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Saturday
Aug042012

Total Recall (2012)

Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your (Own) Mind?

In the future, people will visit salons in which their memories can be artificially enhanced with experiences more exotic than the ones they already have. It would be great if those places existed today, so that everyone sitting down to watch Len Wiseman's re-imagining of Total Recall could forget Paul Verhoeven's original film--if only for a few hours.

Let's back up.

I only saw the 1990 version once, at age thirteen, and forgot about it a day later. This is blasphemy in some circles, but the movie didn't do anything for me. I remember it being long, convoluted, and pretty funny: as much as I loved Arnold Schwarzenegger in some roles, I found it impossible to accept him as an everyman--which is, ostensibly, what he was supposed to be at the beginning of the movie. And his attempts at dramatic acting were hilariously over-the-top and out of step with whatever grand ideas Verhoeven and the screenwriters were trying to get across.*

Now we have Wiseman's take on the material, which, let's face it, was doomed from the start. Or was it? Fans of the original have been outraged that anyone would dare remake a "sci-fi classic", especially the clown who brought us the Underworld franchise and screwed up the Die Hard series with the "awful" fourth installment. The same people who claim that pointing out The Dark Knight Rises's numerous problems amounts to a nitpicking need for attention also dismiss "Total Remake" because it doesn't take place on Mars and is rated PG-13.**

I had no such baggage heading into the new Total Recall. At worst, I feared being bored by the rumored over-saturation of action scenes. But it turns out Wiseman has created a solid piece of sci-fi entertainment. It probably won't be remembered as a classic, but who says it has to be? In addition to imaginative production design, strong performances by the leads, and some of the most seamless special effects I've ever seen, the new version is packed with big ideas. Writers Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback sideline questions of identity for contemporary musings on the pervasiveness of technology and government control.

The film stars Colin Farrell as Doug Quaid, a factory worker who assembles humanoid police sentries in a dystopian future. Earth has been ravaged by chemical warfare, leaving only portions of Asia and England inhabitable. A vast transport (known as "The Fall") connects the two, feeding a nation of low-income workers to its technologically and financial superior master-state. Though Doug aspires to a better life for himself and his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), his actual dreams are a loop of an elaborate fantasy world where he and a mysterious woman run from government agents.

Against the urgings of his best friend/co-worker, Harry (Bokeem Woodbine), Doug visits Rekall, the aforementioned memory boutique. Moments after being injected with synthetic memories, a police squadron busts through the door, killing everyone except him. In an instant, Doug is flooded with the sense memories of a career as a lethal spy, and he quickly disposes of the cops before fleeing.

On returning home, he learns that Lori is a federal agent sent to keep tabs on him. Iin his previous life, Doug was a double-agent, working for the head of the government to infiltrate an underground network of rebels. While undercover, Doug grew sympathetic to the resistance, and was quickly extracted--with much of his memory (seemingly) erased. His newfound instability makes him a threat, meaning Lori must put him down.

Following several chases through a dingy slum whose Asian and Eastern European influences call to mind Blade Runner, Doug winds up with Melina (Jessica Biel), the woman from his dreams--which turn out to be memories of his double-agent days. Together, they seek out the elusive leader of the resistance, Matthias (Bill Nighy), in the hopes that he can help them stop a military assault on the impoverished colony.

Total Recall is not a noisy, pointless summer blockbuster. Sure, some of the chase scenes go on a bit too long, but the environments in which they take place are a lot of fun to look at. Wiseman's vision of the future is elaborate, well-thought-out, and makes surprising use of practical sets. Aside from the sentries, I didn't notice a lot of CG stunt men flopping around. And I love that this movie has grittier aesthetics than Verhoeven's. Whereas that film was a crayon-colored Martian fantasy, Wiseman grounds the Recall device in a more relatable world, while still preserving some of the more out-there elements (it wasn't until the climax that I wondered, "In the aftermath of global annihilation, who the hell had the resources and know-how to build a subway that runs through the Earth's molten core?").

