Sunday, April 19, 2015

Two Reviews: End Game; Dark Wake

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2015
Images from the Internet

The reason I placed these reviews together is that these crime genre dramas are the first two features directed by Bruce Koehler, who works out of Romero-town, aka Pittsburgh. There is also a strong overlap of supporting crew. Note that I reviewed them in the opposite order they were released.

 End Game
Produced, shot, edited and directed by Bruce Koehler
North Shore Pictures / z-Diet-3 Productions
93 minutes, 2009

Wow. While I don’t usually do this, I happened to read the “reviews” by IMDB visitors, and I have rarely seen such a scathing series of comments as for this film. It got my hopes up. I’ve always said I’d rather see a film that has 0 stars than 4, because they tend to be more interesting. I joyfully hit Ø.

I have to say, in all honesty, those people do have some valid points. The acting is pretty bad, for example, but for this crime / police and serial killer cat and mouse genre, even more than horror, this is pretty par for the course, which means I have seen a lot worse (e.g., Rise of the Black Bat [2012]; reviewed HERE).  The viewer needs to jump in feet first, meaning that you have to know that it’s not going to be A-level, but even looking at it like that, when it comes to crime even good actors tend to chew the scenery in major films (for example, look at Brad Pitt in Burn after Reading [2008] or any Batman film prior to [and arguably including] Christian Bale). This is especially true in many Noir, like anything written by Mickey Spillane. So despite the over-reaction acting from this cast with little film experience – even though some would go on to some major credits later – it’s better than average.

Another complaint stated is that the camera work tends to be stilted and stiff. Again, common in this genre more than horror, especially the indies that tend to use a single camera. Honestly, I thought Koehler did some nice work here and there, such as the opening shot that swings up the side of the cheap hotel from the sign to the villain silhouetted in a window. My big issue is with the tendency towards terrible continuity. For example, a crime scene photographer is seen holding a camera up, it cuts to a wider shot and the camera is by his side, and then a third angle he’s holding it at chest level. And don’t even get me started on his using an old twin-lens Leica with a replaceable flashbulb. What is this, 1940?

For me, the big cliché is the lighting, which tends to be very stark splashes of primary colors that look like it could be from the original “Batman” television series (1966) or Creepshow (1982). In this case I found it a bit distracting.

That all being said, the film was somewhat better than what those reviewers said, even though they were right on points. I mean, this is the Ramones, not ELP; it’s down and dirty, inexpensive and stark, and considering the very large cast, it is meat and ‘taters. Again, if you’re looking for Se7en [1995] or The Usual Suspects [1995], you’re looking at the wrong financing and demographics.

Professional wrestler Kurt Angle plays Brad Mayfield, a narcissistic, charmingly sociopathic serial killer who likes to strangle his female partners as he has sex with them, but proves that he will also do it after. A master of disguise, despite his enormous bulk (I laughed when one character referred to him as “that fat guy”), he manages to elude police often while even being in their presence. For example, he pretends to be a police officer to get any information a recently off’d girlfriend might have mentioned in a diary or scrapbook, to put off the police. That being said, he never uses gloved and he certainly left enough DNA on/in the corpse for him not to worry about that. I’m glad the cops figure that out pretty fast, and so it’s a search to find him, rather than a “who-done-it.” Angle, in one of his first acting roles playing someone other than himself, seems to really be having fun here, with flashing blue eyes and a somewhat handsome face that, well, also looks a bit like it is right out of a Dick Tracy cartoon strip thanks in part to his jutting jaw. Oh, and did I mention he goes shirtless to show off his muscles almost as much as he is dressed?

On his trail is a copper, Det. Burke, played with furred brow by the also muscular Eric Wright. He always seems to be in the middle of an Edgar Kennedy-worthy slow burn while he ignores his family (a Noir standard) and can only think about the case. That is when he’s not emotionally cheating on his shrill wife (Asbury Lake, who sometimes goes by the name Lake Asbury, I kid you not) with the female lead in this film, that I will be getting to shortly. Though he has lots of screen time, Burke doesn’t really seem to have much of a personality, other than consternation, but that’s okay, he’s frustrated by how Mayfield is owning him.

As the lead female, “Survivor” survivor (the youngest to date) and reality television star Jenna Morasca plays stripper-who-wants-to-go-legit Carol Peterlake. Morasca swings from being decent as an actress to wooden, seemingly depending on the inflection needed. The whinier the tone, the worse it gets. And Carol is a complainer. The question here, of course, is will her character – er – survive this film?

