Category: Film Festivals

Festival Review: Rewind This! (2013)

rewind-this-sxsw

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, part of IFF Boston.

As has happened in the past, I found out about this movie through its awesome poster. And lucky me, it played IFF Boston! Rewind This! traces the history and reception of VHS tapes, interviewing collectors, retailers, and filmmakers for their personal insights and expertise. VHS launched an entertainment revolution by allowing consumers to watch films at home and record live tv, as well as offering new opportunities for studios and indie filmmakers who launched the direct-to-video market. It changed the movie industry, the porn industry, and the film retail industry, and united communities of movie buffs with video swap and bootleg programs. Though definitely a dying media, today many fans- especially children of the 80’s- hold on to their VHS tapes out of nostalgia and loyalty, recognizing its importance to their personal lives and to film history in general.

While I’m not a collector or anything, I admit I’ve clung to VHS more than my tech-savvy friends. I grew up with VHS tapes, they were the first way I really experienced movies. Plus there are some movies that I love but aren’t available on dvd or blu-ray, so every so often I have to dust off my VCR to revisit an old favorite. It’s a shitty medium, definitely, but some movies kind of make sense that way! Many video artists from the 80’s (who were not discussed in the film, sadly) played with the effects specific to tapes, creating artworks that are still inextricably linked to the medium. While Rewind This! does include loving commentary on the physicality of VHS and its quirks, most of the film is focused on the history, which is indeed fascinating.

The range of interviewees is pretty awesome, from b-movie stalwarts Llyod Kaufman, Charles Band, Cassandra Peterson, and Frank Henenlotter to nerds from hip movie theaters and various websites. Plus a lot of doofy horror geeks. Like, a lot. I was most surprised and pleased with the Japanese interviews, since that’s where the technology was created and there is still a strong VHS culture there- they got anime filmmaker Mamoru Oshii! And some splatterpunk and J-horror people! Cool! The segments with video retailers and obsesssives were interesting as well, with some impressive home displays. I also loved the abundance of film clips, mostly hilarious and weird 80s schlock that had me running a mental list of movies to check out in the future. Generally the film is funny and lighthearted, and honestly super informative to someone like me, who grew up with VHS tapes but was not old enough to have seen the sweeping changes they made on how we experience visual culture.

I enjoyed this movie a lot, but I have to lament one major thing: There are so few women in this movie. And so few people of color. Aside from the 4 or 5 Japanese interviewees, it’s mostly just white dudes. There are a few female collectors/enthusiasts, a retailer, an awesome teacher/editor (whose name I forget, damn! But she talked about home movies and film history and kids these days not knowing about VHS), and actresses Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira) and a Shôko Nakahara. I am NOT saying the Rewind This! filmmakers were being exclusive or sexist, so stop right there with your outrage. What bums me out is that seeing so many of the same kind of person onscreen (pasty dudes in their 30’s, mostly), I was reminded yet again that here is a subculture that wasn’t- and still isn’t- particularly open to women. I loved the commentary from all these movie fans, I wanted to join in the conversation, and yet I never saw myself represented onscreen, or even that much variety in general represented. I KNOW THIS HAPPENS ALL THE TIME but it’s still frustrating, especially since this is a subject close to my heart, and the film community in general is so important to me and yet I’m constantly reminded that I’m slightly on the outside of it simply because I’m a woman. It was also surprising that with all the discussion of new opportunities for indie filmmakers that came along with VHS technology, there were no women (or non-white?) filmmakers included. I guess because they were focusing primarily on action/horror directors? I don’t know. Maybe when there’s a documentary about the digital revolution there’ll be some talking heads who aren’t white dudes.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I felt like digging out some VHS tapes myself! I have a small collection, mostly of films that aren’t on dvd, as well as some classics I inherited from my grandmother. So I say get out your old VHS tapes (come on, if you’re over 20 you probably have a couple!) and have a nostalgia party!

PS I know it says “John Carpenter” on the posters for this movie but FYI that’s not THE John Carpenter, it’s a producer who happens to have his name! They totally fooled me, though haha, I thought he’d be one of the interviewees. Panos Cosmatos is really a producer on it, which is neat, but he’s not interviewed.

Festival Review: Big Ass Spider! (2013)

big-ass-spider

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, part of the Boston Underground Film Festival.