I was quite taken with Farrell's interpretation of Quaid. As he did in last year's surprisingly good Fright Night remake, the actor plays against type, providing a realistic portrait of a man forced to run for his life while wondering which life he's living. He snaps in and out of uncertainty, confidence, fear, and deadly determination convincingly and sympathetically. Unlike Schwarzenegger, whose interpretation of an identity crisis still looked a lot like bad-ass bluster, Farrell puts his role through recognizable, emotional paces.

The film's villains are also quite interesting. As the fed tracking down her prey, Beckinsale is like the ruthless, female version of Daniel Craig's James Bond, crossed with Darth Vader. Three quarters into the film, I realized that Lori isn't as evil a character here as I remember her from the original. Rather, she's simply trying to eliminate what she has been told by her superiors is a terrorist threat to her country. Sadly, the script lets everyone down at the end by having her choose the wrong side after all the evidence comes in to the contrary, but Beckinsale makes her character's journey fun, regardless.

I should also mention Bryan Cranston as sleazy government head, Cohaagen. He's a straight-up monster who thinks nothing of planting stories about terrorists in the media to drum up support for his quashing a semi-sovereign nation. He plans to use the scorched Earth of the fallen colony to develop another wealthy Utopia, and those pesky rebels are on to him. Cranston does wonderfully nuanced things with a part that reads more like a classic, disposable Big Boss from the 80s. As with everyone else in the cast, he seems determined to give everything to an audience who expects nothing.

Speaking of low expectations, I wasn't ready for Total Recall's nifty slivers of social commentary. In addition to the ideas about what constitutes a "terrorist" versus a "freedom fighter" (or even a "government official"), the movie has a lot to say about where our obsession with technology might lead. Lori uses the phone that's implanted in Doug's hand to track his movements; when he cuts it out of himself in an alleyway, an idiot teenager begs him for it. Unlike the sinister implant that Schwarzenegger had to yank from his nose, the new tracker comes in the form of hot technology that everybody wants--regardless of the fact that it can be used against them. There are a few more such gems lurking under the surface here that make this re-telling subversive rather than superfluous.

In the truest sense of the made-up word, Len Wiseman's Total Recall is a "re-imagining". By sticking with the spirit of the source material, the filmmakers are able to deliver a gorgeous-looking, just-above-average sci-fi blockbuster. How it stacks up to the original is subjective. Honestly, this was not made exclusively for Verhoeven fans--mostly because the studios know that they would rather bitch about the movie on the Internet than actually pay to see it opening weekend. This was made to find new fans hungry for new material (or material they perceive as being new).

Sure, Total Recall is a glossy, disposable cog in a cynical business plan. But as cold, dumb product goes, it at least has a modicum of heat and brains.

*By way of adapting a short story by Philip K. Dick.

**I suspect these are the lowest hanging fruits, because I doubt a trip to the red planet would have made their criticisms any less pointed or less informed. Also, The Dark Knight Rises is rated PG-13.

Friday
Aug032012

Hide (2008)

Bonnie and Clyde and Billy the Puppet

I love movies, but not all of them deserve reverence on first viewing. Some are meant to be watched in a crowd of snarky, bitching hipsters who've had way too much to drink. The other night, I learned that a dear friend, a Red Bull, and being awake for nearly twenty hours will also do in a pinch. This is how I experienced K.C. Bascombe's Hide--or as I like to call it, "my delicious K.C. masterpiece".

Ostensibly, the film is about two lovers/bank robbers named Billy and Betty (Christian Kane and Rachel Miner) who set out to find a stash of money that Billy hid before getting locked up seven years earlier. What it's really about, though, is Bascombe and screenwriter Greg Rosati's quest to prove that Tarantino rip-offs didn't die in the late 90s. The leads are a composite of Clarence and Alabama from True Romance and Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers, and we meet them in a diner scene lifted almost completely intact from Pulp Fiction.

As a decades-deep Tarantino fan, I totally dug this flagrant homage drenched in libertarian-criminal philosophy, served piping hot on a bed of awful Southern accents and bizarre acting choices. As if that wasn't enough, the filmmakers toss in a parallel story involving a sadistic kidnapper who strings his victims up in a Saw-like torture dungeon.

