by Walter Chaw
The Babysitter Murders ****/**** (d. Ryan Spindell) For certain artists working in the short-film format, I don't have any idea how or why it is they haven't been called up to the big leagues yet. This speaks as much to my prejudice, obviously: there's nothing wrong with the short form. In literature, many of my favourite writers are best in the short form. In film, though, there's so little real opportunity for distribution that it seems a particular shame when guys like Ryan Spindell have only produced shorts. I'm not complaining (his work is excellent), merely hoping he has the means to continue. Spindell's latest, The Babysitter Murders, is so expertly composited that it would be kind of a shame to dissect it at all. Sufficed to say that it unearths a new place to take Wes Craven's Scream meta funhouse, and does it without a hint of smugness or show-off-y insecurity. It's beautifully paced, conceived, and executed. Look at a cooking scene early on, set to "Fast & Sweet" by Mondo Boys feat. Kestrin Pantera--the way it's shot and edited, the way Elie Smolkin's camera stalks and Eric Ekman cuts it all together. The movie's premise--a babysitter alone on a stormy night when a psycho escapes from an asylum--is as rote as they come, but Spindell, as he did with The Root of the Problem and dentists, finds something new to say. The performances are to a one pitch-perfect and the gore is appropriately horrifying; it's a film balanced in that space between hilarity for its excess and hilarity for its brilliance. I'm out of superlatives. Spindell is one of the finest voices working in genre right now, carving out a niche that's neither self-serious nor self-abnegating. He's full of joy, this one, and his movies are treasures.
Deathly *½/**** (d. Mike Williamson) Plagued by too many unnecessary, showy zooms and pans, that malady of young filmmakers trying to make an impression and too impressed themselves by the filmmakers they admire, Deathly follows the story of a recently-widowed man (Alan Ruck) returning home to his empty house after the funeral to find it...unwell. I'm not sure this is a premise that's workable anymore after The Changeling, and though Deathly is slickly-made, it doesn't add much to the conversation. The F/X look nice, Ruck is always good, and as a calling card, you could do worse. As a standalone piece, however, it doesn't have much to distinguish it. It's adequate.
Alike & Different ½*/**** (d. David Davis) Proof positive that while kitchen-sink filmmaking sometimes produces Stan Brakhages and Peggy Ahweshes, it just as often produces David Davises, who do stuff like this: short-short one-joke ponies. A trio of these little guys showed at Fantastic Fest this year, acting as wilfully odd palate-cleansers between heartier fare. This one concerns First Contact from an alien species that flies around in what looks suspiciously like a Video-Toaster'd metal colander. It's irritating less for its artlessness than for its belief that it's actually making a statement about how detached is the state of modern man. I'd rather listen to The The's "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" for that message--it's around the same length, but you can dance to it.
Dog Bowl ***/**** (d. Grady Hoffman) The devastating version of Wild, with a female protagonist so destroyed by the day-to-day humiliations of her life that she seeks solace in the revelation that she might be, literally, from another planet. It subverts the secret-princess fantasy of stuff like Jupiter Rising, offering up an ugly, sometimes-inexplicable look at a life lived on mute before providing a means through which someone in full-suffering can persevere. Marci Miller is fantastic as a woman seeking her purpose and finding it in a service-dog's vest that she wears, to no one's approval, to work one day. As statements of servitude go, it's fascinatingly blunt and marries, hand-in-hand, with that episode of "Rick and Morty" where the family pet develops sentience and asks where his testicles are. Smart, strong stuff.
Enhanced **½/**** (d. Jeremy David White) Ending with Donovan's "Season of the Witch" (something that's always appreciated), Enhanced follows a sad sack stand-up comedian (Timm Sharp) and his struggle with deciding whether or not to get one of those newfangled cyborg enhancements that everybody's talking about, thus quashing his insecurities and shortcomings in one fell swoop. Not a bad idea for a short, and White rides this particular mumblecore wave faithfully into shore. The centrepiece stand-up set that delves into mawkish reverie and a just-unstated apologia/explanation for not taking the plunge into the great tomorrow--drink deep, or taste not the plasma spring! (you see what I'm saying?)--is well-played, if ineloquently written. The search for one funny stand-up routine in a narrative film continues.