This leads me to a point that actually does get under my skin: all the women are bitchy. Ann, the detective’s wife, comes across as nasty – surely to justify Burke’s affection for Carol – but if one has their “ears on,” she’s actually just unsatisfied with the life that she’s been dealt specifically by Burke. I mean, he comes in at 1 AM stinkin’ of booze, he’s gone for more hours than not to leave her to raise their daughter and take care of everything domestic (this isn’t the ‘50s, y’know). In her shoes, bored and lonely, I would be bitchy, too. But Burke’s new locus of interest, Carol, really isn’t much better. It seems all she does is rail: “I thought you were going to have a detective on my door!” or “Stripping pays my rent. If I don’t strip I can’t pay it!” One character calls her “materialistic” (even though he later asks her to become the lead dancer in his troupe), but she really does need to the pay rent. It’s the whiney tone, as I mentioned before, that is the fingernails on the blackboard to me. Just would like to add that while there is no nudity in the film, even in the stripping routines, there is some very nice and ample cleavage shown off by Morasca in a scene towards the end.

There are some really nice and subtle touches here, such as you see a character duck out in the background in a flash during a distraction that you may not notice unless you’re paying attention, or with a bed in the background, you may note that someone has moved, setting up the next set of events. These are some really nice flourishes that showed some thought went into it.

As for the ending, well, I only had it partially right, so that’s good. The only extra, however, is the trailer.

So was it as terrible as those reviews? Not by a long shot. Was it a great film? No, but it was fun in its oeuvre. It’s gritty, it’s appropriate for its genre, and it didn’t bore me, so we’re good.

Dark Wake
Directed, photographed and edited by Bruce Koehler
North Shore Pictures / z-Diet-3 Productions
88 minutes, 2008

What we learn from being introduced to Pittsburgh police detective Jake Dalton (Gary Horner), after a brief 1959 prologue, is that he’s a hard drinkin’, electric blues lovin’ (soundtrack by the Blues Junkies), hard-nosed, heavily armed, tired of life, single guy (the gun and switchblade unprotected on the nightstand is the clue).

He’s called onto a series of mysterious murders of people bound and thrown in the river(s) that run through the city. Jake is partnered with Max Ross (Irish actor Brendan McCormack, aka Vardis Egen in Game of Thrones, though here he looks very different than in Thrones, and he has an Aussie accent; perhaps it’s easier for him to do that than a Pittsburgh one?), who is also hard-hitting, boozing, etc., but he’s a bit more tender, a minor-bit of the humorous hue, and the butt of the jokes by Jake and his ex-cop dad.

While a bit convoluted, the winding story of these killings that somehow having a common thread of an elderly nun, Sister Mary (Ina Block), spins out through the large cast of victims and possible suspects, including some quite close to home for our burnished policeman.

The mostly male cast is strong and the acting is either good for the leads, or quite amusingly bad for some of the secondary ones, but it all works together. The film also has a bit of a ‘70s feel being just post Noir, and yet not quite ‘80s-unpurposefully goofy. The city is practically a character in itself, with beautiful river views and waterfronts, and slummy back alleys and bars.

Yes, the acting is not top notch, but that’s nothing unexpected for fans of low-budget genre films. What I find to be a thorn in the paw here that the script needs some serious trimming, and be edited down to an hour to make this a more-than-decent release. There are too many scenes of people sitting around and talking that have nothing to do with anything, including character development.

There are a few interesting action scenes, and the visuals are shot pretty well if starkly, but all the sitting around and drinking mucho cans of Iron City Beer (was ICB a sponsor, or was it just a nod to a local brew?) with angst tones isn’t really exposition, it’s a commercial.

After a couple of decent red herrings, the story of revenge comes across as a conservative leaning against late-term abortions (not legal in 1959 and not legal now), and can be arguably be considered a pro-life document of sorts, with a possible anti-Catholic feel; sort of an anti-Call the Midwife, I guess. It doesn’t come across as preachy, but it absolutely if subtly makes a statement.

For a first film, in this specific genre (i.e., crime sans Noir), Koehler makes some steps in the right direction, but needs better support in the production. As a note, he now has six features under his belt listed on IMDB.


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