MEDIA DETOUR reviews EL GANZO

El Ganzo Review by Tyler Selig, MEDIA DETOUR

An emotional story of two strangers in Mexico. No, it doesn’t involve crime. Damn it stereotypes, go away.

Lizzy is a woman with an unknown past who makes her way to the Hotel El Ganzo in Mexico. There she meets an artist named Guy who is trying really hard to find the inspiration for his big breakthrough. The newest film by experimental auteur Steve Balderson relies on the relationship that forms between the two main characters; two lost souls/travelers who find each other and form an organic, and spiritual, bond with one another.

We don’t need to know a lot about where they come from, but we learn a little. I won’t spoil any of it, but the heart of the film is in the now — not the past and not the future. It is the kind of film that places the viewer as a fly on the wall, as we watch these strangers awkwardly meet but then grow into much more.

In a movie like this, the actors fueling the action need to be at the top of their game. Luckily, both Susan Traylor and Anslem Richardson dive head first into their roles and truly bring Lizzy and Guy to life. They are an unlikely duo, each with their own anchors preventing them from moving forward, until they find the appropriate reasons to do so. They are both charming and have a tremendous amount of chemistry so watching them perform is a good example of how powerful cinema can be.

It doesn’t even require constant drama in order to be affective. Many movies would have some massive quarrel appear between the two leads in an attempt to cheaply create admiration for both them and the audience. No such attempt exists here, and there’s actually very little hostility on display. Yet the movie doesn’t suffer for it because while Lizzy and Guy are not exciting per se, they are real. And that’s infinitely more important.

I have a very miniscule problem with the way it is edited on occasion as it comes off as a little disjointed and jarring. Moments when the characters are sitting there silently only to be quickly moved in the next frame can be a little disrupting. At the same time, there are periods where the director has chosen to splice dialogue over a scene where the actors are doing something that isn’t necessarily related to what is being said. That is a fascinating approach to advancing the narrative while presenting something a little off-the-cuff.

Balderson has used many different techniques in his movies which is why he’s such an exciting director. Here he brings the area to life with wide, lingering shots, often photographing Mexico in a way we rarely see. Instead of coming off as some seedy escape (as it often does in mainstream movies), it is shown as the beautiful place that it is. I can’t actually recall the last time I saw it showcased so wonderfully.

Layered on top of his imagery is a soundtrack that is minimal but potent. There are only a few different songs throughout the course of the hour and a half, ranging from droning ambient music to moving piano to more traditional Mexican folk music, but it adds a motif to the whole experience and drives the point home.

While this will undoubtedly be mentioned in every review, I feel it is necessary to point out. Everything you see in this movie is now destroyed because Hurricane Odile hit Los Cabos shortly after filming was finished. It’s a true tragedy for obvious reasons but it does paint a different portrait now, with this being one of the last documented accounts of Hotel El Ganzo. It’s hard not to get a little more emotional watching it when one is aware of this fact.

El Ganzo is a great film; slow but never boring, it’s meticulously crafted with gentleness and love. It’s proof that you can tell a simple tale of two people, without forced burdens that they need to overcome, and have it resonate with the audience.

Summary: FOUR STARS
El Ganzo is overflowing with heart and beauty. An unlikely relationship blooms between a slightly odd, yet endearing, woman and a struggling artist… and it is a pleasure to watch.

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MJ SIMPSON reviews EL GANZO

Check out this awesome review by UK Film Critic MJ Simpson, for my next movie EL GANZO:

EL GANZO review
By MJ Simpson

Here is how to make an El Ganzo cocktail. Take one measure of Jodorowsky, one measure of Bunuel. Pour over crushed Balderson. Serve with a slice of Kubrick. And a paper umbrella.

Yes, we’re off down Mexico way for the latest feature from the indefatigable Steve Balderson, the best thing to come out of Kansas since Dorothy’s farmhouse. I actually got sent a screener of this three months ago, and normally I watch Steve’s films the moment they arrive in my in-box, bypassing whatever is in my TBW pile. On this occasion however, Steve sent me two screeners – Hell Town and El Ganzo – with a recommendation that I leave a gap twixt the two, as they are very different films. I followed that wise advice – and then a whole load of other things came along and filled the gap, leaving El Ganzo atypically unwatched.

