Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Indianapolis International Film Festival: Day Four

My friend Andie and I have a tradition: Usually when we get together, we carve out some time to watch a notoriously bad movie solely for the purpose of mocking it. The films we've watched have pretty much fallen into two categories: awful movies with rock/pop stars in them (Purple Rain, Give My Regards to Broad Street, Glitter) or misfires from the 80s (Stroker Ace, Purple Rain*). We've never watched Troll 2. Although, after seeing the documentary Best Worst Movie, I think it needs to be at the top of our list. Because it looks awful.

In the late 80s Italian filmmaker Claudio Fragasso and his wife Rossella Drudi wrote a film about vegetarian goblins who turn people into plants so they could eat them. Or something. The film was shot in 1989 in Utah with a very low budget and an amateur cast. Troll 2, as it came to be called because a successful film named Troll had been released just before it, never saw a theatrical release, instead going straight to video. Twenty years later the film has become a cult phenomenon, inspiring midnight screenings across the country. Michael Stephenson, who had the lead in Troll 2 as a young boy, decided to investigate the surprise success of the film, as well as find out what all the actors were doing twenty years later.

First, let me say that if you get a chance to see this documentary, please see it apart from fans of Troll 2. The audience I saw the film with were rabid fans of the '89 film, so much so that everything - every clip, every cast member, every sound cue - was laughed at uproariously, drowning out some of the dialogue. There are serious moments in the film - not all the actors from Troll 2 are operating at 100% mental capacity, sadly - but you wouldn't know it from this audience's laughter over these people's problems. I don't know if they were trying to compete with their friends or what, but it was goddamn annoying.

Not that the film doesn't have some hilarious moments. George Hardy, who played the dad in Troll 2, is now a dentist who clings to his one shot at fame. His office is covered with Troll 2 posters and he's even shown telling patients that he was in the film as he's cleaning their teeth. Hardy currently lives in Alabama and he's got the stereotypical "Aw, shucks" demeanor you associate with that area. He's shown in the film doing anything and everything he can to remind people that he was in Troll 2, even going so far as staging a screening in his hometown and having his dental hygenists call his patients to remind them about it. He's a lot of fun to watch and provides the majority of the levity in the film.

But there are also sad, depressing moments in the film as well. The woman who played the mother in Troll 2 is sadly losing her grip on reality. When Stephenson and Hardy track her down they find her in a tiny apartment living with her elderly mother. She's obviously both overjoyed and annoyed at her visitors, and for every moment of clarity there's a moment where she makes an inappropriate comment under her breath. A second visit to her apartment to convince her to take part in a cast reunion is even more depressing, as she claims she can't go because the sounds will get to her. The woman is now elderly herself, and it's clear she's in the beginning stages of senility. Sad. (But not to the audience I was with. You'd think this development was hilarious!)

A few of the other actors have fallen on hard times as well. The grandpa from the film lives in a house in Salt Lake City but is saddened that he never made it professionally as an actor. And the man who played a villain speaks about his trips to various mental hospitals both before and after the '89 film was shot. As you can see, this is not your typical DVD making-of featurette.

Things get interesting when Fragasso comes to the states to see for himself how popular his movie is. Fragrasso is an Italian, and it's obvious when you see him interacting with the actors that there was a serious language barrier on the set. His reaction to how his film is being viewed now - at midnight screenings promoted as "THE WORST MOVIE OF ALL-TIME!!!" - is poignant. On the one hand, he's pissed that people are openly mocking his film, laughing at dialogue that isn't funny. On the other, he's smart enough to realize that people have made a lasting emotional attachment to the film, which makes him extremely proud. And if people love it because they think it's bad, so be it.

There's a wonderful moment late in the film where Fragrasso sees the film reels of his movie sitting in a truck before a screening and he becomes overwhelmed with joy. Having gone straight to video, he's never seen his baby projected from film onto a big screen before. It's a quick moment, but you can see that even though his movie didn't amount to much, you can tell he still loves it with all his heart.

