Friday, November 21, 2014

Jody Wheeler: Notes From a Social Worker Turned Filmmaker

The Dark Place is a gay thriller. It was written and directed by Jody Wheeler, marking his feature length debut.

It was the first script Wheeler pitched to Hollywood twelve years ago.

It was shelved for a decade, but now the movie comes two years after the hit gay sci-fi film Judas Kiss, which Wheeler co-produced.

Wheeler loves mysteries and loves smart heroes, especially heroes who can out-think their opponents like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Who. He loves a hero who relies on his brain and not his brawn. Thus, the creation of the protagonist in The Dark Place named Keegan Dark!

When Wheeler pitched this to Hollywood, he went to two companies. One of which was a mainstream studio and the other specialized in LGBT content, mostly on the home video market. Both companies said they hadn't seen anything like it. The only close comparison now is the Donald Strachey mysteries.

The Dark Place involves the intricacies of the wine-making business. Yet, Wheeler doesn't drink alcohol. Vineyards and breweries fascinate him, but rarely does he partake in their products. He grew up in suburban Virginia. His parents took him to rural areas of the state to visit wineries, which planted the seed for this story, but it was put on hold.

Blaise Embry in "The Dark Place"
In Virginia, his first degree came from George Mason University. That degree was in social work.

During the 90's, Wheeler was a social worker in the Washington, DC area. He was set up in places like Whitman-Walker Health and St. Luke's House.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1996 where he continued as a social worker. He got a job at the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) where he investigated child abuse allegations and helped to reunite or find residences for youths.

Eventually, Wheeler changed directions and got his master's degree in writing in 2006 from UCLA. Wheeler says though, "I couldn't have been a director if I had not been a social worker."

He wrote The Dark Place, but he hadn't planned to direct it. He didn't think he was ready. He wanted to shadow someone else first. Yet, the planned director got sick and forced Wheeler into the lead chair.

He compares directing a film to building a house. Wheeler says filmmaking is collaborative. It involves shepherding people to the right place so that they can realize their full potential, which again is not unlike his social work at DCFS.

He began principal photography for The Dark Place in April 2013. It was a 25-day shoot.

Blaise Embry played Keegan Dark who Wheeler says nailed the audition. Wheeler said there was an edge and vulnerability to Embry in real life that matched his character's. Embry simply needed to amp up pieces of himself.

Allison Lane in "The Dark Place"
Allison Lane co-stars as Sheriff Timmer. Wheeler first met her on the film festival circuit when she was promoting her film Going Down in La-La Land. He found her to be a great comedic actress.

Wheeler's principal problem was lack of time. For certain scenes, he needed six hours but would only get four hours. Certain locations were believed to have been secured for four days, but then the rug would be pulled and he only got two.

Wheeler says his one bad day, the "day that drove me mad" was the day he had to shoot the final climactic scene. He didn't have as much time as he wanted and as such was in a rush. He said he had sharp words for people that day. Despite that, he says he was surprised how well most days went.

Jody Wheeler is 45. His favorite movie this year is Guardians of the Galaxy. He saw it twice on the big screen. Once was in 3D and once in 2D. It made him feel like he was 12 years-old.

Some of his favorite TV shows include Penny Dreadful, Game of Thrones, Prime Suspect, The Returned on Netflix and The Originals, which is a vampire series. He also enjoys Dr. Who, as well as a show known as In the Flesh, a British take on the zombie genre with inclusive gay characters.

Wheeler's next project is tentatively a horror-comedy called Beverly Hills Lizard People, which he hopes to shoot next year.

The Dark Place is available on DVD and VOD on December 2nd. The DVD will exclusively feature a full-length commentary with director Jody Wheeler and co-star Allison Lane, as well as alternate and extended scenes.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Movie Review - Bird People

Roschdy Zem (left) and Josh Charles
in a scene from "Bird People"
Female director and co-writer Pascale Ferran has crafted a glorious little film about breaking free and flying alone.

It's ironic because Ferran begins her film in a crowded space, a ton of people on a train. What makes it even more crowded is that Ferran allows us to hear the thoughts and random conversations of these train people. It's a series of voice-overs and Ferran bombards us with them. It not only feels crowded. It feels almost suffocating.

Eventually, it gets to a point where Ferran focuses on one girl, a college student named Audrey, played by French actress Anaïs Demoustier, who no doubt feels this suffocation and crowding. She then looks out the window of the train and sees birds, particularly one sparrow, on the station platform. She looks at it with wonder or jealousy, and even though birds travel in flocks, the ability to singularly escape in air is envious.

