In the opening minutes of filmed stage show, Play Dead, Todd Robbins does that old side-show standby, he chews broken glass. But not just any glass, it is the frosted exterior casing of the one lightbulb that is to serve as the audiences life-line out of the small, cramped and now very dark off-broadway theatre in Greenwich Village. In this venue, filled with old bankers boxes, an RCA turntable and (naturally) a coffin, for 75 minutes Robbins will en captivate and involve a very game live audience, but also his cinema (or VOD viewing) audience, with his macabre and at times, quite funny, brand of pure storytelling. Shot with multiple cameras, including a completely unnecessary, and frankly quite distracting, night-vision camera to see the theatre trapped audience squirm in the dark, Play Dead‘s practical, decidedly un-cinematic, presentation is barely hurt by it’s bare-bones production value. This is because the best special effect, the sexiest lens or skewed angle, is through Robbins’ sheer force of narrative propulsion in his show.
Featuring more birds and ears than David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, but also exploring the horrors in ‘normal’ rural areas, this wonderful teaser-poster for the Pontypool Sequel appearing both at the Fantasia Development Market this week as well as the poster show at La Cinémathèque Québécoise as a part of the alternate history poster exhibit “It They Came From Within”
Furthermore, there is nobody on this planet more excited about the prospect of this happening, the long promised sequel to Bruce McDonald’s wonderful semiotic zombie film very loosely taken from Tony Burgess’s exceptional novel “Pontypool Changes Everything.” As the sequels (hopefully) get made they will slowly build the title of the novel from which the loosely joined stories (the book is kind of the Robert Altman Short Cuts of zombie novels) are extracted.
If you look at the bottom and you have seen the first film, you see one of the best taglines in some time.
In the tradition of mashing sub-genres together to get something entirely new and interesting, full credit goes to micro-indie avant garde chiller Toad Road for merging the wasted youth drug drama with the urban-legend horror flick. The experience of watching this quite vérité experiment is akin to taking essence of Drugstore Cowboy and infusing it into the broth of The Blair Witch Project whilst dropping a mint-leaf of Picnic at Hanging Rock on the side for garnish. Using the syntax of losing oneself of those campfire wilderness spook stories as a metaphor for ever increasing drug use is wonderful in both concept and execution.
Sara is the bright young thing, ripe as a peach and innocent to a degree who is played by Sara Anne Jones, a NYC model with real acting chops. She starts hanging out romantically with James (James Davison) and thus, incidentally, with his circle of druggie pals. Initially she abstains from using, content to watch them horse around with each other when they are high which consists, I suppose, of the usual stuff. You know, they make out, puke, fall down stairs, pull a condom through their nostrils out of their mouth and light each others pubic hair on fire for kicks. The suggestion of drug use and sex is palpable. Slowly, Sara’s curiosity gets the better of her and she uses some light substances, the so-called ‘gateway drugs’; albeit with all the excessive drinking going on, perhaps at 17 or whatever, all of us are through the first ‘gate’ anyway. In the mean time, during daylight hours, her relationship with Jason continues to develop in the dreamy but fun sort of way that many fantasize first love might be. The contrast between jackass level group mayhem on the drug binges and the casual and positive intimacy with their alone-ness is the first hook the film film as to offer. Even if you think these characters are initially vapid or douchey (one of James’ friends attempt to emotionally guilt Sara into a sexual encounter is nevertheless particularly well achieved) or find the few instances of exposition a tad clunky, you can tell there is some serious filmmaking happening by the intentional contrast of tone and aesthetic.
DIn the running with Quentin Dupieux’s Wrong as the funniest entry in the Fantasia and possibly of this year so far, I am going to give Black Pond the edge because of its Errol Morris “Life is pretty damn strange, would you fancy a cup of tea and a chat about it?” penchant for absurdity in the mundane. While the events depicted in this almost-a-crime documentary are not ‘real’ as say Tabloid or Gates of Heaven, films are lies that tell the truth either way and funny is and funny does. Black Pond just wants you to have a banana, but not a midnight, bananas are for energy to go out and do something, not to satisfy a mere late night craving.
Let me start at the ending. (The film itself does so.)
David Mamet once wrote that the end of a great film should be both surprising and inevitable. Resolution is a horror movie of ideas; a twisted semiotic pretzel which is an ode to our collective addiction to scary movies, and how we glean meaning from the experience. The titles dual meaning, both in the finality of an ending and as a means of seeing things clearer (particularly in audio-visual media) is one of those simple, perfect choices – not only to get at the experience of watching the film, but really only afterwards, in retrospect. Unlike the smug, offhand silliness of Joss Whedon and Drew Stoddard’s Cabin in the Woods, this one makes you give a damn; as much about the films building Lost-type puzzlebox, but moreso the two exceptionally well realized characters.
