Tag: christopher denham


Preservation (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

An independent suspense-thriller with great potential but ultimately limited by a standard and uninspired setup, “Preservation” is watchable given one is in the mood for ignoring logic, physics, and accepting a bit of silliness. As far as camping trips that go horribly awry, at least this story offers small but genuinely surprising twists that contain dramatic force. It is apparent that writer-director Christopher Denham has thought about his screenplay so that the changes that the protagonist goes through come full circle.

Wit (Wrenn Schmidt), her husband (Aaron Stanton), and brother-in-law (Pablo Schreiber) plan to camp at a state park for a weekend getaway. But when they get there, the park is closed—seemingly for years. Mike and Sean’s last visit was when they were boys. Although the park is off-limits according to the posted signs, the trio go in anyway to hike, hunt, and relax. The next morning, however, they wake up and their possessions are gone, each of them having a black mark on their foreheads—as if they are going to be targeted. Mike assumes it is one of Mike’s pranks… but Mike’s beloved dog, too, is nowhere to be found.

The material is held back by an extended exposition that is obviously only present to provide character background through dialogue. Although this approach can work in slow burn but very tightly-written thrillers, it is ineffective here because the characters are not that interesting and that fact becomes increasingly clear the more they speak to one another. They talk about their pasts and lives back in the city, but they are bland, their outlook or perspective about the world and those around them do not grab or compel us. Still, although a bit flat, the exchanges are never stagnant or pointless.

The picture comes to life the moment the campers realize the next morning that most of their personal items are gone. I enjoyed that at first there is utter shock and then almost immediately there is a tinge of humor in it. After all, who doesn’t wake up from the commotion inevitably made by someone walking around, folding, lifting, and carrying away items of various sizes—especially when sleeping in a new place and out in the wilderness? Our brains are programmed to be sensitive to danger in instances such as this. The writer-director ought to have had more opportunities to play with tone, especially during the action scenes where violence must be employed for survival. Some might work and some may not but changes, good or bad, tend to keep viewers engaged.

Somewhat surprising is the style of violence employed. For a survival film set in the wilderness, many of the scenes involving physical confrontations between or amongst characters come across cartoonish. Perhaps this trait can be attributed to the budget or the editing—likely both—but I found it refreshing that it goes against the visceral type of violence that is expected in the genre. There are even a few moments when I considered whether a few critical tweaks might have made the picture into a comedy-thriller. I liked that it is almost at the cusp of two genres.

Many people will not understand the value of a movie like “Preservation.” Who can blame them when suspense-thrillers are expected to be serious, nail-biting, logical, as tightly written as possible? This picture does not embody any of these characteristics. I liked it enough nonetheless because it bothers to deliver something different. The risks it takes do not always work but it least it takes them. Self-serious thrillers of its type tend to be one dimensional in look, tone, and feeling. Not to mention predictable and boring. I’ve always said that I’d rather see a movie that works some of the time exactly because it takes risks rather than a movie that does not work at all exactly because it is too afraid to even consider stepping out of the box.

The Bay

The Bay (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue) agrees to participate in an interview via webcam about what really happened on July 4, 2009 in Claridge, Maryland where she, as a tyro reporter, was assigned to cover the day’s festivities. The celebration is interrupted by a few residents covered in blisters, boils, and lesions begging for help. Soon, others begin to exhibit similar symptoms which eventually lead to amputation of limbs and gruesome deaths. Since the government confiscated all materials that documented the truth, Donna believes that it is her duty to reveal the cover-up before she can move on.

“The Bay,” based on the screenplay by Michael Wallach and directed by Barry Levinson, is a horror-thriller rooted in the found footage sub-genre but, unlike many of its contemporaries, telling the story through this specific avenue works. Instead of the material forcing us to play waiting games until the inevitable jolts, its downtimes are propelled by real ideas, human fears, and craft from behind the lens.

It is generous in making us squirm. The camera is not afraid to showcase the symptoms on people’s skin: how widespread the rashes are, the intensity of their colors, and the differences in texture between large and small sores. But the disgusting details are not limited what we can find on our own skins. There are a handful of scenes that show menacing-looking parasites found in fish that may very well be related to the contagion in the small town.

The events unspool slowly, at least initially, but there is always a sense of urgency. Even though it is essentially about an ecological horror that triggers a pandemonium, it is focused in terms of how the mystery is dealt with. For example, while handling the first wave of patients, doctors assume that the disease is triggered by some sort of virus. Over time, as more information become available and patterns get clearer, assumptions evolve. Appropriately, there is an overall feeling that dealing with an unknown plague, in addition to bureaucracies and red tape, is an unrelenting uphill battle.

It is not without a savage sense of humor. I was amused during moments when someone off-camera says, “Oh my god, that’s disgusting!” while an infected shows a friend her angry rashes. We laugh because someone in the film voices out what we are thinking. More subtly funny are moments when Donna tells us, in the most deadpan delivery, that a certain someone on screen will be dead by the end of the day. I was also entertained by her many reactions to the horrors around her while out there in the field.

