Review: Operation Avalanche

Posted on Saturday, December 31st, 2016 at 11:25 am

[Originally written for and published by Crossfader Magazine]

Director: Matt Johnson

Genre: Thriller

Year: 2016

Matt Johnson and Owen Williams make independent, amateur filmmaking look good. In fact, they make it downright stunning on occasion in their new film OPERATION AVALANCHE, which, surprisingly, isn’t too dissimilar to their previous film THE DIRTIES. Trading high school cinephilia, bullying, and school shootings for period centric, high tension political espionage, the team still functions on a film within a film level. Once again, they manage to take it away from a cheap convention and turn it into something with a lot of character, as well as stylistic intensity. It’s a marvel that their sensibilities translate so well, so far away from traditional, contemporary independent works, to which their attitudes seem more fitting. But their ambitious tackling of the high concept pays off, both despite and because of their unabashedly endearing tenacity.

operation avalanche astro not

More like Astro-not! *SLAM DUNK*

OPERATION AVALANCHE opens on two members of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s A.V. sector in 1967, following up on a tip that Stanley Kubrick might be a spy. In their reporting back, they come with a pitch for another mission: pose as a clueless documentary crew (filming everything as this film’s framing device) and infiltrate NASA to investigate their status on the Apollo missions, ultimately to sniff out a KGB mole. Upon approval, their mission slowly begins to spiral and tighten as more and more information unravels, cancelling out and contradicting each other. To make matters worse, interpersonal tensions arise, jeopardizing deep friendships and the lives within them.

With THE DIRTIES being about high schoolers and being made like it were by high schoolers, OPERATION AVALANCHE captures a similar sense of untethered ambition. The transplanting of perspectives initially doesn’t feel all that different, which felt worrisome right off the bat. Both films open on ambitious youths being looked down upon for their unbridled creative works, unaware of the heft of the real world right outside their fantasies. Yet OPERATION AVALANCHE pushes onward, determined to establish itself in the Cold War era. The period details in costume, production design, and even cinematography are specific, but lived in enough to be pretty convincing throughout. At first it feels like a student project trying hard to be a period piece, but eventually OPERATION AVALANCHE looks and feels pretty legitimate, mainly thanks to Johnson’s lively and excited direction.

operation avalanche i do declare

I say we bring back saying “I do declare,” for it’ll be fun!

The plot and pace of the film is quite enticing right off the bat, bouncing around with comedic irreverence and genuine intent. One moment they’re in a heist film, and another they’re in a conspiracy thriller, followed by a buddy comedy. Johnson’s ability to go back and forth between these tones feels natural, particularly because he pushes the film ahead with the real gut feeling that it’s a documentary. The camera work, revealed through editing, does everything in its power to function like a documentary. The performances all around strive for real, most of the time succeeding with flying colors due to volleying with actual reality; Matt Johnson and his crew pulled some real guerrilla hijinks to get this film made. They snuck into NASA posing as a documentary team, both as the conceit of the film, but also as a cover. Johnson notoriously goes around traditional filmmaking decorum for the sake of capturing a reality that’s as close to our own as possible. Even in a period piece, this methodology pulls off some real magic that only independent productions could be remembered and lauded for.

It’s odd but exciting to say OPERATION AVALANCHE executes nail-biting thriller cinematics akin to classics like BLOW UP and THE CONFORMIST. The documentary conceit Johnson boldly chooses to work with extends the intensity through shaky cameras and disadvantageous camera angles, and fully into patient cat and mouse games, and even improvised car chases. The camera (half film, half digital transferred to film with the print dirtied up; clever process, actually) is an active participant, and sometimes has to hide, creating great moments of dread. Its frequent zoom and telephoto photography call to mind recent fare like Alex Ross Perry’s LISTEN UP PHILIP, but also throws back to more time fitting classics, not so much playing dress up but employing old tricks like they haven’t been worn in a while.

operation avalanche mixtape

When you listen to your friend’s mixtape because you love them but it’s trash

Scenes of characters observing film strips and still photos, noticing something they wish they hadn’t, feel as 60s and 70s as the authentic stock footage they implement and even manipulate throughout. To top it off, there’s a chase scene near the end of this film that delivers on being one of the most unnerving and aggressively frightening sequences in cinema this year. Think GUN CRAZY plus CITIZENFOUR levels of visceral unease. Considering this film’s capabilities as odd is purely because not many independent features really dare to try what this film does, let alone succeed at all. There’s a confidence flowing through this film’s veins that not only call attention to its impressive craft, but actually enthralls and captures imagination in several key moments.

The one aspect that doesn’t connect so strongly with the rest of OPERATION AVALANCHE lies in the lead performances not necessarily fitting to period convention. Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, and the rest of their team are decidedly Canadian, and predominantly speak like they’re from the generation they’re really from. It’s an odd toss up, as despite the lack of period consistency, Johnson and Williams perform with such dedication to their character that it almost feels worthy of excusing. Their drama, down time, and shared comedic moments are palpable and filled with such unique life that it becomes hard to leave by the end of the film. There’s no doubt that Williams and Johnson are bound for some great performances in the very near future, and there’s no denying that they even give great performances here. It’s more a question of them turning in the right performances for the film. But even with the disconnect, OPERATION AVALANCHE chugs along without panic.

operation avalanche krav maga

Is this Krav Maga?

Like a magic act so bold in premise that there’s fear it won’t be pulled off, OPERATION AVALANCHE throws a bunch of balls into the air. For a sophomore feature effort, and one that is literally Matt Johnson’s graduate thesis film, what it manages to catch is impressive far beyond the film school level. This is an exciting little film that deserves exposure outside of the festival circuit. Matt Johnson is a performer and director who, without blinking, makes his ambitious craft almost look effortless, only because he puts his blood in the work and directly on the screen. Not only do he and his crew set out with stars in their eyes, but they legitimately follow through, from THE DIRTIES’s stunning closing scene, all the way to OPERATION AVALANCHE’s third act that doesn’t feel obligated to stay light. There’s a philosophical and cinematic effort to follow through from Johnson that makes him stand out. OPERATION AVALANCHE is evidence of an unfiltered independent voice who feels as close to the definition of independent as any other indie director has ever settled. It can’t escape all of its amateurish caveats, but they took their intentions to the finish line regardless. It’s blood-pumping cinema that transcends the pitfall of being a spirited but embarrassing effort, and instead becomes a scrappy fighter of a film whose bark is just as loud as its bite. It deserves to be seen.

Verdict: Recommend

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