Saturday, January 21, 2017

VODepths: 'Coin Heist,' 'Counter Clockwise,' 'Fanny Pey'

Coin Heist (Sasha Pieterse, Alex Saxon, Alexis G. Zall, Jay Walker, dir. Emily Hagins) I have an affection for Hagins after watching the utterly charming 2009 documentary Zombie Girl: The Movie, about her efforts to make her first feature film starting when she was just 12 years old, and I've even watched that movie (Pathogen), which is of course endearingly terrible. Hagins could have become a footnote or a novelty, but instead she's pursued a serious filmmaking career, and Coin Heist is her fifth feature (she's now 24). It's not great, but it's professional and competent, and it shows how much Hagins has developed as a filmmaker. The main actors here are two TV veterans (from Freeform teen dramas Pretty Little Liars and The Fosters) and two social-media stars, and they mix together pretty well as a group of teens who plan an unlikely heist in order to save their private school after its endowment is embezzled away. The plan is to break into the U.S. Mint and deliberately print error coins which can then be sold for high prices to collectors. It's kind of a silly concept, and there are plenty of holes in the plan, but the characters are likable, and writer-director Hagins (working from a novel by Elisa Ludwig) has a nice feel for teenage relationships. There's a meta element to the story, with the group's leader getting his ideas from heist movies, that could have been explored further, especially given Hagins' obvious geek-culture background. But like a lot of the aspects of the story, it's a bit underdeveloped, and ultimately the movie feels hollow and inconsequential, with a pretty bare-bones climactic heist. Still, it's a step in the right direction for Hagins, who will probably make her first really good feature by the time most filmmakers are just getting started. Available on Netflix.

Counter Clockwise (Michael Kopelow, Alice Rietveld, Devon Ogden, dir. George Moïse) This low-budget time-travel thriller clearly has aspirations to be the next Primer, but it gets some of that movie's opaqueness without any of the intriguing artistry. Which is to say that the plot is often confusing and difficult to follow, and yet there's no emotional or even aesthetic payoff to putting the pieces together. Kopelow (who also co-wrote the screenplay, co-produced and worked on the production design) plays a supposedly brilliant scientist (who looks like Brian Posehn and dresses like a member of a garage-rock band) who accidentally invents a time machine in his lab (basically just a storage space, perhaps an explicit nod to Primer) and impulsively tests it on himself without any idea of how it works, really. He ends up six months in the future (although even this basic detail isn't clarified until late in the movie), discovering that his wife and sister were murdered just hours after he left. In trying to prevent this tragedy, he of course just makes things worse, but not in an ironic or tragic or meaningful way. The guy is just a dumbass, really, and he could have avoided the whole problem if he'd just made some basic tests on the time machine first. The corporate villains are ridiculous, the pseudo-science is laughable, and the filmmaking is full of distractingly flashy camera moves that add nothing. As in a lot of low-budget movies, the world of the story feels very constrained and empty, which is a problem when your narrative encompasses the entire time-space continuum. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Fanny Pey (Ivan Pavletic, Alex Amadei, John Strelec, dir. Alex Amadei) I discovered this movie thanks to, of all things, comment spam; various people associated with the production kept plugging the movie in comments on the AV Club and other pop-culture sites, and I Googled it because I am now on the hunt for extremely obscure movies to cover for this feature. It's the work of a Colorado-based filmmaking collective called Film Wants You Back, who've posted five full feature films for free to YouTube over the last two years. Fanny Pey is their most recent, although they're already raising funds for another movie on Indiegogo. It's awesome that these guys are going out and pursuing their artistic ambitions and then sharing them with the world for free, but Fanny Pey is a terrible, terrible movie, which tried every ounce of my patience even at barely 70 minutes. I'm not sure what tone Amadei's other films take, but Fanny Pey, ostensibly about an evil doll stalking four people who invoke its spirit, is painfully self-conscious about being "bad," which means lots of belabored, groan-worthy jokes, deliberately crappy special effects, nonsensical story developments and performances so broadly over the top it seems like the actors may pull a muscle. (That's not to mention the amateurish camera work and uneven pacing.) Clearly everyone involved had a great time, but watching movies like this is the equivalent of looking at someone's house party video on their smartphone. Just because things can be shared with the world doesn't always mean that they should be. Available on YouTube.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Seconds' (2003)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I've watched a lot of bad movies for this project, but perhaps none as completely inept as writer/director/star Jeff Thomas' 13 Seconds. In many ways, 13 Seconds is just a typical shitty ultra-low-budget horror movie, corralling a bunch of characters in a creepy location and killing them off one by one. And certainly there are plenty of cheapo indie horror production that are just as bad as 13 Seconds, or even worse. But there are also plenty that manage to make the most of their limited resources, to write clever dialogue or interesting characters or to exhibit some visual flair even without sophisticated visual effects. Thomas manages none of that, although he did manage some pretty impressive distribution for this terrible, terrible movie, as many of the scathing IMDb reviews (complaining about renting the movie at Blockbuster and other video stores) attest. I easily found a DVD copy at my local library.

Shot on what looks like consumer-grade video in Thomas' native Detroit and populated with actors who aren't even up to the standards of community theater, 13 Seconds is without any sort of merit, even as a campy source of mockery. It's so technically inept that characters have conversations without ever appearing in the same shot, and much of the post-dubbed dialogue doesn't even sync up with the movements of the actors' mouths. The story features the members of a rock band (who never play any instruments or even attempt to set up their gear), plus a few hangers-on, converging in an old abandoned building (which is possibly a school or a house or a theater, and includes an art gallery, multiple bedrooms and a dark basement) to record their latest song or album or maybe video. As with everything in the movie, even the basic setup is unclear and glossed over, like Thomas couldn't be bothered to come up with a proper explanation or even a simple logline.