With a title like Big Ass Spider! it’s hard not to giggle, and luckily it turns out this movie has a bit more to offer than just a silly name. Our story begins with exterminator extraordinaire Alex Mathis (Greg Grunberg), who lands in the emergency room after a spider bite and soon finds himself hired by the hospital to track down a gigantic spider that’s attacked a coroner. He teams up with security guard Jose (Lombardo Boyar) to catch the beast but in short time the government steps in, led by Major Braxton Tanner (Ray Wise). Turns out the ever-growing spider is a secret science project gone wrong, and Alex lends his insider arachnid knowledge to the military as best he can, especially after falling for cute a Lieutenant named Karly (Clare Kramer). But the situation quickly turns desperate as the spider feeds on a number of unsuspecting civilians and starts tearing up Los Angeles.

Big Ass Spider! is as goofy and b-grade as the title suggests, but I think that’s pretty much the point. With Greg Grunberg cracking jokes and becoming an unlikely hero, Ray Wise yelling at all these whippersnappers who can’t deal with this crisis, and a giant spider just scuttling about being gross, it’s an entertaining time. The script isn’t anything radical, but the dialogue is funny and there are a lot of good digs at the mega-monster genre, like the protagonists being totally bored by the science-y expository speech of the monster’s origin. Grunberg is strong in the lead role, but the stand-out performer is definitely Lombardo Boyer as the enthusiastic but terrified Jose, with his excellent comedic timing and adorable personality.

The effects- while awesomely gory- are bad but not bad enough to be funny or self-aware, and there’s some weird casually racist remarks from Grunberg’s character in his interactions with Jose- like, I get that these are silly, exaggerated exchanges but it was inappropriate for Alex to be commenting on Jose’s Latino ethnicity almost immediately upon meeting him, I felt. BUT for the most part Big Ass Spider! is an enjoyable, fun film.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: BUFF compares it to Ghostbusters and I think that’s a good pairing.

Festival Review: Samurai Cop (1989)

samurai cop

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, as part of the Boston Underground Film Festival.

Wow, you guys. Just wow. So BUFF does this thing where they unearth tremendous 80s schlock to include with their newer genre offerings, and because of them Cambridge received the gift of Samurai Cop last week. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, really, as I reflect on it. With production values cheaper than my rent and almost as many unnecessary sex scenes as The Room, the film follows titular police officer Joe Marshall (Matt Hannon) as he half-heartedly tries to cut down the yakuza dealing in Los Angeles. He supposedly trained in Japan for several years, though he seems unable to even pronounce simple Japanese names, but that’s why they call him Samurai. Or something. Most of the time he just sleeps with some busty blondes and chills with his hilarious partner Frank (Mark Frazer). Over the course of their day they’ll happen upon some bad guys and something resembling an action sequence will ensue.

Ah jeez, where to begin. For one thing it appears that about half of the movie was re-shot with a shittier camera, in different locations, and after Matt Hannon had cut his hair, resulting in a jarringly hilarious number of shots where Joe is wearing an obvious (and bouncy!) woman’s wig and the scenery changes willy-nilly. And while endlessly funny to me, that’s just a minor part of Samurai Cop‘s ridiculousness! The dialogue is full of over the top innuendo, stilted threats, and a couple of bizarre racial jokes, while the actors shout or over-enunciate every line. There is a plethora of goofy faces (including Robert Z’Dar’s!) and goofier haircuts, and the threadbare plot hinges on the script’s infantile understanding of Japanese culture. To top it all off, this movie is GORY. Like, heads and limbs are chopped off and stuff.

Sometimes the film is almost too bad to actually be enjoyable, trudging through all the weirdly extended sex scenes and a romantic subplot popping up halfway in that involves church-going and long walks on the beach. Luckily the audacity of Matt Hannon’s awful acting (and uncanny resemblance to a hyper-tanned Sylvester Stallone) and, well, everything’s general wackiness make for a pretty damned entertaining experience. And seriously, Mark Frazer as Joe’s partner is the best! His reaction shots are AMAZING and also at one point he gets NAKED. But no butts, sadly. Just boobs. Anyway. Samurai Cop: Newest addition to my ever-expanding treasury of awesome bad movies. I’m so grateful that the 80s will always have more to offer me- I don’t believe I will ever see every great movie made during that decade because somehow its production is never-ending!

