Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008

Emerson grad Jeremy Kasten's remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1970 killer magician movie The Wizard of Gore starts off this year's Boston Underground Film Festival (shouldn't it be Cambridge Underground Film Festival since none of the movies or parties take place in Boston?) off with a woozy first stride. Seemingly shot through a thin layer of cheese cloth, the agenda of this remake seems to be to take away all the gore and replace it with a dense, druggy, convoluted plot.

There was a Q&A after the film with the director, who seemed like a nice young man and before the film asked the audience to give him any questions they had rather than writing about it on the internet. Sorry, I had to catch a bus, man. I've been to enough of these festival screenings to know that the movie will not start on time and any scheduling you might try to do ahead of time is highly speculative and naive. Needless to say I practically ran over people on my way out once the credits started rolling in an effort to make it home before midnight.

The feature was preceded by a welcome from the festival's head honchos, the vampire bunny mascot, and two short offerings -- the first a horrible, laughable video for a Dwarves song (chorus, "I want to fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, eat, and fuck you up") and the second an awkward Canadian movie by the name of The Demonology of Desire that had a good spirit and premise but some bad acting and timing that prevented the audience from really connecting with it. I suspect that the script for The Demonology of Desire makes for a great story but the young actors, probably around 15 or 16 years old, weren't exactly naturals on camera. These short films weren't exactly knocking any socks off and you could feel the audience getting restless. There were already a couple of technical glitches and 30 second pauses in between trailers and shorts -- people were ready for some crazy shit to go down, instead we were mildly diverted by The Wizard of Gore.

A silly looking but game Kip Pardue leads us through the mystery of Montag the Magnificent (Crispin Glover), a guy who performs a show in some dingy warehouse that involves him deriding his audience before performing some hideous act (vivisection, bear traps, etc.) on one of its members, only at the end of the show the person walks off the stage perfectly fine. When they show up dead of the the same causes a day later Pardue and his girlfriend (Bijou Phillips) quickly figure out that something is up.

Pardue isn't the most charismatic of leads and his chemistry with Philips is about as dull as they come. Fortunately there's Glover and an offbeat as ever Brad Douriff around to breathe life into the film. Whenever they appear on the screen you automatically light up. It's like a rush of oxygen is being delivered when they appear. I won't go too crazy about my disappointment with how Jeffrey Combs is treated here other than to say that taking the star of one of the greatest horror movies ever made and hiding him behind so much wig and beard that you can barely even see his eyes never mind recognize that it is in fact Jeffrey Combs is a bad, bad move.

The hardest thing to pull of in a horror movie is tone. This is the director's main obstacle to overcome -- how to make a movie that you're shooting over 3 months, or three years, carry an even tone when pulled together in the editing room. Music, lighting, performances, it's the director's job to make sure all these things gel together. In a horror movie you also have to create suspense in the proper moments, unease, an underlying feeling of tension, and if you're a horror movie created in the last 30 years you're probably going to be trying to balance some comedy into the movie as well. There's a lot of emotions you want to touch on in a horror movie and I suppose as a testament to how difficult it is to pull it all together it's the reason why we don't see many good ones. What happens here with The Wizard of Gore 2008 is that we end up running away from the horror genre all together and end up with more of a wishy-washy attempt at a hallucinogenic mystery movie than anything that came from the seeds planted by Herschell Gordon Lewis.

This bring us to many Why?s. Why even bother with making this a remake? Why make Kip Pardue so goofy looking in his L.A. Confidential get-up? Why remove the gore from a movie called The Wizard of Gore? What's with the smoke mirror? Even when the scenes with Montag involve him slicing open a "volunteer", the movie is so poorly lit or projected that you couldn't make anything out. There's some sort of smoke window device that Montag uses during his show that is given no explanation other than to further obscure the gore of the movie. The smoke window is pretty frustrating and it's possible that whatever technology they're using at the Brattle to project the movie was a little lacking but that doesn't excuse the rest of the mess as even if you separate the movie from the horror remake it may supposed to be and take it as the psychotropic mystery it tries to be it still falls apart in a clumsy pile of unfinished fits and starts.

Though I was a bit discouraged by the opening feature I pushed on and caught three more features and a shorts showcase over the rest of the weekend. I'm glad I did because as the weekend went on the movies got better and better, the quality a steady upward trajectory. First up was Pop Skull, a homemade nightmare of pills, ghosts and the murderous toll of heartbreak. If Wizard of Gore 2008 wanted to be a psychotropic, trippy mystery/horror story -- Pop Skull showed how it could be done properly in your back yard with a $3,000 budget and without fucking up the use of a perfectly good Jeffrey Combs.