The effect is jarring: following the prologue, we find Billy and Betty in a cheap hotel, communicating in what amounts to a series of faux-deep monologues; I turned to my friend after what seemed liked fifteen minutes of this and asked, "Jesus, are we ever getting out of this room?" Sure enough, we soon cut to a dank basement, where a woman has been strung up, blindfolded, and made to plead for her life. A few seconds later, we're back with our ersatz heroes who, as I recall, were still making speeches.

Hide's utter lack of sense and consistency make it a blast to watch. The characters' road trip only ever finds them driving into abandoned towns with sketchy geography: their next hotel is located directly behind a creepy theme park, which happens to be near the kidnapper's lair--right down the road from where Billy hid the money. There are so many coincidences, left-field flashbacks, dream sequences, and instances of apparent teleportation, that watching the movie quickly becomes a marathon session of yelling incredulously at the screen and shooting confused looks at your fellow captives.

That's not to say the story is bad. No, no, no, no, no. It turns out Bascombe and Rosati have one more filmmaker to reference in their modest-budget, film-school-quality opus: Mr. M. Night Shyamalan. Hide's last couple minutes bring the head-scratching silliness of the previous ninety into focus. The twist is a real groaner, but I applaud its flawed genius: in the hands of a master telegrapher, the ending--and the entire film--could have been legendary. As executed, it's a semi-forgivable eye-roller.

One thing I can't forgive is the casting of Beth Grant. She plays a doomed waitress named Candy in a scene that perfectly represents Hitchcock's "bomb under the table" aphorism. In an instant, I was yanked from Hide's shit vortex and transplanted to a tense and emotionally satisfying exchange between Candy, who recognizes Billy from news reports of his previous heists, and Billy, who knows that Candy recognizes him. She can barely suppress her horror. And though we know things will end badly for her, Bascbombe, Rosati, and, most of all, Grant, make us believe that her fate isn't set--that maybe Billy will have mercy on this frightened, hard-working, innocent woman.

She ends up splattered against a wall, of course, and the movie continues on the road to nowhere. Determined to leave no bright spot untarnished, Rosati resurrects her character in a contrived, irredeemable fashion that's beneath even this movie.

But I guess letting Grant have her moment in the sun would have cast a harsher light on her co-stars. Kane does some fine, if inconsistent, work here. He sells both the crazed, hardened outlaw bit and the semi-reformed, reflective con routine, only occasionally slipping out of his Dixie-fried accent or offering up some Eric Freeman-worthy eyeball acting.

Miner is also fun to watch--or, more specifically, to listen to. Thanks to this movie, she will forever be "Bottle-Blonde Holly Hunter" in my heart. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the actress prepared for her role as a troubled Southerner strictly by listening to Patton Oswalt's stand-up routines about rednecks. I would suggest making a drinking game out of her frequent use of the word "Baby" (which comes out as "Bahaaay-beh"), but then you run the risk of passing out during the first hotel room scene--meaning you'd miss one of the best lines I've heard in any movie: "Fuck me like you've been in prison for seven years."

Hide is an ambitious, entertaining, engrossing good time, made by people with absolutely no clue how ridiculous they are. If you're into crowd-pleasing, landfill-ready garbage like The Room, Fair Game, and Never Cry Werewolf, add this one to your next party rotation. Whatever you do, don't watch it alone!

Thursday
Aug022012

The Watch (2012) 

Riff Her to Shreds

The shooting death of Trayvon Martin had two immediate, ridiculous ripple effects in pop culture. First, the hoodie surpassed the suicide vest as Earth's most unpopular fashion statement. Okay, maybe there's something to that: looking at the Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol poster, I still can't figure out if Tom Cruise is intent on saving the world or sizing me up for a mugging. Second, Twentieth Century Fox changed the name of its mid-summer comedy, Neighborhood Watch, to, simply, The Watch--the idea being to not remind audiences of the organization with which Martin's killer was affiliated.*

Maybe this was over-sensitivity on the studio's part, or maybe it was a ploy to drum up interest in their movie. Whatever the case, the bogus controversy is the most interesting thing about Akiva Schaffer's film, which plays like a mash-up of The 'Burbs and Ghostbusters, with aliens subbing in for spirits. It's a shame, too, because the cast is top-notch, the special effects are first-rate, and the movie looks great.