As a movie: 1.5/5
As entertainment: 4/5

Pair This Movie With: All the boobs and gore and 80s haircuts had me reminiscing about Hard Ticket to Hawaii, which has the added bonus of a mutant snake. Or you could do a Bad Cop/Good Cop double feature with Samurai Cop and RoboCop!

PS Oh man and maybe actually the best part of this screening was that I got to see the newest short from Astron-6, Bio-Cop!!! It was a truly awesome surprise and of course equally gross and hilarious and my gosh, I just love those guys. They’re so great.

Festival Review: V/H/S (2012)

Seen: At the Egyptian Theater in Seattle, part of the Seattle International Film Festival.

A thing about me is I have a lot of trouble not finishing a movie (or book, for that matter). I have very rarely walked out of a film, and the one or two times I have it’s been because I was feeling nauseous. When most of my companions to V/H/S, a much-talked-about horror anthology playing as a midnight movie at SIFF, decided to leave after the first grisly, disconcerting short, I decided to stay primarily because I wanted to see Ti West’s effort. (Remember how much I loved The Innkeepers? That movie rules, you guys.) With a frame story of a group of assholes breaking into an old guy’s house to steal a mysterious VHS tape, the film features an array of low-res, found-footage shorts as they go through his weird video collection. Each segment is directed by a different up-and-coming male horror filmmaker.

Leaning on the hand-held camera enough to cause motion sickness in some audience members, V/H/S is a love letter to the low-budget, fuzzy horror tapes of its name, relying more on technique, jump scares, and gore than on special effects or character development. The segments vary in quality and scariness, but pretty much all of them feature white assholes and unnecessary nudity (well, that’s what “horror” means right?). The frame story by Adam Wingard is kind of boring and hard to watch because it’s all shot at night with handheld cameras. The first short from David Bruckner is the hardest to watch with its depiction of date rape, but the film as a whole gradually picks up to feature a few shorts I dug. I expect anthologies to be hit and miss, so it’s no surprise, but for me this was more miss. Ti West’s look at a couple on vacation is surprisingly forgettable (though at least it has a decent lady character), while Glenn McQuaid’s slasher-in-the-woods story has an interesting premise (final girl coming back for revenge) but isn’t actually good.

On the positive side are two shorts I thought were very impressive. Joe Swanberg’s was probably my favorite, featuring a series of video chat conversations between a long-distance couple. The young woman (played by the adorable Helen Rogers) believes her new apartment is haunted, and wakes her boyfriend up to calm her fears and show him the ghost of a little boy who keeps knocking on her door. This one’s easier to watch since it’s not shaky, and I actually liked the main character. It’s funny but also legitimately scary, and has a great, weird twist that totally caught me off guard. The final short, from newcomer film collective Radio Silence, is considered by many viewers to be the best, and it’s certainly the creepiest. A group of idiot dude-bros find themselves stuck in a haunted house with a bunch of devil worshipers, and it’s tense and eerie as hell.

So I liked two out of the six shorts here, not a great showing in total. Admittedly horror isn’t my favorite genre, and the ones I do like are usually more thriller-y/character-based, and the stories on display here are more gory and jump-scare-based. And while I’m fine with VHS-quality for some things, combined with shaky-cam and a big screen it’s sort of hard to deal with over a long period of time. I will say I’m proud of myself for handling this movie pretty well, though. I rarely looked away and I wasn’t grossed out by the gore like I usually am. After hearing about people fainting and getting sick and stuff from other screenings of V/H/S, I kind of feel like a badass.

2.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Well since I was an little shaken by the end I wanted a palette cleanser, something light-hearted and funny and not scary at all! In the past I’ve gone with The Importance of Being Earnest. Alternatively, I would say to skip this movie and watch The Innkeepers.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival: Shorts

This review is part of my coverage of the 2011 Toronto After Dark Film Festival, taking place October 20-27 at the Toronto Underground Cinema. For more information, check out their website. For my full coverage go here.

Though I missed the shorts program, I did see a number of excellent short films screened before each feature at Toronto After Dark. Some are zany, some icky, some horrifying, some thought-provoking, some hilarious. All of them are Canadian!

