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>> Friday, March 26, 2010

Role playing has never been so exciting!
This evening I had the divine honor of being invited to the premiere cast and crew screening of John Johnstone's Dungeon Crawl - his first feature length motion picture (which I was an extra for, hence my presence). I will tell you this right off the bat - I was NOT disappointed.

The film is a mockumentary about five friends who aim to win the the Queen City Dungeon Crawl Championship and reclaim victory from a former teammate who betrayed them only a few years earlier. It took them ten years to even be part of the first Championship and now they only have months to prepare for the next one if they are to claim the revenge they seek.

The team of underdogs is lead by Merlin (Ashton Francis) who's perfected his master skills while staying at home with his sick father (one of the first to play Dungeon Crawl back in the 80's). The rest of his team consists of Merlin's love interest, Sam (Amy Couzens), the hilarious Andy (Dan Willows), his best friend Jerm (Kyle Markewich) and the married-but-hasn't-grown-up Brian (Ed Mendez).

Through a series of interviews we learn what their connection to the role-playing game of Dungeon Crawl is, as well as what their life is like outside of the game. The camera takes us shopping with them, to work with them and to Gothic vampire parties with them. The characters don't always acknowledge the camera nor do they seem to mind the intrusion into their lives - unless of course they're 'cybering' with their online lover.

Going into Dungeon Crawl and knowing John Johnstone personally, my biggest fear is much like that of a parent going to their child's school play. You're excited to see how they do, pumped up opening night has arrived (especially after all the talks and rehearsals), but mainly you just hope they don't embarrass themselves. Happily and quite unexpectedly, this was not the case as the film actually exceeded my expectations.

The acting in this film is wonderful. Every major character was cast perfectly and as per the norm, a few stick out as sctors whose work I'd like to follow closely from this point forward. Amy Couzens fits perfectly into the ' girl next door' role. It wouldn't surprise me to see her in a role where she's the girlie love interest, nor to see her kicking ass in a Book of Eli-like action movie. Kyle Markewich is entertaining and quirky enough he'll undoubtedly follow in the foot steps of such vet actors as Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi. Markewich isn't ugly mind you - he just has a 'way' about him. However good these two up-and-comers may be, Dungeon Crawl is owned by Dan Willows. His comedic timing is impeccable in this film - as is his large range of emotions. Willows plays the gentle giant of Andy so perfectly he steals nearly every scene he's in because - let's face it - we all root for the lovable doofus with the big heart.

The only thing stopping the film from being near perfect is the back story for the married character of Brian. He's stuck in a relationship with a hypocritical wife who doesn't support his friends or the Dungeon Crawl game. She tells Brian it's time to grow up and he lowers his head like puppy who's relieved himself on the carpet. As a viewer you see this poor guy with this wicked witch and you think 'Boy, I can't wait until he fights back and she gets her comeuppance". Unfortunately it just never seems to come - as if that scene was accidentally cut from the film. A lot of the banter between Brian and wife is funny and it's unfortunate as their plot felt unfinished. It certainly doesn't take away from the main plot or the entirety of the film, but it is distracting.

Dungeon Crawl was written and directed by newcomer John Johnstone. The important thing with an independent film such as this is knowing the limits of your resources. With Dungeon Crawl, Johnstone clearly knew his limits. Based on how well this film was written and directed, there's no doubt Dungeon Crawl was in Johnstone's head long before pre-production even started. Johnstone is a visionary and does for role playing games what Kevin Smith did for convenience stores.

Dungeon Crawl easily snags an open door here and not because I know many of the people who had a hand in making this film. It's a fun, entertaining and ambitious comedy and I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

*Stills and trailers courtesy of Odd Novelty Productions



>> Friday, March 5, 2010

Curiouser and curiouser...
Alice Kingsley (played well by Gwenyth Paltrow look-a-like Mia Wasikowska) is the smartest stupid girl you’re likely to meet. She has great ideas about impossible things like flying and trading goods and resources with far off lands like China - but she also talks of strange lands inhabited by rabbits with pocket watches, blue caterpillars and cats that smile. Alice is an odd girl indeed and with the trademarked catchphrase “Curiouser and curiouser.” you know she is just asking for trouble.
It isn’t ten minutes into the film before Alice finds said trouble by falling down a rabbit hole in one of the most Six Flags-like scenes your likely to see this year at a theatre near you (assuming of course you see this film in 3-D). What does she find at the bottom of this deep, dark rabbit hole? If I have to tell you, you should go back in time and punch your parents in the face for disallowing you a childhood.

Not long into Alice’s trek through ‘Underland’ (renamed by director Tim Burton), she runs into the Mad Hatter played by Johhny Depp - who does his best impression of Elijah Wood playing the Mad Hatter and certainly forgoes his usual sex appeal here to don the eyebrows of a 70 year old Scotsman and a do only Carrot Top would be envious of. Depp does well disguising himself as usual but clearly he can only go so far with other personas before he starts to reuse bits of older characters like Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka.

Hatter confirms to Alice what she heard earlier from the Blue Caterpillar (voiced by the always unimpressed Alan Rickman) – that she is there to slay the Jaberwocky, who has been terrorizing Wonderland – er…Underland, for some time now. But in order to do so Alice has to stay out of the clutches of miss “Off with their heads!” herself, the Red Queen.

The Red Queen of course, is played by Helena Bonham Carter, who is delightful and plays the role exactly as she should – without taking it too seriously. The same goes for the White Queen played by Anne Hathaway. It’s clear both actresses had a lot of fun with these characters and you can feel their energy radiate on screen because of that. It wouldn’t surprise me if after every take as soon as Burton yelled “Cut!” they burst into laughter thinking about themselves yelling “Off with their head!” or floating around like some fairy godmother high on whatever the Caterpillar is smoking.

Seeing this movie in 3-D (or at all really) will make you feel as if you too are mad as a hatter, as the visuals here don’t let down for one minute. Tim Burton did well here as both staying faithful to the original cartoon version, the books and his own crazy imagination. Nobody in Alice ever seems to be in correct proportion so it appears as if you’re watching the entire film through the bottom of a glass Coke bottle. This is more good than bad, although since everything seems to be beautifully and visually twisted and slightly offsetting, I found it at times to be so overwhelming and distracting, that it took away from some of the really fun visual stuff - like the Chesire Cat or the impressive Red Queen’s army of playing cards. That is however a very small case of “too much of a good thing” and won’t prevent you from enjoying yourself.

This is easily Tim Burton’s strongest “re-imagining” yet, which was nice to see after the disappointing Charlie and Chocolate Factory. And due to its already established fan base, Alice will undoubtedly do well - especially with the kids. Children under five or so may find it all a bit too scary, but any older than that shouldn’t have any problem dealing with some of the more disturbing things – including Burton’s odd obsession with the common phrase “an eye for an eye... for an eye… for an eye”.

Alice in Wonderland is a fun movie filled with whimsy and visual delight. It’s a nice mix between adult and kid humour and should appeal to most. The performances are well enough done you don’t feel cheated, and the visuals hold up pretty well. I did feel there could have been more lead in to build up the potential epic-ness of the movie, but when you’re there to see Wonderland perhaps it doesn’t matter. The door is open here, so go on and drink that tiny bottle of shrinking potion and walk on through to the delightful world on the other side.
*Stills courtesy of Walt Disney


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