Posts Tagged ‘Independent’

SIFF MOVIES: Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2009) AND The Freebie (2009)

May 25, 2010

The Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) started last Thursday, and over the next three weeks, I’m going to be seeing several of its films.  Most of my selections so far have been from the horror or sci-fi sections,  but I threw in a few “serious” movies just to keep my brain balanced out.  Watch this space — I’m seeing about four or five more this week alone.

Oddly enough, the two movies I saw opening weekend could not have been more different in terms of plot, yet were nearly identical in theme.   I say “oddly enough” because one is a horror comedy and the other is a mumblecore drama about a marriage that takes a bad turn.  Both movies, though, can be boiled down to one simple description:  terrible things can happen when people fail to communicate.

Let’s start with the fun one, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.  This funny, gory, delightful movie is about two hillbillies, Tucker (Alan Tudyk, better known to us geeks as Wash) and Dale (Tyler Labine, better known to us geeks as Sock), who recently bought themselves a “fixer-upper” summer cabin in the woods of West Virginia.  They’re on their way to their first weekend getaway when they encounter a van full of college fraternity/sorority kids heading to roughly the same area for a camping trip.  The college ladies aren’t too impressed by our heroes (in part because of a hilarious introduction involving Dale and a scythe), and the college guys are downright hostile.  But the two groups soon go their separate ways, and a great weekend appears to be on deck.

Late that first night, the kids decide to go skinny dipping while Tucker and Dale are out on the lake fishing.  When one of the girls, Allison, falls into the lake and nearly drowns, Tucker and Dale save her, pulling her into their boat while her friends look on from the distance.  When Dale yells out, “We’ve got your friend!” they immediately assume the worst and form a posse to try to rescue Allison from the crazy inbred hicks in the woods.  As the miscommunications pile up, the kids keep accidentally getting themselves killed, while all the while, Tucker and Dale are caring for Allison and trying to reunite her with her buddies.

This movie is riotously funny at times — every hillbilly horror movie cliché you can think of is whipped back around in a perfectly curved satirical arc, and the filmmakers didn’t miss a single beat.  For example:  there’s a great scene in which Tucker is out chainsawing some wood when he accidentally cuts into a bee hive.  He begins running, flailing the chainsaw around madly at the bees swarming around him, while the kids look on in horror from the woods, thinking he’s a crazed serial killer straight out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  One kid, in his rush to flee to safety, ends up impaling himself on a broken tree branch, and the bodies keep piling up from there.

Terrified by all the deaths he keeps witnessing, Tucker returns to Dale and, confused as hell, tells Dale the kids have clearly come out to the woods with some kind of suicide pact in place.  Meanwhile, the kids can only see Deliverance, one of them finally completely losing his marbles and going authentically berserk by the end (he becomes the literal “Evil” in the title, but, really, the true evil is assumption — clever job, filmmakers.  I was impressed).

The Freebie, on the other hand, tells the story of miscommunication in a marriage.  It’s about a young couple, Annie (Katie Aselton, who also directs) and Darren (Dax Shepard, playing essentially the same charming character he plays on Parenthood, hurrah), who are happily married but whose sex life has begun to wane.  I found this movie painful to watch, because their communication problems seemed so, so horribly obvious to me (lots of, “Well, do YOU want to?”  “I don’t know — do you?”:  repeat ad nauseum) and the solution to their sex life problem could’ve been as easy as simply sitting down and having a direct conversation with each other about what they were feeling and thinking.  Instead, they decide what they need to do is have a “freebie” night — a night where they go their separate ways, have sex with someone else, and then come back together reinvigorated with passion for each other.

The audience literally groaned in unison when this idea was suggested.  Because, like, STUPIDEST IDEA EVER, you guys.  Jesus.  And not because I necessarily think having sex with someone other than your spouse is a stupid idea — it depends.  But you could tell neither Annie nor Darren was fully on board with the plan — it’s just that neither one wanted to be the one to back out.

Even worse, after the freebie night is over, neither wants to be the first to admit they had sex (or admit they didn’t), and so the communication problem that got them into this mess in the first place continues to spiral out of control, leading to absolute misery and a complete crushing of all trust in their relationship.

Both movies made me go ARGH! about a thousand times in my head, but The Freebie got the most arghs from me total.  Open, direct communication is kind of my thing, see?  The minute you give up on talking, everything — EVERYTHING — will crumble at your feet, in the most painful ways imaginable.  I’ve seen it happen.  There is nothing more frustrating and more avoidable.

