Greetings, all and sundry!
Having enjoyed a brief respite and access to Netflix and the Independent Film Channel (IFC). I’ve taken the time to indulge in a favorite past time. And to take the advice of Julian over at Dirtywithclass Blog to critique some newer films.
Rooting around, digging, excavating and uncovering an offering or two that are worthy of critique and dissemination. Whether big budgeted extravaganzas. Or small, shot on a shoe string budget attempts at making statements intriguing, dramatic, satiric, political. Or just plain original, well thought-out and executed.
Falling back on the Double feature format fits very well with both film’s clocking in at 90 minutes, give or take. And less than extravagant budgets well and frugally spent in both instances. With that said. Allow me to introduce the first of two …
Notable Nuggets #1: The Objective (2008)
A film that seethes with middle of nowhere “No Slack”. From its pitch black, moonless night opening shots around a desolate Afghan village rendezvous of a clutch second and third tier special operators. Made even more forlorn by a whistling sandstorm and an effete, kind of distant Analyst from CIA’s Langley headquarters, Benjamin Keynes (Jonas Ball). Who has been sent to this mountainous, high altitude hell hole for find evidence of, or establish communication with The Objective.
Whose location has been guesstimated to be somewhere within a fifty square mile area at the base of the Hundu Kush between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Courtesy of photos from some advanced KH-11 spy satellites and reconnaissance aircraft augmented for electro-magnetic anomalies.
Of course, Keynes delivers only the bare minimums in regards to a mission where special operators would requires binders of information and intel before proceeding. But the Agency is doing this on the cheap. Bringing back the 1960s concept of an hopefully, infinitely expendable and deniable “Spike Team” to get the job done. Now the team, led by Chief Warrant Office Wally Hamer (Mattew R. Anderson) and Sgt. Vincent Degetau (Jon Heurtas from ‘Castle’) have the latest in GSP equipment, satellite phones, rifles, explosives, rations, communication and load bearing gear. A half dozen men. All NCOs who have been around the block and are loaded for bear. Jammed into two aged Range Rovers with Keynes, an Afghan guide and interpreter. The team heads off to a village and its cleric and wise man who knows much of the history of the area in question.
The team arrives without major incident and the cleric is very mysterious and miserly with what he wishes to say. The area does exist and is full of bright lights and strange occurrences. Dating back to the time of Alexander. With many events happening around the time of Kipling, Tommies and the Khyber Pass.
The shooters of the team shrug it off and head out the next morning. To run into an ambush that leaves one Land Rover disabled and Sgt. Trenoski (Michael C. Williams) dead. The team returns fire. See hits that count. But no bodies when searching immediately after. The team buries Trenoski and discover their GPS gear is having problems. As well Keynes’ Sat Phone and the team’s Lensatic Compasses. To make matters worse, the interpreter is getting more paranoid by the hour. Which is starting to wear on unit cohesion. Made worse when the team finds that their Camel Backs, canteens and blivet bags now contain sand instead of water.
Keynes and the team finds what they think is an abandoned cave that has a fresh water source and a old and wrinkled Nomad. Whose remnants of 19th century British Army red serge peek under his robes as he tells the tale of a sole surviving soldier. Keyne’s also finds a child’s toy that looks like a 1950s delta winged airplane. That will be something of a talisman as the story progresses.
By odd occurrence, Sgt. Cole sees the Nomad standing and mumbling to himself in the distance the next morning. A quick peek through Night Vision Goggles reveal three images in black robes. Sgt. Cole opens fire and kills the old man. Keynes orders everyone to start moving. And the team medic, Sgt, Degatau starts having serious stomach and intestinal pains. The paranoid guide takes a header off a cliff and Keynes is stuck in a rapidly deteriorating situation.
Lost, low on water. The team stumbles about trying to get a fix as to where they are. Night falls and sounds starts swirling in the night. Lights appear in the sky and Keynes and the three remaining shooters take up a defensive position and cut loose. Keynes looks through his thermal camera and sees outlines of saucer shapes. Two shooters dash forward seeking cover and run into what may be a force field and are vaporized.