But the setup is the least of the movie's problems, really, since plenty of horror movies contrive thin reasons for characters to end up in a dangerous place, and still manage to generate suspense and scares from the situation. But everything else about 13 Seconds is as listless as its initial premise, and the terrible acting undermines any possible tension in the story. It's impossible to understate just how bad every actor is, and Thomas deserves much of the blame, since in addition to writing and directing, he also stars as the movie's main character (whom the eventual idiotic twist reveals as really the only character of any consequence). Once people start going missing and/or turning up dead, no one in the cast can even muster any energy to express fear or anger or concern, and nearly every line reading sounds like the character is on the verge of falling asleep.

That may be because multiple characters do go to sleep, just taking naps in creepy bedrooms in this abandoned building, even though theoretically they are all there to record and/or rehearse music of some kind. That allows Thomas to stage multiple fake-out dream sequences, which make even less sense once the ending reveals (spoiler alert, I guess) that nearly the entire movie is a dying vision of Thomas' character Davis, who has experienced it all in the final, yes, 13 seconds of his life (he's dying of a drug overdose). So why does his vision include other people's dream sequences? That's just one of the many, many incomprehensibilities of the movie's plot, which throws a bunch of ghost/demon/spirit things around without ever clarifying what they are or why they are there. Even the final explanation that it's all Davis' death dream (which I suppose absolves Thomas of having to create any logical consistency) is vague and rushed, turning one of the previously anonymous supporting characters into an angel of sorts, ending on a quasi-religious message. I was dreading the movie turning into a Christian allegory, but like everything else Thomas attempts here, the religious angle is a complete failure in concept and execution.

Monday, January 02, 2017

VODepths: 'Be My Cat,' 'The Devil Lives Here,' 'Honeymoon'

Be My Cat: A Film for Anne (Adrian Tofei, Florentina Hariton, Alexandra Stroe, dir. Adrian Tofei) Romanian filmmaker Tofei is the writer, director, star, producer, editor, production designer, cinematographer, casting director and sound designer of this micro-budget found-footage horror-comedy, which he also distributed and marketed himself (this is yet another movie that I was sent directly by the filmmaker). It seems to have worked, because by this point the movie has gotten more publicity than something at this level usually achieves, including a handful of Rotten Tomatoes reviews. Tofei certainly put a lot of passion into this ridiculous movie, in which he plays an aspiring filmmaker obsessed with Anne Hathaway (and in particular her portrayal of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises), who decides to make a demo reel of a movie he plans to direct (titled Be My Cat), in order to entice Hathaway to star in it (spoiler alert: Anne Hathaway does not appear). This involves hiring and then murdering three local Romanian actresses who sort of look like Hathaway, in a scheme that doesn't make much sense. Tofei is maybe a little too good at playing a creepy weirdo, because his character becomes annoying very quickly, with his verbal tics (he says "Oh my God" seemingly hundreds of times) and close-ups of his own face. The story builds to some disturbing moments but then stalls out with an anticlimactic ending. Even if the movie is kind of a mess, I give Tofei credit for ambition and determination. Available on Vimeo.

The Devil Lives Here (Pedro Carvalho, Clara Verdier, Pedro Caetano, dir. Rodrigo Gasparini and Dante Vescio) Inspired in part by Brazilian folklore, this atmospheric horror movie is a bit incoherent, but it delivers on creepiness even when it doesn't make much sense. The basic setup is standard horror-movie material, as four young friends travel to a remote vacation home and summon an evil presence they don't really understand and can't contain. The filmmakers introduce a few seemingly unrelated threads at the beginning of the movie, and it takes a little while to recognize the flashbacks of a sadistic plantation owner and the slave he tortured, and how those relate to what's happening in the present day. But the movie eventually sticks to its single time period, as that long-dead slavemaster returns, when the descendants of the slave who led a rebellion against him fail to prevent his spirit from being revived (I think). There's a lot of other confusing mythology that seems to change from moment to moment, but directors Gasparini and Vescio do a good job of building tension and putting every character in real danger, and the villain is genuinely scary, especially once his eventual plan is revealed. With its connections to dark chapters in Brazil's history, this movie probably has greater resonance for native audiences, but even without understanding all of the context, it's still pretty unsettling. Available on Amazon.

Honeymoon (Hector Kotsifakis, Paulina Ahmed, Alberto Agnesi, dir. Diego Cohen) This grim, distasteful Mexican horror movie is pretty much just straight-up torture for 90-plus minutes, as a lonely doctor kidnaps his pretty neighbor and keeps her in a dingy basement as his "wife." Other than a creepy fake marriage ceremony, however, the movie doesn't do anything with the idea of the two being fake-married, and the doctor's motivations for fixating on this particular woman are never really clear (aside from a climactic twist that only makes things more confusing). Both major characters remain complete ciphers, with no personality traits other than abductor and abductee. The majority of the movie takes place in the single basement room, where Isabel (Ahmed) acts out or attempts to escape, and then Jorge (Kotsifakis) punishes her. It's repetitive and gruesome, as he pours acid in her mouth, removes the skin from her fingers, breaks her bones, rapes her and administers electric shocks. There's no message or broader thematic concern here; it's just this guy torturing this woman, followed by a sloppy twist ending. Not only that, but the production values are quite poor, with dialogue that is often hard to hear (although watching with subtitles alleviates that problem) and a terrible overbearing score that often overpowers the action. I kept waiting for some kind of development that would take the story in an interesting or thought-provoking direction, but director Cohen and screenwriter Marco Tarditi Ortega just wallow in sadism for 96 uncomfortable minutes. Available on Netflix.