Tuesday, November 15, 2016

VODepths: 'The Academy of Muses,' 'A Beautiful Now,' 'Hank Boyd Is Dead'

The Academy of Muses (Raffaele Pinto, Emanuela Forgetta, Rosa Delor Muns, dir. Jose Luis Guerin) Built around footage of real-life philology professor Pinto teaching a class about the classical concept of the muse, this awkward hybrid of documentary and fiction is tedious and off-putting, with an ugly, amateurish visual style that I can only assume is intentional but makes the movie look like it was shot by someone who doesn't know how to use a camera. The movie starts off like a document of Pinto's lectures, which are a bit dry and convoluted, before expanding to include a few of his female students, all of whom are romantically, intellectually and sexually drawn to their professor. In the middle there's a detour to Sardinia for one of the students to interview shepherds about traditional folk music, which seems like it belongs in an entirely separate film. Nothing about Pinto suggests that he has the kind of allure to draw in so many young, beautiful women, and the segments that are more clearly "acting" by the stars are pretty awkward. Guerin shoots many, many scenes through highly reflective windows in bright lighting that makes it hard to see the characters, and the scenes are full of random blackouts, like Guerin didn't shoot enough coverage. The result is obtuse and arty while also clumsy and technically inept, a combination that can't effectively serve the philosophical ideas or the psychosexual drama. Available on Fandor.

A Beautiful Now (Abigail Spencer, Cheyenne Jackson, Collette Wolfe, dir. Daniela Amavia) Spencer plays a ballerina contemplating suicide in this insufferable drama, full of entitled, self-involved assholes who sit around contemplating the meaning of their empty existences. When Spencer's Romy locks herself in her bathroom with a gun on her birthday, her five best friends show up to offer emotional support, although they don't make much effort to call for help or even try to get her to come out of the bathroom. The eventual idiotic twist (one of the most cliched twist endings possible) at least explains the reasoning behind this, but before we get to that twist we have to sit through 90 minutes of ponderous narcissism, with every character speaking in pseudo-profound platitudes. As Romy's friends hang out in her apartment and bicker, the movie flashes back to their intertwined romantic and sexual connections, but it's often unclear when the flashbacks take place, and the lack of context makes it even harder to care about the already tiresome relationships. Occasional fantasy sequences featuring Romy dancing onstage provide some visually striking respites, and honestly I would have been happy if the movie focused more on her dance career and why it never quite took off (as with all of the characters' occupations, Romy's work is maddeningly vague, like a placeholder for a more detailed story). Romy's depression is what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend might call a "sexy French depression," all artful pouts and meaningful stares, and none of her friends' problems feel authentic, either. Spencer, Jackson and Wolfe are all reliable TV actors, but they all seem a bit lost here, never able to craft fully realized characters from the wispy material. By the time that infuriating twist arrives, both the characters and the audience are ready to be put out of their misery. Available on Amazon.

Hank Boyd Is Dead (Stefanie Frame, David Christopher Wells, Liv Rooth, dir. Sean Melia) As with New Cops, which I wrote about in the first installment of this feature, the filmmaker himself sent me this movie unsolicited, and I wish I could be more enthusiastic about it. That's not to say this is a bad movie, though -- it's a very promising if uneven first effort from writer-director Melia, who obviously worked with a small budget and limited resources to create a horror movie that is decently suspenseful and sometimes darkly funny. The cast of mostly New York theater actors is very strong and easily the movie's most valuable resource, and they help smooth over some of the rougher aspects of the production. Frame plays a caterer who finds herself trapped in the home of a demented family, with murder, incest, insanity and long-buried secrets coming quickly to the surface. Melia turns the escalating tension almost into a farce with some comical setbacks for the main character, but there's real menace in the situation, especially thanks to the creepy performance by Wells as the family's main psychopath. Some of the stunt work is questionable, and the background plot details are occasionally unclear, but the moment-to-moment storytelling is strong. Melia also periodically splices in what looks like stock home-movie footage, seemingly to offer a contrast to the present-day depravity, but it's mostly just distracting. The movie ends abruptly without a decent resolution, but it has plenty of disturbing moments before it gets there. Available on Amazon.

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