Phoenix Philm Phight!

Arizona is not exactly Hollywood, let’s be honest – though stage lore has it that the founders of the movie capital almost decided to stop in Flagstaff on their way West. They didn’t; and the rest is, literally, history. Oh, there have been plenty of movies filmed here over the years, in part or in full: mainly Westerns, obviously, but films from Psycho to Eight-Legged Freaks have also visited the state. However, in terms of full, in-state production, the major studios’ last hurrah was the closing of Fox’s Animation Studios in Phoenix in 2000, after Titan A.E. proved a disaster movie, in all the wrong ways.

Yet beneath the apparently unrippled surface lurks some interesting independent potential. Never Been Thawed reached cult theatrical status here last summer, and The Great American Snuff Movie was recently given four stars by Film Threat. Tempe company Brain Damage Films initially carved a niche distributing low-budget horror films, but have now moved into the realm of production themselves, first with Witch’s Sabbath, and now, their upcoming Dark Places, an “intelligent gore” film (right). Meanwhile, Ballistic Entertainment, under Zach Yoshioka, continue to work on features, in between work on his growing rep in the music-video industry. Three Can Keep a Secret is his fifteenth feature, dating back to 7th-grade experiments involving stop-motion and GI Joes.

The potential overlap has born fruit, with Ballistic’s 13th film, Disk Jockey, being picked up by Brain Damage’s distribution arm, Maxim Media, for worldwide distribution. This is a partnership with definite potential in future, combining Ballistic’s artistic talent with Damage’s business acumen and contacts. [Zach simply wants to get his films seen, even if this requires tossing DVDs into the crowd at concerts – behaviour which gives us, as executive producers, kittens, and which we are keen to see reined in. :-)] However, the unmistakeable flair he brings to his work, and a different genre, may allow Maxim access to more than the current Brain Damage core market of unrepentant gorehounds. Below, we take a look at the latest offerings from Brain Damage and Ballistic, as well as the first film by Comic Intervention.

Dark Places (2005)

Rating: C+

Dir: Guy Crawford
Star: Nessa Hawkins, David C. Hayes, Syn Devil, Ernest Melon

While not an unqualified success, there are a number of interesting ideas floating around here – the main one being that you’re never sure what is “happening”, as opposed to being the product of the heroine’s deranged imagination. For Keri (Hawkins) is a homeless street hooker who, desperate for a place to stay, ends up at the house of Luther (Hayes) and Lilith (Devil), a pair of creepy dudes whose residence is a flophouse for all manner of lost souls. However, she soon finds out this is not quite a charitable institution, and discovers some highly malevolent things going on. When she witnesses what seems to be murder, she makes a break for it: but will she be able to escape? And perhaps harder still, how can she get anyone to believe her lurid tale of ritual sacrifice?

This is an ambitious and laudable step forward, largely aiming for disturbing imagery in favour of the simple gross-out: this is a double-edged sword, because the former is much harder to pull off. Crawford manages the low-level creepiness fine, helped by an effectively sparse electronic score, but the attempts to crank things up are less successful, because we’re given no real reason to like the heroine. While Hawkins does well, in addition to Keri being a crack whore, she’s a mainly passive character: even as she’s being brutally violated by Lilith, the audience feels not particularly much, This may also be because this could just be a delusional nightmare: it’s hard to commit, when a character might wake up at any second.

I’ll not say whether Keri actually does so at the end. The film initially looks to leave that up to the viewer, then cops out with the kind of moment you’ve probably seen too often before. It’s a disappointing ending, but the film as a whole is a credible stab in an interesting direction. There’s more visual style than expected, with Phoenix looking suitably generic – I presume the aim was for Anytown, USA – yet this also possesses the lurid, neon-lit feel of a pepperoni-induced nightmare [and as I write, at 4:25am, post-pizza, I am well aware of what that is]. Despite the odd mis-step, it shows promise and suggests a new direction of much potential for future Brain Damage output.