I'll give Stephenson credit: This film is not 92 minutes of him and his fellow castmates mocking the movie. Everyone involved with the film did make it with the best of intentions, even though it didn't turn out well.# And they all seem to have a soft spot in their heart for the movie, even though a lot of them acknowledge it's garbage. It's this aspect that made me enjoy the documentary, not the film clips or the trashing of Troll 2. It speaks a lot about the reception of art - good and bad - and I didn't expect that.

Trailer:



GRADE: B+

Tomorrow: Lo, a horror comedy movie I know very little about but sounds oddly intriguing.


* Yeah, it's so bad you have to see it twice.

# My thoughts on this is that you have a classically trained Italian director who couldn't just make a cheap movie and let it die. Instead he injected a lot of European imagery and themes into the film which doesn't make any sense to Joe Sixpack who just wants to see some trolls kill people. It's like if Fellini had helmed one of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Indianapolis International Film Festival: Day Three

The IMA needs to do something about their escalators. As you're walking up to them, getting ready to enter the museum from the parking garage, it sounds like a gaggle of geese are being strangled. I don't think animal torture is really what they want their patrons to think about as they're being elevated to classic works of art.

But, then again, those sounds were appropriate for tonight's film, The Tiger Next Door, a documentary about Dennis Hill, a man in Flat Rock, Indiana, who keeps 24 tigers as pets in his backyard. (As well as numerous bears, cougars and leopards.) The DNR* hears about this and gives him thirty days to find homes for all but three of the tigers and the film deals with his struggles to find someone to take the animals. At the same time, he's under attack in the community for his hobby, since many of the people in the town fear what would happen if one of the animals would escape.

I was highly impressed with this film. For one thing, I love it when issue documentaries present both sides of the story, allowing the viewer to make up his or her mind on the subject matter without any obvious bias. Director Camilla Calamandrei does this in spades, showing Hill trying to comply with the sanctions places upon him by the DNR as well as the flaws in the way he cages and treats his animals. Hill is defiinitely a character, a long-bearded former meth addict who resembles Edward "Skunk" Baxter of the Doobie Brothers. He actually comes across in the film as a competent man, someone who knows what he's doing is crazy but does it anyhow. And he doesn't shy away from his past or hide anything from anyone who is curious. He comes across as truthful and a bit insane. Other than fighting off a surprise court order that threatens to take away his animals, he is shown as a law-abiding citizen who is doing his best to comply with what the state wants him to do. His love for his pets, while misguided, is genuine.

But the problem is, should he be keeping full-grown tigers as pets? In small 600 square-foot cages, no less? Calamandrei doesn't do much editorializing on this point, instead letting her images speak for her. And it doesn't get more painful than seeing a beautiful creature like a tiger living in an area where he can barely turn around. It's sad, and it makes you wonder what would drive a person to want to cage a tiger like that.

There are some dynamite moments in the film, such as when one of the tigers gets spooked and nearly destorys her cage by leaping into the air and banging against it repeatedly. There's also a confrontation between Hill and the operator of a tiger rescue society in Indiana that gets pretty heated. It's an electric moment that had the audience in attendance cheering#.

If I have doubts about the movie, it's that it goes to the well of "Why, these pets can kill people!" a bit too often. That seems to be the main argument of the townspeople against Hill, which, duh, they're freaking tigers. Of course they're going to kill people. It's what they do.^ And I didn't like Calamandrei's editing of the big town hall meeting confrontation. She kept cutting back and forth between the meeting and Hill loading up some of his tigers, giving the illusion that both were happening at the same time. Obviously they were not, since Hill was at both places. It was clumsy editing and should have just been done straight instead of trying to ratchet up the tension.

I have no idea if this film will get a wide distribution or not. I wish it would, but I believe its future is on constant rotation on Animal Planet once it gets done making the rounds at all the film festivals. Too bad, because it deserves more.



GRADE: A-

Tomorrow: The documentary Best Worst Movie, about a man who looks back at his starring role in Troll 2, widely regarded as one of the worst films ever made, when he was a child. This one has good buzz, so I'm curious if it lives up to the hype.