The problem lies squarely with the screenplay, which, I imagine, is more of an outline. If Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Jared Stern actually wrote this thing, they should be commended and then blacklisted. Huge portions of The Watch feel as improvised as a Christopher Guest movie. But Guest has original stories to tell, in interesting ways, and he knows what to cut in order to preserve their flow. This film's momentum halts every five minutes so its stars can compete in a series of protracted riff-offs. Some of the improv works; a lot of it doesn't. And the flimsy plot can't support such an imbalance.

The movie's unscripted qualities also show through in the massive amount of profanity jumping off the screen. I'm no prude, but there's a world of difference between, say, Quentin Tarantino's melodically blue dialogue and a bunch of guys peppering their mental spitballs with unearned, enthusiastic "fuck"s. The Watch is PG-13 material at best, and the sloppy language is as off-putting as an eleven-year-old interrupting a dinner party with vagina jokes.

Were this a focused comedy aimed at adults, the movie might have really been something. Ben Stiller stars as Evan, a Costco manager living in a comfortable, upper-middle-class bubble. He and his wife, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), want desperately to start a family, but fertility issues get in the way. Evan uses his copious free time to form clubs and activity groups in the community, and his voiceover narration goes a long way in establishing the sheer whiteness of his circumstances. The fact that this is an alien invasion picture leaves the door wide open for metaphors about racial discomfort and the idea of impending cultural change. After the first fifteen minutes, all that high-falutin' stuff is booted in favor of exploding cows and gags involving extraterrestrial semen.

Following the horrific, mysterious death of one of his employees, Evan forms a neighborhood watch. Only three people show up to his first meeting: Franklin (Jonah Hill), a squirrelly kid who went from police-officer-wannabe to vigilante psycho; Bob (Vince Vaughn), a developmentally arrested loudmouth who wants nothing more than to bond with some guys in his pimped-out "man cave"; and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), a recent British transplant to Ohio who's looking to make friends. The nutty quartet stumbles upon an intergalactic takeover plot that only occasionally feels more important than debates over peeing in cars, the novelty of Russian nesting dolls, and logo concepts for their team jackets.

The screenwriters throw a lot more into the mix, including a pair of bumbling cops; a high school punk intent on deflowering Bob's daughter; and a weird neighbor who moves in across the street from Evan. Any one of these would have made a compelling "A" story. Instead, they're relegated to interesting set-ups that get shoehorned into the alien attack plot. It's a shame, too, because the actors playing these thankless supporting roles are terrific. As the insecure Sgt. Bressman, Will Forte has the film's single biggest laugh (it's a paranoid jab at American citizenship that happens way too early).

The Watch's greatest delight is that Billy Cruddup plays the strange neighbor. His sinister playfulness, of course, turns out to be the opposite of what the characters suspect. But every time he popped up, I hoped to God that he'd turn out to be a serial killer or something--and that Schaffer would make a truly bold move by upending his film's premise entirely.

Note to Warner Brothers: If you ever grow some balls and decide to film a live-action adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns, look no further for your Joker.

Speaking of balls, did I mention that the aliens' brains are located between their legs? Twenty bucks says you can't guess whether or not someone busts out a "sounds like a typical man" joke.** It makes sense that the creatures' minds wouldn't be centrally located: their plot to build a giant radio tower for broadcasting a "Come 'N Get It!" message to their awaiting armada feels a bit sketchy. It's the same problem I had with the critters from Cowboys & Aliens, who also had the ability to forge world-smashing weaponry and interstellar spacecraft--yet got tripped up by long-distance phone calls.

Adding further insult: though the alien hordes are largely computer-generated, their movements were created by physical artiste extraordinaire, Doug Jones. You can see flashes of Jones' trademark grace (particularly in the monster's fingers), but there's so little screen time devoted to the creatures--outside of random thrashing, running, and drooling, that it's often hard to imagine any human influence in their development. The design is also lacking, a cross between Pumpkinhead, a Predator, and...those things from Cowboys & Aliens.

As for the main cast, your enjoyment of their performances will likely depend on how you feel about their previous work. If you like Vaughn doing his routine from Old School, pumped to the nines, you'll likely be entertained. If Stiller's good-intentioned-whiner character made you giggle in Meet the Parents, you're in good hands. I'm a fan, but If neither of those sounds appealing, you're better off looking elsewhere.

