Regardless of the length, a good film should hook you right from the start, and what better way to do that than an intriguing premise that establishes a mystery that you can’t wait to get to the bottom of. Last Orders does just this with a bartender (Alastair Parker), a gunman, and a mysterious man named Samael (Steven Elder) who knows far more than he’s letting on. The story is brought to life by the excellent, realistic performances from the leads and exquisite, professional production values that make the world feel truly lived in. Throughout most of the runtime it seemed as though Last Orders was on track to hit it out of the park but film is akin to gymnastics in that the flourishes don’t mean much if you can’t stick the landing.
I’m not saying that the incredible amount of talent on display is fully negated by an unsatisfying ending, but it does diminish the overall experience. It’s unfortunate to see such a well made film fall into the same trap that so many other movies (and to a greater extent TV shows) fall into by setting up an amazing premise that it isn’t able to fully deliver on. The film puts forward some very interesting ideas and while I can see where writer/director Jon James Smith was trying to go with it, the pieces simply don’t fit together to get it there. What I’d really like to see is a re-cut version that connects the dots and lets this become the great film it was meant to be.
Call me old-school but the idea of an A.I servant sitting idle and listening to your every word never sat well with me and I won’t have Alexa, Google Nest, or any of that weird, Big Brother shit in my house. While that no doubt sounds ridiculous to some, I’m clearly not the only one who has felt disquieted by the ubiquitous self-imposed surveillance of our modern world as films like L.U.N.A. deal with this very specific technological anxiety.
In the world of the film, the Alexa surrogate is called L.U.N.A and is a pyramid shaped device that technicians like Lilian (Fernanda Romero) spend a lot of time making house calls to repair. When she is summoned to the creepy old mansion that young couple Jamie and Sarah Cambell (Lauren Bair and Lauren Deshane) recently moved into she soon finds that this is far from an ordinary call.
Even more than the horror elements of this story the strangest thing about this reality is the reliability of the devices themselves. Apparently (according to the film) they break down so frequently and in such great quantity that technicians such as Lillian have to work from 6 in the morning till well after dark just to try and keep up with what must be an unfathomable amount of malfunctioning units. Given that the repair call itself seems to take less than five minutes, the surrounding community must be absolutely lousy with broken L.U.N.As that must be serviced in-person at all hours, from the break of dawn to the dead of night.
It’s just strange that a film that is so careful to logically justify so many aspects of the world would leave such an odd detail hanging. If the L.U.N.As themselves were built into the house or at least larger than a decorative paperweight, then there would have been more justification for Lillian’s job. Despite how much time I’m spending focusing on this particular aspect of the story, what’s most important is how well the overall components of the production work.
To that end, it’s an incredibly well-realized vision that wears its Giallo influences proudly on it’s sleeve (or in Sarah’s case, directly on her Inferno shirt). The creative camerawork, bold stylistic choices, pulsating synth score, and genuine tension all work in concert to deliver a very polished experience. In the end I was left wanting more, which was partly to the credit of the engaging story and partly because the abrupt ending was slightly unsatisfying. While the story did build effectively to its conclusion, it felt a bit more like the opening scene of a feature than a stand-alone short. Regardless, it’s a very well-made and entertaining piece of cinema and if it was to be expanded to a feature length production I’d happily line up to see it.
The term “expiation” refers to a kind of atonement, the act of making amends or the reparation for some kind of wrongdoing. By its title alone, Xpiation is already tipping its hand to show that this brutal, torture-focused film is about more than simply being a showcase for senseless brutality. How much more and how effectively it’s executed is the real question though and today we’ll peel back the layers like so much skin off the face of a terrified man in the bowels of a torture dungeon.
This 2017 entry from hardcore underground filmmaker Domiziano Cristopharo tells the story of an unnamed man, credited as “Latino Guy” (Emanuele D’Elia) who finds himself tied up in a decrepit room being tortured in a variety of ways by a giggling maniac known as (naturally) “Torturer” (Simone Tolu). The event itself is being dispassionately observed by a strange and mysterious woman known only as “Her” (Chiara Pavoni) who sits close by recording it all on her camcorder and occasionally joining in. The graphic and explicit torture scenes are interwoven with surreal moments, hallucinations, and flashbacks that eventually shed light on who these people are and why they are doing what they are doing.
First and foremost, Xpiation is Extreme Cinema and as such delivers on the gruesome violence with excellent practical effects that render the uncompromising brutality in exquisite detail. There’s plenty to satisfy the gorehounds here as the film viciously doles out cutting, burning, beating and even an exceptionally explicit ball smashing scene that’s sure to have every viewer with those parts cringing and crossing their legs. While extreme violence in a film is fun, it can also become repetitive on its own and as someone who has seen a LOT of dirty basement Torture Porn, I was glad to see the film at least attempt to expand on the spectacle of violent titillation through use of surreal imagery.
The attempt was not entirely successful though and the inclusion of these scenes (as well as the flashbacks) made it seem like the film was on track to deliver more of a creative mind-fuck twist on the story than what we ultimately got. I do like how it plays with the concept of perspective and audience expectation but in the end the story itself is quite thin and the success of the experience relies quite heavily on the graphic, shocking effects. I like the violence and the weirdness but I would challenge filmmakers like Cristopharo to bring more attention to character development and story arc to create art that is overall more affecting and ultimately more provocative. As an exercise I would recommend that part of the scriptwriting process should involve removing all the violence, shoring up the story that remains and then adding it back in.
Like the rest of the film, the acting is a bit of a mixed bag as Tolu gives off an energy that is a bit more goofy than convincingly deranged while Pavoni’s stoic presence exudes a more engaging depth of character helped in no small part by her exquisite and unconventional costume design. So while Xpiation may not hit every mark perfectly it’s still an interesting and visceral experience that showcases a level of free expression that you won’t find in mainstream cinema.