Well, I’ve watched it now and, just like most of Steve B’s films, I absolutely Larry loved it.

It’s sort of an archetypal Balderson picture, partly in that it’s nothing at all like the previous one. But it also addresses themes which permeate much of Steve’s oeuvre: themes of identity and discovery, a journey undertaken by an individual, couple or group to find out who they are.

In this case we have Lizzy (Susan Traylor, previously in Firecracker, Stuck! and The Casserole Club), who journeys to the El Ganzo hotel, walking the last few miles after the minibus taxi she was in breaks down. At the hotel, she meets travel photographer Guy (Anslem Richardson, who was a cop in The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and the two pal up, not least because they’re the only two Americans around (apart from bellhop Billy, played by Mark Booker who also composed the wonderful score). Guy seems a normal, well-adjusted fellow, He has a boyfriend back home and constant travels have put a strain on the relationship, but on the whole he’s a personable, friendly chap.

Lizzy, on the other hand, is a bit … well, kooky. Not in an attractively eccentric sort of way, but in a distractingly not-quite-with-it sort of way. Why does she keep asking Billy to look for her suitcase when she turned up at the hotel with no luggage? Why does her claim to be a writer for the same travel magazines that guys takes snaps for seem so inauthentic? Something’s not right here

How not right, and in what way not right, is something that you will discover as the movie progresses. I found myself considering all sorts of theories. Was this a Carnival of Souls gig? Was it a Sixth Sense thing – had Guy actually interacted with any other characters? Or was I letting my imagination run away with me? Would the answer be more prosaic?

Well, nothing’s ever prosaic in a Steve Balderson film. I’ll say no more than that.

What matters is not the offbeatness of the story which, like much of Steve’s work, is a quarter-twist from ‘reality’ – no, it’s the characters. El Ganzo is a two-hander and it’s no exaggeration to say that both actors are absolutely superb, completely inhabiting their characters. Without any crass infodumps, but also without being gratuitously enigmatic, Steve B and his cast present us with two very, very real people that we feel we know (as much as they know each other) but about whom we will discover much more.

Watching Traylor and Richardson is a master class in screen acting. Look, I do the odd bit of acting but in all honesty it’s not much more than larking about in front of a camera for mates. I won’t be winning a BAFTA any time soon. Watching this film really hammered home to me how much skill is involved in acting: skill that is often in short supply in the sort of films I watch, or is present but overshadowed by more exploitable elements like blood, boobs and explosions. Real acting has a subtlety to it that can’t be put into words.

There’s one particular scene in El Ganzo which has stuck in my head. Lizzy is sitting in an empty church. Guy comes in and sits in the pew in front of her. Anslem Richardson delivers a monologue, Guy addressing Lizzy without turning round. While he speaks, Susan Traylor silently trails her finger back and forth along his arm, resting on the back of the pew, that one tiny movement telling us reams about how Lizzy is feeling, about herself and about Guy. And, it just occurred to me, Richardson’s non-acknowledgement of her touch, which Guy can surely feel – he doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t glance back – tells us reams about Guy and his thoughts towards Lizzy. In its own small, subtle way, this is a magical scene, a microcosm of the film overall.

Steve, Susan and Anselm are jointly credited with the script, indicating a considerable amount of improvisation, or at least workshopping. Steve’s direction of the film is immaculate, assisted not only by magnificent performances but also the terrific cinematography of Daniel G Stephens (The Far Flung Star, Occupying Ed, Hell Town).  Of particular note is the use of the hotel itself; it’s simple, geometric architecture adroitly used to frame many of the shots. The local environs are also photographed to impressive effect: little shops and cafes; a sculpture garden of giant abstract heads; beautiful, deserted, sandy beaches.

When Steve moves away from the setting to concentrate on scenes which, in lesser hands, would be static and talky, he breaks up the sequence of events with fineky judged editing, so that sometimes we see one part of a conversation while hearing a different bit. This only adds to the otherworldliness of the film. Wrapping up all the visuals is Mark Booker’s music, much of which has a sparse minimalism that put me in mind of The Blue Nile, but which also occasionally breaks into festively abrasive Mexican trumpets. It complements the imagery and the story and perfectly.