Ayoade is the stand out, adding a spark simply by being British and weird (for a better sense of what he brings to comedy, run--don't walk--to The IT Crowd). When he's not speaking or running from something, though, he floats awkwardly in the background; the look on his face suggests he's either A) nervous about being in his first big-time Hollywood production, or B) in shock at how lame his first big-time Hollywood production turned out to be. And his character's being essentially reduced to the Ernie Hudson role once the shit hits the fan should be a prosecutable act.

Despite my many problems with The Watch, I laughed a lot--not always for the right reasons, and not nearly enough to recommend this as a theatrical experience. The filmmakers should have done the hard work of ironing out a simple, interesting story that's wrapped in great comedy, rather than trying to make a billion pieces of pasta stick to the writers' room wall. The talented guys from The Lonely Island (of which Schaffer is a member) make a cameo in an orgy scene as three stoned hipsters taking turns jerking each other off. Intentional or not, it's the perfect metaphor for this screenplay. It turns out the studio put more effort into re-brand their movie following a tragedy than the people whose job it was to make a piece of art worth protecting.

*I guess the third bit of fall-out was the changing of the film's poster, which went from a cool twist on the traditional "Neighborhood Watch" sign to a boring four-shot of the principal actors--all of whom look like they were flown in from other, better projects to help with damage control.

**We didn't shake on it.

Monday
Jul302012

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

You're Still The One

It figures that my five-hundredth movie review would be one of the trickiest to write. I have fond memories of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, but they're tainted by unnecessary sequels so excruciating that I vowed never to revisit the series. I'd forgotten that the original's massive success was fueled by the filmmakers' having given audiences far more entertainment than they'd expected. Black Pearl came out of nowhere with a legitimately good movie adapted from a Disney theme park ride, just as the Wachowski brothers had legitimized Keanu Reeves' leading-man status in The Matrix a few years earlier. In light of the bloated abominations that followed, the heady spectacle of both series' first films seems like a fluke in retrospect.

It took ex Johnny Depp's fun, unique turn as Captain Jack Sparrow in Black Pearl from the cartoon character he would soon become. And knowing that Geoffrey Rush's sinister Captain Barbossa was doomed to a career as a comic foil later on drained a good deal of the menace from his performance here. Judging a film by its sequels is unfair, but sometimes it's impossible to unlearn what you have learned (no matter what Yoda says).

Despite this head full of baggage, I did my best to appreciate Gore Verbinski's film for what it was. Luckily, it's pretty terrific. Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio construct a sprawling epic that feels like history, even though it's probably ninety percent crap.* The story centers on Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the daughter of an English Governor (Jonathan Pryce) who has a crush on a local blacksmith's apprentice named Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). The two met as children, when the Governor's ship rescued will from the wreckage of a burning pirate vessel. As adults, they're separated by a caste system embodied by Norrington (Jack Davenport), the stiff commander of the Governor's naval fleet who intends to marry Elizabeth--whether she likes the idea or not.

Still with me? Good, 'cause that's the simple part of the story. Much of the plot involves several factions chasing down a gold medallion that Will had around his neck when he was pulled from the sea. Elizabeth kept it hidden for years, only to lose it during a fainting spell that sent her over a cliff. When the medallion hits the water, it sends a mystical alarm to the crew of the legendary Black Pearl, a pirate ship crewed by the damned and commanded by Barbossa.

At the same time, the infamous pirate Jack Sparrow comes into port, seeking a new boat to replace the one he's just scuttled. He reluctantly teams with Will to rescue Elizabeth after Barbossa's ghouls kidnap her. I'm condensing the timeline here for brevity, but this is essentially the set-up for another hour-and-forty-five minutes of crosses, double-crosses, chases, battles, and romantic speechifyin'. The Curse of the Black Pearl is dense, and not always in a good way. Many problems that would plague the sequels show up here, but this first outing at least has the benefit of novelty.

