Saturday, 24 December 2016

Movie Review: When Black Birds Fly (2016)



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Well, after revisiting an underground filmmaker yesterday, I figure it’s only right to continue on this path for a little bit longer. As such, it’s time to look at another indie oddity that I have covered before: Jimmy ScreamerClauz. Last year, I ended up reviewing his work Where The Dead Go To Die, a film I still maintain is one of the most disturbing pieces of cinema I’ve ever sat through. It occupies that area of reception that most people reserve for films like Requiem For A Dream: I loved it, but I never want to watch it again. Well, having discarded any semblance of regard for my own mental health a long time ago, I have watched that film a couple times since and, honestly, it still holds up as easily one of my new favourite films. Naturally, with that opinion still intact, I was definitely curious to see what else Mr. ScreamerClauz could come up with. Time to dive into the madness once more, and may Caine forgive me for this: This is When Black Birds Fly.


The plot: In the town of Heaven, the citizens have been instructed to follow the instructions of Caine (Brandon Stagle), in particular his rule of never going beyond the wall that borders their town. Marius (Victor Bonacore) and Eden (Erin Russ), two children who live in the town, decide to climb through a hole in the wall to help a seemingly injured kitten. However, once they cross into the outside world, they are told just how much Caine is keeping from the townsfolk.

With a production this niche, this might sound like a tad strange but you might actually recognize someone in the cast list here. Anyone familiar with the Salad Fingers online cartoons might remember the name David Firth, who plays a talking black bird that influences Marius’ father Daryl (J.D. Brown) to do… questionable things. Yeah, animals being made of evil suggestion is one of the many things carried over from WTDGTD. Aside from him, we’re dealing with people who have either worked with Jimmy before or they’re just underground horror filmmakers in their own right. And quite honestly, the acting is really damn good here. J.D. Brown and Ruby Larocca as Marius’ parents channel some nice Pleasantville-esque mannerisms, which make for a good contrast to the events that befall them, Slagle gives a darkly dignified air to his religious despot while Devanny Pinn is almost torturous in how heart-broken and scorned she is as ‘The Evil One’, Manoush gives a real chilling air to the kitty that the children try to rescue, and Rodger Fischer (AKA Cumblood, as he’s officially credited), while leaning too much on the F-bombs, brings an almost primal viciousness to the OSWA soldiers that enforce rule in the town.

The animation here, objectively speaking, is still awful. The character models jitter and jerk about seemingly at random, the graphical fidelity is about on par with CGI hobbyists on YouTube and the rendering again seems half-finished with all the screen-tearing and artifacting that can be seen throughout. And yet, much like WTDGTD, the surreality of the setting and plot ends up warranting something that looks and feels this detached from reality. When dealing with topics and actions that are this inherently inhumane, what sense is there in adhering closely to recognizable humanity? Or, in less poncy terms, things this messed-up probably benefit from not being photorealistic. That said, the film actually starts out deceptively normal-looking. Artificial film scratches combined with a black-and-white colour palette give the town of Heaven a nice sense of nuclear family mockery, along with a striking Sin City-reminiscent use of colour. To add to the somewhat rustic aesthetic, we also get some crackly oldie songs on the soundtrack that actually manage to work rather well alongside the more spacey soundscapes that Jimmy and sonic collaborator M Dot Strange are better known for. Of course, once we get beyond the wall, it’s back to business as usual… which means night terrors the likes of which I am completely incapable of articulating, nor would I particularly care to considering how fucked up the images I can make out are.

In my last review, I made a slight error in judgement when it comes to Jimmy’s approach to impossibly-black comedy. WTDGTD’s first segment about Labby was originally made as a dark parody of Lassie, but Jimmy realized that the character models are creepy as fuck so the rest of the feature evolved into all-out horror. I ended up misrepresenting that as the whole film intended to be a dark comedy. Here, while the film definitely aims for horror, it also carries the same brand of humour that sees the uncomfortable and desperate giggles in watching a child being convinced that having sex with a dog is the right thing to do… yeah, that was an actual thing in WTDGTD, just in case there’s any lingering doubt about how fucked up it is. Now, while it can bring some much-needed levity to the proceedings, it can sometimes be a little jarring. Slapsticky sound effects that crop up every so often do tend to take the audience out of a movie that is pretty much all about making the soul cry.

Have to admit, the absolute horror found here isn’t quite as potent as WTDGTD, but then again that’s pretty much by design. Rather than being just an all-out assault on your brain until the world can hear it shriek, this has a more involved plot and purpose to it. In the scenes set within Heaven, the heavy political/religious satire shown through the many posters of Caine that are littered around the place may provide some nice sight gags, but also establish the ubiquity of Caine himself in how the townspeople view him. Once we get beyond the wall, much like the visuals, that religious subtext starts to blossom into something more and the satire gets a lot more biting as a result. From its depiction of God and his creations to Hannah and her own place in mythos, it honestly rings true considering how much organized religion, particularly within Christianity/Catholicism, tends to portray the women as the greater evil. Not only that, with how human instinct and nature plays into the narrative, the subtextual horror ends up being derived from how faith and nature end up clashing with each other. It's like a more garishly-coloured The Witch.

All in all, this is a look at the dichotomy of religion through the twitchy and nightmarish pink eye of Jimmy ScreamerClauz, managing to wield its abnormal production values and methods to convey a story that serves as an even darker obfuscation of man’s connection to their God(s) than Sausage Party. Then again, with images this harrowing and characters this surprisingly intense and engaging, I’d hardly call that a surprise. It’s better than Swiss Army Man, as the weirdness here is not only of a more consistent variety but it ends up leading to greater results, both visually and thematically. However, as much as I dig the commentary on religion and human nature that is to be found here, that intentional removal from reality does weaken its effectiveness ever so slightly. As such, this ranks just below Spotlight, a film that almost seemed to leap out of the screen to show that the horror at its core was a lot closer than I’d like to think.

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