Keynes, Hamer and Degatau create the world’s tightest perimeter until moring. When Hamer starts to really loose it and wanders off. Keynes takes Degetau with him until Degetau can walk no more. Keynes finally gets a satellite fix and discovers he and his team were in a spot where British troops disappeared more than a century ago. Keynes leaves Degatau and starts following ethereal images in his thermal camera long into the night. When Keynes finally discovers The Objective!
I’ll leave it here. And pick it up a few months later. Where Keynes is lying a few inches above his bed in an ultra clean surgery and laboratory. Clutching the child’s delta winged toy in one fist.
EKGs and EEGs say that he’s staring unblinking at nothing while seriously tripping his brains out. And Keynes’ wife is being interviewed after being told by the CIA that her husband is missing in action.
Now. What’s Notable About This Film?
An arguably low budgeted B-Movie that seems, looks and feels to be much more. Shot on location in Morocco decently substituting its plains, plateaus and mountains of Afghanistan. With the aid of cinematographer, Stephanie Martin. Who has a talent with washed out blues, faded earth tones and adding a fine patina of dust both close up and at a distance.
Under the sometimes less than deft touch of director, Daniel Myrick. Whose earlier, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ seems to subtly at first, more heavily later, permeate the film. With a sense of “Bad Mojo” unease as the team begins. That slowly evolves into dread and something more sinister as the mission heads south.
The cast of mostly unknowns are more than up to the task. Jonas Ball has the smooth, very tech savvy Analyst stuck in some cubbyhole in the Agency’s basement. Finally given the chance to break out of his comfortable Government Service rank of Captain or Major. And make a name for himself.
The secondary cast of shooters look and act like they have been in uniform and around the block a few times. Maintaining their cool as things go from bad to worse.
And as with any decent Science Fiction. There are always more questions than answers. Many pertinent as team moves away from its jump off village. Then becoming essential as they move deeper into the Afghan ‘Bermuda Triangle’.
What does The Agency want with The Objective? Probably something nefarious. But they are going to have to seriously upgrade their firepower and diplomatic skills long before any kind of negotiations begin!
Which brings us to my selected second feature. A rather small, low to no budgeted independent “backyard film”. That contemplates and toys with the unthinkable around the quiet, serene, middle income suburbs of Echo Park, California.
Notable Nuggets #2: Right at Your Door (2006)
Which begins with a rather sleepy and shabby Brad (Rory Cochrane – ‘Dazed and Confused’, CSI: Miami’, ‘Argo’) making a latte for his sleeping wife, Lexi (Mary McCormack – ‘1408’, ‘In Plain Sight’). Who is quickly off to work. Listening to her car’s radio, Lexi hears that there have been several explosions in Los Angeles. And is immediately caught in traffic accident that becomes a multi car pile up.
Beat up, but not seriously injured, Lexi tries to find out what’s going on as towers of black smoke rise far off in the distance. People are panicked, but half way helpful as the police inch in and try to maintain some order. At the same time, out of work guitarist, Brad hears the same broadcasts. Gathers himself up and tries to get to Lexi by car. Only to be turned away as roadblocks spring up. Erected by gas masked police and a smattering of Raycal and chemical suited individuals as ash starts to rain down on trees, streets cars and houses. A car in front of Brad is stopped. Ash is visible all over as the driver gets out. Only to be warned at gun point to get back in his car. The driver hesitates or refuses and is shot dead. Brad sees this and reverses course back home. Telling a neighbor’s kid to get back home and stay indoors under his parents come back.
