Monday, March 24, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: Altamont Now

Back at work, trying to catch up on these while on the bus or waiting for a query to run.

It was pretty close to a game-time decision between the Leah Myerhoff presentation and Altamont Now or Onward to Calgary and Pop Skull on Saturday. Ultimately, it was the trailers that nudged me in the direction I went - Altamont Now has a nifty parody of the preview for Contempt (which I'd just seen the week before, pushing the upcoming run at the Brattle), whereas Onward to Calgary was kind of off-putting the first time - it's definitely in the "Look, I'm WACKY!" category.

Probably the right decision; Onward to Calgary looks like a long 100 minutes, Pop Skull has epilepsy warnings [I'm not epileptic, but it's generally not a good sign if a movie has to warn against causing actual injury to its audience (then again, I am writing about the William Castle doc next, and that was right up his alley)], and I rather liked Altamont Now.

On the other hand, going the other way would have allowed for food breaks. I think Saturday's nutrition was an egg sandwich in the morning and Twizzlers at seven-ish. Festivals can lead to some really crappy eating if you're determined to see as much film as possible.

Altomont Now

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 March 2008 at the Brattle Theater (BUFF X)

"Someday", the main character of Altamont Now says, "the Altamont babies are going to track down the Woodstock babies and beat them up." That's kind of a clever idea, though it winds up being just one of many bits tossed against the wall in this chaotic movie. This one sticks, and it's joined by enough other clever bits to make the movie generally successful.

Main Character Richard Havoc (Daniel Louis Rivas) was born during the Altamont concert documented by Gimme Shelter and has himself become a huge rock star, in spite/because of the middle fingers he throws the music industry. As the concert's thirtieth anniversary approaches in 1999, Havoc has retreated to an abandoned nuclear missile silo along with former child star Karen Kennedy (Frankie Shaw), one-handed public access ranter Travis Hook (Teddy Eck), and newly-sober but still angry parolee Alex Urban (Matthew Humphries), all of them spewing anger and calls for revolution. Why wouldn't documentary filmmaker Mark Clark (Raphael Nash Thompson) want to capture this group of personalities?

Altamont Now takes the form of a faux documentary, claiming to be the movie that Chuck cut together while he and Havoc were shut in the silo's fallout shelter after 1999's nuclear holocaust, although if that's the case, you've got to wonder who's holding the camera much of the time, because it's certainly not Clark. Indeed, the documentary angle could easily have been dropped completely, except that the scenes of Clark and Havoc in the editing room, arguing over what they see and pointing out some of the artifice, are too good and too central to lose.

What comes in between is a broad but vicious parody of both angry and complacent youth, as the bunker youths let loose a constant stream of vitriol with no comprehension of the system that they're railing against. Aside from the "like, whatever"s that interrupt and undercut their rants, they're buied under a wave of advertising (Alex can't help plugging Mountain Dew-like Green Lightning) and pop cultural obsession (the boys keep asking Karen to repeat the signature line from her 80s TV show, "Why's Daddy Acting Funny?"). They're angry, ridiculous morons, but kids even younger and more sheltered lap them up.

This is one of those independent/underground movies where enthusiasm outstrips talent and resources. It was fun to try and identify which 1980s computers were being used as anachronistic set decoration in the actual decommissioned missile silo (I think I spotted a Commodore 64 and a TI 99/4A, and maybe a Radio Shack Color Computer). Director Joshua Brown has a knack for handling that enthusiasm; the performances that are a little broad for belief do work as people aware of the camera and trying to play it up, and there's a nice bitterness to the scenes in the fallout shelter, as Havoc and Clark get throroughly sick of each other over eight and a half years.

The cast is good enough, for the most part. Rivas is actually pretty good when those shelter scenes call for him to calm down as Havoc is faced with examining his life. Frankie Shaw does a pretty nice job in making Karen open and vulnerable despite the fact that she's being very pushy and running around with a machine gun and pretty clearly trying not to be vulnerable. I think there were some opportunities missed with Raphael Nash Thompson as Mark Clark; he never really manages to be the straight man or as funny a spoof of what the kids are rebelling against.

Altamont Now is enthusiastic, and has some pretty good nuggest buried in it. (The best, though, isn't part of the film proper - its trailer is a nifty riff on the preview for Contempt that works as both parody and homage; I hope it's on the DVD). There are plenty of moments that don't quite work, but there are more hits than misses.

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