Thursday, April 05, 2018

Boston Underground Film Festival 2018.02: Pin Cushion & The Theta Girl

Thursday evening, when you can get a seat at Bartley's before the movie because a lot of folks aren't going out and the first feature film starts at 7:45pm due to some combination of a packed shorts package on the one end and shorter movies on the other, with the sense that the organizers programmed by starting backward from how late the theater would let them stay. I like nights like that; you get real food and movies that don't mess around.

Consider, for instance, The Theta Girl, presented by screenwriter David Axe (left, with programmer Kevin Monahan), whose day job is reporting for Vice but wanted to do something similarly grimy but more ridiculous here: The rule in writing the script was basically that there had to be nudity, gore, or drug-induced hallucinations every five or ten pages, with the idea being that the finished film would never be boring for very long. On that count, they succeeded - it's not dull, by a long shot.

It's also very much the sort of movie that gets put together with what they can; the closing credits state that it was made for the price of a used car by complete amateurs, so you've got no excuse not to make your own. There was, as you might imagine, a lot of barter involved in getting it put together; it's the sort of movie where you get to shoot at a bar because you say that the bartender can play himself. You apparently get to shoot in the oldest church in South Carolina - a modest place that looks like it has served the same congregation and been kept in good repair, but seldom really changed - by telling the people involved that it will be the site of a spiritual battle between good and evil, drawing out the dialogue scenes until the person there to monitor you goes home for the night, and then breaking out the knives, blood bladders, fake eyeballs, and intestines. A pastor is still going to walk in on you, but he turns out to be the cool one.

My favorite question and answer was about all the nudity for a movie shot in South Carolina, and whether it was hard to find folks willing. Axe said that every city the size of Columbia, SC, has at least fifty people who are not only willing to get naked on camera, but are kind of looking for an excuse to do so - and that if you can find one of them, they'll usually lead you to the other forty-nine.

Aside from that, there were a lot of very specific questions about the pharmaceutical inspiration for Theta, and equally specific answers, which might honestly be the most underground this festival has felt since they lost a certain sponsor and stopped throwing vibrators to the audience..


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

This may not quite be the platonic ideal of Underground Film Festival Shorts, but it's pretty close: A very conventional, easy-to-relate, downright adorable situation is introduced; the filmmakers play it out in a manner that's kind of sly and well-executed; and then it takes a crazy turn into the bizarre and most likely pretty gross. It's a sort of humor that is looking to shock in a blunt way without a lot of nuance, and I kind of like to have the nasty joke hit a bit more precisely.

Still, there's a bunch that works; the bits with Charlie Boyles as the little girl who really wants a dog are adorable, especially with the parents who are always too tall to be in frame, and the "that's some bullshit" look when she runs up to a dog only to see it has an "I'm working, do not pet" harness is dead on. These bits lead to a payoff that doesn't quite hit for me - just not quite the right combination of deadpan/gross/hysterics, although it's not that far off.

Pin Cushion

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

Pin Cushion is a pretty fair "being a teenage girl is brutal" movie, albeit the sort that tends to pile on the cruelty higher than the unique insights, but at least this one doesn't seem particularly impressed with itself for having some particularly witty take. Filmmaker Deborah Haywood seems aware of a certain shabbiness to her setting and characters but winning to embrace it, which can make for a squirmy watch, but appropriately so.

It starts with mother Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) and her teenage daughter Iona (Lily Newmark) looking at a small house in a small village, into which they soon move. They're an exceptionally close pair, with Lyn needing some assistance with day-to-day tasks (she has a hunchback and one leg a bit longer than the other) while Iona has never fit in at school, but that may change - not so much because a nice-seeming boy (Loris Scarpa) takes a shine to her, but because queen bee Keeley (Sacha Cordy-Nice) and her friends Stacie (Sasika Paige Martin) and Chelsea (Bethany Antonia) suddenly pivot from being obviously mean to Iona to bringing her into the group, at least superficially.

That the power dynamics among teenage girls can be incredibly vicious and downright Machiavellian is not exactly a new observation on Haywood's part, nor is the fact that they often continue into adulthood. The specific arc of Iona's new frenemies is familiar - Keeley sees while changing for gym that Iona could actually be a threat if she learned how to talk to people or pay attention to her appearance and decides to either co-opt this or set Iona up for a fall - as is the obvious parallel of Lyn being shut out of the somewhat on-the-nose "Friendship Circle" at the community center. There's interesting moments to be found nevertheless, from an intriguingly candid conversation about starting over with Keeley to trying to figure Chelsea out (she seems well aware that her friends aren't nice people but gives token push-back when Keeley and Stacie are being cruel), while Lyn's side of the story often puts a strong focus on the hypocrisy of people who claim to take pride in resolving conflicts.

Full review on EFC

The Theta Girl

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

Psychedelic and hyper-violent are not always a great pairing, and The Theta Girl doesn't always find the right way to blend the two. It's got a likable title character and a decent-enough hook, but seems far more interested in quickly running up its body count rather than exploring its altered states, even though those are the memorable, unique scenes.

The altered states come from a drug named "theta", which a young woman by the name of Gayce (Victoria Elizabeth Donofrio) deals while her girlfriend Yolanda (Quinn Deogracias) and her all-girl band "Truth Foundation" play a gig. Not their gig - they basically push Coin (Cleveland Langdale) and his band off the stage) - but a lot of the folks are there for the theta, and it's a hell of a trip: It temporarily transports the consciousness of everyone taking it - including a trio of snotty missionaries (led by a guy who seems to recognize Gayce) who get a pill dissolved in their glasses of water by the annoyed bartender (Shawn Dell Corley) - to another dimension, where an otherworldly entity (Nikki Gonzalez) greets Gayce like an old friend. Either Gayce is probably not taking the Entity's apocalyptic talk seriously enough, or somebody has a really bad trip, because someone gets their intestines ripped out, and whoever did it is on their way to the band's post-show orgy. Gayce recruits her supplier Derek (Darelle D. Dove) to bring her to the guy cooking this stuff to find out how to stop what's happening - or at least get revenge.

Mostly revenge; writer David Axe and director Christopher Bickel may not get to the first kill right away, but once they do, they don't waste a lot of time. In fact, they are almost too enthusiastic - as much as having a bunch of people bunched together gives them the opportunity for a massive bloody rampage, it also thins the cast out awful quick, and what they've got for story in the back half feels a bit underdone: The filmmakers spend a lot of time on making the final confrontation something personally connected to Gayce, as if the grisly murder of a bunch of her friends wasn't quite enough, and as much as it's not bad material, it feels a bit like a side story rather than what the rest of the movie is driving towards.

Full review on EFC

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