Tag Archives: Independent film

CAPSULE: RESTLESS (2011)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Henry Hopper,

PLOT: A moody boy with the ghost of a kamikaze pilot for a best friend and a hobby of attending funerals falls in love with a girl who’s dying of cancer.

Still from Restless (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Remaking Harold and Maude as a teen romance with a hot Maude and a ghost sidekick sounds like a bad idea, but Restless is even worse than you might imagine.

COMMENTS: An unquenchably perky dying woman convinces a boy with a morbid fascination for death that life is a precious gift not to be wasted. If you’re going to use a plot that’s so well-worn and sickly sweet, then by God you’d better find a pungent spice to add some flavor to the treacle. What if you made the love interest an octogenarian Holocaust survivor, and had the thanatophilic teen stage elaborate fake suicides? What, it’s been done before? Well, at least we could have them meet cute at a stranger’s funeral. You’re kidding, they already did that, too? Well, we’ll just do it anyway, and market it to teens who haven’t seen it before. Oh, and let’s throw in a ghost… make him a Japanese kamikaze pilot… they didn’t do that one yet, did they? Despite attempts to gussy up the doomed material with an infusion of quirk, if you’ve seen a dozen or so romantic movies, then Restless is one you’ve seen before. Henry (son of Dennis) Hopper puts on his best brood, but bad boy he ain’t; this pallid dreamboat is more Robert Pattison than James Dean. Despite being graced with a truly tragic backstory that gives him ample excuse for bitterness, Hopper still manages to come across as a whiny brat, and it doesn’t help matters that he’s scripted as kind of dumb, too. Ryo Kase (understandably) doesn’t appear to have a clue why his ghost character is in the story, so he hedges his acting bets and plays Hiroshi totally deadpan. (By far the film’s best—in fact, its only—joke is Hiroshi’s skill at the board game “Battleship.”) In 2011, Mia Wasikowska proved she had pro acting chops by taking the lead in Jane Eyre and an admirable supporting turn in Albert Nobbs; she comes off the best here, but there’s not much she can do to give grit or texture to such a perfect, unrealistic, idealized character. Annabel isn’t scared of dying, she’s always upbeat and positive, and she doesn’t get visibly upset even when her boyfriend dumps her on her deathbed. Chemo makes her hair look really darling, and even when she’s convulsing, she looks like a cutie-pie. Mia is pleasant and brings a life to the role, but her eternally sunny character makes no sense—shouldn’t the movie be about coming to grips with the reality of mortality, not glossing over the ugly facts of death? Mia never appears the least bit sickly, but the same can’t be said for Jason Lew’s anemic screenplay. This script is wired deep into teen paranoia. Why are all the adult authorities against the kids? Why does the funeral director care so much about Enoch respectfully attending memorial services of people he doesn’t know? Why do security guards tackle him when he’s leaving the hospital peacefully? Why does no one understand him? Despite, or rather because of, tailoring itself to teens’ distorted views of reality, this isn’t a good movie for teenagers. It’s pure pandering, and it’s either cynical, or incompetent. Restless isn’t reprehensible or badly made, but it’s worse than many movies that are, because it doesn’t really try: it merely spiffs up tired platitudes with a few quirks and fresh faces, and assumes its unsophisticated audience will eat up the result. The lack of effort or ambition is depressing. Why do so many movies that consciously set out to be life-affirming make smart people despair after watching them?

Gus van Sant is a director who’s hard to peg: he’s all over the map, making everything from gritty indies (Drugstore Cowboy and Elephant) to Oscar-bait (Good Will Hunting and Milk) to kinky would-be cult films (My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) to true WTF head-scratchers (a “shot-for-shot” remake of Psycho?) God knows what attracted him to this material, which seems tailored for a hack director. Directing Restless is like being the makeup guy at the funeral parlor—the best he can do is to make the lifeless script presentable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…they may be a little too weird for the rest of the world; they are the perfect kind of weird for each other… a movie that is as heartwarming as it is strange.”–Matthew DeKinder, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE FOURTH DIMENSION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: , Aleksei Fedorchenko, Jan Kwiecinski

FEATURING: , Igor Sergeev,

PLOT: An anthology of three stories: a lecture by an American motivational speaker; a man invents a time machine but can only watch events through someone else’s eyes; and four Poles party in a town that’s been evacuated ahead of a flood.