Don’t imagine for one moment, however, that El Ganzo is style over substance. Not a bit of it. This is style supporting substance. It’s just a difficult substance to sumarise and describe. This isn’t a simple boy-meets-girl story, it’s not even really a romance, it’s just a beautiful, wistful, warm, sincere tale of two people who, in finding out about each other, discover a little about themselves.

Wistful: that’s the adjective that keeps coming back to me, that I knew I would need to use in this review somewhere. This is a wistful film. It’s absolutely full of wist, Bags and bags of the stuff.

In other words, it’s about what has been, what could have been and what might be, as well as what is. And really, aren’t all our lives a bit like that? But it takes an artist of Steve Balderson’s calibre to make us think wistfully about our own lives like this, and for each of us to find out that bit more about who we are.

One final note, and then I’ll let you get on. The Hotel El Ganzo is a real place. It’s a fabulous hotel by the look of it, with a strong artistic feel running throughout both the building and the experience of staying there. I can quite see why it would appeal to young Mr Balderson. But, just a few weeks after this film was shot, a hurricane ripped through the place. The hotel is currently closed for repairs, and much of the surrounding area has been ripped up, knocked down or otherwise changed. Steve’s film captures the location as it was and preserves it, a level of wistfulness that no-one could ever have expected.

My rating of his film is almost superfluous, but once again I hold off from an A+ only because I don’t want to believe that Steve Balderson’s career has peaked.

MJS rating: A

* * *

More on EL GANZO @ DIKENGA.com

MEDIA DETOUR reviews HELL TOWN

HELL TOWN review by MEDIA DETOUR

High school can be a difficult time. Hell Town tackles the issues that present themselves when the teenagers aren’t studying, doing work or playing sports; it is about the drama that occurs outside of the classroom, when they are left to their own devices. It is about the relationships that form, both sexual and romantic, and the way that they interact with one another as friends. They deal with the problems that arise when there is a girl who seemingly sleeps with everybody in school, or how it would be for a homosexual jock who is wrestling with the fact he is gay. A goth kid is misunderstood and ignored by mostly everybody while another girl tries to make ends meet by working a minimum wage job.

There is also a killer, nicknamed by the media as the “Letter Jacket Killer”, running amok.

Hell Town is an exercise in genre mashing that luckily doesn’t lose sight of its goal. We witness three episodes of the titular fictional melodramatic soap opera, only the twist is that the film makers inform us that seasons 1 and 3 have been lost in a fire and these episodes are remastered versions. We get dropped into what is most likely the middle of a season, and we get the typical prelude which tells us what happened previously. We essentially have a movie where the actors are playing actors who are playing characters on a television show.

Which means that what unfolds on screen is hammy. Incredibly and intentionally so. The actors are given cheesy lines that they deliver with true conviction because they are in a soap opera. Anybody who has ever watched one knows that they have a deliberate pulpy charm but are rarely known for any form of excellence. Some of the worst lines ever committed to film are said here, and watching Owen Lawless, as Jesse Manly, excellently declare “I don’t want to be gay” is a sight to be seen. It’s funny and that’s what counts. None of the actors are giving award-winning performances but to expect that from this movie is missing the point.

Sometimes I struggle with reviewing films that are purposely bad, just like I don’t know what to score a movie like The Room which is unintentionally terrible. Any schmuck can make a bad movie but not crossing the line between good parody and excessive, unoriginal crap can be a challenge. Soap operas are ripe for the picking so this could have been well have been just another bland mockery of something that is easy to make fun of, but it’s so much more than that.

In an attempt to switch things up, directors Steve Balderson and Elizabeth Spear have also embraced another genre with conventions so silly that it would take a brain dead idiot not to notice them: the slasher flick. Interestingly enough, the slasher has gotten a little bit of recognition — at least in my eyes — over the past two years, because of the fantastic film The Guest. The concept remains the same but like the soap opera aspect of the film, it is self-aware. There is blood and guts, but it’s not over-indulgent.

Incorporating this brand of horror into the movie only heightens the experience and adds more substance. It makes Hell Town more original than it would have been had they merely stuck to the soaps. While it is very easy to enjoy the absurdity of the characters on that level alone, there is also the mystery of who is going around terrorizing them.

