Monday, August 29, 2016

VODepths: 'Der Bunker,' 'Collective: Unconscious,' 'There Is a New World Somewhere'

Der Bunker (Pit Bukowski, Daniel Fripan, Oona von Maydell, David Scheller, dir. Nikias Chryssos) I'm not sure what to make of this bizarre German movie, which is a bit David Lynch, a bit John Waters, a bit Terry Gilliam and a bit completely its own unique thing. It all takes place inside the semi-underground home of a twisted family, a nameless mother and father and their son Klaus, who is either a childlike adult or just an adult actor playing a child. An academic (referred to only as "the student") rents a room so that he can have peace and quiet to work on his obviously nonsensical projects, but he's soon drawn into the family's demented world when they enlist him as Klaus' tutor. Oh, also, the mother has a leg sore that talks to her and may be the manifestation of an alien presence. The set design and costumes are fantastically ugly, especially Klaus' ridiculous little-boy outfits, and the actors really commit to their performances. But to me most of it felt like weirdness for its own sake, and eventually the oddball scenarios become repetitive. It's hard to have any emotional investment in characters who behave this strangely, and there isn't enough humor for the movie to work as a dark comedy. It ends on a moment that's probably meant to be cathartic, but just made me glad that the frustrating experience was over. Available on Vimeo.

Collective: Unconscious (dir. Lily Baldwin, Frances Bodomo, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Josephine Decker, Lauren Wolkstein) This omnibus feature played at a few festivals earlier this year (including SXSW) and is now available online for free, including via BitTorrent in a version that includes a bunch of DVD-style extras. It's an interesting concept, with five filmmakers each creating short films inspired by one of the other filmmakers' dreams. Like most anthology films, it's inconsistent, although the dream concept ensures that all five segments are surreal and unsettling in different ways. Only one features anything resembling traditional dialogue scenes, and none of them make linear sense. Even the most tedious segment, Decker's "First Day Out," has some striking and haunting images, and the whole experience is indeed dreamlike and disorienting. My favorite segment was the first, Carbone's "Black Soil, Green Grass," which is shot in gorgeous high-contrast black-and-white and functions powerfully as a sci-fi allegory for asserting freedom and individuality against harsh authoritarianism. It follows its own internal logic and is more plot-driven than the other segments, while maintaining the surprising and inexplicable qualities of dreams. The brief framing segments feature a soothing hypnotist advising the audience to treat watching the movie like listening to music, just letting it wash over you, and that's probably the best way to approach the experience. Available on Vimeo.

There Is a New World Somewhere (Agnes Bruckner, Maurice Compte, Ashley Bell, dir. Li Lu) Years ago, I was impressed with Bruckner in a little movie called Blue Car and hoped to see her graduate to bigger things, but nearly 15 years later she's still relegated mostly to TV guest appearances and movies like this one, obscure indie productions of dubious value. I saw this at the 2015 Las Vegas Film Festival, where it won an award for writer-director Lu, although I found it pretty tedious and uninvolving. Its setup, with Bruckner as an aimless young woman who impulsively sets out on a road trip with an alluring man she just met, is standard indie-movie fare, and Lu never takes it in an interesting or unique direction. This isn't the heady romance of Before Sunrise (although it does shamelessly copy one of that movie's more memorable sequences), but it also never quite takes the dark, dangerous turns that it hints at periodically. The two characters never have a strong enough connection or conflict, and neither one is particularly interesting or likable. The movie ends up as a dull road trip to nowhere, sadly reflective of Bruckner's career. Available on iTunes.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Fear of 13' (2015)

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

At the beginning of David Sington's documentary The Fear of 13, a title card promises that all of subject Nick Yarris' claims have been independently verified, but it's still hard to believe a lot of the stories he tells about the 20-plus years he spent in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Yarris, a drug addict and small-time car thief, ended up convicted of the rape and murder of a wife and mother of three thanks to a series of poor decisions and unlucky circumstances, and his account of his subsequent time in prison seems equally far-fetched. Although Sington throws in occasional newspaper clippings to support some of Yarris' tales, the focus on Yarris as the movie's only interviewee gives the sense that he's the sole source of information, and his eloquent, engaging speaking style ironically makes a lot of what he says harder to believe.

Even if Yarris has embellished his story, though, the basic facts of it, reported in multiple news outlets, are more than amazing enough to justify this documentary. During his time in prison (primarily on death row), Yarris once escaped for 25 days (before turning himself back in), met and married an anti-death penalty activist, spent years advocating for DNA testing to exonerate himself, contracted diseases from poor prison health care, and eventually requested that his execution be expedited, literally months before that DNA evidence finally proved his innocence and he was set free. Sington films Yarris in a darkened, unspecified location, that at first looks like it could be a prison cell or meeting room (the opening title cards also seem to make it unclear whether Yarris is still in prison, for anyone -- like me -- not already familiar with his story).