What works less effectively is at times the camera cuts too quickly from something fascinating. My favorite scenes involve two oceanographers (Christopher Denham, Nansi Aluka) making all sorts of grim discoveries about the toxicity of Chesapeake Bay and possible causes of what is happening in Claridge. I relished the moments when we are given the chance to peek inside a fish and what its passengers are doing. I wanted to cover my eyes or look away but my curiosity left me paralyzed.

“The Bay” is compendium of newsreels and interviews; what is recorded via digital cameras, video cameras, phone cameras, hidden cameras; as well as video chats, audio recordings, and radio transmissions. Despite its many “sources” and therefore styles of showing isolated but connected occurrences within a community, it is somewhat of a miracle that the picture is never off-putting.

Sound of My Voice

Sound of My Voice (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) decide to make a documentary about cults. Blindfolded and put into a van toward an undisclosed location, we can tell almost immediately that it isn’t their first time. They are much too calm for a pair being stripped down of their defenses. In the basement of an unknown location, Peter and Lorna, along with two new recruits, meet Maggie (Brit Marling), the leader of the group. Surprising in that she is young and beautiful, equally surprising is her claim that she is a time traveler from year 2054.

Written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, “Sound of My Voice” is like sitting across a ticking clock in a room of absolute silence, each click feeling like a portentous communiqué, a countdown to an interaction with a mysterious, possibly sinister, force. The film flourishes in small but calculated scenes that take place in a basement, claustrophobic but bathed in yellow glow served to alleviate suspicion.

Rituals that the cult members go through are bizarre both in terms of concept as well as placidity of those wishing to belong. The brainwashing process is uncomfortable, creepy, and intense. The scene involving an apple forced me to hold my breath in anticipation while my mouth dropped open in disbelief and disgust.

If I were Lorna or Peter, after having witnessed and experienced the physical, emotional and psychological manipulations, I would have relinquished all connection to the group and never looked back. And just when I asked myself what Peter and Lorna hope to get from the experience, the writers are quick to acknowledge why the duo feels, as a team, that they must continue the research.

Marling is quite menacing in portraying the cult leader. When Maggie’s claim of having come from the future is threatened, she lashes out in a subdued manner, a technique much more effective than screaming and yelling. We almost get the feeling that if she lost control of herself, therefore the situation, the chinks in her bewitching facade would become all too visible. That is, if she is, in fact, lying about hopping across time.

Its most engaging aspect is the possibility that Maggie is telling the truth. An array of evidence that support and undermine her claim is presented to us. The fact that there is no answer considered as absolute is its ultimate spell. The way we interpret the events that unfold may say a lot about us and our capacity to think critically, not only in taking into consideration the secrets and implications underneath the topsoil but how conflicting information mirror one another.

What the picture lacks, however, is a strong emotional connection between Peter and Lorna. I never really believed that they are a couple that can face the world together. So when their relationship is threatened by the ramifications of being neck-deep into the cult, it feels too much like a ploy rather than a natural hurdle that they have to overcome. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Zal Batmanglij, the director, has a specific vision and the talent to pull off a feat: to get his audience to question and consider multiple perspectives.

Now let’s return to the ticking clock I mentioned earlier. Imagine if someone had told you, while sitting in a bare room with nothing but four walls, a chair, a table and light, that the clock would set off its alarm in exactly thirty minutes. The problem is, you are never allowed to see the face of the clock nor are you allowed to touch it in any way. And this clock does not produce ticking sounds. So you decide to wait. And wait. How do you know you’re being duped?

Home Movie

Home Movie (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

After moving their family to house in the middle of the woods, a minister (Adrian Pasdar) and a psychiatrist (Cady McClain) eventually realized that their children (Amber Joy Williams, Austin Williams) began acting strange. At first the children killed their pet fish and put it in a sandwich. Then they put a frog in a vise grip. And then they cruxified the house cat. The events after that became so horrific, I could hardly look at the screen. The children didn’t even speak a word until more than half-way through the movie. When they did, they did so in codes. Written and directed by Christopher Denham, “Home Movie” used the hand-held technique of “The Blair Witch Project” and “[REC].” Unfortunately, it wasn’t as effective because the execution was weak; it felt confused when it should have been confident given its daring material. I thought the picture spent too much of its time focusing on Pasdar acting goofy and putting on ridiculous costumes. The parts I enjoyed most were when Pasdar used his faith to find answers regarding what was happening with his children. The same goes for McClain–the scenes when she used her psychology background were interesting to me because I had some idea about was she was talking about and the influential names she cited (although that Rorschach test begged the question of validity and reliability). The film would have been so much stronger if it had focused on their varying parenting methods and ways to get some answers regarding their children’s condition. I didn’t mind much of the “realistic,” low quality and shaky feel of the camera because I understood what the director was trying to achieve. It’s the writing and the way that the story unfolded were the problems for me. Even though I don’t like watching movies about children hurting and killing others, I have to commend this independent film for trying to do something different. Admittedly, I was really disturbed by some of the scenes but I was glad that the filmmakers cut certain images and reactions out. If one is interested in watching something very creepy, sometimes disturbing and not mainstream by any means, “Home Movie” might be enjoyable. I must also note that this film is not for people who like movies with defined closures.