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Now Playing at Hollywood Video: First Rites Screening Series

With an enormous glut of independent films being financed and produced every year, there’s no way for all to catch the big brass ring. There’s not enough theater space to accommodate everyone. To be fair, this is both good and bad. An awful lot of worthless garbage gets made which never deserves to see the light of a projector, but what about those risky, character driven endeavors that can’t be neatly pidgeonholed as a ten second pitch? There has to be some outlet for artists on the edge to have their voice be heard. If a tree falls in the forest, y’know.

Distribution is slowly evolving in the face of this increasingly conservative marketplace, allowing for options outside of the norm. One of those venues is First Rites, a screening series in partnership with Hollywood Video chains. Every month, the company runs a new and different set of titles at participating stores on VHS and DVD. This virtual sampling of low budget (and no-budget) indies run the gamut from cutting-edge to interesting failures, entertaining time-fillers to worthless garbage. Think of it as trying new foods for the first time. Keep an open mind. Remember: When selecting these titles, you’re taking a chance!

If it makes you feel any better, your dollars are helping new directors get their feet wet. A portion of each rental fee is donated to the First Rites Film Development Fund, providing small but significant grants to emerging filmmakers. So for better or for worse, here’s our advice on what’s worth seeing…

1999. Privileged New Yorkers have themselves a party at the end of the decade, tossing pop cultural references back and forth along the way. Do we really need another movie about a guy (Dan Futterman) forced to deal with his fear of commitment? Or his friends telling him to have a beer, forget about her, and concentrate on the girl who’s Too Good To Be True (Amanda Peet, of course)? Uh, no. Here’s a better question: What’s Buck Henry doing in this movie as the dorky dad? What was he doing in Town & Country? More to the point, what the hell happened to the man who wrote Catch-22? Wake up, Buck! For God’s sake, wake up!

Calling Bobcat. Ah, amour. Boneheaded wannabe-cool losers are up to mischief on a long, ‘wacky’ night while Darrin (Jayce Bartok) combs the suburban streets of New Jersey in search of his ex-girlfriend. Most of the pedestrian gross-out gags prove uninspired, so the Farrelly Brothers should have nothing to worry about. The title is a reference to Bobcat Goldthwait — clever, no? Uh, not really.

Chillicothe. Terrible title, right? This one follows six friends trying to figure out what they’re going to do in the years following college graduation. (No, wait! Come back! I know there have been a lot of movies like this, but the characters are actually… well, pretty endearing! Listen to me!) Writer/Director Todd Edwards manages to breathe life into this stale genre with clever dialogue, a good eye for situational comedy, and genuine compassion for his characters, but it’s pretty old hat.

Close-Up. Beautifully shot in quasi-documentary style, with masterful use of faded, often half-blurred film stock, the generic ‘is the hero wrongfully accused’ plot and long-winded dialogue ultimately ruin what could have been a potent attack on the urban police state environment of New York City.

Criminal. You know that queasy feeling when you’ve done something wrong and you know you can’t take it back? Corporate accountant Gus Bender (Ralph Feliciello) commits a white-collar crime as a last escape for his dead end suburban life, but happiness is not a lengthy visitor. Dragging his kid out of school, Gus goes on the run — but no matter how far he goes, he can’t escape his own depressed state of mind. The grainy black-and-white cinematography of Wolfgang Held suggests a trashcan variation on Todd Haynes’ Safe, finding melancholy meaning in strip malls, office cubicles, and model homes. Writer-director David Jacobson’s glum minimalist parable runs out of steam before the climax and may be admittedly too slow and bleak for the feel-good crowd, but who says you have to please everybody?

Green. A surprisingly enjoyable joyride. I’m generally not a big fan of Gen-X flicks, Kevin Smith, or drug comedies (which are very difficult to pull off). In fact, Karl T. Hirsch’s debut feature is none of those things, concentrating more on that period of life just after college where life is at it’s bleakest point. For a perceptively written comedy filled with smart, snappy dialogue, Hirsch is unafraid of venturing into the surreal or even the deeply depressing. Following one night in the lives of three guys and a girl, Green takes surprising digressions into pop art, animation, and colorfully abstract storytelling techniques far more advanced (and playful) than Go‘s riff on Pulp Fiction.

Little Shots of Happiness. Todd Verow and his company, Bangor Films, have been pushing the boundaries of video moviemaking with their eclectic, comical, deeply moving features. Bonnie Dickenson is heartbreaking as a confused young woman running away from her life to live in her office. That’s right! She works during the day, then ventures out on nighttime adventures, some sassy and others downright pathetic, on the streets of Boston. Not lapsing into kooky sight gags or faux-pretentious imagery, Verow finds the right observational note with his handheld cinematography, and this is the stuff that gives handheld a good name — it’s appropriately curious. One wishes Verow had expanded his story a little more, but this is the start of a hopefully long and undeniably impressive career. Check out his website at www.bangorfilms.com, where he extensively details his body of work (already at over a dozen features — he’s prolific and good!)

Night Orchid. A young drifter with supernatural powers who can see into the past becomes embroiled in a missing persons case. This slick Southern Gothic thriller is really just the generic stuff you’d expect from stuff that goes straight-to-video. Rent Sling Blade instead.

Party C
rasher
. Cheeseball slasher flick from Oklahoma features bottom-of-the-barrel special effects. Read Tom Savini’s book on gore, fella — stab wounds are easier to pull off than you might think.

Soundman. One of the best selections in the First Rites series, this assured first feature from former stuntman Steven Widi Ho is pitch-perfect dark comedy with an explosive edge. This unsettling affair seems innocuous enough at first, following the daily grind of a professional sound recordist Igby Walters (Wayne Péré) as he bitterly slaves away on a studio backlot picture. Fed up with being kicked around by asinine producers and hack directors, Soundman takes an imperceptible shift in tone as our unreliable protagonist finds himself on the brink of seething Taxi Driver madness. When Igby’s misguided dreams of promoting a beautiful young violinist (Eliane Chappuis) to the moguls goes awry, you know there’s gonna be some hell to pay. The fine supporting cast of tough guy character actors (including Danny Trejo, William Forsthye, and Wes Studi) are in top form, often cast against type. Ho’s subtle camerawork and assured pacing suggests the can of beans being heated on the radiator — leave it on there too long and it’s gonna explode. There’s something funny about that image, right before the shrapnel takes out your eye.

You Are Here*. Young slackers who really ought to be devoting their time to art or the enrichment of New York culture find themselves stuck in dead-end day jobs having to answer to bureaucratic morons. Jeff Winner maintains a tone of ‘slacker’ chic, meaning his characters say ironic things while the slow, steady guitar music from indie record labels plays in the background (no complaints — it turns out to be a wonderfully cozy score.) Winner has a big heart, but his film is hampered by bottom of the barrel production value and a lack of distinction from the seemingly endless array of ‘me and my friends’ twentysomething comedy-dramas.

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