Still from The Fourth Dimension (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The three tales are only mildly weird, and only mildly interesting.

COMMENTS: “Lotus Community Workshop,” the much-anticipated team-up between actor Val Kilmer and director Harmony Korine, is obviously the main draw in this triptych of timely tales, but unfortunately (and perhaps predictably, given the hype) it disappoints. Kilmer plays a motivational speaker whose nonsensical rhetoric nonetheless thrills a motley crowd of ordinary people at a neon-washed roller rink. In between inspirational snippets we see him contentedly riding a bicycle, piping on a flute, and playing a videogame with a girlfriend played by  (who would be too young for the fiftyish Kilmer even at her real age of 26—she looks and acts like a teenager here). Kilmer, who goes as gonzo as the limited space allows, gives some absurd and mildly amusing advice—he tells the assemblage about the time he encountered the mothership, advises them to stop riding horses and to bury gold under their bathtubs, and describes his vision of a world like cotton candy—but the satire seems more pointless than pointed, and the quiet scenes add nothing. This is Harmony Korine with all the shock value removed, and what remains is uninspiring. Putting Korine first gave film festival poseurs a chance to sneak out early, which is sad because the succeeding films are at least as interesting and might even be slight improvements. The second installment, “Chronoeye,” is the only short here that addresses the concept of “the fourth dimension” head on. It concerns a Russian genius who has built a time machine, but it only allows him to see events through someone else’s eyes, and he can’t pick his vantage point; so, for example, he goes back in time to view the execution of scientific martyr Giordano Bruno, but sees it through the eyes of a little girl who’s focusing on a ladybug. Meanwhile, a tax collector is trying to carve a pound of flesh out of him, while his upstairs neighbor is a beautiful dancer who keeps annoying him as she pounds on the floor practicing for an upcoming recital. The joke about focusing on insignificant details of major historical events is repetitive, but Igor Sergeev sells it with an expression of increasing frustration with every new failure. We in the audience become as frustrated as he is, because we see events from his past whose significance will never be clear to us. An abrupt but mysterious ending mixes up past, present and future. The finale “Fawns” follows a group of opportunistic young hipsters as they treat a town that’s been evacuated ahead of a flood as their own private playground. At close to forty minutes it’s longer than the other two offerings, but much of the opening is spent just watching the youngsters roam around the deserted suburbs whooping, playing on swings and looting soda shops. Eventually, a plot develops as one of the quartet wanders away without explanation and the remaining trio must decide whether to search for him or flee as the blare of sirens and rumble of helicopters, heralds of the encroaching floodwaters, increase in their insistency. Then, a chance encounter throws a moral monkey wrench into their plans for a clean escape. It ends, as expected, on an ambiguous note. Each of these offerings raise a mild degree of interest, but none of them truly succeed as standalone efforts, nor do they mesh well together. The “fourth dimension” theme is used as a joke by Korine and treated obviously by Fedorchenko, while Kwiecinski merely name-checks the concept. The Fourth Dimension doesn’t meet its lofty goal of “challenging our ideas of 4th dimensions,” unless, of course, your idea of the fourth dimension is that it’s inherently fascinating, in which case you can consider that notion shot down.

The idea for The Fourth Dimension was co-sponsored by Grolsch beer and Vice Magazine. Each of the three filmmakers were given a set of rules to follow; those we see quoted in the film include that each director’s segment “must contain more real life than anything else you have ever made” and “must blur the line between what is real and what is fake.” Other dogmas, reportedly, were that each director must direct one scene blindfolded. At the time of this writing, the film is exclusively available to watch (for free) on Vice‘s YouTube channel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a tour de force of what seems to be improvisational lunacy from the behatted, bicycling Kilmer, whose performance has fewer concrete things to say about Los Angeles, con jobs or mass therapy than it does about the merits of watching a gifted actor walk a high wire.”–John Anderson, Variety (contemporaneous)

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CAPSULE: THE FP (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Brandon Trost, Jason Trost

FEATURING: Jason Trost, Caker Folley, Lee Valmassy, Art Hsu

PLOT: In the future rival gangs fight for control of a lawless suburban town, gaining power and street cred by winning dance video game duels.

