Baghead


There's nothing creepier than a friendly half-naked guy with a paper bag over his head in the woods.

There’s nothing creepier than a friendly half-naked guy with a paper bag over his head in the woods.

(2008) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Ross Partridge, Steve Zissis, Greta Gerwig, Elise Muller Jett Garner, Cass Naumann, Jennifer Lafleur, Darrell Bryant, Anthony Cristo, Jen Tracy Duplass, Heather Hall, David Zellner, Dan Eggleston, Spencer Greenwood, Stephanie Huettner, Amy Quick Parrish, Vincent James Prendergast. Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass

The creative process isn’t something you can really force. It happens or it doesn’t. However, sometimes it helps to shut out the distractions of your daily life and just get to it.

Four wanna-be filmmakers/actors are attending a film festival – Matt (Partridge) who is in his 30s and is still awaiting the stardom that he’s sure is coming his way; Chad (Zissis) who is beginning to watch his hairline recede and is desperately in love with Michelle (Gerwig), the youngest of their group and a budding alcoholic who is less interested in Chad than she is with Matt. There’s also Catherine (Muller) who has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Matt which might be on or it might not be. She’s not really sure.

While at the film festival they watch a really bad feature by pretentious director Jeff Garner (playing himself) play with some acclaim, they come to the bitter realization that they’re not going to ever make the movie that will be the vehicle to establish their talents unless they write it themselves. Matt suggests heading to a cabin in the woods to write a film about four young people being stalked in a cabin in the woods by a guy with a bag over his head. It would be a slasher film spoof with a modern allegory of….oh, it’s crap.

But as the complex relationships between the four rear their ugly heads and create the kind of tension that they were trying to escape from in the first place, it becomes clear that they are being stalked by a guy with a paper bag over his head. Is it life imitating art or just a horrible coincidence?

For many, this is a mumblecore classic – the first of the genre to get distribution from a label affiliated with a major studio. Like most mumblecore films, very little happens here other than listening to people bitch and moan about their lives and loves. The budget is microscopic, the cast necessarily compact and the acting fairly naturalistic. But this is no Scream, mumblecore-style.

Zissis is the most appealing character here. Chad doesn’t have Matt’s ego or Catherine’s insecurities or Michelle’s immaturity, although he is a bit of a lost puppy. He also has a hopeless attachment to Michelle who is unlikely to return those feelings. Most of us at one time or another have been in a similar situation so we can watch Chad flail away futilely for the brass ring and nod in sympathy; we’ve all done it.

Gerwig, who is in many ways the face of mumblecore, is at her very best here. Her characters are generally flaky yet warmhearted and that is no different here. Don’t get me wrong; these characters can be annoying over the course of a 90 minute film but when played less for quirkiness and more for a terminal case of youth then we end up in her corner instead of irritated. Gerwig isn’t always successful at striking that balance but she does it here.

The other two performances depict rather unpleasant human beings, although of the two Partridge’s Matt is a bit more well-defined. Muller’s character is pretty one-dimensional as written but she gamely does what she can with it.

The problem with movies like this is that they have to grab our interest a little bit more strongly than other sorts of movies either with clever dialogue, an engaging plot or terrific performances. Baghead falls short in all three categories. I can only take so much self-absorption before I start getting the screaming meemies. I can respect the mash-up of genres here, blending romance, slasher horror, supernatural thriller and Hollywood indie and I can admire the tight craft that the Duplass brothers bring to the table – for a second feature this is incredibly self-assured. However, I can pretty much leave the hand-held camera gymnastics. I shouldn’t need to take anti-vertigo meds to watch a DVD.

WHY RENT THIS: Zissis and Gerwig have a sweet chemistry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing much happens. Not always as interesting as it thinks it is.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit foul in places. There’s also some nudity and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The second of five films directed by the Duplass brothers and the first to get a major studio release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an entertaining interview in which the Duplass brothers supply both frequently asked questions and answers, as well as a brief short called Baghead Scares.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $140,106 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adaptation

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

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Be Good


Having a baby can be fun!

Having a baby can be fun!

(2012) Dramedy (Obrigado) Thomas J. Madden, Amy Seimetz, Tessa Day Looby, Todd Looby, Billy Phelan, Quentin Hirsley, Jim Jacob, Kathryn Henderson, Paul Gordon, Joe Swanberg, David Leonard, J.D. Won. Directed by Todd Looby

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Parenthood has become a very different proposition in 2013. The economic realities of having a baby in the 21st century are sobering for anyone, let alone a young family that isn’t pulling in big bucks.

Mary (Seimetz) is getting ready for her first day back at work for a charitable foundation benefitting Guatemalan children after having been out six months on maternity leave. Her husband Paul (Madden), an independent filmmaker who has had much more critical praise than financial success, is staying home watching baby Pearl (director Looby’s real-life daughter Tessa) while he writes his latest screenplay on a Mexican anti-drug crusader known as El Flaco. He figures he’ll do this while Pearl is taking her naps.

Unfortunately Pearl isn’t inclined to co-operate as baby’s are wont to do so Paul slowly begins to lose focus. She isn’t sleeping much at night either so Paul exiles himself to the couch to catch what rest he can. In the meantime, Mary is growing more and more frustrated with Paul’s inability to make money and her own exile at work. She wants very much to spend more time bonding with her baby – an imperative most moms can relate to I’m sure. Something’s got to give.

