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Over the Transom: 'Resonnances' and 'Death of a Snowman'

For our first entry in this semi-regular overview of fringe features, we look at two titles from Synapse Films - Resonnances and Death of a Snowman

It seems to happen almost every day. The doorbell rings and there is UPS or FedEx, standing politely at your doorway, wondering what exactly they are doing back at your address yet again. Sometimes, it's the USPS that acts as arbiter. With a smile and a signature, the often bulging envelopes (or carefully packaged boxes) are now your problem, passed off from courier to concerned with the usual business aplomb - and this is indeed business, the business of being a film critic. In any given week, six to seven movies make their way into the reviewers frame of reference. Most are via studio invitation, screenings both private and public meant to feed the marketing machine and make scribes feel important to a process they are more or less ancillary to.

Others, however, come unsolicited and streaming. They flow like water down a river of ridiculous expectations, distributors and manufacturers believing in a superhuman level of attention span and free time. Sure, the blogsphere has proven that some shut-ins can handle a half dozen DVD releases per post and never miss a beat. But within the commercial conceit of legitimacy, there's no real time to tackle the latest collection of old grade-Z erotica from a bygone Berlin era, or yet another halting helping of homemade horror. While a few name companies keep the recognizable mainstream movies coming, others are just hoping for a mention, making their always needy advertising day in the process.

So for 2011, SE&L is starting a new semi-regular post entitled "Over the Transom". Like the notes that old time detectives used to get from anonymous tipsters, we will look at some of the more worthy titles tossed our way, highlighting those we deem worthy of wasting a few paragraphs on. The overall tone will be short and sweet, two to three films per entry and always aimed at quick, critical analysis. This may not make the failing film co-op happy, but when faced with a daunting 300 to 400 potential product per year, a couple of paragraphs will have to do. This time around, we look at two releases from Synapse Films - a low budget sci-fi entry and a surreal South African '70s action film.

Resonnances (dir.Phillipe Robert)

A trio of students prepare to celebrate the end of the term with a friendly barbeque and a trip to a favorite vacation spot. Along with their preferred gal pals, it's time to blow off steam and be young. When the guys run out of gas, they end up at a deserted service station. There, they run into a mysterious man in need of a lift. Then they hit a dense fog bank. The conditions cause a horrific crash into the valley below. There, the group discovers an ancient horror, a massive entity that crawls under the ground and feeds...relentlessly.

Fans of science fiction expect vision -epic vistas (or ideas) realized in flawless F/X movie mannerisms. Nothing kills the aura more quickly than hackwork both in front of and as part of the screen. Luckily, post-millennial modern technology has made it much easier to realize such aims - as long as the talent taking on this task is up for it. Resonnances is a movie that definitely makes the most out of such very little. Sure, the patina of manufactured miniatures and low level CGI is everywhere, and the acting runs the gamut from game to god-awful. But thanks to the stalwart defiance of director Philippe Robert (who also wrote the script), ideas and execution compensate for a lack of ILM level optics. There is a casual, cool approach to the material, a slacker savvy that sees geek meet gravitas to create something both intriguing...and in the end, a bit frustrating.

Robert does have a knack for bringing out the suspense in otherwise stupid set-ups. When our heroes high tail it over the cliff and end up in a large tree canopy, the sequence reminds us of a similar situation in Spielberg's Jurassic Park. Similarly, the numerous underground attacks have the tactile menace of Bong Joon-ho's The Host. Yes, this is a giant monster movie, the alien creature coming to Earth via a pre-credit sequence that is a bit wonky in its ways. But once the characters hit ground and start trying to survive, Resonnances works. Yes, there is plenty of padding, the constant contravention of forward narrative drive growing irritating after a while, and Robert doesn't quite know how to handle his ending, but overall, this is a above average effort made good by the ambitions involved.

Death of a Snowman (dir. Christopher Rowley)

When a vigilante group known as War on Crime starts taking out the mobster kingpins of Johannesburg, they get the immediate attention of investigative journalist Steve Chaka and his cop buddy Lt. Ben Deel. Neither believes in the concern's claimed community intentions. Instead, they slowly uncover a plot planning to rid the area of any drug dealing competition. Of course, as the bodies pile up and the public begins to embrace the street justice designs of WoC, Chaka and Deel must prove their case...or lose an ongoing battle for the minds and hearts of South Africa.

Reminiscent of a mid-'70s drive-in actioner and caked with unusual local color, Death of a Snowman (also known as Soul Patrol and Black Trash) proves that the Western influence of film can hit even the most out of the way places on the map. This is pure post-modern exploitation as filtered through and revised by a non-American mindset. From the unique casting as our heroes (A famous black reporter? In an Apartheid controlled country?) to the clockwork plotting, this is a movie made to waft by quickly without stopping too long for complex characterization or strange psychological flourishes. About the weirdest thing here is the New York material where two caustic reporters snipe at each other while trying to help Chaka uncover the identity of War on Crime's head honcho. Everything else is ambushes, killings, investigations, and disconnected clues. Sure, Chaka becomes a suspect (skin color eventually does matter here), but with Deel constantly supporting his pal, there's little surprise in the story.

What is stunning is the borderline incompetent direction of first timer (and future documentarian) Christopher Rowley. Death of a Snowman is utterly all over the map, moving rapidly through its narrative designs without any pause for dramatic beats or lasting impact. A shoot out will instantly descend into a conversation between characters without a logistic editorial jump, while poorly established ancillaries suddenly step up to the center of the focus. This is especially true of a hirsute hitman with the most cavalier attitude ever. One minute, he's not even in the movie. The next, he gets a silly subplot involving a whiny girlfriend and a slop jar of bedroom secrets. Huh? It's all part of Death of a Snowman's quirky allure. While not a wholly successful effort, it is intriguing and enigmatic, shifting our perspective from the gritty streets of the US to the more mysterious realm of South Africa. Sure, the ideas are basic good vs. bad, but within this world, there are enough blurs to make the mechanics work.

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