Josh Charles (Sports Night and The Good Wife) stars as Gary, an executive at Island, Inc., a company, possibly a tech company based in California. Gary flies in from San Jose and lands in Paris, France. He's staying at the Hilton where Audrey works. Speaking of suffocation or crowded-feelings, Gary finds himself having to stick his head out the window or physically run out the hotel for air, acting as if he can't breathe. Gary says it's an anxiety attack, but it goes to the early feelings that Ferran conveys.

Radha Mitchell co-stars as Elisabeth, the wife of Gary and mother of his children. He delays talking to her, but eventually he sees and speaks to her on video via his computer laptop. Ferran then stops any forward momentum so that Gary and Elisabeth can have an extremely long conversation.

It may seem long, but it's actually an incredible pay-off to great, dramatic tension that seems to come out of nowhere but that Josh Charles plays so well. It's an incredible pay-off that walks a very tight rope, making you understand and possibly champion Gary's actions and at the same time or conversely despise Gary for what he does.

Demoustier plays Audrey, the hotel maid who cleans Gary's room. Ferran follows her as she does her equally suffocating and stifling job, picking up mess after mess. While she doesn't love it, there is a part of her that likes spying or eavesdropping on other people. She doesn't mind looking through Gary's trash, for example, to get to know him a little. Yet, she feels confined in many ways.

Ferran then pulls off the greatest hat trick I've seen performed in a movie in a long, long time. Yes, there is a left turn that is made that is so bizarre and so ridiculous and so incredulous and so magical that it could have sunk the whole film. Yet, it doesn't because it strangely fits with the themes so perfectly.

Ferran's hat trick opens the film so gloriously and gives it such a sense of excitement and danger. It invokes the super hero aesthetic better than Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman. With the triumphant use of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," Ferran also invokes the fantasy and science-fiction curiosity in a simple visual way on a similar level as that song.

Ferran is then able to explore humanity, the literal highs and lows of it, the beauty and the ugly of it. Brief performances from actors like Roschdy Zem (Indigènes and Outside the Law) as Simon, a fellow hotel employee who is revealed to be in dire straits, and Taklyt Vongdara as Akira, a Japanese hotel guest who crafts some amazing drawings, lift this film to heights most films never dare.

Josh Charles' performance is the greatest of them all. He's mainly alone on screen and has to do all of his acting over the phone. It's as good if not better than Tom Hardy in Locke. Yet, Gary is a more interesting character than Ivan Locke.

Ferran also has a special effect that is well used. It's possibly CGI, but some of the most seamless CGI animation mixed in live-action that has been used in an independent or foreign film, even as noticeable as it is.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 9 mins.

Movie Review - Last Passenger

Dougray Scott (left) and Kara Tointon
in "Last Passenger"
As I think about action films involving trains, I think about Under Siege 2, which was basically Die Hard on a train. I also think about Unstoppable, which was Ridley Scott's runaway train movie. This piece, directed and co-written by Omid Nooshin, feels somewhere in between those two. It's somewhere in between Under Siege 2 and Unstoppable.

On a commuter train from London during Christmas time, six people find themselves trapped as the train travels faster and faster without ever stopping. Eventually, the train will reach the end of its line where there is no more track or land, and if it doesn't slow or stop, the train will be destroyed along with everyone on it.

Dougray Scott plays Lewis Shaler, a 40-something doctor who is widowed and the single dad of a 7-year-old son named Max, played by Joshua Kaynama. Lewis is a surgeon who's also good at diagnostics. He flirts with Sarah Barwell, played by Kara Tointon, a beautiful blonde in the seat next to him. Sarah is on her way home from a girls night out in London.

The other three passengers include Jan Klimowski, played by Israeli actor Iddo Goldberg. Jan has an engineering degree who works for the subway system, but he's also an amateur magician who smokes too many cigarettes and has a bit of an attitude problem. Peter Carmichael is an elderly man, played by David Schofield. Peter is the biggest denier of something being wrong. Finally, there's Elaine, played by Lindsay Duncan, a grandmother hoping to see her family for the holidays.

The trip from London to the end of its line is about a hour or so. Therefore, the movie almost plays out in real-time. The train is hijacked. Yet, Nooshin never shows us the hijacker. Nooshin never even lets us know who the hijacker is, whether he's a young Muslim terrorist or a disgruntled and depressed, white guy.