* Headed by Kyle Hupfer at the time, a former classmate of mine at PHHS. He even makes an appearance in the film. Class of '91 represent!

# But not for Hill. The audience was definitely against keeping tigers as pets. Which makes me wonder what Hill, who was there, thought when they cheered loudly against him several times during the film. At the very least it probably explains why he wasn't that vocal during the Q&A after the show.

^ None of the people in Flat Rock who are against Hill cite possible animal cruelty as a reason to get rid of the tigers. Instead they spew conspiracy theories that a tornado might come through the area and knock the cages down, setting the tigers free, where, of course, they'll immediately head for their children. They come across as bigger ignorant hicks than Hill does.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Indianapolis International Film Festival: Day Two

OK, first off, I was a bit eager when putting together the schedule last night. Originally I was going to try to squeeze in eleven movies before next Saturday but, after looking at it again today, I realized I was too ambitious. So I've scaled it down...to nine. I'm one crazy mo-fo.

Today I saw my first film in the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Toby Theater, a supposed state of the art venue that used to be the home of Indianapolis Civic Theatre. I say "supposed" because the sound of the film I saw in there today sounded horrible. Remember how sound in movie theaters used to sound before the Dolby Stereo revolution of the 80s? That's what it sounded like this afternoon in the Toby Theater. I'm hoping the film is to blame for this, but it was a pretty professional documentary, so I doubt that was the case. I'm seeing something in there tomorrow, so hopefully this was just a bad transfer or something.

Anyway, I saw two films today, both documentaries and both marginal. Here are my thoughts:

THE WAY WE GET BY

Over 750,000 U.S. troops have stopped by the Bangor, Maine, airport either on their way to war or on their way home. Seeing them off when they leave and greeting them when they return is a dedicated group of senior citizens who hug them, thank them and make them feel appreciated for what they do for this country. The film focuses on three of the members of this group: Bill, a former farmer who has cancer and feels he has nothing to live for besides his work at the airport; Joan, an elderly grandmother who doesn't support the war but loves the troops, especially her two grandchildren who will be deploying soon; and Jerry, a prankster of a man who is suffering from heart issues as well as the loss of a good friend.

This film should have tugged at my heartstrings more, but it didn't. Yeah, individual scenes of troops coming home and hugging their families, calling their moms, etc. are moving, but the filmmakers keep showing them over and over again, diluting the point. Also, the film erred by concentrating only on three members of this group. It's not that they're boring individuals - far from it, as each has interesting things to say - it's just that the film gets stuck in this mortality cycle for at least 50% of its running time, reminding us that no one lives forever. All three subjects talk for long periods about death. I know they're in the twilight of their lives, but the movie should have been solely about the service they give to the troops instead of about how they feel about dying. There have been other documentaries that have covered this ground before. (For example, it's one of the main themes of Young at Heart.) We also never get to know the other members of this volunteer organization, which is a shame. I just wish director Aron Gaudet would have concentrated on the whole puzzle rather than a few individual pieces.

It's a shame, because what they do for the troops is a small gesture but it means a lot. You can tell the majority of the troops are a bit overwhelmed by the attention but they appreciate the effort. And there are a few fun scenes in the film, such as a group of Marines from the East playing in the fresh Maine snow and making snow angels. It's not a bad film, just not a slam dunk.

Trailer:



GRADE: B-


HOMEGROWN

In the 90s, Jules Dervaes decided to turn his small plot of land in Pasadena, California, into an organic farm. A divorced dad raising three children at the time, today the Dervaes family makes a living and gets the majority of their food from the items they grow.

This is an interesting subject for a documentary, but at 52 minutes its way too short. I walked away feeling like I wasn't getting the whole story, especially when all three children - who are 34, 32 and 26 - started talking about the personal cost of running an organic farm with their father. All three expressed regret that they're not married, but the film makes no attempt to show their lives away from the farm or their other interests. There's also more to the story of Jules' divorce that we're not getting. Did the wife leave because she didn't want to live on a farm in southern California? The film hints that he was a bit of a drifter before he started the farm. Was that her reason for leaving? Ideas like this are raised periodically throughout the film and then are quickly dropped without much explanation.

