LAFF 2008: Bagging on the Fest

The absolute best way to see BAGHEAD is at a film festival after you’ve seen a few other movies, because the opening scenes perfectly skewer the universal truths of indie fests, from the pretentious film being viewed (a black-and-white number entitled WE ARE NAKED) to the Q&A host plugging the sponsor and after party, and of course the questions that always get asked (what was your budget? How much improvising did the actors do? The only one they miss is the invariable “What did you shoot this on?”). The Duplass brothers (Mark and Jay, by name) have clearly been to a few of these; indeed, the first time I saw THE PUFFY CHAIR was at the Calgary Underground Film Festival, and I never expected it would get wide release. Not that it wasn’t good – it was great – but it also looked so cheap and had no stars that I didn’t think a distributor would take a chance. It was marketed badly, I think: the theatrical trailer focused on the tragic aspects of the story, while the brief teaser I saw at Calgary that made me want to attend the movie later in the week simply had cowriter/codirector/star Mark Duplass yelling about something, and then the big reveal is that what he’s all worked up about is a puffy chair. Sold!

LAFF 2008: Bagging on the Fest

I don’t know who started the trend of calling indie comedy-dramas “mumblecore,” but I hate the term, mainly because it generally refers to movies that no-one but film critics have ever seen; the epitome of the genre is something called FUNNY HA HA, which I never had much interest in checking out. Since no-one in THE PUFFY CHAIR or BAGHEAD mumbles, it’s doubly dumb. The former was a comedy of relationship issues that bubble up to the fore during a road trip to find the titular furniture; here, the McGuffin is a bag over somebody’s head. But whose? Whose indeed.

Two girls and two guys head to a cabin in the woods to make a movie of their own after realizing that there are so many crappy movies out there that they’re sure to do better. Matt (Ross Partridge), who looks not unlike Mark Duplass, is part of a couple with Catherine (Elise Muller, acting a lot like Catherine Keener). The Belushi-esque (which Belushi, you ask? Doesn’t matter – general gene pool) Chad (Steve Zissis) would like to be in a couple with the dazed and vaguely slutty Michelle (Greta Gerwig), but she wants Matt, and will even show her breasts to do it (impressive nudity on a low budget). Chad’s big counter-plan is to try to get her to play his girlfriend in the movie they intend to make.

And then she dreams about some scary guy with a bag on his head. Or was it a dream? Ultimately, it turns out there is a “Baghead” out there, but is s/he just one of our four leads pranking the other three? Or something else? PUFFY CHAIR meets THE STRANGERS is one heckuvan unexpected amalgam.

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But it works. The balance is weighted in favor of character-based laughs rather than scares, but the deadpan tone is maintained throughout, and the casual cruelty of Michelle’s offhand “just friends” remarks to Chad will cut at the heart of any guy who’s ever been told by a woman he desires that she thinks of him as a brother.

Towards the film’s end, Chad exclaims: “I don’t want bullshit ice cream; I want Haagen Dasz!” Well, this ain’t bullshit indie filmmaking; might be a stretch to call it the Haagen Dasz of cinema, but maybe that one weird flavor of Dreyers that you try on a whim and turns out to be way better than the picture on the carton would have you believe.

I couldn’t stay for the Q&A, since the flick started late and I had a midnight movie to get to. X-CROSS, directed by Kenta Fukasaku, son of Kinji who directed BATTLE ROYALE. Kenta finished BATTLE ROYALE 2 when his dad died, and it wasn’t that good, but he’s done a little better here. He claims X-CROSS was inspired by ‘70s and ‘80s American horror, but more than anything else it reminded me of Takashi Miike’s GOZU (my fave Miike film to date, not that I’ve seen even close to all of them), though less bugfuck insane. It begins with a great hook: a girl hears a vibration sound and a ring in a nearby closet. She opens it, and finds a ringing phone. Picking it up, she hears a voice on the other end telling her to get out of there right now, or “they” will cut her leg off! Loud knocking at the door. Rewind what we’ve just seen. Show glimpses of crucifixion. Cue main title. If that doesn’t get your attention, you might just be burned out. Not I.

The movie is told in chapters, each involving cell phones and the perceptions (or misperceptions) of the conversation from each end. Our main characters are Shiyori (Nao Matsushita), a girl recovering from her first big break-up; and Aiko (Ami Suzuki), her slutty friend who’s been with so many guys that she can’t remember all their names. Both are traveling to a spa resort high in the mountains, and you’d think big honking warning signs would go off when they see crucifixions along the side of the road. But they just write those off as being scarecrows. We know better.

And then warning sign number two. Look, at this stage of the game, if you’re on a mountain road, and you have to swerve not to hit a scary-looking person in the middle of the road, who then offers mysterious words of warning...that’s signal number two to turn the hell around. But these girls sure do love their hot springs, and won’t be deterred, even when the spa turns out to be staffed entirely by limping, gibbering crazies. All this, and yet it’s a cell phone call that scares Shiyori.

At a certain point, the girls get separated, and we follow their adventures from both sides, as they occasionally communicate by phone; we’ll follow Shiyori for a while, for instance, then the rewind effect kicks in, and we’ll follow Aiko. All the while both are talking to their own respective mysterious male callers, who may or may not be malevolent.

What’s most interesting, and notable, about X-CROSS is that it features two completely unrelated evils. Shiyori must escape the crazy villagers who have a tradition of cutting off women’s legs; meanwhile, Aiko is stalked by the vengeful ex of one of her lovers, now a near-invincible psychopath with a large pair of scissors.

Anyone else here have the bejeezus scared out of them by Heinrich Hoffman’s book “Struwwelpeter” as a kid? There was the one poem about the crazy barber who’ll chop of your thumb with scissors if you suck it. I was terrified by that, and really thought that maybe he’d get me. I’m pretty sure Kenta Fukasaku was inspired by that.

And parts of the film are truly inspired, but it doesn’t cohere into an awesome whole for me. The tone veers too wildly from horror to absurdity. Scissor girl is pretty neat, but the villagers themselves are a tad too campy to have the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD vibe they seem to be trying to present. It also doesn’t work too well to strive for said creepy vibe on the one hand, only to give both Aiko and Scissor girl cartoonish levels of indestructibility and wire-fu powers. Kinda neutralizes the threat from a bunch of limping weirdoes if Aiko can bring the Matrix.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed myself more or less throughout, but I won’t be buying the DVD. I can also do without the now-stale bit in which a character hides in a public restroom stall, slides under the dividers as the villain kicks in all the doors, then stands on the commode right as the villain crouches down and therefore doesn’t see any feet. It’s a routine that’s been parodied in other movies at this stage.

X-CROSS was presented by Grindhouse Releasing, which is perfect. This is a movie that belongs at the New Bev on a double feature.


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