It’s over-the-top and the people are vulgar. Since it is a low-budget, independent feature, it has to work within certain constraints that bigger pictures don’t have to. While it strives to be nothing more than an entertaining time, the nature of it hides talented film making. While it may get lost among the main talking point (how silly it is), the cinematography here is excellent. The angles, the lighting; all of it brilliantly mimics soap opera conventions.

In that same sense, I also got a Lynchian vibe from the whole ordeal. It lacks the surrealism of Twin Peaks, but there’s a menacing cloud hanging over the town at all times, where even someone running track seems more sinister than it should. While it is filmed differently than Blue Velvet, there’s still a similar tone; the town is more evil underneath its plastic and normal exterior than an outsider may perceive.

When it ended by telling me what is going to happen next time on Hell Town, I came to my own realization: I wanted this show to exist. I’d watch the shit out of it.

Get HELL TOWN @ DIKENGA.com

FANBOYTV reviews HELL TOWN

HELL TOWN review by FANBOYTV

You never know what you’re in for when you sit down to watch a movie made with a smaller budget, with no famous actors, and that is self-distributed. Sometimes you can have a good result from somebody who knows what they’re doing, and knows how take what they have at their disposal, and make it work. Sometimes you have an unfortunate result, where it seems like the idea of “let’s make a movie” was the whole pitch and “knowing how to make a movie” was of secondary concern. HELL TOWN was, pleasantly, an example of the former. HELL TOWN knows exactly what it is, what it’s doing, and how to communicate that to the viewer.

HELL TOWN presents itself as a television show, pulled out of some long forgotten studio vault. We are told right away that we are watching episodes 7, 8, and 9 from season two of HELL TOWN the series, and also informs us that seasons 1 and 3 have been lost in a fire. While there is no actual HELL TOWN the series, the movie invites the audience to be a passive participant in its own nested mythos.

We’re introduced, quickly, to our cast of characters. The hunky shirtless jock, the Marsha Brady on the outside/Betty Page on the inside teen princess, the jealous and barely-holding it together sister, the scheming nurse, the aging millionaire father, the acerbic friend, the ostracized gay brother, the middle class adoptee with a chip on her shoulder. In any other film, this use of tired archetype characters going through the motions on stories that have long ago been beaten to death, because HELL TOWN is a play on these types, they work very well. What’s more is that HELL TOWN toes the line of parody without becoming overly referential and dipping into Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer “bad parody” territory.

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our character’s lives. Trish wants to sleep with Blaze. Blaze is sleeping with Trish’s best friend. Butch lusts after Trish. Laura lusts after Butch. Jesse lusts after Bobby, and Bobby is totally into it, but Jesse is struggling with admitting his homosexuality. B.J. is waiting around every corner to watch everything fall apart and Chanel is coping with her comatose adopted mother, and the fact that her sworn enemy is trying to sleep with Blaze. Most of this wild setup unfolds in the first ten minutes of the film. All of it would be very effective satire of the soap opera genre, but to keep things fresh, bloody, and interesting; one of these characters is picking the others off one-by-one, under the moniker “The Letter Jacket Killer.” This shadowy serial murderer seems to have an agenda, and collects the varsity letters from the blood soaked coats of the victims.

Both genres that are on the chopping block in this movie, over-the-top melodrama and over-the-top slasher horror, lend themselves well to parody, and HELL TOWN finds a nice comfortable nest to hunker down in. Here, it can deftly straddle a line between the two, and still keep things fresh and funny. Between bloody castration and violently deadly fellatio, we also have a soap-opera mid-season replacement of an actress. The part of Laura Gable is played by two separate actresses, with little explanation given and, if one is a practitioner of soap operas, there’s probably no explanation needed.

With that we have the cornerstone of what sets HELL TOWN apart from most other parodies: the idea that in setting up this nested mythos, we have the actors playing their parts on two different levels. On one level we have the characters as presented in the narrative. On another level we have actors playing actors playing the characters as presented in the narrative. So one actually finds that while the characters on the narrative level aren’t giving a natural-feeling performance, they aren’t meant to. They’re actually playing actors, giving very boisterous and over the top performances in a ridiculous story, and those performances serve the over-all film very well. Butch may have a few ham-fisted lines, but Ben Windholz is giving a very sincere performance, of an actor playing a character who’s had ham-fisted lines written for him.