Fuck Buddies ***/**** (Canada, d. Nate Wilson) Beginning as one of those hip deconstructions of romantic comedies, Wilson's short quickly becomes a pretty interesting conversation about the consequences of sex, both bio- and psychological. Breezily-shot and played broadly but well (by Sharon Belle and Alexander Plouffe), Fuck Buddies eventually develops a physical manifestation of its central couple's "platonic" hook-ups in the forms of a blind child and a tentacular hentai penis. Gross? Yeah, sort of, but also oddly ebullient and, at the end, romantic, too. A scene where Belle's character, dressed in a T-shirt and boxer shorts, carefully straddles her partner after a negotiation of terms is at once sexy and a little heartbreaking. It recalls farewells: the ones where you know it's over, but you cling to each other one last time because you're both very sad about it. Frankly, it's worth the price of admission, that single moment.
Man Without Direction (Man utan riktning) ***½/**** (Sweden, ds. Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, Per Öhlund, Nina Jemth) Featuring a cast of disabled performers, Nilsson and co.'s stab at David Lynch pinions just exactly the level of discomfort that most have with disability and simultaneously identifies what it is about Lynch's work that so discomfits. The story follows Mr. D, a traveler adrift in an infernal hotel, clarifying the film's opening Dante quote (one of my favourites: "In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost") while adding the wrinkle that our hero's guide is his own decapitated head. It's tough to explain. Better to simply offer that Nilsson presents his cast with dignity, allowing them to be bland or menacing or both--a real "other" to the "normals" watching the piece, challenging interpretation through the scrim of personal and social prejudice. Are the residents of the hotel acting oddly because they're evil, or because they're incapacitated in some way? It magnifies Mr. D's plight and his eventual salvation, brilliantly earned and transcendentally-expressed as a little yellow car full of flowers (a reference again to Dante's Paradisio's multifoliate rose), elevating the piece from something disconcerting to something enlightening. It's great.
Movies in Space ***½/**** (d. Chris Smith) Smith's terrific Movies in Space finds hero astronaut Travis Shepard (triple-threat Smith) alight on an Earth-like planet inhabited, Being John Malkovich-style, by humanoids all identical in appearance. Settling in quickly, Shepard watches a few "Oscar-winning" films by the native species, discovering that they all run just a few seconds in length and are composed of burps and colours. Realizing that he's able to replicate these "masterpieces" without much trouble or understanding of their native impact, Shepard quickly becomes the most powerful movie mogul on his adopted planet, the darling of this Bizarro-Hollywood and the toast of the town. This leads to addiction and tragedy, though not before Smith lands a few body blows to the Awards-season industry that produces indistinguishable prestige, annually, generally from folks who don't know a thing about art and couldn't give a fuck. Shepard's savant-like ability to crack the code provides the film its only real joke, but it's one so incisive and succinct that, all the way through to his winning the "Thalberg" award while tripping balls, it never grows old. The real shocker is that by the end, Smith has even managed to deliver real characters and real relationships.
Portal to Hell ***/**** (Canada, d. Vivieno Caldinelli) The presumed last completed work of the late "Rowdy" Roddy Piper casts him as an embattled super of a tenement slum who discovers one day, between changing light bulbs and plunging toilets, that a pair of old codgers has managed to open a portal to R'yleh in the basement. The promise Piper showed in his too-brief movie career finds full expression in Portal to Hell as he handles escalating absurdity and frustration with the right balance of brio and exhaustion. I really liked him. His performance carries with it remarkable warmth, and to the film's credit, when the time comes for Cthulhu to shake off his centuries-long sleep and snake a tentacle into our dimension, shit cuts loose for real. It also, as it happens, has perhaps the best punchline in this year's crop of shorts outside The Babysitter Murders. High praise, indeed.