That said, what they've managed to achieve on a small plot of land mere eet from a major highway is astounding. And all those shots of vegetables made even this meatatarian long for a nice salad. Plus all four members of the family are personable, funny and humble, which makes listening to their story a delight. I just wish it was longer and a bit more in-depth. (Plus, Indianapolis International Film Festival, charging me $10 for a 52 minute documentary is kind of a rip-off. At least throw some shorts before it or something to justify the cost.)

For more information about what they're doing, visit their website. Be wary of their blog, however. The food pictures on there will make you immediately run to the kitchen for a snack. Trust me on that one.

Trailer:



GRADE: B


Tomorrow I'm seeing The Tiger Next Door, a documentary about an Indiana man's fight to keep his 24 pet tigers. Look for it tomorrow...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Indianapolis International Film Festival: Day One

There are two main film festivals in Indianapolis, the Heartland Film Festival and the Indianapolis International Film Festival. Every year I say I'm going to go to both and every year I don't. Until last year. Last year I won ten free passes to Heartland in a trivia contest so I dipped my toes in that pool a bit. Didn't use all ten passes, but that was because I didn't have a plan.

This week the Indianapolis International Film Festival is in town. And now I have a plan.

If all goes well, I will see twelve films over the next seven days. Crazy? Yeah, a bit. But for a lot of these movies, this is a one-shot deal. They'll never receive a wide release and if they make it to DVD it's not exactly going to be well-publicized when they come out. So I figure while it might be a bit of overkill, it will be worth it in the long run.

Today I saw one movie*. Well, it wasn't a movie, it was a collection of shorts, each one dealing with animation somehow. The program was called Not Your Normal Saturday Morning Cartoons: Animated and Out-There Shorts. Here are my thoughts on each one:

CHICKEN COWBOY

This is basically what the title says it is, a chicken who just so happens to be a cowboy. Mean guys try to take him down, he fights them off, the end. Not a lot of depth here.

But what it lacks in depth it makes up for in humor. Harold Teitelman gives the chicken a nasally unsure voice that is perfectly matched with Stephen P. Neary's animation of the lead character. Neary gives a lot of the other characters angular features that work well with the style of the piece. It's kind of like a cross between an old Cartoon Network spoof and a spaghetti western. Hey, it made me laugh for seven minutes, so it worked for me. And the entire thing is on Youtube!



GRADE: B+


A GLIMPSE

I'm not sure how this one can be considered animated. It's a black and white film that has pieces of it colored, like a man's jacket or the sky. I wouldn't consider it either animated or "out there," so I have no idea why it was included in this program.

It's about an old man wandering around while a narrator spews pretentious garbage about the meaning of life. To be honest, after about thirty seconds of this ponderous narration I tuned her out and just watched the images. It's beautifully shot, this short, but it's trying way too hard to mean something. It was only four minutes, though, so it wasn't painful to sit through.

GRADE: C


SILENT TREATMENT

This one was a lot of fun. A bum wakes up one morning and tries to steal a woman's purse...only to discover he's in a silent movie. After the brief initial shock wears off, he figures he can make a decent living in crime if no one can hear his victims scream.

This one was definitely out-there, but in a good way. I was laughing out loud repeatedly, both because of the gags - the bum removing the title cards of the woman's pleas for help was priceless - but because the set-up itself was so enjoyable. This was easily my favorite short of the day.

GRADE: A


THE REALM OF POSSIBILTY



These guys in masks wander around and mutter bad S.A.T. questions for about ten minutes, then they hop into byplanes and make letters. Or something.

The director was in attendance and did a brief Q&A afterward, and his answers and descriptions of the work he did to make this thing happened elevated it a bit in my eyes. But not by much. I'm a big plot-with-dialogue fan, and just having random dudes spouting nonsense for ten minutes is pointless to me. Still, props for the guy admitting what his short's weaknesses are. At least he's not some pretentious dimwit who thinks his movie's the second coming of Citizen Kane.