Three Can Keep a Secret (2006)

Rating: B-

Dir: Zach Yoshioka
Star: Lauryn Berger, Timothy Cornwell, Blake Smith, Vladimir Wallace

The annual “review the new Ballistic flick” email from Jim arrived, so I hauled ass over to Tempe Cinemas to level my unbiased eye on such things. First up: nice idea to give everyone at the premiere a copy of the film on DVD, though I suspect it is not a concept Hollywood will pick up on anytime in the near future. And we’re talking full-on DVD, with commentary and a 45-minute documentary on Ballistic’s history [Yoshioka’s early work with plastic dinosaurs has to be seen to be believed!] that you should watch before the film, so as to put this into the right context.

The film centers on three friends, Serena, Nathan and Rob (Berger, Cornwell and Smith), whose relationship is tested by the unfortunate collision of several events. Rob and Serena drift beyond platonic friendship; Serena is raped at the hands of a casual acquaintance; and Nathan encounters her attacker in the restroom of a bar. From here, things spiral down, out of control, and life for none of them will ever be the same again. This is my fourth Ballistic review, and it’s certainly the best performances yet, with all three of the leads very effective: it may take a little while to warm up to these characters, but I certainly did.

I particularly liked the contrast between the nerdish Nathan and jockesque Rob, forced by circumstance to co-operate while simultaneously battling for Serena’s affections. But the highlight is probably a conversation between the three in a garage, round which Yoshioka’s camera relentlessly circles. It’s a great combination of fine acting and cinematic technique that works on multiple levels. Also helping is the audio quality in general, distinctly improved on previous Ballistic work, and rarely sounding like it was recorded in a bathroom. Except the scenes that are recorded in a bathroom, of course.

Criticisms? The soundtrack is bland to irritating; the limited number of extras are often painfully apparent [I saw Yoshioka at least three times!]; some dialogue doesn’t fit the characters – especially Rob, who had to handle several lines with “scripted” written all over them; and Zach’s lust for technique sometimes distracts, most notably some pointless visual tricks during the bathroom confrontation. Probably worst of all, the grasp of police procedure is poor. What homicide detective would let the main investigative lead hang around in a newly-discovered murder scene to chat about theories? Or take a potentially vital statement from a witness without asking any more than her first name? With cop shows on every channel, or so it seems, more attention to the script was needed – and low-budget is no excuse there.

On the whole, though, Ballistic again have turned in something that’s a small marvel. For the first time I’ve seen, the storyline and the performances are both strong, supporting each other well, and – a very important point, especially sales-wise – this is genuine feature-length, something not seen from Ballistic since Synthetic Truth. It has a sense of “anything can happen” that’s not resolved until the final frame, which is surprisingly rare among indie works, and the technical aspects of Zach and his crew continue to improve with every step.

Comic Intervention: The Film (2006)

Rating: C+

Dir: Mike Stoklasa
Star: Jo Anna Larson, Karen Seltz

On the lighter side of Phoenix movie-making can be found Comic Intervention: Karen Seltz, Jo Anna Larson, and… whoever else they can harass into assisting. This has been more than two years in the creation, and is perhaps closest to Amazon Women on the Moon in spirit, being a loosely-connected series of stabs at TV culture – in particular, commercials. Seltz and Larson play a pair of wannabe actresses, who never seem to get many roles save television adverts for a whole range of dubious products. When not appearing in those, they’re usually to be found watching TV, and commenting sardonically on proceedings, like female versions of Beavis + Butthead.

It doesn’t all find the mark, but few films of this type ever do – the version seen here was still being tinkered with, and some scenes will be removed before its official premiere next month. However, even in its current form (running around an hour), this scores a number of bullseyes, such as ‘Crank Stick’, the deodorant for drug addicts, and the ‘Pixie Musk’ line of products, “for an active (read, “nympho”) lifestyle” – you do not want to know the purposes of ‘Beaver Dam’. And most of the rest are fun – or at least brief, since the film operates on the principle that, hey, if you don’t like this bit, something different will be here in a minute.

About the only lengthy thread is a spoof of Mexican telenovelas (soap operas), and there, it would help to speak Spanish, since the main joke is that the subtitles are utterly at odds with what is actually being said. [Thanks to Chris, inevitably, for pointing that out!] Otherwise, subtlety is unashamedly absent, in favour of broad, often sexual satire. If largely basic from a cinematic view, the writing is the most important thing for any comedic project, and that will generally keep you amused. It’s lewd, crude – and occasionally, pretty darn good.