The shorthand description of Pop Skull would be, it's kind of like a teenage Pi but with an even lower budget and scope -- instead of math the kid is just obsessed with his ex-girlfriend. Shot on grainy video in a lot of low lit rooms and trailers, director Adam Wingard uses wild and spastic editing tricks to make up for his limited locations and plot. This technique, as you may expect, is hit or miss, but I felt the ratio was more on the hit side than not. Sometimes these editing flourishes work great at creating mood or getting inside our main guy's disturbed brain. Other times it seems like he's simply trying too hard to jazz up a moment for no good reason. There's a few times where a one second moment will get repeated three times and the effect detracts and takes you out of the movie whereas the better moments like cutting to his memories of happier times, landscape and sky, bring you in deeper.

Our protagonist spends his days and nights in his small world down in his parent's basement in Birmingham, Alabama. He's the victim of a bitter break-up and is consoling himself with pills, tv and four track. This is sad enough but every now and then he sees ghosts -- weird images popping up in the corners of his eyes and behind hallway doors. His friend pops over once in awhile to drag him out, tries to talk sense into him and get him drunk but to no avail. His downward cycle is already in full swing and there's no stopping it.

Honestly, I think the director might not completely trust his own abilities. The moments where the camera lingers and the scenes play out without the jump cuts are truly mesmerizing, very creepy and effective. I got the impression that the editing got to be his gimmick and got the better of him sometimes. Wingard explained that the dialog in the film is mostly improvised and this tactic is perfectly used to gives us a fly on the wall feeling and, like I said, can make the scenes that are given some room to breathe hypnotic -- but it also makes the moments where he should've left well enough alone stand out. This didn't ruin the film for me but it was easy to notice the scenes where if he would have let the scene alone it would have worked much better. As it stands it's a good let's-watch-Daniel-go-crazy movie, in the vein of Clean, Shaven and Jacob's Ladder. A better than most first feature and definitely good enough to keep Wingard's name on the radar -- the man has a brilliant eye for using the space and environment around him for maximum effect. If I weren't already, this movie made me a bit scared of Alabama. (Also, I couldn't help but think of Band of Horses' "Is There a Ghost", it's far too literal to be put into the film but I like to think of the movie as some off-shoot -- it evokes that same southern gothic feeling that BoH excels in.)

Immediately afterwards was the You're So Not Serious (Shorts Program). As you can probably discern it was a collection of comically bent short movies. They ranged from the half hour long lucha libre inspired Ivory Bastards to the 2 minute Flash smiley face experiment 2000 Man. I'm not going to go into too much detail but I did want to give a shout out to Mark Leitzel, the guy who made 2000 Man because his achingly personal and artistic piece was overshadowed by the Thumb Wars inspired (seemingly) and pun filled Spudnik, an alternative history of space travel told through potatoes (funny for the first 30 seconds of its 7 minute run-on gag). In one of a few awkward moments in the festival, the three short film directors that were present that afternoon were brought up afterwards to field questions from the audience. The two directors that didn't make Spudnik got to stand there for what must have felt like hours while the people who were sitting next to the Spudnik director tossed glowing question after question his way. Then the guy's adorable little kid came out like on queue when the two other guys did get tossed an obligatory question. Meanwhile the guy who should serve as moderator simply stands off to the side, not helping at all by maybe tossing a couple questions to the other guys... Anyway, don't worry Leitzel, I think most people thought your 2 minute acidic stab at modern man was more interesting and meaningful than a space potato. Have you reached out to Spike & Mike?

There was a few minutes to get some fresh air and down some water and a Cliff bar before the last show of the night started. I was getting into this -- yes, I was a bit tired, I'd been in the same theater for 4+ hours, but I was up for the challenge of The Road to Nod. The program mentioned Bela Tarr as a comparison for this film -- how could I not check it out? Before we could dive into M.A. Littler's sweet cinematic lullaby there is of course the obligatory preceding short. This time around it was a nice little odd-ball entry called The Mutt and Mister-Man. And if I'm not mistaken it was the first thing I'd seen all weekend that was shot on film. Huzzah! This led into the second awkward moment of the day. It's a great little film by Seth Stewart. Two guys, maybe brothers?, are hatching some sort of plan that turns out to be nothing more than robbing a pizza delivery lady of fourteen, no fifteen, dollars. It's filled with knowing little moments like the introduction to the roommates -- opening up the packaging of a rotisserie chicken as a meal for two (breakfast?) with a side of whiskey shots. And the pizza lady who doesn't really mind being robbed, but do you have to use such language? It is a well shot, well paced short film with some great, funny moments. Now there were probably, maybe 15 people in the movie theater that weren't part of the director's friends and family. I'd just watched ten or so short films that had gotten a round of applause no matter what. Thing is, one person always starts the clapping, then everyone obliges. For one reason or another no one clapped for The Mutt and Mister-Man, a short film that was leaps and bounds more accomplished than any of the films in You're So Not Serious. But my question is, why didn't one of ten or so people that left in a huff clap? Why didn't the festival guy clap (he started the clapping at the end of Road to Nod)? Why is it that I feel guilty for not clapping? I don't care if it's the 50th time I'd seen my friend's short movie, if it was playing at a film festival I would have clapped at the end of it -- so I don't understand why there was this icy exit of ten people after Mutt and Mister Man ended. It was 9pm on a long day, given a little prod or knowing you were there they would have clapped.

