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rochefort [Film Festival 03.17.11] movie review horror thriller drama

"The Innkeepers"
Director: Ti West
Review by: rochefort
Rating: 5 out of 10

Director: Evan Glodell
Review by: rochefort
Rating: 2 out of 10

It's just a fact of life: you can hope for things to be the bomb, but sooner or later you're gonna have to deal with the suck. I was reminded of this when I checked out two of the more anticipated films at this year's South By Southwest: "The Innkeepers", the latest from writer/director Ti West, and "Bellflower", writer/director/actor Evan Glodell's attempt to fuse a West Coast relationship drama with a geek-injected tribute to all things "Mad Max". Both fell way short of my own expectations, but each in its own way reaffirms one movie adage that will hopefully never cease to be obvious: characters matter. Good ones can make a lackluster picture better, and bad ones can damage even a grabber premise beyond repair.

I was a fan of director West's previous film "House of the Devil", and like a lot of reviewers was so impressed by that film's technical savvy and retro cleverness that I ended up being something of an apologist for its very deliberate pace. "Devil" was an atmospheric throwback that played like an actual low-budget horror film from the early 80's, aping many of the era's conventions with considerable panache and technical sure-handedness. So it's pretty disappointing to note that his latest has the same pacing issues, but this time around there seems no reason for them to be there.

"Devil" was about a college student's long night baby-sitting an old woman in a creepy old house in the woods; similarly, "Innkeepers" features two college-aged kids working a final (and long) night at the Yankee Pedlar, a creepy hotel on Small Town Main Street. And also like "Devil", this new film features overly long takes and scenes that do little to bolster or move along the plot. But there are also some egregious and abrupt shifts in tone that don't jolt as much as they suggest a dire lack of focus. The story of this one's production is that it was made more or less at the same time as "Devil", and it really shows.

The Pedlar, which is scheduled to close in one day, is supposedly home to a ghost who lives in the basement, and innkeepers Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) hope to get some kind of evidence of its existence to post on Luke's paranormal-themed website. They're not really in any hurry, not when there's plenty of time to nap, drink beer, surf the internet for porn, hassle the famous actress (Kelly McGillis) that's staying in the inn for the night, etc. But that's not all that big a deal, actually. Both characters are extremely likable, well-written and -performed, and their believable chemistry is the heart of the film. In fact, their relationship is so fun to watch that it overwhelms the rest of the plot and shanghais any attempts to shift the tone into more suspenseful ghost story territory. But the script goes there anyway, and instead of real scares the music just gets really loud and a couple of ghosts sneak up and do the silent "boo". Which amounts to even more of a disappointment considering that, throughout the course of the first two acts, Paxton and Healy earn a ton of goodwill with their performances, so much so that by film's end we can't help but wonder if West likes them a hundredth as much as we do, especially when they start making decisions that don't jibe one bit with their personalities (or are just flat out unforgivably stupid). And before you Ti fans get the hangin' rope ready, know that if a director finds a groove to his style and wants to stick with it from one picture to the next, it ain't a problem in and of itself. If it works then hey, it works. As a ghost story, "Innkeepers" simply doesn't, the final twenty minutes so blandly unsatisfying that I was left wishing West and company had taken a genuinely interesting left turn and made a straightforward comedy. The cast would have had no trouble making it a good one, maybe even a great one.

And then there's "Bellflower", my nomination for this year's Indie Poserfest. In it, Woodrow (Evan Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) are two pals who moved to Cali in order to, um, drink beer, chase girls, and make a tricked out speedster named "Medusa" that is modeled on the V-8 Interceptor of the first two "Mad Max" films. Their reasoning is that if the apocalypse happens in their lifetime they'll already be ahead of the game, and they further prepare themselves by shooting guns, building a flame-thrower, and watching "The Road Warrior" on perpetual repeat. Except, of course, when they're not busy partying all the time with bad girl Milly (Jessie Wiseman) and her roomie Courtney (Rebekah Brandes), two girls they meet over a bout of cricket eating. Sounds like this could be kinda interesting, right? I mean, it's not like you see a movie about "Mad Max" fans every day.

When Woodrow falls hard for Milly and tests his friendship with Aiden as the new lovers go through the rollercoaster of love and betrayal, things go from... crap, forget it. Seriously. Just stop. I'm talking to you filmmakers out there who don't yet understand (or care) that, just because somebody looks decent on camera and doesn't mind taking their clothes off a lot, doesn't mean they're ready to be in a movie, much less carry one. "Bellflower" belongs to four of the most irritating, unconvincing, smug Hollywood airheads to ever besmirch the name of Lord Humungus, and the movie falls flat due mainly to the absolute dearth of charisma on proud display. Add to that an excess of camera blur, faux-dirt-on-the-lens, pointless jump cuts and a host of other attention-desperate camera gimmicks, and you've got a movie the poster for which is destined to become a dartboard.

Not a single one of these characters is tolerable, much less likable, and the two male leads squeak, smirk and call each other "dude" so much that I half expected Adam Sandler to cameo as the Gyro Captain or something. But that would never happen; it would distract Glodell from making his pseudo-drama about California brats who, if they weren't badly made-up characters in a movie, would probably only watch the "Mad Max" films on the recommendation of their football coach, and then probably only because the films promote the killing of punk rockers. Screw these characters, and screw Glodell for thinking he could buy some kind of cred by jamming these extremely disharmonious elements together. They don't even reference the right movie, fer Chrissakes (they refer to "The Road Warrior" solely as "Mad Max"; there's no freakin' flame-thrower in the first film). "Bellflower", like last year's "Skateland", is what happens when spoiled, entitled white kids get bored with their beer bongs and decide to pillage what few bits of unspoiled cultural cool we have left. Don't mess with Max, and don't defy Lord Humungus, indeed.

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