In the recent Liam Neeson film Non-Stop, the filmmaker there provides us vision and voice to the hijacker, which contributed to that movie's detriment, but giving us something would have helped here. Nooshin presents thrilling moments of the passengers' attempts to stop or get off the train, but it's thrilling moments with no context or that add up to nothing.

Dougray Scott is a good actor, charming and handsome. He doesn't have quite the presence or gravitas of Liam Neeson, but he carries the film rather well.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 36 mins.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

VOD Review - Black Briefs

A scene from "Spring" by Hong Khaou
Guest House Films collected a group of six, short films and released it as one bundle on DVD back in 2012. This October, it made that bundle available on VOD via Vimeo. Each of the short films is 20 minutes or less. Each has a dark edge to it. In fact, they're all practically horror films. It's just story after story of people doing bad or brutal things to others.

The first film is Spring by Hong Khaou. Khaou directed a feature this year called Lilting, which to me is one of the best of 2014. However, Khaou directed Spring three years prior. The 13-minute short plays on completely different and opposite instincts. It's a story of two British men, one younger and one older who engage in an act of S&M and bondage. It's disturbing but never is harsh as it could have been, and is less about the act than it is ultimately about trust.

The second film is Remission by Greg Ivan Smith. Smith directed some very notable films. The first of which was The Back Room, in which he also starred and he was fantastic. The movie itself was some kind of brilliant. Remission isn't quite that. It's essentially a 14-minute nightmare realizing a middle-age man's worse fears about a disease he has. Yet, Smith veers into slasher film territory, making the piece feel too hackneyed, but Smith as a filmmaker is still one to watch.

The third film is Winner Takes All by Camille Carida. Not too unlike Spring, it uses violence as an expression of desire or proof of desire. It perhaps has the least cynical ending of all the short films here. Despite the almost Broadway theatricality of it, it's gay men exhibiting all the masculinity of two heavyweights in a boxing ring. The 17-minute movie features the uber-masculine and uber-muscular Adrian Quinonez and Alec Mapa (Half & Half and Ugly Betty), the famous gay comedian in a very funny role.

The fourth film is Promise by Lalo Vasquez, and it is by far the best of the short films here. It stars Korken Alexander and Rick Cornette as Stu and Chris respectively, a gay couple about to get married. In fact, it's the eve of their wedding and Chris finds out that Stu has had an affair. The consequences of this revelation spirals their relationship, and push both to extremes. The performances from both by the end just become spectacular and edgy to watch.

The fifth film is Video Night by Jim Hansen and Jack Plotnick who both act in the film. It's a 6-minute, found-footage genre piece. Simply, it's murder and mayhem. It's not gory though. Plotnick went on to direct Space Station 76 this year, a kitschy, anachronistic, sci-fi spoof that is fantastic. This film is proof Plotnick has a knack with tackling genre pieces in a fresh or unique way.

The sixth film is Communication by Christopher Banks, a filmmaker from New Zealand. This one is a 20-minute film that's less dark as it's beautifully elegiac, as it focuses on the relationship between a young Jewish boy and his teacher in the wake of the teacher's death. It's the second-best of all the short films here.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains graphic sexuality, nudity, language and violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.
Available on Vimeo.

VOD Review - Stage Fright

This movie got a limited theatrical release earlier in the year. It's now streaming on Netflix. It's been awhile since I've seen a really out-and-out bad movie, and if I could nominate a film for a Razzie this year, it would be this one.

It's a horror musical that's not going for the kind of high art or quality as Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd or the kind of horror spoof as Wes Craven's Scream. It's trying to pay homage to The Phantom of the Opera but with kabuki masks, which could have been interesting from a teen perspective. Yet, the movie gets to be so campy and stupid that it doesn't work. It tries to swing and address this serious issue and be scary, but writer-director Jerome Sable can't balance it.

Allie MacDonald stars as Camilla Swanson, a teenage girl who works at a summer camp for the performing arts with her twin brother Buddy, played by Douglas Smith (Big Love and Ouija). Both help out in the kitchen, but Camilla is an aspiring actress and singer like her mom, played by Minnie Driver. Buddy discourages her because of the fact that their mom was murdered in the theater.