Still from The FP (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It dances to the beat of its own beat machine, for sure, and will strike a chord with some, but it’s not weird enough to overcome its own lightweight aspirations.

COMMENTS: Although I can’t unconditionally recommend The FP, I do admire its willingness to play its goofy premise with a (mostly) straight face. There are only a couple of outright jokes in the movie’s entire run-time (including a pretty funny one about the ecology of alcoholics and waterfowl). Most of the time, we’re allowed to generate our own humor from the absurd spectacle of wannabe gangstas settling deadly scores on video game dance floors. Eye-patched hero J-Tro quits the 248 gang after brother B-Tro drops dead, presumably of shame, after losing a hoofing contest to mohawked L Dubba E, leader of the 245 clan. Coaxed out of retirement by monumentally irritating sidekick KCDC, J-Tro returns to the FP to find L Dubba E monopolizing not only the suburbs’ liquor supply, but also his would-be New Wave squeeze Stacy. This leads, inevitably, to a series of training montages before J-Tro faces L Dubba one-on-one for some beatbox vengeance. Meanwhile, a cast of spastic punk extras say the f-word while dressed in mix-and-match outfits from Road Warrior and Karate Kid (the ladies dress like Cyndi Lauper in the depths of a depraved cocaine binge). From the Commodore 64-style opening graphic scroll to the synthpop theme, the movie is oh-so-Eighties it hurts. It’s a parody of all those shy-and-stoic underdog defeats the arrogant villain and gets the girl flicks, and also a satire on today’s white suburban youth acting all ghetto (not the most challenging of satirical targets, for sure, but sometimes you aim at what you can hit). The slang is thick to the point of near impenetrability (“J-TRO jumped his ass and was like bow to the bridge, yo kick it! Believ’ dat!”), but it’s too near real contemporary teen talk (characters actually say “whatevs” and “for realz”) to have any poetic charm. Odd moments include an attack with an electric tennis racket and a drug trip where a freaked out J-Tro believes he’s being attacked by hipsters in rainbow wigs, but the weirdest thing about the movie is that none of the characters realizes that none of the other characters in the movie actually has a “black ass.” The 248 crew refer to each other as “Niggas” (“nig” for short), which they explain stands for “Never Ignorant in Gettin’ Goals Accomplished.” To me, a more accurate acronym for their behavior would be “Willfully Insipid Goofiness Galls Adults.” I desperately wanted to enjoy this offbeat movie, but I couldn’t, because every character was constantly screaming at me in a stream of profanity-laced, alphabet soup jargon, and I wanted them all to die in grisly ways. With its head-rattling techno soundtrack and post-apocalyptic rave visuals, The FP seems hellbent on giving anyone over the age of 30 a screaming headache; if that sounds like an endorsement to you, then by all means give it a watch.

The FP was released by Drafthouse Films, the new distribution branch of the famous Alamo Drafthouse saloon/cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…just a flat out bizarre experience that never quite clicks.”–Jeremy Lebens, “We Got This Covered” (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Terrance Zdunich, , Briana Evigan, Jessica Lowndes, Dayton Callie

PLOT: A suicide, a jewel thief, and a thug’s girlfriend die and find themselves at an afterlife circus run by the Devil; he reads the stories of their sins retold as fables, which they re-enact to musical accompaniment supplied by carnies.

Still from The Devil's Carnival (2012)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Devil’s Carnival is a lot like director Darren Lynn Bousman’s previous horror musical effort, Repo: The Genetic Opera, only on a smaller scale. If that one didn’t make it onto the List, then logically this one shouldn’t, either.