GRADE: C-


MARSHY


A marshmallow escapes from his bag on the kitchen counter, is quickly captured by a human and stuffed into a microwave where he expands. The End.

No, I'm not kidding, that's the entire short. It's two minutes long, it looked terrible, it wasn't funny and it made no sense. Too bad, because the world could use an animated film starring a marshmallow.

GRADE: D-


THE VEILED COMMODITY

I get the point of this non-fiction short - basically, it wants us to stop slavery now - but the way it was constructed killed it for me. It stops and starts erratically and isn't consistent in tone. Had directors Dickson Chow and Vinh Chung chosen one idea and stuck with it, they could have made one powerful film because I loved the way it looked. But it was trying so hard to make its point seven different ways that it wound up suffocating it in the process.

But maybe I'm wrong. Thank God for Youtube!



GRADE: C


CAPES#

This one was bizarre. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it, either. A young man living in a city in the sky is given a cape during a glorious ceremony. He tries to fly but fails miserably, falling to a rocky planet with no life on it. Then some skeletons show up and convince him to visit a mystical tree...

It was beautiful, this movie. It had the look of classic hand-drawn animation and the score by Tchaikovsky was appropriately moving. But the sequence with the skeletons dragged on for far too long and ultimately the film became a muddled mess. Had the story been trimmed and clarified a bit, director Bryan Cohen would have had a winner. As it was, it was an intriguing misfire.

GRADE: C


THE STORYMAKER

Speaking of misfires...

An old lady is bed-ridden but when she's awake she speaks in tongues that people dressed like the women in the "Addicted to Love" video write down in some secret code. But then her cuckoo clock emits a long black cloth that ties itself around the her neck and little wooden soldiers march out of the clock and strangle her.

That's basically the entire film and, yeah, I just spoiled it for you. (Although I left out the man in the wheelchair and the Robert Palmer woman whose clothes morph on her as she looks longingly into the woman's eyes.) Now you don't have to suffer through it like I did. This played like a bad student film. The only thing I can recommend about it is the cinematography, which is well-done. The rest of it is idiotic nonsense.

GRADE: D


ANIMATED AMERICAN

Hilarious. Eric Moeberg, one of the Hollywood executives responsible for killing off traditional 2-D animated cartoons, is looking at a house for sale with his girlfriend. His realtor is late and sends Max Rabbit in his place. Problem is, Max is a former actor in animated films and still hasn't forgiven Moeberg for what he did to his people, putting them out of work.

This was a clever film that made a timely point that 2D animation shouldn't be dead just because it's quicker and easier to produce a film using a computer. (A sentiment I totally agree with, by the way.) The physical performances aren't the strongest, a problem I attribute to the directors probably not being used to working with actual living actors. For example, they tipped it off way too early that there was something different about Eric's girlfriend and Jason Marsden was hamming it up a bit too much as Moeberg. I will give the filmmakers this: Even though they dropped the ball with the actors, the live-action footage looked wonderful. While it was shot in black and white, it had this contemporary look that was rooted in 40s film noir. The vocal performances for the animated characters were spot-on, especially by Jon Polito^ who voiced Max Rabbit. I was taken with this film almost immediately and, judging by the audience's reaction to it, so was everyone else. A winner.

GRADE: A-


Tomorrow the plan is to see The Way We Get By, a documentary about elderly people in Bangor, Maine, greeting servicemen as they come back from war, and Homegrown, a documentary about a family in Pasadena that owns a prosperous organic farm. Hopefully I'll have those thoughts for you tomorrow night.

* With Samantha, my fellow animation fan. Her grades somewhat synced up with mine.

# Except for Capes. She hated Capes.

^ Polito was in one of the best gangster movies of all-time, Miller's Crossing. "I'm talkin' 'bout ethics." "Awwww, did someone hit you?"