Looby is developing a reputation on the film festival circuit as a promising young storyteller and this is the kind of film that can enhance a reputation like that. This isn’t some Hollywood idealized look at how babies transform the life of a young couple – they do of course but not always in positive ways. Like anything else, parenting is an imperfect pursuit because people are imperfect. Those first couple of years of having a baby is exhausting; it’s a wonder any of us survive it. Exhausted people have a tendency to take out their frustrations in unhealthy ways.

Paul and Mary are basically good people who are in a situation where Mary is forced to be the provider, a situation not as unusual as it once was. The benefits she gets through her job are the only thing making it possible to have Pearl. The medical expenses of pregnancy, delivery and post-natal care alone are staggering without insurance. The toll taking care of a small creature who is completely dependent on you is significant as well; it wears one down.

This isn’t a depressing movie by any means – there’s a lot of love here. Looby based the film on his own experiences and in fact wrote and directed the movie while being a house husband, his wife working in much the same manner Mary does here (there’s an amusing scene where Mary finds a quiet store room to do her breast pumping and a co-worker walks in on her – one wonders how much biography is going on as opposed to fiction). I think he accurately captures the frustrations of new parents but also the rewards of newly parenting.

This isn’t going to rewrite the book on movies about new parents but by the same token it will leave you feeling fondly towards the characters and the situation. While new parents might well use it as a partial primer as to what to expect (and understand that every baby is different as is pointed out poignantly during a scene in which real life director Swanberg, playing himself, runs into Paul outside of a doctor’s office) this may well prove more useful as a movie about the changing roles of men and women in relationships. Either way, kudos to the filmmaker for keeping it real – something that is much harder to do than you might think.

REASONS TO GO: Realistic look at the obstacles facing new parents.

REASONS TO STAY: Not necessarily inspirational nor instructional. Perhaps a bit too indie-centric.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of language and some sexuality but not a lot.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s assertion that Joe directed eight movies in the six months since his baby was born is a bit of a dig at the real Joe Swanberg’s prolific output of 14 movies before he turned 30.

CRITICAL MASS: There have been no reviews published for the film for either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Beautiful Belly

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Starbuck and more coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

Super 8


Super 8

Elle Fanning can't believer her eyes. Neither can we.

(2011) Sci-Fi Adventure (Paramount) Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noel Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Ryan Lee, Ryan Griffiths, Zach Mills, AJ Michalka, Glynn Turman, Bruce Greenwood, Michael Giacchino, Dan Castellaneta. Directed by J.J. Abrams

There is an age that is magic, when the possibilities of life are endless and unimaginable. At that age, summer stretches out like a magic carpet, taking us anywhere and everywhere. Some of those places are places we might not necessarily want to be.

Young Joe Lamb (Courtney) is mourning the death of his mother in a steel mill accident. His father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Chandler) has some anger issues, blaming town drunk Louis Dainard (Eldard) for his wife’s demise.

Joe’s best friend is Charles Kaznyk (Griffiths), a movie made husky kid who is making a zombie movie for a film festival, on Super 8 stock. Oh, did I mention that this is 1979? It is. Anyway, they want to shoot at the train station and Charlie has decided to add a love interest for his lead actor Martin (Basso) and into the picture comes Alice Dainard (Fanning), the daughter of Louis. She is drawn to Joe, who does the make-up and sound, whose melancholy draws her like a moth to a flame. Neither of them realizes the issue between their fathers, or what Louis’ role in the death of Joe’s mom is.

While filming at the train station, they witness what appears to be an intentional derailment of the freight train by a pickup truck which, to their shock, is driven by their science teacher (Turman) who warns them to tell nobody. When military types led by the hardnosed Colonel Nelec (Emmerich) swoop in, they believe their teacher may have been right.

Soon it becomes apparent that there was something aboard the freight train that wasn’t supposed to be there, something terrifying and angry. People disappear, dogs disappear and property is damaged. The military is covering it up. It has something to do with a creature that was captured on the young filmmaker’s camera, and some strange cubes. When the military insists on evacuating the town, the kids – including pyromaniac cameraman Cary (Lee) will find out the truth, and risk everything to rescue one of their own.

Director Abrams has crafted a loving homage to Steven Spielberg’s early works (and Spielberg produced this under his Amblin banner) especially E.T. and maybe Poltergeist with a heaping helping of The Goonies for good measure. Setting this in 1979 was a good move; it places it squarely in Spielberg’s golden era and adds that nostalgic sheen to the movie.

The juvenile actors in this movie do a really whiz-bang job. Fanning, who up to now has been overshadowed by her sister Dakota, pulls her best performance yet as the lovely but shy Alice, who is the object of affection for Joe. She is both kind and sweet but with a tormented side which shows from time to time. It’s a bravura performance that is nearly matched by Courtney, who is the hero here and a boy who is coping with overwhelming grief and a father who is distant from him and was so even before his wife died.

Now, I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not big on the “kids saving the day” types of movies. They tend to be insulting to the intelligence of both kids and adults. Still, this one is better than most, harkening back to some of the best movies of the 70s and 80s with 21st century flair and awesome creature effects. What’s not to like?

REASONS TO GO: A really great creature feature, E.T. meets Cloverfield.  Some fine juvenile performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Kids saving the day syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES: The creature can be terrifying and there are some scenes that might be disturbing for the very young. There’s also some language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the town, Lillian, is named for director J.J. Abrams’ grandmother.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely big screen. This is a popcorn movie all the way.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Frozen