Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: THE MIDNIGHT SWIM (2014)

Sarah Adina Smith's debut feature THE MIDNIGHT SWIM is one of the most elegantly haunting films of the year. Following the death of their mother Amelia (Beth Grant), The Brooks sisters — Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), June (Lindsay Burdge) and Isa (Aleksa Palladino) — return to their childhood home on the lake. Secluded and cut off from civilization, it bares itself as the classic archetype of any horror franchise - a cabin in the woods. But it's this locale that forces the sisters and the audience to try and make sense of this unexplainable tragedy. The circumstances around their mother's death are peculiar, considering she was a water conservationist who dived into Spirit Lake but never resurfaced.

As the sisters decide what to do with the property and reminisce about the times they spent with their mother, June records the entire visit on her camera, documenting the experience just as you would any family gathering. This is our window into the grief, pain, and mystery of THE MIDNIGHT SWIM. The cinematography feels less like a documentary, but more as if we are voyeurs peering into the intimate details of this family's life. It toys with the idea of found footage, but does so in a sense of videotaping any family get-together, this one just being a bit more bleak than most. Things move in and out of frame, with focus and blur, and it mimics our attempts to understand the world we've stepped into. The audience is not meant to understand the pain of this sudden and tragic death, but is meant to try and understand the strange occurrences that soon plague the sisters and their mother's house since their arrival.

We not only empathize with the pain of their loss, but nurture their curiosity to discover the truth what happened to their mother. The cinematography sets a pacing to the narrative that quickly exposes the painful truths of the sisters' relationship with their mother, and each other. It's handheld; bumpy and organic, it's real flesh and blood left to discover the reasons of death and purpose in life. The setting begs to be documented in this manner as well, like a nature documentary looking to shine a light on the secrets hidden under the rocks, creeping us out with whatever crawls out. Unconvinced that their mother died by accident, the sisters playfully attempt to invoke the spirits of "The Seven Sisters," a local legend based on several tragic drownings in the lake. This legend also has a connection to a constellation given the same name for The Pleiades of Greek mythology. The sisters soon discover that their mother had some sort of connection to this mythos as well. The most interesting elements of the story surround the fractured relationships between the sisters and how the loss of their mother can bring them together, but can push them apart even further than before. At times endearing, the sisters long to connect to the simpler times of their youth when the world made more sense; but now, with the pain of death and loss, it's difficult to leave things unsaid.

Dead birds begin appearing each morning, a shawl found in the lake begins to act as a character on its own, and mysterious footage of the lake begins to appear on June's camera. It's difficult to distinguish if these events are otherworldly, or just a dangerously unhealthy coping mechanism from one of the three sisters. Despite the supernatural elements littered throughout the film, it's difficult not be struck by how familiar it all feels. Our three sisters are established first and foremost by their personalities; as their appearances, speaking patterns, and physical mannerisms are somewhat identical. There is one moment in particular where the sisters seem to be truly bonding for the first time on this trip that quickly takes a sharp left into a heartbreaking moment of sorrow. This moment is gut-wrenching not because it is throwing the audience into a world of fictional horror, but instead forcing us to connect with the painful truths of reality. Sarah Adina Smith has showcased immense talent with THE MIDNIGHT SWIM and has offered a completely unique style of presenting cinematic psychodrama. Her etherial and mesmerizing debut is not to be missed, and will likely stay with viewers long after the credits have rolled.

THE MIDNIGHT SWIM arrives in cinemas and on VOD June 26th from Candy Factory Films.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

REVIEW: DOOMSDAYS (2013)


Created in part by a successful Kickstarter campaign, Eddie Mullins' pre-apocalyptic comedy DOOMSDAYS feels like a film tailor made for the sarcastic, cynical, and socially aware audiences of a post 9/11 world. Centered around squatters Dirty Fred (Justin Rice) and Bruho (Leo Fitzpatrick), the two travel from home to home breaking and entering through the Catskills they deem suitable. The two see no issue with their lifestyle as (in their minds) the world is about to come to an end thanks to "peak oil". Rather than wait until the world really does end, the two have decided to get a leg-up on the inevitable looting and scavenging. Strangely enough, the two really aren't interested in stealing or vandalizing, they just want to re-energize on someone else's time and dime.

Their plans are soon disrupted when they come across Jaidon (Brian Charles Johnson) who joins the two. Shortly after, the three come across a young woman named Reyna (Laura Campbell) completely shifting the group dynamic. Presented as a somewhat episodic tale covering the course of a month, the film is broken up into chapters. This non-linear approach works very well for the film, and feels like a natural progression for these types of people.

The strength of this film lies in its script, filled with realistic scenarios and aiding in developing characters we actually care about. The dynamic throughout the group feels like a combination of THE BATTERY and ZOMBIELAND, with a sprinkling of Wes Anderson dramatics. While the film is intentionally funny and Mullins' is allowing us in on the joke, the humor is done with an authentic subtlety that almost feels like improvisation. There is just enough "special snowflake eccentric" lifestyle without it grating our nerves, but just enough that allows us to see these people as real characters, and not caricatures of a concept.

Fred and Bruho are a dynamic duo, but the addition of Jaidon and Reyna round out this rag-tag team in beautiful harmony. Cinematically, DOOMSDAYS is an elegant juxtaposition to their chaotic and immature actions. Mullins shot the film in his hometown, and the familiarity with the locations allowed for some extremely well executed shots. DOOMSDAYS is a lot of fun, but it also delivers some pretty biting commentary on the way America functions. A solid indie definitely deserving of your money, and your time.

DOOMSDAYS will be available on VOD starting June 5th. 
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