Anyway, there was an interesting intro given to The Road to Nod from a representative of a Canadian film festival (I forget which), a sort of champion of The Road to Nod, who described how strange it was to be-friend a film through MySpace. He said that he'd spoken to the director M.A. Littler recently, who is busy shooting his next feature, and how he's building this next movie organically, in more of a drunken re-write fashion. He mentioned how he feels this bodes well for Littler, seeing it as a sign of the filmmaker growing since The Road to Nod is such a precise film. He was certainly right about that. Nod is an immaculately shot black and white film that gives both room to view it as precise and/or lyrical and meditative. I must say, this movie was the big surprise of the fest for me even though it stuck out while I looked over the program days before I watched it. There's no sex, drugs, vampires, zombies, rock n' roll or vivisections. What? I wouldn't call the Tarr remark in the program exactly appropriate. It is shot in that beautiful black and white that Tarr loves but there aren't any 8 minute takes or elaborately staged tracking shots. Well, there are a couple nice tracking shots... but it's mostly just a really cool low-key film noir.

Our man Parrish gets released from a six year stint in a German prison and one day later witnesses his boss, The Reverend, executed and before he can even adjust to life on the outside he has to adjust to life on the run. A good part of the film is watching Parrish cash in old favors from friends that may or may not be still in the business and may or may not be leading him into a death trap. One friend leads to another and we're led on a tour through these European back roads to the soundtrack of old blues tunes. The characters are from all over the map -- Parrish is from New Zealand, the actor reminds me of an older, blonder, bearded Noah Taylor -- and the movie does a fascinating trick of making the world seem vast and small all at the same time. It's a striking film that I hope gets a bit more exposure, or at least a page on IMDb. I fucking hate myspace but if it can help out a great film like The Road to Nod than I suppose it ain't all bad. But seriously, IMDb would be much better.

Last on the list was Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story. After a half day's rest it was a pleasure to wrap myself in what may be my favorite genre of all -- the documentary about movies. I'm a sucker for them, especially the ones that are simply unforgivingly romantic about the entire medium itself. One of my favorite movies of the past decade is Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, and one of the reasons it had such an impact on me was because I was able to see it in a theater at the Boston Film Festival. Seeing those clips of some of the best movies ever made on a big screen and hearing the life story of a guy who simply wanted to spread the gospel of movies -- not prestigious movies or high art movies; not just important movies or independent movies, just good movies -- everything from Lucas to Malick. William Castle was one of those guys and Spine Tingler! is one of those movies. He just wanted to make movies. Didn't matter what kind. Could be a high-society melodrama or a western, a gangster picture or a horror film, as long as he kept being able to make them he was happy.

It's a very lovingly told story of the man that reinvented the way movies were sold. This was back in the 50's when movies were still brought around, town by town. William Castle made going to one of his movies the big event for whatever town his film came to. Macabre was the first big one. Castle mortgaged his house and emptied his savings to make the movie and to make sure people showed up he offered up a gimmick -- an authentic Lloyd's of London insurance policy for $1,000 to anyone who may die of fright by watching his movie. He even hired real nurses to be present at showings and the spectacle grew more and more absurd from their. Castle is the connection between Hitchcock (who took a page out of Castle's book with his promotion techniques for Psycho) and John Waters -- between Orson Welles (Castle brought the rights for Lady From Shanghai to him) and Vincent Price.

Spine Tingler! was great way to end the festival for me. The movie just drips with love for the movies and once again reinforces my belief that someone has to give John Waters a talk show pronto, seriously, it's been obvious for over a decade that the man is simply suited for being part of what would be the best late night variety/talk show ever created. Someone get on this!

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