and triumph. The English dubbing is all good too, helping the movie feel as authentic as Simón wanted. Of note is the presence of Deborah Watling! It was a little surreal hearing a familiar voice from someone you know coming out of a different body!

Lastly, let's discuss comparisons with the book. I think this is a fantastic adaption! It lacks a few things, and adds more. Everything with Olsen and all of his weird stuff is original, while other things like Glauben's presence is expanding on the book in order to add a lady into the cast (no objection here!). Everything else though is ripped pretty much straight from the book, but most important is the tone! This really captures the feeling of science and adventure that Verne so effortlessly told, and that alone makes it a success.

The Fabulous Journey to the Centre of the Earth is a great time to be had, and by far my favourite Juan Piquer Simón film by far. For those who only know his cheesier efforts, this is sure to surprise, and is by far the easiest one to show the family...

Even today, the inside of the earth is somewhat of a mystery. Who knows what lies beneath our feet. Maybe it really is just an incandescent ball of rock and lava. Or perhaps deep within the earth lies an untold civilisation, of dinosaurs, underground oceans, giant mushroom forests, and more wonderful mysteries!...Ok, obviously there isn't, but still, isn't it more fun to imagine?...

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...