COMMENTS: Hell is eternal musical theater! I knew it! The Devil’s Carnival looks like refugees from a circus took over unused sets from Moulin Rouge. Hell’s color scheme is candy apple red and hot dog mustard yellow, and all the demons have mime-white faces with black and red designs equally inspired by medieval harlequins and KISS. The plot to this musical is delightfully warped, in more ways than one. It involves suicide, thievery, and women in masochistic relationships, but it also benefits from a wild narrative that veers between reality, fantasy, and song and dance numbers at a whim. Fittingly, none of the denizens of the carnival seem the slightest bit surprised by any of it; the three hellbound souls receiving their poetic punishments wonder why they’re suddenly at a state fair designed by David Lynch for all of five seconds before they start accepting the dream at face value. I always like it when a movie script takes on too much and mixes its metaphors. Carnival starts off as Dante by way of Cirque du Soleil, then, one-third of the way in, after each of the three stories is already in progress, the Devil starts reading a book of Aesop’s fables which illustrate the sins (adding to the confusion, the last section, “The Devil’s Due,” doesn’t even refer to Aesop—the quote’s from from Shakespeare and the plot’s from nowhere in particular). Along with the three fables, we also get a backstage peek at the Devil’s lieutenant casting the night’s morality plays and a subplot about the Lucifer-God rivalry, all shoehorned in around a dozen songs in a movie that’s only an hour long. The script’s a mess, but I don’t mean that as a criticism: the overabundance of ideas and references in The Devil’s Carnival gives the entire enterprise a loose and crazy feeling that’s appropriate and appealing. The costume and set design is superlative, and the demonic hoofers—the Hobo Clown, the Painted Doll, and plastic-haired greaser Scorpion—are all a morbid hoot. Where The Devil’s Carnival loses me is with the songs. They are impressively staged and consistently performed in a Weimar-era German cabaret style. The Hobo Clown, ragged hat extended for alms, croons a demented doggerel silhouetted by footlights while a topless woman is whipped in the background (like all of Carnival, this is a surprisingly PG-13 rendition of some very dark material). But the melodies, while appropriately carnivalesque, aren’t memorable, and the libretto can’t match the ambition of the mise-en-scene. There’s too much repetition, and more than once the lyrics fall back on the cheap trick of incorporating children’s nursery rhymes to cop a little irony. Songs like “Kiss the Girls,” with a man menaced by a gang of sexy clowns in Bozo’s of Hollywood lingerie, look great, but make little sense. The lip-syncing is also frequently off, providing another distraction. Ivan L. Moody, a veteran of several minor metal bands with a surprisingly melodious baritone, gives the best performance; but the best conceived number is “Prick,” a love badly sung by a painted waif to a bullfrog that makes clever use of the double meaning in the title. Still, there is nothing here that you’d want to put on your I-Pod (Repo cultists, many of whom bought this soundtrack on the release date without having heard a note, may naturally disagree). Divorced from their presentations, the songs are all competent but forgettable, and, like its predecessor Genetic Opera, it’s that lack of memorable tunes that keeps The Devil’s Carnival from making the leap to the next artistic level. If Bousman could just borrow the talents of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, or even , for just a week sometime, he might make something really magical. The film is part of a planned series, and ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Carnival may not have blown me away, but the best compliment I can give it as that it has me looking forward to the next installment—and, it makes me consider looking backward to reassess Repo.

While Bousman continues to make horror movies like Mother’s Day within the Hollywood system, The Devil’s Carnival cements his credibility as a cult filmmaker and suggests he’s dedicated to the more interesting, less-marketable horror-musical concept. The mid-range production values, cable TV-friendly naughtiness, cliffhanger ending and hour-long length of Carnival make it look like a pilot for an HBO series, although there’s no evidence it was ever intended for the small screen. The marketing of the film, which was self-financed by Bousman and partner Terrance Zdunich (who wrote the script and plays the Devil), is innovative: a VOD/Netflix streaming release, supplemented by a collector’s edition DVD/Blu-ray (limited to 6660 copies) and a “carnival road tour.” Hopefully this nontraditional distribution strategy will work and allow the pair to retain their artistic independence by selling directly to the fans.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dismiss Repo and Carnival as weird musicals for weird people if you like, but there’s always room for a filmmaker who treats his ticket-buyers well and delivers something sort of … unsafe.”–Scott Weinberg, FearNet (contemporaneous)