Luckily, while both movies are about a serious concept, they also both have excellent comedic timing (I’m so in love with Dax Shepard these days, I can hardly stand it, and that affection was doubled during The Freebie).  Additionally, The Freebie has an interesting story structure, one that confused me initially but became a very powerful construct as the film progressed (it’s told out of order, with chunks of before and after mixed together).  Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, on the other hand, had me laughing so hard and so often my stomach started to hurt, and by the end of the movie, everyone in the audience was madly in love with both those adorable li’l hillbillies.  We were calling out, “awwww!” just as often as “ewwww!” and the entire audience clearly enjoyed the hell out of the entire thing.  (This was less true for The Freebie, I’m afraid — listening to people talk as they left the theater, I got the impression many found it too slow and too long.  Such is the nature of film, I suppose — not for everyone.)

All in all, two terrific films and a superb first weekend at SIFF!  And to all of you readers out there:  TALK TO EACH OTHER.  Otherwise, you may one day find yourself head-first in a woodchipper.  And/or divorced.  (Same thing?)

TUCKER & DALE vs. EVIL:

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer | Official Site (to watch for screenings/release dates)]

Genre:  Horror, Comedy
Cast:  Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss, Chelan Simmons

THE FREEBIE:

[Prequeue it at Netflix]

Genre:   Drama
Cast:  Katie Aselton, Dax Shepard, Joshua Leonard, Bellamy Young

MOVIE: The Eclipse (2009)

March 17, 2010

I read about this film a few months ago and have been eager to see it ever since.  Eager, but not eager enough, apparently, to actually KEEP TRACK OF IT.  Doy.

As it turns out, while it has yet to be released widely to theaters, it was playing in Seattle last week during the 2010 Irish Reels Film Festival.  OOPS.  When I realized I’d missed it, I shook my fist at the sky and cursed my stupidity, then I Googled it to see when my next opportunity might be.  Lo and behold, it’s available for pre-theatrical release streaming at Amazon.com!   Wicked.

The film is about a would-be writer, Michael Farr (played by the great Ciarán Hinds — adore him), who, as the story opens, is helping to organize and run his small village’s annual literary festival.  There are two writers at the festival that are of interest to the story: the first is Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), a novelist and insufferable snot; the second, ghost story writer Lena Morelle.  Nicholas and Lena have a history together, a one-night stand history, and one of the reasons Nicholas has come to the Cobh Literary Festival this year is to try to convince Lena to come back to him for real.  Unfortunately for him, Lena has absolutely no interest in this idea.  In fact, she can’t stand him.  For reasons that become clear about thirty seconds after we meet the man ourselves.

Michael, on the other hand, is a recent widower with two children, struggling to come to terms with his grief and move on with his life.  That grief is compounded by the fact he’s now responsible for taking care of his likewise-grieving father-in-law (whose name I’ve forgotten, so I’ll just call him FIL for short).  The first night of the festival, Michael forgets to pick FIL up from his retirement home — he just forgets.   Perhaps not so coincidentally, later that same night Michael sees his first ghost.  A ghost who, oddly, looks just like FIL.  Who is not dead.

Hey, that’s weird.

The next day, Michael is asked to pick Lena up for her reading at the festival and the two meet for the first time.  Michael attends the reading and is intrigued to discover there that her genre of choice is ghost stories.  When she later invites him in for a drink, he can’t help but ask her if she really believes ghosts exist.  Her immediate response?  “Why — have you seen one?”

As the festival progresses, Michael and Lena become friends.  But the ghost of FIL continues to plague him, eventually going from a simple apparition walking across the hall to a terrifying, blood-covered monster who tries to pull him down through a hole in his closet floor.  (The few ghostly scenes in this film, by the way, are successfully scary as hell and a couple of them truly startled me — no mean feat!)

Meanwhile, Lena is struggling to deal with Nicholas, who has grown more and more aggressive in his desire for her.  The three characters bounce off each other in scenes here and there until finally Nicholas and Michael come to blows over Lena.  Then the next thing we know, the festival ends, everybody goes home, and the movie is over.

What’s interesting about The Eclipse is that while it bills itself as a ghost story, it’s really not about the ghosts at all.  There are only about four “scary” scenes in this movie, and they’re all over fairly quickly — they simply don’t appear to be the point.  Instead, the story seems to be more about people and emotions.

And that’s where I ended up having a bit of a problem with it.

