DM – Dominick Mayer
CO – Chris Osterndorf
Here is a film that contributes to everything that has ever been wrong with the general conception of “independent” cinema. American Animal is indulgent tripe of the highest order, a near-unwatchable bit of navel gazing, spurred on by writer/director/producer/lead actor Matt D’Elia, who resembles Christian Bale in appearance but certainly not in talent. If you ever wondered what Freddy Got Fingered would look like as an existential drama, wonder no more, because D’Elia seems to be channeling Tom Green (who’s also a more interesting performer) with his manic, obnoxious turn as Jimmy, a brain-fried kook who plunges his roommate James (Brendan Fletcher) and two unsuspecting friends of theirs (Mircea Monroe and Angela Sarafyan) into a nightlong horrorshow.
When Jimmy finds out that James is getting a job, and thus apparently ruining the perfect microcosm of psychotic slacker oneness Jimmy wishes to reside in, he proceeds to have what appears to be the temper tantrum of a suicidal 5-year-old on acid. The film wants to get at the idea of a perfect Randian moment of evolution where man only indulges what he wants, no matter how stupid or ultimately uninteresting, and refuses to live by any other standard, even if his life cannot reasonably continue in this way. The only way in which American Animal could be considered a success is if it’s an experiment in cinematic form akin to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, in that the audience’s continuing to sit and watch the film, rather than leaving in repulsion, means that D’Elia has made his point. The problem is that this is probably lending far too much credence to what’s easily going to go down as the worst film of this year’s festival, and would give this exercise in narcissism exactly what it wants. DM
Fightville starts off as a seemingly shallow film. The beginning of this documentary focuses on a group of men who range from being in their teen years to middle-aged, talking about how great Mixed Martial Arts is, how it’s a way of life, and how most people have the wrong idea about it. This testosterone fueled pontificating makes them come off as arrogant, and the film also glosses over the violent culture of MMA’s fan base. However, Fightville ultimately isn’t a movie about the societal impact of fighting. Instead it chooses to follow the lives of two young men trying to make it as professional fighters, and two older men who’ve given up their professional careers in fighting, but are still deeply involved in the culture, one as a trainer and the other as a promoter. The story of the young men is particularly compelling. The uber-masculinity they show off at the beginning really isn’t a part of their lives anywhere but in the ring. They’re also remarkably different, and each fascinating in their own way.
One of them, Albert, is the more philosophical of the two, and talks occasionally about the psychology of fighting. In one of his most amusing quirks, his walk out before each fight is to the music from A Clockwork Orange. The other, Dustin, is the more sensitive one, and has a sense of dedication that is only rivaled by his infinite skill as a fighter. Both these guys had difficult times growing up, but neither of them seem bitter; they get their aggression out in the ring, and try to be the best men they can outside of it as well. In it’s character portraits, Fightville is fantastic. It’s not really even about MMA, and it’s definitely not about the fan culture around MMA. What it’s really about is trying to be the ultimate at something you love. CO
A Bag Of Hammers
A Bag of Hammers is a small miracle insofar as it’s a film with all the trappings of a totally generic indie dramedy that elevates itself to something genuine and moving. The film is a spiritual sibling of Little Miss Sunshine, another wonderfully warped story of family unity among outcasts. Ben and Alan (Jason Ritter and co-writer Jake Sandvig) are grafters, fleecing cars under a valet guise and flipping them to a shady chop shop owner (Todd Louiso) and not having to accomplish much of anything. Alan’s sister (Rebecca Hall) knows they’re both useless, but keeps mum out of familial loyalty, leaving them with nobody in the way of a long life as self-imagined gentleman thieves. However, when Lynette (Carrie Preston) and her son Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury) sublet a house that Ben and Alan own, and Kelsey takes to the two of them, they’re forced to face down adulthood, or at least having some semblance of accountability for themselves.
The above undersells, in a lot of ways, just how original of a film Hammers is. To be sure, a lot of this is well-worn territory (man-boys realize they’re an influence on an actual boy, are forced to get act together), but Sandvig and Brian Crano’s screenplay dives into some pretty heavy subject matter as the film goes on, without losing the balance of comedy and drama that many films of this sort tend to forget about. Ritter gives the best performance of his career to date as Ben, who’s sweet up to a point and almost fully callous beyond that. Canterbury is also great, fully pulling off what’s arguably the most demanding role in the entire film with remarkable poise. The movie definitely goes to most of the expected places, but it definitely takes an alternative route, and that ends up making all the difference. DM
Fubar/Fubar: Balls to the Wall
For those of you not familiar with the odyssey of head-bangers Dean and Terry, Fubar introduces us to these two loveable simpletons, and Fubar: Balls to the Wall follows them as they go to work laying oil pipeline in the northern Canadian town of Fort McMurray. This pair of mockumentaries was screened at the festival back to back, but with the second before the first. In comparison to Balls to the Wall, the original Fubar feels quite tame. It’s still very amusing, but it’s more about establishing the characters of Dean and Terry, rather than following them in a specific story, like the second film. Without having to do any exposition, Balls to the Wall benefits from being able to throw the audience in headfirst.
Made in 2002, Fubar was almost ahead of its time, preceeding faux-documentaries like Borat and last year’s The Virginity Hit. But Fubar: Balls to the Wall is less concerned with letting the audience know they’re watching a documentary. Fubar has the character of the director actually in the film, and several talking head moments. But in Balls to the Wall, while we know that there’s a camera following them, and the characters do occasionally talk to it, there are no one-on-one interviews or appearances from the crew.
Perhaps it was just that I saw the first one second, but it was hard for Fubar to measure up to Fubar: Balls to the Wall for me for me. Dean and Terry and the other people in their lives are absolutely hilarious, and exceed the ridiculousness of the characters in almost any Will Ferrell movie. Fubar is very good, and perhaps for being a non-Christopher Guest, pre-Office mockumentary, the more important film. But the sequel takes everything a step further, and in turn becomes all the crazier, funnier, and at least for me, more enjoyable. It is, as the title suggests, absolutely balls to the wall. CO
Hobo With A Shotgun
First of all, that title. That title, ever since Jason Eisener directed the original fake trailer on which his full-length Hobo With A Shotgun is based back in 2007, has become one of the rallying cries of the grindhouse revival movement. It suggests the perfect mixture of earnestness and trash, a comically badass bit of pure exploitation sleaze. At times the realization of Eisener’s semi-one-note joke is exactly this. There’s a relentless amorality to much of the film that other homages to 70s trash cinema have lacked (Machete), but the problem with Eisener’s vision is that it almost wears too straight of a face. This isn’t to say that the self-aware wink of a Tarantino wannabe is the solution, but that scenes of violence like some of those featured in Shotgun straddle a very thin line between absurdist gallows hilarity and sadism, and at times the movie errs on the wrong side.
That said, Rutger Hauer is a hoot as the titular homeless man, playing it exactly as he must, and Gregory Smith (such a long way from Everwood) chews scenery like his life is depending on it as Slick, one of the sons of a corrupt kingpin running an apocalyptic slum straight out of The Warriors. The Hobo decides to clean up the streets, one shell at a time (actual line in the movie), and all manner of ridiculous bloodshed ensue. Hobo With A Shotgun is an amusing diversion with a handful of truly unpleasant moments, but misses the mark on truly following in the footsteps of the films that created it. DM