Opening with a grotty low-rez video of bearded junkie who is high as a kite and shooting off guns in the middle of nowhere, the camera pulls back to reveal Michael, at home with his lovely wife, viewing his best friends sad escapades with resignation and confusion. The latter because the video came with a Google Map link in the middle of nowhere. Looking at things like a plea for help, Michael gathers up his camping gear, some food and cash supplies and a pair of handcuffs. Determined to answer Chris’s plea for help, and detox his best friend for good, Michael assures his wife that he will be gone for no more than a week, and eventually land Chris in a good rehab place. Upon Michael’s arrival to the rotting house, just on the inside of a California Indian reservation, where Chris has been squatting in for a few days, there is some confusion: He was not sent for by Chris who certainly has no access to a computer or video editing equipment, not to mention that his pal is smack dab in the middle of a major crystal meth bender. That not-so-minor mystery aside, Michael carries through with his plan, much to Chris’s chagrin. Not only does this intervention test the limit of the two men’s life-long friendship but it brings in a number of pragmatic issues. The local meth dealers know where Chris is hiding out and want either their money or their drugs back, Chris is hazy on the location of the latter or is itching for his next fix – or both. The owner of the house they are camping out in wants them out of there (or cash to stay) and offers a less explicit, but no less real threat, of violence as well. Then there is the nearby mental asylum that lets some of its patients wander about the desert wilderness, there are dozens of hobo junkies far worse along than Chris, a local cult-like christian sect has their crisp white shirted members also wandering about (played by the director and writing team of Aaron Moorehead and Justin Benson in one of the films many nods towards meta-ness) and rumours of devil worship, ghosts, native spirits, you name it. Hell there is even a slimy real-estate salesman that might just be the creepiest of a fairly dense cast of lost souls wandering about in the wasteland. Someone comments at one point, “there are a lot of junkies buried out in these hills.”
Oscar Svendson is in deep trouble. Picked up by the police at a strip-bar with a dead fat woman laying on top of him, one of a dozen corpses littering the place, and a still-warm shot-gun in his hands, he has a lot of ‘splainin to do! And in a Kaiser Soze act of raconteur, story-tell he does. How does a used tanning bed, a pile of monopoly money and a freshly painted wall factor into a robbery gone wrong? In this twisty and revealing Jo Nesbø (Headhunters, the Harry Hole detective series) penned story the cops are competent, and the criminals are … not so much. It is a sordid and silly and incredibly violent tale of meek Oscar, who manages a Christmas tree manufacturing company which employes ex-cons for the labour. These burly but not to bright fellows, Thor, Danny and Billy, do not give too much of a damn about safety, sobriety or even paying attention to their employer. But they need a few extra dollars in their footy-pool scheme involving a dodgy website’s promise of turning welfare cases into millionaires. When the bet impossibly pays off (thanks to advice from a cute blonde waitress) the boys – who cannot do the arithmetic of even dividing the million+ kroner winnings by four – decide they should lower the number of folks in the pool and get more of a share. Corpse disposal shenanigans combine with those special kind of complete utter misunderstandings that sit somewhere on the spectrum between Fargo and Weekend at Bernies with a little of Fabián Bielinsky’s Nine Queens thrown in for good measure. Jackpot is bloody as hell with no fears of severing body parts and splattering victims and perpetrators alike; a very large bosomed lady falling in slow motion from a shotgun blast is played for laughs.
Cities have a boiling point. Like the ‘Summer of Sam’ in New York, or the Rodney King incident and fallout in Los Angeles, the individual people, each a tiny molecule of activity, can bump into one another slowly, raising the temperature, the kinetic energy, of a pocket to the point where the mounting pressure (an engine’s overworked radiator) will have to find some sort of release. So goes a particularly busy intersection in Pasay City, a market and subway intersection located inside metro Manilla, the capital of the Philippines. Here director Lawrence Fajardo’s intimate and deliberate camera documents the nooks and crannys (and crooks and trannys) in Amok. With patience in the storytelling and the raw talent of an ensemble cast, he delivers, in the tradition of Magnolia and Short Cuts, a cross-section of a single poundingly hot day where petty disagreements of its myriad citizenry are perpetually on the verge of flaring into full conflagration. But first, music. Acting as a greek chorus, three boys selling boxes of matches shake their wares and rap about how rubbing together too many people in close quarters is going to cause a flare-up. It is a blunt act of foreshadowing, with all that shakin’ friction and rattling match-sticks, but the song is so infectious and body-moving, against images of the busy goings on that you are immediately caught up in the thick of things.