The Legend of Beaver Dam” (Jerome Sable, 2010; 12 min)
Combine camping, musical theater, heavy metal, and slasher horror and you’ve begun to crack the sheer awesome joy of this short. It manages to be hilariously inventive, surprisingly action-packed, and darkly shocking in just 12 minutes. I mean, jeez. That is talent, right? I hear it’s been playing pretty often at Toronto events and it’s screened at various national and international festivals, so hopefully everyone will get a chance to see it!
More info at its website.

My Main Squeeze” (Chris Nash, 2011; 7 min)
A girl becomes obsessed with popping bubble wrap to the point of sexual fetish. I don’t want to go into it any more. Though it’s funny and imaginative, I wasn’t a big fan of this one, primarily because I am squeamish and have lately been dealing with skin problems that make me sensitive to such topics. It got a very strong response from the audience, I will say that much! Nash also did the horror-themed bumpers before all the TAD films, which I enjoyed.

Le Poids De Vude” (“The Weight of Emptiness”) (Alain Fournier, 2011; 13 min)
Set within a moody apartment building with boarded-up windows, this film tests the relationship between a mysterious mother and son. The blue-tinged color scheme and vaguely sci-fi atmosphere lend the short an intensity and enticing ambiguity. The two actors give fine performances, and the effects are gorgeous. A straight-up beautiful film.
Check out the trailer on youtube.

The Incident” (Jules Saulnier, 2011; 7 min)
This is another favorite, primarily for how all-out weird it is. An American spy wanders around Berlin with seemingly no memory or purpose, trying to figure out why Baltimore has to be destroyed. It doesn’t really make any sense but it’s downright funny and I loved it. The black and white visuals, the stilted, distant dialogue (reminiscent of overly-choreographed Hal Hartley conversations), and the befuddling narrative make me want to watch it again and again, because I’m sure there are details I missed.
Check out the trailer on youtube.

Blind Spot” (Matthew Nayman, 2011; 6 min)
Stuck in traffic on his way to the airport, Steven is transferred around the airline booking agents as he tries to change his flight over the phone. He isn’t aware of anything happening around him, but he has to look out the window sometime! This is a snappy, smart little short with a simple set-up and hilarious pay-off, definitely one of the most memorable shorts I saw at the festival.
Watch the film on youtube.

Ethereal Chrysalis” (Syl Disjonk, 2010; 10 min)
Inspired by his nightmares, filmmaker Syl Disjonk puts himself in a series of horrific hellscapes. Faces rip off, entrails slither about, demons suck face, bodies are dismembered, a painting comes to life… and various other things happen. There isn’t really a narrative, it’s more a group of nightmarish ideas thrown into a blender and filmed in front of a green screen and set to operatic music. It’s not really my thing, but some of the visuals were cool.
More info at its website.

How to Rid Your Lover of a Negative Emotion Caused By You” (Nadia Litz, 2011; 16 min)
This is the only film (short or feature) I saw that was directed by a woman, so that’s cool. (Side note: Come on, ladies, let’s get more genre films into next year’s Toronto After Dark!) It focuses on a couple with a strange dynamic: Whenever Sadie pisses off her boyfriend Dennis, she knocks him out, cuts out the bad emotions she caused him (they look like blueberries), stitches him back up, feeds him a lollipop, and everything’s fine. But it can’t last forever. This film manages to be funny, tragic, and visceral at the same time, with an inventive premise and fine performances. Great stuff!
Check out their facebook page.

The Lady Paranorma” (Vincent Marcone, 2011; 6 min)
This is the only animated film I saw (I skipped Redline since I’d already seen it), so that was exciting for me! With a surreal aesthetic and poetic narration, the film looks at a lonely lady who hears ghosts but can’t see them. Believed to be insane by the rest of the town, she tries to find a friend in the dead. It’s beautifully animated and scored, and I loved the brown color palette and ethereal look of the ghosts. I couldn’t help but recall Tim Burton works like “Vincent” and Corpse Bride, what with the rhyming, Goth-y character design, and askew sets, so I guess it’s a bit derivative. I still dug it though!
Check out the trailer on youtube.

Well, thus ends my Toronto After Dark coverage, hopefully you’ve enjoyed my first foray into this Canadian genre fest. I know I did! Looking forward to next year!