Verbinski and company stage a number of cool fight scenes aboard various kinds of ships. Characters make full use of their environments, resulting in fun Mousetrap sequences where a sword cuts a rope that propels someone upward and onto the mast, which has just caught fire, etc., etc., etc. The stunts are exciting because they're practical. Unlike the later movies, there aren't tons of CGI monsters and extras weightlessly flailing about. Here, computer imagery enhances the real-world action and comedy, as with one of Barbossa's men whose wooden eyeball is given to supernaturally wacky behavior.

Of course, the characters ultimately make the film worthwhile. I won't rehash Depp's inspiration for Sparrow, but it was tremendous to watch him create a bona fide movie icon. His boozy comedy carries a current of roguishness that keeps him from being an outright clown. When Sparrow makes an offhanded remark about raping and pillaging, we're reminded that he's really just a smooth-talking, half-mad, alcoholic criminal. The wrong actor could have made an embarrassing mess of things, but Depp gets the balance just right.**

Knightley does fine as Elizabeth, showing just the right amount of vulnerability, spunk, and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, she's made to love Will, a wet sock of a man who spends much of the movie grousing about hating pirates and/or getting captured/rescued. Bloom is promising in the beginning, when it's just him, Elizabeth, and Norrington acting out the polite class warfare scenes from Titanic. But the moment Jack Sparrow shows up, he's upstaged at every turn. Bloom's performance and character are so bland compared to Depp's that he may as well be playing Edward Cullen as interpreted by C-3P0.

Lastly, we have Rush's Captain Barbossa, one of the truly great blockbuster villains of the last twenty years. He's wittily mean-spirited and just smart enough to command a boat full of smelly, undead morons. But he isn't purely motivated by evil; he's a desperate man who wants to retrieve the medallion so that he and his crew can lift a curse that's plagued them for decades. There's a real tragedy to him, a romantic sense of regret that's best exemplified in a conversation he has with Sparrow: Jack thanks Barbossa for leading a mutiny and stranding him on an island years ago--inadvertently sparing him from the curse. A subtle combination of sadness and hatred fall over Rush's face as his character realizes just how great a mistake it was to betray his former partner.

As much as I love these characters, no amount of good will could keep me from fidgeting through a good portion of Black Pearl's middle section. The filmmakers A-Z story makes stops at every letter in between, and even doubles back on some. In these troubling stretches, I maintained by appreciating Verbinski's pleasantly unexpected choices. Little things, like Sparrow sneaking past two idiot guards on a dock (but in a different shot than one would normally expect), or hiding behind a barrel that is shot precisely to give the impression that he's inside the barrel--these made me realize that the director knew what the audience was expecting, and chose to give them more. I also love the fact that the Elizabeth/Will/Norrington issue gets resolved honestly, without the bullshit theatrics and easy-out logic of most movie love triangles.

In the end, The Curse of the Black Pearl is an edit and a re-cast away from being a perfect piece of swashbuckling escapism. It's smart, ambitious, and gorgeous to look at--the climactic battles involving pirates morphing in and out of a skeletal state whenever moonlight falls on them are exciting visual marvels. The film is also a self-contained story that absolutely didn't need a sequel (much less three). Through repetition and greed, the franchise squandered everything that made Black Pearl so strong. Personally, I choose to imagine a world where our slurring, stylish antihero never met the squid-faced Davy Jones or quested for the Fountain of Youth--a world where Jack Sparrow is still Jack Sparrow.

*In verity, not quality.

**Until the sequels, where he makes an embarrassing mess of things.

Friday
Jul272012

Low (2011)

Fate Crimes

My heart jumped when I looked at the estimated budget for Ross Shepherd's new film, Low. Based on the stunning photography, solid performances, and slick overall package the director put together, I assumed I'd missed a huge news story about America plunging into irreversible economic decline. Surely, a thousand British pounds must equal something like a hundred thousand U.S. dollars, right? Nope. It's more like fifteen-hundred.

In an age of dumb, inexcusably expensive studio pictures, independent movies are becoming film lovers' last refuge for intelligent escapism. As Shepherd demonstrates here, all one needs to create a gripping entertainment experience is drive, a game skeleton crew, and a little bit of start-up money (plus a cool story idea, of course). While far from a perfect movie, Low lit up my brain and rattled my nerves more than most of the mainstream junk I've seen this year.