The gamut of social strata are represented, from blind beggars and poor street vendors, to middle class folks just passing through, to semi-wealthy old ladies and mid-level gangsters caught up in their own business and money lending. An out of work Tagalog actor hires a prostitute to relieve the day, but the encounter does not go as planned. A woman and her nephew argue about money as they are stuck in traffic (everyone is metaphorically stuck in traffic), A man takes his son back home from private school where they debate his college basketball prospects, a pool shark (mohawked and innocent simultaneously) hustles in a mid-stakes game, a frustrated cabbie tries to brush of a particularly insistent customer, a woman in desperate poverty makes a deal with a gangster to burn down her apartment building for money, and a mother fights with her daughter about how to spend their meagre funds from selling BBQ meat skewers for pennies to passersby. Everyone slurps down cold drinks and wipes away the sweat and dust of the parched and clogged streets. The surprisingly clean cinematography, capturing clutter and chaos, whether in a vendor stall, a cramped apartment or the back seat of a car is stopped such that when in shadow you see the brightness and vice-versa. The film is highly focused on faces, but always lets you know that urban busyness stretches out everywhere in the background.
Even though school is in session during Funeral Kings, it feels like one of those ‘endless summer’ movies where boys that are too young to work, and too old to hang out with their parents, find interesting and elaborate ways to get into trouble. Befreckled Andy and his best friends Charlie and Bobby aim to misbehave while doing altar-boy funeral duty at their Catholic Church. At fourteen, they are restless and a bit horny; they are certainly not beyond looking down a young woman’s top mid-funeral even as she wipes her damp eyes with a tissue. They know a good scam when they see it. Sitting quietly (deceptively serene and innocent) in their white gowns on the dais during these occasions not only gets them out of class, but it allows for them to play hooky for the rest of the day as well. Throw half a bottle the sacrament wine into an empty water bottle and away they go. Their routine is thrown out of whack when Bobby lands himself in juvy and ends up hiding a huge locked truck up in Andy’s room. The boys are quick to adopt Bobby’s replacement, new kid Dave who just moved out east from California (parents divorced? maybe) starred in a violent movie where a well known actress might have shown her tits. They put Dave through the ropes of the grift – scamming food from the local chinese restaurant, attempts at stealing X-rated videos from the local video shop and buying cigarettes from the older kids at school. All the while the mysterious trunk begs to be opened in Bobby’s absence.
If Quentin Dupieux’s genre deconstruction effort, Rubber, from a couple years ago, left some folks scratching their head, or even critical of its ‘extended comedy sketch’ nature, then Wrong is perhaps not the film for them. With a bigger thematic reach, and a far more episodic structure, Wrong is likely as close as we will ever get to stand-up comedy in cinematic language. It is an absurdist masterwork, and this is only Mr. Oizo’s second feature film. The film picks at the very fabric of the myriad network of tiny social contracts that make up the average person’s day: Talking to the neighbor, ordering a pizza, petty politics in the office, having a polite phone call with a friend, and the like. But of course, these are presented and dealt with by all the major and minor characters in a manner that is, well, wrong. As in any good comedy or a good storytelling, what happens with expectations are violated and how do we feel about that violation? Playing like the longest and best Kids in the Hall sketch ever made, even the lead actor Jack Plotnick bears a resemblance to Kevin McDonald (and can do wonderful emoting with his eyebrows and hangdog face.) Visually, the movie has a real penchant for filmmaking gags. Much of the shocking (but not necessarily abrupt) punch-lines are executed by revealing things just outside the frame, or even within the frame via rack-focus, with the precision of a master comedian. Often there is a complex series of reveals and pauses and doubletakes (which belies the overtly minimalist deadpan tone of the film) having the effect of keeping even a quick witted audience on their toes. The opening sequence is in a strange way his riff on the great opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in The West. Ok, maybe that is a bit of a stretch, but, like Rubber, there is as much (or more) comedy in the craft of construction as there is in the performances or dialogue.
The plot is quite simple. Former travel agent Dolph Springer (Plotnick) wakes up one morning at 7:60 am to find his loving pooch gone from the house and nowhere to be found. His neighbor, Mike (comedian Regan Jones, hilariously downbeat) is abandoning his own house, perhaps because Dolph mentions Mike’s daily jog; something Mike vehement denies he even does. It is raining at Dolph’s office, in a Synechdoche, New York sort of way (one of this films many “No Reason” moments) and his co-workers give him the evil eye for, well, best not to reveal why, but suffice it to say, Dolph is a creature of habit. Dolph channels the silent rage brought upon by his own effectually in this particular moment in his life – when any chance of even the smallest of comforts spiraling wildly out of reach – in a Greenberg-esque fit of pique by railing at a badly designed pizza logo. Miscommunication and bad decisions ensue. People unabashedly spout the phrase “vis-à-vis.” The movie, in fact, is very much concerned with wondering how any form of human vis-à-vis communication is every truly successful. Personally, I would consider Wrong to be a magnificent double feature with Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor; even though I’m not sure how to pick which film would be the feature and which would be the B-Side.