Taken separately, I think the idea of yet another horror parody or another soap opera parody might have worn thin. However, HELL TOWN manages to blend the two very nicely. It’s a creamy mixture of the ridiculously melodramatic with the violently macabre.

GET HELL TOWN @ DIKENGA.com

ACTORS AND THE MEDIA

It always amuses me when actors pretend to get shy around the media.  Most of them, even if they deny it, are actors because they love and crave attention.  As children, they were the first to jump up in front of a group and “perform.”

Many actors are also pretty insecure people.  I mean, think about it.  They turn their life’s objective into avoiding their true selves in exchange for always being somebody else.  The good ones get paid for it.  Sometimes, actors find out there’s very little time left to be themselves, and some might even forget who they used to be all together.

Actors could also be called professional liars.  The good ones are so good at lying, that you actually believe what they’re saying and feeling.  Even though it’s totally fake.  I mean, it’s a movie, right!?  Someone wrote that for him or her to say.  And in some cases, this isn’t always exclusive to their performances on screen.  Sometimes the good actors can achieve amazing results in normal day-to-day life.

Anyway, if you’re a director or producer and you ever come upon an actor who is shy around the media, or afraid to do interviews with the press, you might need to pretend you understand them, and hold their hands, but know, deep down, by the time they get into the interview they’ll be all lit up, performing, doing what they do best.  And they always eat it up.  You’ll see.

Depending on the actor, it may be a good idea to give them a script to follow.  Some actors are brilliant at improvisation.  But many need a back-story, a character arc and a sheet of dialogue.  Or, at least, talking bullet points.

I like to supply my actors with a go-to bullet point list of topics to discuss about our movie.  Questions to answer in a precise way, using careful language.  Sometimes I’ll even include a list of topics to avoid, such as, giving away any plot secrets, or proprietary information.

Another idea I’ve advised other filmmakers in the past, is to be a kind of go-between with the media.  Have the interviewer send you the questions first, so you can look over them and make sure there’s nothing offensive asked, or anything that might cause the project harm.  And, likewise, maybe there’s a question asked the actor would otherwise not know how to answer—so you can tell the actor what to say.

Or, you could simply tell the interviewer you’ll pass along their email address or phone number to the actor and let the actor take it from there.  I guess it depends on which way make you more comfortable.  Some of the more famous actors don’t like having their email or number given out, so in most cases dealing with a celebrity of any kind, this will be the best avenue to take.

Actors are a funny bunch, and of course I was generalizing their personalities at the start of this article.  Not every actor acts like that, and not all of them are ruthless self-absorbed fame-hungry monsters.  Some of my greatest friends are amazing actors and their gifts and talent are greatly appreciated.  Without actors, there’s no such thing as a movie.  So we need them.  And we need to cherish them.  But, when it comes time to promote your movie, you might need to nudge them a little bit this way or that.

HOW TO BUILD A PRESS KIT

I think it’s fun to google press kits online.  It’s easy to find some for your favorite movies, TV shows, or product launches.  Making your own isn’t really that difficult, but it will take some time.

There are no rules to crafting a good press kit.  I’ve seen incredibly complicated press kits, three-dimensional designs, and short and concise press kits.  In ancient times, press kits were usually a package (or folder) with papers inside, photographs, and other bulky things used to promote the product.

These days, press kits are usually entirely online or easily shared via email.  Some might consist of audio/visual treats and be shared on a flash drive.  But, most everyone agrees that there’s no reason to spend money on something when you can achieve the same result for nothing.  So, I say, go with a simple PDF.  You don’t need to send a DVD or CD anymore.  A link to Vimeo works just great.

You’ll want to write a well-formed synopsis.  It’s often a good idea to include a medium-length synopsis and an even shorter one.  Keep in mind that you should make it sound exciting, as if you were writing a review.  Most often, journalists want to simply copy-n-paste what you’ve written so they don’t have to work so hard.  And in the process, when the Boston Globe (or whomever) writes that your movie is a “fast-paced gem” you can easily lift that quote from their article, quote the Boston Globe, and use it for promoting your movie.  Even though you were the one who wrote it.  So remember that.