The film centers on Alice (Amy Comper), a young woman who's ventured into some private woods to bury a small wooden box. She's solemn, but suspiciously anxious to get the hell out of there. On the way back to civilization, she catches the eye of Edward (David Keyes), an odd-looking guy who she sees hurriedly climbing over a series of barbed-wire fences along the property line. He pursues her with a steady walk that becomes a run.

Edward catches up with Alice, and soon traps her in an awkward lie about how she wasn't awkwardly running away from him. The two walk farther, making tense small talk before bumping into the landowner, a jovial but cautious old man named Graham (Stewart Tighe). In the moment, it becomes very important to Edward to make it seem like he and Alice are together, and not just casual acquaintances. Graham isn't so sure, but he leaves them be. Alone again, Edward coaxes Alice into following him to a nearby bluff, where he has something very special to show her.

That "something" is the first of many surprises Low has to offer, which I wouldn't dare spoil. Shepherd and screenwriter Jamie Tighe explore a wealth of themes here, including the dangers of politeness in the social contract; patterns of relationship abuse; and a fascinating implication of a cosmic, guiding hand that's far from the benevolent God these characters may or may not believe in.

Bits of Alice and Edward's back stories trickle in, changing not only what we know of these characters, but also how we feel about them. In some cases, those feelings double-back on themselves as more of the onion is peeled away. The film is strongest when it focuses on their conversations, which begin with Alice having the upper hand, due to the superficial contrast of her "normalcy" to Edward's "strangeness". Gradually, the balance shifts as Alice's frailties and secrets become fodder for her tormentor. I can't prove this, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the filmmakers were heavily inspired by Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh's dinner scene in Psycho.

My only two complaints with the film are its climax and music editing. The screenplay's back end needs some serious de-cluttering. After fifty engrossing minutes of slow-burn, the last ten feel at once rushed and weighed down by a lot of unnecessary business. Again, I'm tiptoeing around the details here, but there's gunplay, a car chase, and multiple endings that could have easily been traded up for a subtler emotional confrontation. The other solution would have been to extend the run-time to feature-length, thus giving some of the more sensational elements room to breathe. As it stands, Low's home stretch plays like a season of 24: it's hard not to look back at all the crazy events and coincidences without tittering.**

As for the music, composer Scott Mungin does a really nice job, but the film could use a bit more variety. Some of the themes feel awkwardly recycled, and it's here that the production's "micro-budget" nature really seeps into the viewing experience. Chase scenes shouldn't necessarily be accompanied by the same dulcet tones as establishing shots of the peaceful forest. That's my recollection, anyway.

These are minor issues, though, and should in no way deter you from watching Low. In a creepily unhinged yet strangely sympathetic performance, Keyes sells Edward's evolution from fate's whipping boy to fate's messenger (and back again). And Comper is a revelation. Sure, she looks like Noomi Rapace's hotter, younger sister, but she's also a hell of an actress (in my experience, you get beauty or a great performance out of indie film performers--rarely both, and never to this degree). Even as the screenplay begins to run off the rails, the leads stay committed and play for keeps.

I can't stress enough how excited I am about Shepherd and Tighes' achievement. Like another one of my favorite films this year, Dead Weight, Low proves that one doesn't need connections or millions of dollars to create art that rivals the quality of major motion pictures. This is an early step for these filmmakers, and I believe they'll get the polish they need in time.*** Their talent, frugality, and ambition have officially put everyone with moviemaking aspirations on notice: mediocrity is no longer an option.

Note: As of this writing, Low is seeking distribution--which means you can't see it yet. It has an IMDb page, where you can watch the trailer and follow developments as they happen. I'll also keep an eye on things, and let you know when and how you can see this really cool little movie.

*The Dark Knight Rises cost a quarter of a billion dollars to make.

**Perfect example: You know that horror movie "thing" where the damsel in distress runs from an attacker through the woods and trips on something at precisely the wrong moment? That happens to Alice three times in the course of sixty minutes.

***Unsolicited Tip from an Armchair Filmmaker: slow-motion chases can look really cool or they can come off as water ballet. Before employing suspense's ultimate make-or-break device, be sure it's A) necessary and B) effective.