Out of the Mold **/**** (d. Michel Moon) A chamber piece revolving around a lesbian couple's disintegrating relationship and the doomed idea to maybe have a baby to save it, Moon's Out of the Mold is well- shot and performed, yet ultimately too familiar to make much of an impact. As the central couple's (Lillie Claire, Anna McNiven) love grows cold, a mold spot at the corner of their bathtub begins to take on shape, dimension, and eventually a measure of corporeality and sentience. Though tempting to call the result Cronenbergian, the piece is not a body-modification/mutilation exercise but rather an actor's showcase and an extended metaphor. It's fine, although its conclusion is embedded in its premise, leaving the playing-out of it empty of much compelling interest.
Slow Creep ½*/**** (d. Jim Hickcox) Barely redeemed by a neat-looking monster, this cursed-VHS-tape flick, in which a trio of feckless youth doggedly rents something the video-store clerk warns is haunted by some vermicious knid or another, is deeply amateurish. The generous will read it as a lo-fi homage to Spike Lee's early stuff, maybe, forgetting that Spike was always a genius, no matter the budget. This one's an ode to a stolen idea padded unforgivably and paced like a water balloon falling down a long, long flight of stairs. Then it ends in a music video for a song called "Slow Creep" performed, badly, by the admittedly-game cast. Slow Creep looks like something the neighbourhood kids threw together over a lazy afternoon. It'd be hard enough to feign interest if any of them were mine.
Teeth */**** (d. Jennifer Cox) A standard bully conceit with an interesting mid-film--and too-brief--trip into crude animation. Find in this one a little girl with rodent teeth, tormented by a cartoon Heather until the moment of crisis. It's like the rodent-tooth version of The Chocolate War, reminding mostly of how much I miss Keith Gordon in the director's chair on thoughtful, patient dramas. In terms of filmcraft, the best part of Teeth is its opening-credits sequence, which reminds of the Tears for Fears montage in Donnie Darko. Had Cox carried its style and energy through the rest of the film, Teeth would have been something very exciting indeed. She has obvious talent and a good eye. Would that she had material to match.
The Chickening ZERO STARS/**** (Canada, ds. Davy Force & Nick Denboer) Clips from The Shining altered digitally to create a new thing that revolves around a fried-chicken franchise. I had the opportunity once to watch a series of 8mm films that Stan Brakhage had created by setting mushroom caps on exposed film and letting them drop their spores on the media, which were then dyed different colours. I sat through an hour of them. They were part of a personal collection, and the opportunity to be classy and intellectual was too much to resist. I will say that the idea of the experiment was a lot more interesting than the end result. I'll say about The Chickening that it's obnoxious and not as funny as Force and Denboer probably think it is, and runs four minutes longer than its five-minute runtime can support besides. I would like to place an Adderall on it. Or two in my eyes and two more in my ears.
The Mill at Calder's End ****/**** (d. Kevin McTurk) Created by a puppet designer formerly of Weta and various other magic factories, this is a high Poe-/Hammer-style tale told entirely with bunraku rod puppets. There's an elder god in here, an unquiet wraith, and an old mill our hero (voiced by Jason Flemyng) inherits, to his unending disquiet. It's exactly the kind of gothic I love, and there are exquisite images that delightfully call to mind Saturday-afternoon matinees spent, rain outside/dread inside, watching Vincent Price manoeuvre through doomed partygoers in preparation for the arrival of Red Deaths. It's beautiful to behold, sure, but the puppets are astonishingly evocative--all the more so for their limitations. I would love to see this as the opening act for Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa one day. Both remember this ancient wisdom that puppets, in their journey across the uncanny valley, can often portray more existential trembling just by their proximate appearance than the most schooled performance. Look at the moment where the hero's aged father, made mad by a lifetime's searching for some great reward, opens a coffin housed in the bowels of the titular mill and mumbles to himself about disappointment. Look at the moment our hero is dragged by some Mike Mignola monstrosity through an earthen corridor he's only just wondered about. ("How could one man have done this?") The Mill at Calder's End deals with obsession and legacy. It's practically the best thing I've seen all year.