This film seems decidedly undecided when it comes to its own goal.  Clearly, the filmmakers wanted to make a story about relationships, grief, guilt, love, and loss that also happened to have an element of horror to it.  I think the aim was to keep the story focused primarily on Michael, and to make a connection for the viewer between the ghosts he’s seeing and the haunting guilt and grief in his own mind.

But the problem is, the only reason we end up with a sense of Michael’s emotional complexity at all is because of Ciarán’s exquisite acting abilities.  Without his masterful facial expressions and softly pained tone of voice — if a lesser actor had played this part, in other words — we would’ve gotten very little sense of that character at all. And that’s despite the fact he’s in nearly every scene of this film.  He’s not given much to work with, but even worse, there are simply too many elements of this story that should’ve been explored more and aren’t.

For example, Lena is a ghost story lover and writer.  Yet, she and Michael only have one conversation about ghosts and it doesn’t really seem to go anywhere.  For someone who purports to love the subject, she shuts Michael down very quickly when he tries to talk to her about what he’s been seeing (she claims she finds the rental house she’s staying in too creepy for such discussions, but it felt more like the writers simply weren’t sure what to do with the scene).  There could’ve been an interesting connection made there — a bonding over their own apparitions, an exploration of their respective hauntings.

On the opposite side, the relationship between Lena and Nicholas felt over-explored, extraneous, and pointless.  Why was that in there wasting precious space to begin with?  Just to show that she’s desired by even the smartest, most successful of pricks?  It wasn’t necessary; the added friction wasn’t needed, and I mostly found Aidan Quinn’s presence distracting and unsatisfying.

The film is very short — less than an hour and a half — and I think it could’ve benefited a great deal from an extra thirty minutes spent shoring up a few of the characters’ personalities and relationships.  Instead, it feels like it’s over just as it finally gets rolling, and I left this movie wanting more.  More about the ghosts.  More about the grief.  More about where Michael’s mind was taking him.  More, more, more.

It left me wanting.  Because IT is wanting.

Nevertheless, this is still a very intriguing and unusual picture, and it’s beautifully filmed and very well-acted to boot.  If you get a chance to see it, I’d definitely recommend that you do so.  I’m hoping it comes back to Seattle soon for a real theatrical release, as I’d like to see if it works better on the big screen.  Stranger things have happened, after all.  It might change my tune entirely.  Who knows.

Recommended.  Sort of.  I think?  Yes.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer | Rent (streaming) at Amazon.com]

Genre:  Drama, Horror
Cast:  Ciarán Hinds, Aidan Quinn, Iben Hjejle, Jim Norton

MOVIE: Humpday (2009)

January 21, 2010

Okay, first things first, it kind of blows my mind that this movie is both filed under “Comedy” and has the phrase “phenomenally funny!” written in large, white letters across its cover art.  Because while, yes, this movie has its truly funny moments, it is SO not what I would consider a comedy.  Instead, I found this film to be an extremely tender, compassionate, and thoughtful look at friendship and love.  And man, while the concept definitely makes it sound like you’re in for a crazy laugh riot, if you spent the entire film snorting and giggling, YOU DID NOT GET IT, my dear, obtuse friend.

In some ways, the central storyline of this film is not all that new.  It’s about two men who were best pals in college and reunite after a long absence to find they’ve taken completely separate paths.  Ben (Mark Duplass of the fabulous grin) got married, has a steady job, and is now trying to start a family.  Andrew (Josh Leonard of the delightful eye-crinkles), on the other hand, has been tooling around the world starting art project after art project, finishing nothing, but striving always for adventurous greatness.  When Andrew finds himself back in town briefly, he decides to pay a visit on Ben, crashing his pad at about 1 in the morning.  Groggy, Ben and his wife Anna (Alycia Delmore of the great bangs) offer to let Andrew spend the night in their back room.

Andrew’s plan to keep the visit short gets revised, though, when the next day he meets a lovely bisexual (director Lynn Shelton) who invites him over for a party at her place that night.  Andrew in turn invites Ben, who half-heartedly invites Anna, who instead suggests he have a lovely time by himself and make it home in time for dinner.  The party is pretty crazy, however, and Ben gets sucked into it quickly, losing track of time.  By the time the conversation turns to porn, both Ben and Andrew are pretty wasted, and when one of the locals brings up the weekly newspaper’s annual Humpfest competition, they are instantly, drunkenly intrigued.  The contest goes like this (and, incidentally, the paper is Seattle’s weekly, The Stranger, and Humpfest is totally real):  enter a homemade porn movie into a contest, watch a screening of it and the other entries, vote for your favorites, win fabulous prizes.