Brad listens to the radio and starts gathering up plastic bags and duct tape. Sealing up windows and door jambs. Letting his friend, Alvaro (Tony Perez) in before the house is turned slowly into an incubator. It seems that Alvaro had been painting a larger, empty house and a smaller safe haven was easily within reach. Together they learn through sporadic broadcasts that the bombs used the the explosions in L.A. were dirty in nature. And at least one has tested positive for chemicals and toxins. Brad and Alvaro don’t panic, but they do gather food and water. And a large zip locked bag of food, water and clothes left for Lexi on the back porch. Should she return. In the interim, more broadcasts announce that no one outside your door should be allowed inside.
Lexi is checked by paramedics and deemed fit to move. Which she does. Heading back to her house and Brad on foot. A phone call from Lexi’s mother begging her to go to the hospital falls on deaf ears. As Lexi develops a cough. Approaches the back porch late that afternoon. And finds the neighbor’s kid, Timmy (Scott Noyd, Jr), who had been hiding in one of his family’s cars, half scared to death.
Lexi calls Brad on her cell phone. But Brad won’t let her in. Lexi breaks a pane of glass in the door and drops her cell phone Brad sets up an impromptu, field expedient “Clean Room” where Lexi and Timmy can wash off their ash. Alvaro decided he needs to see his wife and exits. Slowly covered in ash. Which draws the attention of a kerchief masked Rick (Jon Huertas, again). Who tells Lexi that there is a container ship in the harbor that needs help off loading supplies. Lexi and Timmy follow. Leaving Brad to listen to broadcasts that the chemical toxins in the bombs affect the respiratory system.
Waken from a fitful sleep, Brad answers a pounding on the door. To find a MOPP-4 suited Corporal Marshall asking questions through his gas mask filter. Something impossible to understand through personal experience without a battery powered ‘Voice Mitter”. Brad answers as best he can and turns over Lexi’s dropped cell phone for chemical examination. Earing Brad and his home an overheard “Red Tag”.
Lexi returns the next morning to find her home inside a police tape barrier and a “Red tag” in the front yard. She and Brad fill each other in on past and current events. Though, it seems the worst is over. Timmy was treated at a hospital and was there waiting for his parents and hopefully not ‘quarantined”. Lexi also mentions that she saw five or six people get shot during the night.
The radio is back o with morning talk and occasional warnings. As several military trucks roll up and MOPP-4 (Charcoal lined, canvas fatigue uniform, rubber boots, gloves, gas mask and Kevlar helmet) suited and plastic bagged, armed G.I.s disperse. Pull Lexi away and erect a fumigation tent over the house and break out Flame throwers for ‘Sterilization”….
I’ll leave it right there.
Now. What’s Notable About This Film?
A true and somewhat toned down “Nightmare Scenario” set in perfect, instant gratification, Los Angeles. Where people in faraway glass booths are handing out third and fourth hand information. Without the benefit of someone actually reporting what is being seen and heard. And talking to survivors of the immediate attack and showing patience. Which would never do.
Something of a black satire on a media that emphasizes the negative. From as far back as worrying if the M-1 Abrams tank would win against Russian T-72s and T-80s. To if the A-10 tank killer airplane would live up to its hype during “Desert Storm”. Both did. magnificently!
No, this harkens back to Orson Welles and his ‘War of the World’ radio broadcast. Subtly planting the seeds of panic by interviewing “experts” who know little of their specialty. Have to play catch-up and react immediately. Instead of containing hot zones. Keeping homes secure and waiting to see what happens.
The television heavy, veteran cast are more than equipped and savvy to pull the plow. Especially Mary McCormack‘s Lexi. Who had been exposed to radiation and chemicals right off the bat. Who did develop a bad and rasping cough afterwards, but shows definite signs of improvement the next morning.
Surprisingly high marks for first time writer and director, Chris Gorak. Whose sense of quiet serenity around the suburbs of Echo Park offer a stark contrast to the chaos reported from the City of Angels. Doing a lot with a little with Tom Richmond’s exceptional cinematography and sets by Stephanie DeSantis.
Proving that there is quality in independent films. As Mr. Gorak’s offering was nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. And won its Cinematography Award for Mr. Richmond’s work.