This Home is Not Empty **/**** (Canada, d. Carol Nguyen) Oblique, lovely, This Home is Not Empty ultimately lands just this side of strident and so loses a lot of momentum it had gained. The problem is that it evokes imagism (i.e., Ezra Pound's "In A Station of the Metro") but, unlike that example, cannot resist restating its title at the end of its brief 3-minute runtime and thus goes from evocative to patronizing, justlikethat.
Thorn ***/**** (Japan, d. Soichi Umezawa) Grisly, perverse, Thorn centres on a mother grieving the suicide of her son by communing with his pulsing, revolting, insinuating pet cactus. The most genuinely Cronenbergian film in this line-up, it ties the past with the present, love and devotion with guilt and recrimination, through the agency of a fleshy, seeping succulent interfacing--physically, in one of the most graphically-uncomfortable sequences in recent memory--with a woman wanting to protect her dead child from the things that drove him to his death. It's poignant in its way, even if it overstays its welcome a bit--though I can't tell if my eventual impatience with it had to do with its repetitiveness or with the flagging of my tolerance for its imagery. Either way, a worthwhile foray into the surreal and the unpleasant.
My Johnny ZERO STARS/**** (d. Vincent De Ghoulie) Unwatchable dreck featuring a very badly-behaved kid whose favourite thing is to threaten his female guardians with a good fisting. Later, he'll have a nightmare and wet himself. Then he'll invite his latest babysitter to take a bath with him. "You stink!" she says. He offers to make it a shower. It's not about anything, and it's really terrible at it. The acting is below subpar, the cast of the director's buddies struggling through with panicked looks and breathless recitations. Often, the looping makes everything sound like it was recorded in a barrel and is slightly out of synch to boot. This could be an aesthetic/thematic choice, of course, a device to replicate the LSD trip the program blurb claims is the film's raison d'etre, but when all of it is so clearly, unintentionally awful, any ascription of intentionality seems an act of charity. Running at a monstrously-bloated 30 minutes, My Johnny is the product of someone who likely doesn't take notes well. Like Ed Wood, maybe. It has an ambition to be something is the best thing I can say. And I think it means what it says, whatever it is that might be. I'm not going back to find out.
World of Tomorrow ****/**** (d. Don Hertzfeldt) Hertzfeldt makes masterpieces. I don't know who this guy is or where he came from, but he's a genius. His It's Such a Beautiful Day is the most visceral, emotionally-rending piece on loss and death I've seen since Grave of the Fireflies, sharing with it the medium of animation but from the opposite side of the aesthetic spectrum. Using only stick figures, impressionistic backgrounds, and a few devastatingly- timed and placed photographs, Hertzfeldt's films are honest-to-God pieces of art. There's no end to the superlatives. In his latest, a clone from the far future contacts her "prime" while her prime is still a child. She wants something from the child and, in the course of a perfect 17 minutes, she gets it. What we get is a very particular blend of humour and existential terror. At Fantastic Fest, it opened for Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa, and there's so much wisdom in that combination as to serve as a reminder that there are still brilliant, dedicated programmers out there; Kristen Bell, Fantastic Fest's mad scientist, is one of them. There is in World of Tomorrow the suggestion that autism is a form of evolution--and that makes sense--and then there's the Kaufman-esque suggestion that the value of love is not in what you love but in what loves you. There's discussion here of memory and its role in identity, and there's the struggle--as there is in all of Hertzfeldt's films (Kaufman's, too)--with finding a meaningful place in the world, or at least surcease of sorrow. World of Tomorrow is the kindest film I've ever seen about literal and figurative apocalypses. In under 20 minutes, it puts to shame virtually everything else I've watched this year.