Forgetting all about the waiting Anna, Ben and Andrew quickly pledge to make the perfect entry of all time for Humpfest.  The most original concept ever, brilliantly filmed, total ART.  What they’ll do, they say, is film themselves having sex:  two heterosexual males, loving friends, expressing their affection for each other in a way that is stereotypically WAY, WAY TABOO for straight guys.  It’s “beyond gay,” they say.  It’s virtually guaranteed to win!

The next day, sobered up, the ramifications of this pledge start to reveal themselves to the fellas, who have several long conversations and finally agree to go ahead and give it a shot.  Meanwhile, Ben lies to Anna about it, and Andrew doesn’t, which leads to a whole lotta messy marital conflict.  And while I understood why Anna might be a bit weirded out by the entire concept (oh, sort of, anyway), I do have to say I was really no big fan of hers.  Some of that was because of the painful, painful spectacle of a woman so desperate to have a baby she’s completely separated the act of sex from romantic-love-type emotion.  And then has the gall to go all bonkers about her husband when he, essentially, declares he wants to do roughly the same thing.  Some of it was just the sulking.  She sulks a LOT.  Much as I loved her bangs, I do sort of hate sulkers.  Oh, I have issues.  I’ll shut up.

Andrew and Ben, on the other hand, I absolutely adored.  Their relationship is fascinating and believable, and the dialogue, much of it apparently improvised (something Leonard in particular has demonstrated he’s quite adept at), is sharp and just so, so RIGHT.  Their conversation in the hotel room, when they finally come together to make their film, is among the best dialogue between two male friends in a movie I’ve ever encountered.  It was just so authentic.  I felt like I was standing in the hallway eavesdropping while this real thing was happening to these real people just beyond the door.  This is almost exactly the same reaction I had to Shelton’s earlier film, My Effortless Brilliance (which costars Basil Harris, by the way, one of the members of the ex-Boyfriend of the Week band Awesome), and I was pleased beyond reason to discover that it wasn’t just a fluke.  There’s something about the way her characters talk to each other that hits it right smack on for me, and I love that.  I love it so very, very much.  I think it’s amazing and rare and great.  I think this movie is amazing and great.  I think Lynn Shelton is amazing and great.  And, while I’m at it, let me also mention that I think Josh Leonard’s eye crinkles are amazing and great.  (Watch for him in an upcoming Boyfriend of the Week write-up, by the way, because I can resist his charms no longer.)

Consider me a fan, Ms. Shelton.  And believe you me, I’m in it for the long haul after this one. Looking forward to what you do next.  Though, I do have a question for you — I’ve now seen two of your films, and both of them featured one character telling another character that their hair smelled really great.  Is that line your yellow Oldsmobile Delta 88?  Do you know what I’m talking about?  In any case, I’m looking forward to hearing that line for a long, long time.  Bring it on, lady.

[Netflix it (available on Watch Now) | Buy it]

Genre:  Drama, Not Really Comedy
Cast:  Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard, Alycia Delmore, Lynn Shelton

MOVIE: Passchendaele (2008)

November 25, 2009

As with Harry Connick Jr. from yesterday’s review of New in Town, it probably goes without saying that I’m an absolutely ridiculous fan of Paul Gross.   Due South to start with, of course, and then Slings & Arrows to do me in completely.  And even though I couldn’t get into Eastwick this season on TV, it wasn’t because of him.  I love this man.  I love him.  I love him.  I love him.  If he asked me to get down on my knees and kiss his feet, I would do it and love it and only feel the tiniest bit like a schmuck later.

And that’s why, when I heard he’d made a WWI movie that had been released in Canada to fairly respectable reviews, I couldn’t wait to see it.  I tried to wait, I failed.  They kept not releasing it here in the U.S. and I kept wanting them to and they kept not, so I finally caved and made an end-run around the problem.  I will make it up to the problem just as soon as the problem lets me, though, I swear.

Now let me tell you how absolutely gut-wrenching it’s going to be for me to write the rest of this review.  Because, oh GOD, my gut is wrenched that I have to do this.  Monkey wrenched, in fact.  Socket wrenched.  Because this film, which was written, directed, and stars Paul Gross, is pretty unbearably awful.   And you know what the problem is?  The problem is, it’s just exactly as self-indulgent as a film written, directed, and starring the same guy sounds like it would be.  Goddamn it.  Ow, my guts, I hate you.

Let me ‘splain.

