To say that Indiefest/FAIF suffered from a few opening day jitters might be understating it a bit. The main Downtown Disney parking lot was barricaded off, the theater personal didn’t let anything start on time until Disney brass showed up and laid down some laws, and there were just a few projection errors – poor Chris Harrington saw his excellent Spanish language short “El Perfecto Percanse” projected without English subtitles. Running a film festival on three screens simultaneously is a lot of work, and from what I could see, festival organizer Ray Gibb and his partner Don (whose surname I cannot find anywhere in my press materials – sorry Don!) were having to run the whole thing by themselves. Get these men some volunteers, stat! They did a heroic job of getting things back on track, and we can probably expect smoother sailing in the next few days.
One thing I’ll say about the Disney AMC – its auditoriums are DARK. At most fests, I can take notes in the darkness, no problem, but here I couldn’t always tell if my pen was making a mark or not. Maybe my eyesight’s fading in my pre-middle-age. But I do eat carrots.
One pet peeve I have about the theater, which I have about many theaters in OC, is that the staff do not shut the damn auditorium doors once the movie has started, so you can hear conversations in the lobby and stuff. This is a really basic job function, folks – one of the first things I was taught back in my theater usher days. It’s especially important at festivals, where crowds are likely to hang out in the lobby talking to cast and crew.
Still, if I talk about the minutiae too much before getting to the point, I’ll sound like Harry Knowles. Let’s talk movies, starting with shorts.
Best short of the day was Courtney Jones’ “Just Dinner,” in which an aspiring actress and an Israeli office nerd have a nasty run in at a coffee shop – he runs into her and barely even notice, and she pours coffee on his car’s upholstery – then end up inadvertently being set up on a blind date together, by their sickeningly, happily coupled friends. The actors all have the willingness to take the characters all the way even at the risk of being unlikable, and it pays off comedically.
John Kraljevich’s “Ascend Into Zion” may or may not be an elaborate joke – after an in-depth opening narration laying out the history of a future post-apocalypse world, all we get is a boxing match followed by a punchline. It’s hilariously anticlimactic, but I can’t tell for sure if that was the whole idea.
David Theodore Chiu’s “Days Out of Time” struck me as irritating when I saw an advance copy, but the second time around it worked – I think I was originally put off by the crappy song used on the soundtrack (this, by the way, is a hallmark of many low-budget movies, because the only musicians who’ll work for free are usually the semi-talented friends of someone involved). It’s a post 9-11 story about a city woman who works for a thinktank organization, and finds solace after the attacks in living by an orchard for a while, with a good ol’ boy who takes life as it comes. Turns out she can’t change him, or herself – who’da seen that coming? But it rings true, and that’s what counts in a story like this.
Brinsley Marlay’s “Briefings,” from Australia, has a good idea but is insufferably coy. A journalist interviews a strange man in a darkened room because he has done...what? It’s clear they both know, but the dialogue is deliberately written to keep us out of the loop until the end. It seems to have something to do with religion, so I was thinking molestation...but [SPOILER] it’s something else. It’s one thing to have a complicated narrative with actual twists, and quite another to create false ambiguity simply by not giving enough information.
Then there was a cartoon called “Raccoon and Crawfish” – it wasn’t especially clever, but it breaks things up nicely to see a cartoon. And then the most annoying short of the day, Alfredo Acle’s “The Bridge,” which plays like an overlong parody of a Calvin Klein ad, as vacuous pouty model types stare at the sky and speak in rhyme, all while wearing stylish outfits. The point eluded me.
Two features came next. The first, YELLOW LIGHTS, was a truly pleasant surprise. A college movie made by college students on their weekends off for approximately $500, it belongs in a class with Tom Huang’s 1999 feature FRESHMEN (full disclosure – I did the DVD commentary for that movie with Tom, but only because I was a fan of the film and asked if I could; I accepted no payment).
Hollywood has an incredibly distorted view of colleges when compared to the truth. Dorm parties generally aren’t that exciting, but merely crowded room were one can maybe get drunk if the keg doesn’t run out too soon. Nerds don’t manage to steal the football quarterback’s girlfriend. Students are dirty and untidy, and their rooms are minuscule. YELLOW LIGHTS, directed by Kevin Tostado, gets it right, though the campus seems so empty at times that it’s almost Kafka-esque; only one character decorates her room with any flair.
The movie opens with an answering machine message (clunky exposition device, yes, but makes sense in context) to our mopey protagonist Brian (Bennett Chabot) from his girlfriend back home, telling him it’s over and never to call her again. But hey, it isn’t long before he meets Alex (Aja Munsell), a total babe who’s totally into him. In an atypical gender-role-reversal, the only problem here is that Brian wants to jump back into an ironclad commitment immediately, and Alex isn’t sure she’s done sleeping around. Also, Brian gets obsessed with his friend Chris’ love life way too much, determined to make sure he keeps his commitments.
Tostado ultimately seems to come down on the side of commitments being detrimental, or at least obsessions about them – I’m not sure I agree, and even though Alex is a babe, the idea of winning her heart while she’s still determined to maybe sleep with other guys doesn’t seem quite like the prize one would want. But Brian’s not me, and as an audience member I’m rooting for what he wants. The sex scenes may be of the extremely truncated “fade-to-black” PG variety, but they turned me on and I’m not ashamed to admit it, dammit.
A better sound mix is needed – early on, it’s clear that Chabot and Andrew Tsang, who plays Chris, recorded their ADR at different times, even though they’re in the same scene. It’s distracting at first, but eventually I stopped noticing. And Tsang needs to bring it more – in scenes where he’s supposed to be mad, I’m not feeling it like I should. Still, I can’t hold these things against the movie because it rings true in ways that teen movies generally don’t.
Next up was EXODUS 20:13 (a reference to “Thou shalt not kill), which came with a nifty premise – a few years from now, overpopulation and immigration will be so out-of-hand that on one day a year, any American can apply for a license to murder someone with no consequences. They must get pre-approval, and it cannot be a blood relative, but other than that, anything goes.
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There ought to be a good story to run with here, but writer-director Matthew Hencke takes the Paul Haggis route, showing us many different characters and their motivations, then watching them follow through, all while making the point that everybody has it in them to kill, but that doesn’t necessarily make them evil, unless they’re Christian conservatives, who are. In fairness to Haggis, he would have connected the plot strands more tightly.
Among the aggrieved: A gay man who wants to be normal applies to kill the therapist he has a crush on; a young woman who can’t enjoy sex is torn as to whether to kill the man who raped her; a conservative black woman tries to follow the Bible literally in killing her daughter’s lesbian lover; a sex pervert wants to try necrophilia; a right-wing fundie wants to poison a Catholic priest who’s insufficiently anti-abortion; a 12 year-old girl recruits her teacher to kill the father who’s been molesting her; and so on. When one man is applying he’s asked “Reason for application?” and responds “She’s my mother-in-law.” The instant approval he receives gets a knowing laugh from the audience.
Compliments to Hencke for getting a wonderful nude sex scene out of newcomer Jennfier Lee Snowden, and for the lesbian plot, which is the most engrossing of the bunch – when the aggrieved daughter finally launches into a righteous tirade against mom that includes the phrase “I wish I could crawl back into the womb and crush you from the inside!”, it’s a show-stopper. But I wish the whole movie had been about this, instead of casting such a wide net. There could be intricacies to the premise beyond “Here’s why a bunch of people want to kill. Here’s them killing. The end.” It’s notable that nobody truly regrets the decision. Is that the point?
Pointer to Hencke: Sell the remake rights to Hollywood. Maybe even Haggis. You’ve got a good idea on your hands, but it needs work.