For some strange reason, Roger, played by Meat Loaf, is the middle-age, pudgy man who runs the camp. Roger decides to put on the same play that Camilla and Buddy's mom was doing when she was murdered. Despite Buddy's objections, Camilla decides to audition for the play and do the same role as her mom. She decides to stick with it, even though a series of murders break out that knock off people involved.

Sable doesn't make the gross misstep of actually killing children at this summer camp in brutal slayings like chopping off digits or shoving broken glass from a light bulb down someone's throat. It's like Crystal Lake in Friday the 13th where Jason Voorhees only takes out horny teenagers or older. Yet, even in those movies, you get the sense that if children as young as the ones here were present, some urgency or great sense of danger would be had. This movie sweeps over that sense of danger.

It just wants bloody and over-the-top, backstage killings without actually doing the work to establish any reality or pathos. Buddy as a character is completely under-developed. Douglas Smith as an actor is practically wasted. The relationship between Buddy and Camilla is barely there.

One Star out of Five.
Rated R for bloody horror violence, language and some sexual references.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 28 mins.

Monday, November 17, 2014

DVD Review - Big Gay Love

There are two main reasons to watch this movie. The first is Jonathan Lisecki who stars as Bob Bartholomew. The second is Nicholas Brendon who co-stars as Andrew "Andy" Darcy. Lisecki might not be as well-known as Brendon, but Lisecki wrote, produced, directed and acted in a movie a year or so ago called Gayby. It's really the only credit to his name, but the movie was such a home-run, one of the best, laugh-out-loud comedies or quirky dramas, studio or independent, to come along in a decade. Brendon on-the-other-hand is famous for co-starring in the cult television hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was popular in the late 1990's. In the 20 years since, he's settled into a career that's traded on the comedic personality he developed, as displayed in movies like Psycho Beach Party (2000) or Coherence (2014). Yet, Brendon has also turned in great, if serious and even scary characters in TV shows like Private Practice. Seeing Lisecki and Brendon together on screen seemed like a proposition that would yield gold, and even though this movie isn't totally that, the two actors are more than solid.

Writer-director Ringo Le has crafted a movie that has a lot of good ideas and potential, but the execution is not as strong as it could have been. I know it's not the actors. Whatever warmth this movie has or tolerance it has comes from Lisecki and Brendon. Their engaging personalities shine every now and then, yet Le stifles them too much with the clunky way he propagates things. His staging and camera placement, as well as his editing, are just awkward on intention but sometimes in ways that are almost bumbly.

Jonathan Lisecki's Bob Bartholomew is a chubby homosexual. He's single and at the beginning hopes to buy a house. He's not done well in his dating life, so buying a big house all by himself is a bit unusual. Le conveys Bob's bad dating through a series of forced and awkward encounters one night in a bar during an engagement party he's organized for his best friend and jazz singer Lana, played by Ina-Alice Kopp.

Strangely, Le makes his movie completely devoid of the Internet or much of anything that signals the current year. It's a wonder if Bob has ever tried online dating. At one point, Bob references being a bear, which is a term in the gay community for an overweight or hairy guy. Yet, if one goes online, one can find a community that idolizes and fetishes fat and hirsute men, these so-called gay bears.

If we are to believe movies like BearCity (2010) or series like Where the Bears Are (2012), there are bars, institutions and events like various Pride Weekends that celebrate bears or fat men. Other than the one, off-hand reference, there's no indication if Bob has ever partaken or even has knowledge of the bear community. It's as if he doesn't have a computer or a smartphone.

Ringo Le wrote an Op-Ed for The Advocate. It was titled, "'Big Gay Love' Advice for Asians in America." Le is a gay American of Vietnamese descent. In the magazine article, he talked about his experiences and observations of bigotry and discrimination. One thing he pointed out was a story he had been told in San Francisco about gay bars in the 1970's that had signs or bouncers that stated, "No Asians."

Last year, an article appeared online on Halloween just prior to the Reel Asian International Film Festival in Canada. The article was about the debut of the 10-minute comedy called Gaysian, which is an amalgam for gay Asian. Its director Austin Wong said the short film was about racism in online dating, specifically ads that bluntly, blithely state "no Asians."

Clearly, there is a bigotry that Asian men face, particularly in the gay world, one possibly more pronounced than other ethnicities. Le wrote in The Advocate that he transposed, intentionally or not, this Asian bigotry on to his overweight protagonist. Surely, ads or online dating profiles have also posted preferences that read, "No fatties," or no fat people.