As the story opens, Gross’s character (Michael Dunne), is in Europe fighting in a battle in which he finds himself face-to-face with a German soldier who couldn’t possibly be older than about 17.  Despite the fact the kid had surrendered, Dunne makes the decision to kill him, and before he even has a chance to process that, he’s blown up by a grenade.

He wakes up back in Canada in a hospital where he’s being tended to by a pretty nurse named Sarah Mann (the wonderful Caroline Dhavernas, who some of you might recognize from the series Wonderfalls).  Of course, he falls in love with her, and she with him.  After he’s recovered, he takes a job in town as a recruiter, ostensibly because he’s a hero, but everybody knows it’s actually because of a diagnosis of shell-shock — something they all translate internally as “cowardice.”

Long story short, Sarah’s younger brother, who has terrible asthma, decides he wants to enlist and go fight, and he gets someone to forge his paperwork for him so he can head off to war.  Madly in love with his sister, Michael feels he has no choice but to follow her brother back into battle so he can protect him.  And, of course, madly in love with Michael and terrified for her brother, Sarah feels she has no choice but to join the two of them as a nurse on the battlefront.  So, the next thing we know, we’re all of us back in Europe with stuff exploding over our heads and a whole heck of a lot of misery and awfulness.

Now, quick — the things this movie does well:

I liked that so much of the movie was set in Canada instead of in battle, focusing more on some of the emotional complexities the war had both on returning soldiers and the men who were not allowed to fight in the first place.  I knew the movie was going to have to move back to the actual war at some point (because the title refers to the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium in 1917, which you can read more about here), but I enjoyed the way this movie gives us a little time to get some insight on the many emotional elements of war for men, as well as, to a lesser degree, the politics of recruitment.

I also really liked the actual battle scenes themselves — in Passchendaele, Michael and his platoon find themselves forced to dig into trenches, as was typical during WWI.  Only, it had been pouring down rain for months and their trenches end up being more like swampy swimming pools than holes.  Shots of these men and boys literally waist-deep in mud brought home the horror of trench warfare in a way no other movie I’ve seen about that really has.  My god.  No wonder so many WWI soldiers died of diseases instead of bullets.  I can’t even imagine what that must have been like.  I get cranky when it rains here in Seattle and I’ve forgotten my umbrella.  At least I can still keep my socks (and matches) dry.

But now, and I hate this part, I really do, but here’s what this movie does really, really badly:  ALMOST EVERYTHING ELSE.

Put simply, the number one flaw of this movie is that it just tries WAY too hard.  Gross obviously feels extremely passionate and proud about Canada’s involvement in WWI, and he’s also obviously seen just about every brilliant war movie ever made.  He knows that brilliant, powerful war stories involve things like imagery, motivational speeches, love that may or may not be totally doomed, and the shock of the violence the Everyman is forced to take part in just to survive.

But in trying to incorporate every one of those elements into his own film, he just couldn’t pull it off.  He didn’t seem to understand what makes each of those elements truly powerful — the emotions behind them, the meaning behind them.  His imagery, for example, focused heavily on the concept of martyrdom (Jesus on the cross, especially) and birds, especially birds of prey.  But there wasn’t any actual MEANING to those images.  The martyrs were not martyrs.  And the  birds — the birds made no real sense at all.  It was like he thought “imagery” simply means repetition of a visual.  But the visuals have to be representative of something; they can’t just hang out and be all, hey, it’s me again, hi.  Know what I mean?

And the speeches, oh man.  They were just painfully vacuous, I’m sorry, Paul.  Delivered with such poignant tone, and yet without any actual power whatsoever.    I’m not even going to talk about the total lack of chemistry between Gross and Dhavernas, either.  It just crushed me.  It seriously did.  It was that painful to watch.  If only he’d cast me instead.  Seriously.  That would’ve been some third-year P-Chem, let me tell you.

In any case, are just SO many things about this movie that do not work.  It struck me as disastrously amateurish and was ultimately completely without impact.  There were some good ideas in there, but Gross needed to pass his script along to a pro when he was done with it and get some better thinkers involved.  As it stands, it seemed like the kind of script I would’ve written in high school, when I tried to make all my writing sound “deep,” without any real comprehension of what “deep” truly was.

Lordy.  This is what I get for pirating a video.  And now I have to buy it when it comes out just to assuage my guilt.  Damn.  I am so not thankful for that.  (But hey, to all my American readers:  Happy Thanksgiving!)

[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre:  War, Drama
Cast:  Paul Gross, Caroline Dhavernas, Adam Harrington, Joe Dinicol, Michael Greyeyes