Feast (2005)

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What’s interesting about Feast, a patrons-trapped-in-a-bar-and-forced-to-fight-off-voracious-critters movie from first-time director John Gulager, is that, unless you’ve seen the trailer, you won’t have an earthly as to what these monsters are, exactly, and where on earth they came from. The trailer, however, spells things out quite specifically—for those who prefer their heavy servings of gore unencumbered by plot contrivances you can skip the next tell-all paragraph:
     “West Texas: the desert. A weapon has been created. It is undetectable. It is untraceable. It is unstoppable. It is alive. Before it can be used on our enemies it must be tested. On us.”
     It’s just curious that this rather forthright explanation is nowhere to be found in the finished film.  Our hero (the first of many) just shows up at the bar, bloodied and battered, and tells its motley occupants that a storm o’hell is about to reign down on them and that they’d better start battening down the hatches pronto like. There is some preamble involving a car crash but it goes no further in revealing the imminent threat to this seedy watering hole in the Chihuahuan Desert. The script for Feast, by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, was the winner of the third season of the Ben Affleck/Matt Damon-executive produced documentary series Project Greenlight (in which novice filmmakers vie for a chance to direct a feature film). Perhaps the promotions people felt its coming attraction reel needed to provide a little more backstory.
     But anyway. We’re introduced to our delightful dinner guests Hero, Bozo, Harley Mom, Coach, Honey Pie, Tuffy, Edgy Cat, Hot Wheels, Vet, Heroine, Boss Man, Grandma, and Beer Guy bright and early—and somewhat tongue-in-cheekily—via those sepia-toned, Tarantino-esque freeze-frame title boards. You know the type:
     Name: Beer Guy.
     Occupation: Beer Guy & Part-Time Host at Red Lobster.
     Life Expectancy: Losers and Dorks Go First… He’s Both.
     These nicely establish the mood, since we quickly know what to expect, especially in terms of the film’s spirited tone. The humor proves diverting, since the mayhem of the creature attacks is shot and edited in such an unvaryingly nutzoid and gut-spilling style that figuring out what’s afoot, or getting a good gander at the monsters themselves, isn’t really an option. Another unexpected blessing is that the women here are a lot quicker to step up to the macho plate than the menfolk. The creatures don’t seem to value equal opportunity filmmaking as much, mind you—they’ll munch on pretty much anything, and do.
     Among the name performers in Feast, which spawned two tasty sequels, 2008’s Feast II: Sloppy Seconds and Feast III: The Happy Finish in 2009, are Balthazar Getty (Life Expectancy: Dead By Dawn), Jason Mewes (Life Expectancy: Already Surpassed Expectations), and veteran Clu Gulager, the director’s dad, who tends bar (Life Expectancy: Horrifying Death in 70 Minutes). The unrated version, by the way, is about five seconds longer than the theatrical release–long enough to squeeze in that weapon’s-grade conspiracy preface, perhaps? I wouldn’t count on it.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Man Up (2015)