Write biographies for your key cast and crew.  If you aren’t working with anyone notable in show business, write their bios full of excitement and wonder about the world those people live in.  If your lead actress was a former beauty queen, or if your DP was an escaped felon, or if your supporting actor was a hot dog eating champion—share that info!  Weird stories make for great media coverage.

You might want to consider incorporating a mock interview with yourself and other key players in your project.  Sometimes this acts as a showcase for the type of interesting interview you can do.  I like to make up a game of 20 Questions and keep them light and simple, and sometimes juicy and controversial.

You’ll want to include some stills from your film.  Some should be glossy shots of the actors that might be considered a scene from the film, or a portrait.  Other shots should be from behind-the-scenes, showing the camera and lighting set-ups, or certain “filming” moments.

You’ll definitely want to include a link to the trailer, and maybe even some clips from the film.  Some people with online or broadcast capabilities could run clips of your movie during their news segment.  (For an example, check out the opening 10-15 minutes of “WAMEGO: Making Movies Anywhere” which shows news stories about my movie PEP SQUAD as featured on television.)

Consider including other reviews or other third-party blurbs.  The world is incredibly lazy when it comes to independent thought.  By sharing that a dozen (hopefully influential) people love your movie, it sends the signal your movie is great.  “Why, if so-and-so loved it, it must be good!”

Keep in mind that at the end of the day, of course you want your project to speak for itself.  But, sometimes if you don’t tell people in the media what they’re looking at, they won’t know what to think.  So even if it sounds a little creepy, or pretentious, you’d better do it.  Or you might risk getting lost in the shuffle of all the people who are.

THE “INDEPENDENT” SPIRIT AWARDS

Did you know that the word “independent” as used by the media, Hollywood, and most filmmakers has actually nothing to do with the true definition of the word?  Did you know that the term “independent” is actually used by those people as a description for a new genre?

If there were any doubt in your mind, you can now rest easy.  Here’s proof.

Your “independent” film is eligible for consideration at the “Independent” Spirit Awards if your film cost less than $20 million.  That’s right.  TWENTY Million Dollars.  (I laughed out loud when I read that.  Literally.  Beyond LOL.)

If Film Independent had any real interest in celebrating the art of true independent filmmaking, they would limit the budget ceiling at $250,000 including post work.  A film made for anything greater than that amount should never be considered.  On that note, they should have a special prize for films made for less than $50,000.  (Currently the ‘no budget’ film category considers any film made for less than $500,000.)

Film Independent does not define “independent” solely on financial terms.  I bet you didn’t know that Film Independent considers a big-budget studio-made film an indie “if the subject matter is original and provocative.”

That means the word Independent is just like Comedy, Drama, or Thriller.  It’s now a genre.

[In terms of financing, Film Independent looks for “economy of means” and “percentage of financing from independent sources.”]

Uh huh.  I bet.

[The film needs to be American, which means it has a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in at least two of the following categories: director, writer or producer.  For example, Saudi Arabia’s Oscar entry “Wadjda,” with a Spirit nomination for best first feature, is an American co-production, while the directors of Danish-British-Norwegian docu “The Act of Killing” are U.S. citizens.  Alternately, a film can be considered American if it is set primarily in the U.S. and at least 70% financed by U.S.-based companies.  Everything else is considered international.]

That seems okay to me.  Although, I’d open it up to the International market to be fair.

[To be eligible for the Film Independent “Independent” Spirit Awards, a film needs a commercial run in the calendar year or to have screened in one of these six designated festivals: Los Angeles Film Fest, New Directors/New Films, New York Fest, Sundance, Telluride or Toronto.]

[Nominations for the Spirit Awards are made by committees for three areas: American narrative films, international narratives and documentaries.  The committees include filmmakers (directors, producers, actors, etc.), film programmers and critics, past nominees and members of the board of directors.  The final awards are voted on by the entire Film Independent membership.  In 2013, there were 43 committee members looking at 325 entries.]

So there you have it.  The word “independent” as it relates to movies has been totally redefined.  It no longer means what it says in the dictionary.