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

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More on EL GANZO @ DIKENGA.com

HELL TOWN: Review by UK film critic MJ Simpson

HELL TOWN
Review by UK film critic MJ SImpson

For those of us who have been following Steve Balderson’s career, Hell Town is exactly what we have come to expect, in that it is completely unexpected. For starters, it’s a horror film. A black comedy, certainly, but revolving around a serial killer, and some of the deaths are quite unpleasant and gruesome (in a blackly comic sort of way).

Steve’s work has bordered on horror before: Pep Squad was a tale of high school psychopathic murder dark enough to play at genre festivals like Fantasporto (where I saw it, and first met Steve’s producer father Clark). His sophomore work (and magnum opus), the stunning Firecracker certainly contained some disturbingly horrific elements, not least its Browning-ian use of real sideshow freaks. And before Pep Squad Steve even made an amateur, feature-length vampire film. But this is his first full-bodied horror flick.

It’s also a soap opera. Not figuratively or metaphorically but literally. Taking the concept of the three-act structure to its logical conclusion, Steve and co-director Elizabeth Spear have fashioned the story as three consecutive mid-season episodes of a fictitious TV serial, including opening and closing credits (inspired partly by the modern habit of watching TV episodes back to back in a ‘box set’). The acting is deliberately mannered (as is the direction) but not over-the-top or played for laughs. We’re not watching Acorn Antiques here.

The story concerns two families: the Manlys and the Gables. Trish Gable (Krysten Day, a regular at Wamego’s Columbian Theatre) is the perky, peppy blonde prom queen looking to give away her “other virginity” to the right guy. Her bitter, jealous sister Laura is played by BeckiJo Neill in ‘episode 7’ and then recast without explanation from ‘episode 8’ onwards in the person of Jennifer Grace (Marybelle in The Casserole Club), who looks almost nothing at all like her predecessor. Bobby (Blake Cordell) is their slender, effete brother who is not entirely out. Moody emo BJ (Sarah Napier) and their father (Jeff Montague) complete the family. (Montague is missing from the IMDB cast list, possibly because of… well, you can google the guy.)

The Manly boys do their best to live up to their name by wandering around shirtless for much of the film. There’s Blaze Manly (Matt Weight, also co-producer: Ian in Occupying Ed), his brothers Butch (Ben Windholz) and Jesse (Owen Lawless) plus sister Chanel (Amanda Deibert, standing out among a strong cast). Deibert was Tiffany in The Far Flung Star and Lucy in Occupying Ed; she has horror previous including Andrew Muto’s Blood Runs Black and was even in a Creep Creepersin movie! Chanel is Trish Gable’s nemesis and, in a running gag, works in every dining/retail establishment in town. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Steve Balderson joint without a role for Pleasant Gehman and here you get two Plezes for the price of one. She is ‘Mother Manly’, lying comatose on a bed throughout, and also the scheming nurse who cares for her.

Among all the unrequited crushes, backstabbing bitchiness, repressed sexuality, sibling rivalry and general small-town angst, there is the little matter of the ‘Letter Jacket Killer’ who is offing local youngsters in a variety of sadistic ways. Well, I say ‘youngsters’ but in the grand tradition of American movies, all these ‘high school students’ are clearly in their mid-twenties. And within the artificiality of the soap opera conceit, that is exactly as it should be.

The two-headed directorial beast that is Steve and Liz manages proceedings with an acute awareness of both soaps and slashers, never missing a trick for a camera cliché, a hackneyed line of dialogue or an overwrought bit of plotting. It’s a truism that you have to be very good at something in order to effectively lampoon a bad version of that thing without yourself appearing bad, and that’s certainly the case here (the sine qua non of this principle is, in my humble opinion, the Bonzos track ‘Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold’ – what do you mean, you’ve never heard it?). Anyway, Steve is of course a hugely talented and experienced film-maker whose career I have been following for the best part of two decades. Elizabeth Spear is a new name to me.

According to the IMDB (and with all the caveats such a phrase implies) she has made seven previous features since 2003, including dramas, comedies, a documentary, a war film; some of them co-directed with other people. It would seem from Hell Town that she meshes well with Steve B. But then a real TV soap would have different directors for different episodes anyway.

I’m no soap-watcher but I do like a nice slice of horror and Hell Town works admirably as a pastiche of the slasher genre, benefitting (I believe) from having been made by somebody who normally works well outside said genre. Far too many ‘slasher comedies’ are lamentably unfunny and self-indulgent: of interest only to obsessive slasher fans, the sort who don’t care about character, only about deaths. By presenting the tale of the Letter Jacket Killer as a slice of soap opera, Steve and Liz foreground the characters. And although some of the minor ones outside of the two main families have little time to register before becoming bloody corpses, we can infer that we would have known them a whole lot better if we had seen Season One and the preceding six episodes of Season Two. (There is an opening caption explaining that the entire first and third seasons on Hell Town have been lost, and I really hope that Steve makes a lot more of this fictitious ‘real story’ behind the series when he starts publicising Hell Town, mainly because there’s so much fun to be had there.)

Jake Jackson supplied the excellent special effects make-up for the various kills. This is his second film gig following a thriller called Erasure; he has also worked on stage productions of Shrek, Young Frankenstein and The Tempest. Nancy Cox provided the regular hair and make-up.

Several of the supporting cast were also in Occupying Ed and The Far Flung Star. Michael Page, Connor Lloyd Crews and Chris Pudlo all receive ‘additional writing’ credits. Cinematographer Daniel G Stephens, who has previously worked with both directors, credited here with ‘special photographic effects’, lights every scene with a TV sensibility that doesn’t detract from the movie experience. And an extra special treat for long-time Balderfans is the return to the fold of the legend that is Betty O, for the first time since Stuck!, here appearing as a TV news reporter.

Hell Town is a hoot to watch and gives every impression of having been a hoot to make, which I think is characteristic of Steve’s films in this  part of his career. It’s not quite up there with the wonderful Occupying Ed, partly because the soap opera conceit necessarily robs the film of a layer of sincerity. On the other hand, I much preferred it to Steve’s two lightweight international capers The Far Flung Star and Culture Shock. It’s a real treat to see Steve working within the horror genre and bringing that unique Wamego touch to the tired tropes and corny clichés that we all know and love.

MJS rating: A-

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On April 23, 2015, The Austin Horror Society will present the world premiere of HELL TOWN in Austin Texas at the Alamo Drafthouse.  For details visit the website: www.DIKENGA.com