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The producers of the inconsequentially-titled rom-com Man Up appear to have assumed that the winning chemistry between the appealing Simon Pegg and the equally affable Lake Bell would be enough to carry the picture without much assistance from an actual scriptwriter.
     And they were right!
     That’s not to say that Man Up couldn’t have been a better movie—a much better movie—had Pegg and Lake, as 40-year-old divorcee Jack and preternaturally-single 34-year-old Nancy, thrust together by happenstance, been given some funny things to say or do. Heck, Pegg and Lake could have given themselves something funny to say or do, since each has proven fairly adept in the screenwriting department before now—Pegg as co-scribe of Edgar Wright’s winning “Cornetto trilogy” of films (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End), for example, and Bell as writer/director of In a World…, her debut feature from 2013.
     But just watching Pegg and Bell hanging out together, and playing off  each other (as, admittedly, characters we’ve seen before), warrants a marginal thumbs-up despite the lackluster screenplay (by Tess Morris) and the overworked direction (by The Inbetweeners‘ Ben Palmer).
     The film does find substantive support in the guise of Rory Kinnear (The Imitation Game) as creepy middle school chum Sean and Sharon Horgan (Amazon Originals’ Catastrophe) as Nancy’s got-her-act-together sister Elaine. Come to think of it, even Horgan, as writer and co-star of several edgy television Britcoms (the previously mentioned Catastrophe as well as Pulling and Little Crackers) could have given Pegg and Lake something funny to say or do too.
     Did anyone not think to ask one of these three talented actor-writers to write this thing as well as act in it? It sounds like a bit of a no-brainer in hindsight.
     In Man Up, Nancy, heading to London for her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary do, is mistaken for Jack’s blind date under the clock at Waterloo station. Regularly encouraged by her sister to “put yourself out there,” Nancy decides to throw caution to the wind and just go with it. Needless to say complications, and occasional funny ones, ensue.
But that’s all by the by. Pegg and Bell click in Man Up and, as those wacky producers of theirs gambled, that decision proves winning enough.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film (2012)

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More an appetite-whetting introduction than the grandiose “history” to which it lays claim, Pip Chodorov’s playful Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film is a flickering foray into a cinematic world created outside of the mainstream by crossover artists—painters, sculptors, writers. The films, often short form and occasionally strikingly animated, challenge audiences to reassess cinematic norms. As a form of criticism or political protest, the filmmakers reshape and retool convention, freely and radically.
     My first exposure to experimental film (aka structuralist, abstract, vanguard, alternative, non-narrative, avant-garde, underground, or materialist) was in art college in the early ’80s by way of Michael Snow’s much-lauded Wavelength. A simple film in terms of its execution (an attenuated, forty-five-minute zoom from a wide shot of a loft to a close-up of a photo of waves on the wall), Wavelength sold me on the art form and colored much of my filmic thinking thereafter.
     Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren), Dog Star Man (Stan Brakhage), Notes on the Circus (Jonas Mekas), Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (Ken Jacobs), Castro Street (Bruce Baillie), Jamestown Baloos (Robert Breer), A Movie (Bruce Conner), and (spoiler alert!) Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (George Landow)—I couldn’t get enough of these manic creations. I even managed to inspect a rare (projected!) screening of Snow’s four-and-a-half-hour masturbatory opus, ‘Rameau’s Nephew’ by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen—no mean feat, that, and not one for the faint hearted.
     For every influential artist spotlighted in Free Radicals, however, there are as many again missing from the equation, most notably Hollis Frampton, Kenneth Anger, Paul Sharits, and Jack Smith. The film serves as a worthy baptism for those unacquainted with the genre but may be less fulfilling for the pre-converted eager for more.
     Director Chodorov’s father Stephan worked in the television industry, producing an art series that provided his son unprecedented access to many of the signature experimentalists of their day (1960s New York being mostly the time and the place). The young Pip would subsequently secure rare interviews with such luminaries as Hans Richter and Peter Kubelka, along with Mekas, Snow, Breer, and Brakhage (in his last “public” appearance). Free Radicals is a loving if scattershot tribute to a smattering of these unique filmmakers who left—or in Len Lye’s case scratched—their indelible mark on celluloid. Several films, such as Lye’s colorful Rainbow Dance (1936) and his namesake Free Radicals from 1958, are included in their entirety.
     Given the documentary’s scope and relatively short running time (82 minutes), Chodorov could have been more inclusive, excising most of the home-movie footage in which he prominently appears. More formidable narration—I’m imagining a Kevin Spacey type—rather than Pip squeaking “In this film I’d like you to meet my friends and see their films,” would have lent the project more weight.
     That said, this chaotic, cathartic mishmash offers much by way of exposure, a vibrant, rhythmic pastiche of eye-popping visuals laced throughout with expert witness accounts and wrapped, in my particular case, in an aching sense of nostalgia.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com