Yet, Le writes and directs Lisecki to make his lack of a boyfriend mostly due to his awkward, anxious and insecure personality, but mostly blames it on his wacky mother, played by Ann Walker. It perhaps underscores the point that most problems of well-off, white men are mostly in their minds, and not a result of anything that's actually happening. This is a shame because we know that the bigotry is actually happening.

There is a scene here where Lisecki gets naked for the first time in front of Nicholas Brendon who plays Andy, an aspiring chef and caterer. Andy is described as "sex on a stick." He's tall, handsome and in great shape, a total beefcake. Brendon gets naked first standing in front of the bed. Lisecki then slowly joins him. It's reminiscent of a scene in Eytan Fox's Yossi.

Only, it's shot in almost total darkness, which signifies Bob's body image issues. At the same time, it feels as though the overweight problem exists only in the darkness of Bob's mind. I wish Le had done more to externalize that issue and bring it into the light. Most if not all of the speaking roles in this movie don't have a problem with Bob's weight. Bob is never really bullied. Even a pool party provides ample opportunities, but again the bigotry ends up being all in Bob's head. By the end, Le is by default saying that there is no problem here at all. Yet, there is a problem of overweight bigotry and this movie somewhat negates or dismisses that actual bigotry.

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 25 mins.
Available on DVD on December 2nd.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Movie Review - The Way He Looks

A remake of Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho, a 2010 short film by the same filmmaker and actors, this Brazilian, coming-of-age tale just happens to be about a gay teen with the even bigger twist of the gay teen being blind. He was born blind and he gets a lot of help, but he's reaching a point where he wants to do things more by himself. In fact, the actual title of this movie is "Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho," which translated from Portuguese is "Today I want to go back alone." This is conflict that he has more with his parents and his home life. Outside of home life, the gay teen who is still closeted to his best friend who happens to be a girl is more concerned with getting his first kiss.

Ghilherme Lobo plays Leonardo or Leo, the blind, gay teen in question. He sunbathes poolside with his best friend Giovana or Gi, played by Tess Amorim. They talk about getting a first kiss, as well as other related topics to teenagers. At school, they hang out all the time. She walks him home everyday and they text each other constantly. They're pretty bonded.

Fabio Audi plays Gabriel, the new kid who enters Leo's class and sits behind him. Gi takes a liking to Gabriel, so invites him into her and Leo's bubble. Things swing and Leo and Gabriel start spending more time alone together without Gi. Ostensibly, it's because they're given a class assignment that separates the two boys or cords them off.

Quietly, a romantic bond starts to form between Leo and Gabriel. Obviously, Leo can't see what Gabriel looks like. Gabriel looks like a Brazilian Douglas Smith, but what might attract Leo to Gabriel is that he forgets that Leo can't see, so Gabriel doesn't treat Leo as if he's blind. They both have a love of music. Leo loves Classical like Bach, whereas Gabriel likes pop music like Belle and Sebastian.

The use of music or sounds is valuable and underlined by writer-director Daniel Ribeiro. There are numerous close-ups of Leo's ear. Ribeiro is even able cleverly to come up with scenes where Leo can still have fun using only his ears in unlikely places like the cinema or during an eclipse.

Ribeiro doesn't do anything beyond that to put us in the shoes of Leo to get us to feel his blindness. One might wonder what it is about people that Leo would find sexually attractive? One scene attempts to address that when Leo masturbates to the smell of Gabriel's hoodie.

Ribeiro does allow us to see through Gabriel's eyes and understand the nature of his sexuality. At one point, Gabriel oogles Leo in the shower. Ribeiro has a camera shot that moves up and down Leo's wet, naked body. Yet, for Leo, he can't oogle a boy's features, so we're not sure what is Leo attracted to.

There was a great opportunity here for Ribeiro to explore what homosexuality is beyond a young gay man being able to see. Considering that homosexuality is regarded as such a superficial culture, Ribeiro could have squashed a lot about that stereotype. Male sexuality in general is regarded as one based almost entirely on looks, so when that's taken away, what does a man go on, especially if that man is gay?

Ribeiro did win the Audience Award for Best Film at both Frameline, the San Francisco film festival, and Outfest, the Los Angeles film festival, as well as awards at almost every film festival it entered. His movie took home the Teddy Award and the Fipresci Award at the 2014 Berlinale, which sets it up as one of the most favored gay films of the year. Personally, I favor films like Lilting and Pride (2014) this year instead, but this movie was sweet.

Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho
Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 35 mins.