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'The Black Waters of Echo's Pond'

Also reviewed: 'Godspeed,' 'La Mission,' 'The Square,' 'Women Without Men.'

April 09, 2010

There's a plucky ambition to the title of the horror flick "The Black Waters of Echo's Pond," a suggestion of atmospheric malevolence that isn't matched by the hyper silly bloodbath on display.

After a laughable 1920s-era prologue featuring craven archaeologists and the unearthing of Greek god Pan's love of chaotic evil, cut to the gore genre's standard-operating prep work: a present-day cluster of attractive hedonists on a spooky island, a crusty caretaker (Robert Patrick), then a trigger for sexual shenanigans and intra-group slaughter. In this case, the catalyst is the gang's playing of an ancient board game whose truth-or-dare-style questions -- "Who in the room doth thou secretly covet?" -- reveal Pan's previously unknown role as the Milton Bradley of mud-stirring.

Director/co-screenwriter Gabriel Bologna, working vigorously at hokey predictability, wastes little time getting us to wish his obnoxious characters (why do people who seemingly hate each other always vacation together?) would find their inner maniacs already. Maybe he's thinking of a core audience's hunger for carnage, but for the rest of us, there's relief in this type of poorly acted claptrap's adherence to movie mathematics, since each slain character is a sign that the movie is that much closer to a credit roll.

-- Robert Abele "The Black Waters of Echo's Pond." MPAA rating: R for bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. In general release.

Faith healing in the wilderness

In director Robert Saitzyk's ethereally grim slice of low-budget filmmaking "Godspeed," healing and retribution meet like participants in a western-style showdown.

Set in an unforgiving, harshly beautiful Alaskan wilderness (and filmed around Anchorage and Wasilla), it lays out the fated convergence of three disturbed souls: Charlie, a compromised faith healer (Joseph McKelheer) for whom an unspeakable tragedy has led him to drink; an alluring stranger named Sarah (Courtney Halverson) who's drawn emotionally and sexually to Charlie's pain; and her apocalyptic-minded brother Luke (Cory Knauf, also the co-screenwriter), who has his own ideas of biblical deliverance.

Cinematographer Michael Hardwick's poetically assured use of the RED One digital camera gives Saitzyk's Terrence Malick-ish ambitions a compelling visual orientation in spiritual uneasiness -- and eventually brutally violent resolution -- but what keeps "Godspeed" from lasting power are its melodramatic swerves and less-than-revelatory acting. But despite its fissures in tone and technique, "Godspeed" occasionally plays like a sturdy indie outpost of revenge cinema.

-- Robert Abele "Godspeed." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. Playing at Laemmle Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

Identity and family in S.F.

The teen coming-out story gets a fresh take in "La Mission," a heartfelt drama about family bonds, cultural tradition and violence set in San Francisco's largely Latino Mission district. As Che Rivera, a macho ex-con and single father appalled by the discovery that his beloved son is gay, Benjamin Bratt brings his A-game to a difficult, potentially clich├ęd role.

Written and directed by the actor's brother, Peter Bratt, the film oozes with authenticity -- sometimes a bit too much so -- and a genuine passion for the gritty, colorful, proud neighborhood that's still a few steps behind the progressive city it calls home (the Bratts grew up in and around the Mission). Though the filmmaker could have stayed more specifically focused on the painfully fractured relationship between volatile bus driver Che and diligent, UCLA-bound son Jes (a wonderful Jeremy Ray Valdez), the movie remains a highly involving, often poignant tale of a people and place.

-- Gary Goldstein "La Mission." MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence and sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.

A marriage not made in heaven

It's no wonder that filmmaker Cindy Kleine had to wait until her father's death before she could complete and release "Phyllis and Harold," her comprehensive, wrenching yet luminous portrait of her parents' 59-year marriage. Harold would never know how deeply unhappy Phyllis had often been in the marriage that he regarded as successful as his dental practice -- or that she had been unfaithful to him with the man she truly loved.

Twelve years in the making, "Phyllis and Harold" has extraordinary breadth and depth and has been made with wit, compassion and imagination, and it reflects the complexity of life itself. Although an experienced documentarian, Kleine was lucky that her father was a skilled, dedicated photographer, whose images could be more revealing than surely he intended, and a grandfather who loved to shoot home movies.

The film chronicles the passing of time and evokes the transitory nature of life itself.

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