This isn't just a 96-minute interview, though -- taking more than a few cues from Errol Morris, Sington uses select re-enactments, sound effects and arty close-ups of everyday objects to illustrate Yarris' accounts, and he structures the movie more like a narrative than a documentary, starting out with one of Yarris' most far-fetched stories (about a prisoner breaking triumphantly into song on a block where silence is strictly enforced) before doubling back at various times to fill in the details of the alleged crime that sent Yarris to death row and, finally, the abuse he suffered as a child that had a formative influence on his turn to drugs and crime. That last one comes off a bit like a cheap twist (and I am not a big fan of documentaries that withhold factual information for the sake of "plot twists"), but overall Sington (and Yarris, presumably) construct the movie very effectively, so that it's both suspenseful and emotionally wrenching, with the right amount of comic relief.

Yarris is a master storyteller, teasing out themes in each of his anecdotes (one of which provides the movie with its title) that make them sound like rehearsed, carefully crafted monologues. And given how much time he spent in prison, devouring hundreds of books, they might well be. Yarris professes his fondness for pulpy crime novels, and he seems to have fashioned himself into a character from an Elmore Leonard book, with a set of unlikely quirks and experiences and a strong, self-aware intellect. By creating such a cinematic, engrossing movie, Sington enables Yarris' self-mythologizing, but given how much the guy went through at the hands of a cruel and indifferent justice system, he can be forgiven a bit of hubris and self-aggrandizement.

Monday, August 08, 2016

VODepths: 'Observance,' 'Blood Shot,' 'New Cops'

I get a lot of PR emails about movies being released on VOD, which has become a vast frontier of obscure, strange, low-budget, niche-oriented movies, with even greater variety and oddity than the physical direct-to-video market, which it has essentially usurped. Occasionally I review more high-profile VOD releases for Las Vegas Weekly or Film Racket, but for the most part these emails just go into a folder and then get deleted, and for many of the movies, I never read anything about them from any media outlet. But I have a fascination with these unexplored corners of cinema, so I'm launching this little feature here, periodically rounding up obscure VOD and streaming releases that I've been sent for review (generally unsolicited), hoping to find hidden gems. Here are a few from recent months.

Observance (Lindsay Farris, Stephanie King, Tom O'Sullivan, dir. Joseph Sims-Dennett) This slow-burn psychological horror movie is a bit torn between completely arty abstraction (along the lines of something like Upstream Color) and more straightforward scares, and its creepy atmosphere is more effective than its ultimately frustrating plot. Farris plays a private investigator holed up in a dingy apartment spying on a woman (King) across the street, and slowly going mad in the process. Details about the woman and her mysterious boyfriend slowly come to light, as director and co-writer Sims-Dennett focuses on the often gross physical and mental deterioration of Farris' Parker. Sims-Dennett (working with cinematographer Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson) has a real eye for striking, disturbing images (especially unsettling close-ups of everyday objects), but in the end they add up to less than the sum of their parts. Parker discovers just enough secrets to make the plot intriguing, only for the movie to give up on providing any real answers. The performances and style are enough to carry it through, but the end result is a little disappointing. Available on Vimeo.

Blood Shot (Dominic DeVore, Kate French, Skyler Day, dir. Drew Thomas) Originally known as Channeling, Blood Shot has experienced the time-honored direct-to-video technique of getting a more sensationalistic title to grab attention. The new title promises something a lot more gory than this social-media thriller, which is actually an interesting counterpoint to current major studio release Nerve. Although its budget is much, much smaller, Blood Shot has a more solid understanding of social media in many ways. Like Nerve, it posits a new online sensation that seems plausible -- in this case contact lenses that serve as GoPro-like cameras for people to broadcast their lives online -- and builds a thriller around it. The thriller plot, in which military veteran Jonah (DeVore) returns home from the Middle East to figure out who killed his brother, a popular "caster," is convoluted and not very interesting. But the movie's use of social media is clever, especially in a more subdued subplot about Jonah's younger sister (Day) that deals with slut-shaming and online trolls. The writing isn't quite good enough to overcome the budgetary limitations, but the movie manages to be more convincing than Nerve on what was probably less than a tenth of the budget. Available on Amazon.

New Cops (Timothy Morton, Jimmy Kustes, Beau Shell, dir. Timothy Morton) Co-star and co-writer Kustes actually emailed me directly about this movie, which is available on No Budge, a site run by indie filmmaker Kentucker Audley. No Budge hosts a bunch of micro-budget, no-name indie shorts and features, most of them available to watch for free (it also has limited runs and paid VOD releases of slightly more recognizable indie fare). At 52 minutes, New Cops doesn't quite qualify as a feature; Morton and Kustes label it a "labor of laziness," pieced together from footage shot over a period of years, and it has a certain ramshackle charm, especially for fans of the early, incredibly low-fi films in the mumblecore movement (like Audley's Team Picture, which co-starred Morton). Morton plays an aimless man who endures an irritating house guest (Kustes), watches the titular, nonsensical show-within-the-movie (shot with equally poor camera work and harsh lighting) and has dreams or visions in which he's the president of the United States. Mostly he worries that his girlfriend is cheating on him. None of it really goes anywhere, and the general lack of continuity (because of the years-long production schedule) keeps it from being coherent at even a basic level. But Morton and Kustes lean into that by making it a surreal, dreamlike story about a man adrift in his own life. It's more than a little tedious to watch, but every so often there's an unexpectedly funny or weird moment. Maybe if Morton and Kustes overcome their laziness they can put their talents into something more watchable next time. Available on No Budge.