Tuesday, December 09, 2008

"A Fistful of Brains"

A Fistful of Brains
starring Jaqueline Martini, Conrad Osbourne, Edward Warner, Darrel Parker.
written and directed by Christine Parker

Circa 1872, the denizens of sleepy little Shadowhawk, North Carolina are facing a crisis of the peculiar kind. Someone or something has been mutilating cattle and retreating to the nearby woods, thus eluding identification or even description. The townsfolk chalk it up to Indians, but the ever vigilant and watchful Sheriff T.W. Earp (Darrell Parker) has assigned a patsy (David Elway) and scheduled a public hanging. The only thing this unfortunate soul is guilty of however is a personal effrontery against the sheriff, who takes such things a little too seriously and is not ashamed to dish out his own personal brand of justice, as we’ll learn through the course of the film.
The hanging coincides with the arrival of Shadowhawk’s two newest residents. Pastor John (Wayne Bates) who’s predecessor, Pastor Terry Barry (Paul Cardello) was another unlucky victim of the sheriff’s ire, and the mysterious Dead Eye (Edward Warner), a man who claims to be over 200 years old thanks to his magical elixir; a super-water that he’s oh-so willing to sell for only 25 cents a bottle.
Local yokel Frank (Pericles Lewnes) is desperate to help his terminally ill daughter (Jessie Walley) and buys a bottle. The results aren’t quite what he expected.
Meanwhile, Earp is forced to lock up his son Jack (Conrad Osbourne) for feeling up his sister (ew), Lily (Jaqueline Martini) in a drunken state. (Drunk or not, copping a feel on your sister? Yucky, yucky, yucky.)
Before things have a chance to get back to normal (normal being what normal is in this particular jerkwater, anyways) another herd of cattle are mutilated. Without a patsy to hang, and tired of the senseless destruction of livestock, Sheriff Earp finally sends his deputy (William Drake) and a posse into the woods for these Indians. When the posse stumbles across a campsite with body parts (from varying species, including human) on cooking spigots, our intrepid cannon fodder realize to their horror that these are not Indians, but something much worse. The chaos that will come to encapsulate A Fistful of Brains ensues…

There are many reasons as to why any given motion picture may be difficult to watch. Through the ignorant, untrained eyes of the average movie-watcher, those reasons are whitewashed and dismissed with the ambiguous “bad.”

Q- Did you see Spielberg’s last flick?
A- Yeah it was pretty BAD.

For my purposes as both audience member and reviewer, the ambiguity of “bad” doesn’t cut the mustard so I try to delve into the “why” a little deeper. For the most part, I‘ve found unbearable movies unbearable due to any combination of incompetent film makers, lousy performances, poor production, weak stories with laughable plot devices, wafer-thin characters, etcetera. Productions with a modicum of financial resources that fail to deliver because of the above reasons invoke no pity from me.
Then there is the rare gem that is usually classified as the “micro-budget indie.” A film that shows promise but fails to deliver due solely for financial reasons are very hard to watch for me because, having had my share of experience working on micro-budget independent films, I can recognize the “what ifs” when I’m watching an underdog. “The little movie that could, but not quite,” if you please.

It is in the latter category where A Fistful of Brains firmly plants itself because upon viewing, one can clearly see that Fistful’s technical and creative grasp far, far, far exceeds its fiscal reach. That being said, there is more good than bad in this film. The faults certainly don’t outweigh the benefits, but the sheer resonance of Fistful’s deficiencies overshadow the fact that there was some real talent working on a unique twist to an old idea. On the production side, that is. The biggest deficiency is, in a word, the acting. There’s no nice way to describe how poor the performances are. Let’s just say that all the talent on this project was behind the camera, not in front of it. That flaw, along with the other problems I had with Fistful can be attributed to one cause. No money.

It’s obvious that writer / director Christine Parker can tell a story through a camera and has a firm grasp of the technicalities of transposing a tale from paper to screen. The camera angles never violate the x/y axis and eye lines don’t contradict each other. The closeups are tight and the wides are picturesque. The interiors are lit nicely and with the exception of some grainy moments, the night exteriors are lit well enough. The sets, props and costumes look authentic enough to be a credible facsimile of the time and setting. The gore effects are effectively gory without overpowering the viewer. My guess is this is about where the money began to dry up.

I surmise that there was not enough money to pay a full compliment of talented actors or rent a sufficient post production facility. The sound quality is just one step above atrocious. One must pump up the volume to a ridiculous level to hear dialogue, but lower the volume quickly before the screaming and yelling begins or else risk blowing up speakers and bleeding from the ears. Also, it’s evident that the budgetary restraints led to time restraints because there were points where, rather than quick edits between characters during dialogue, Parker relies on single takes with panning cameras when people are conversing. Not always, but enough to make me assume there wasn’t time enough for multiple takes from different angles, giving more to the editors to work with in post.

Also, more time would have meant more rehearsal for the actors, which may have led to better final performances. I’d like to think that the talent pool in North Carolina isn’t as shallow as a drink of water, and I’d like to think that Parker is a capable enough director to get good performances from mediocre talent, given sufficient time to work. But this rag-tag potpourri of pseudo-thespians collectively ruins the totality that is A Fistful of Brains, thus effectively negating all the hard work put forth by everyone else on the production. I mean, all ambiguity aside, they are bad. Monotone deliveries are always hard to watch. There is absolutely no emoting except for in the direst of story circumstances, and even then we see dubious acts of unprofessionalism. Note to all actors out there: if you play a character that is being torn apart by a horde of zombies, please do not smile on your close up!!! I mean, seriously. There’s more than one occasion where we can see people smiling or laughing during scenes that are trying to be scary and suspenseful! C’mon, I like to have fun at my job too, but in this instance, it diminishes the severity of the situation, like when people are supposedly in mortal danger. Maybe I’m asking too much, but I expect an actor to act scared when the script calls for their character to be scared.

As for the story, it’s not perfect but it’s unique enough to set itself apart from the rest of the flotsam and jetsam floating around the dead sea known as the Zombie genre. Parker succeeds in creating zombies that are different than the usual ilk that has been done to death (pardon the pun) but are not so far removed that they are a different species altogether just posing as zombies. (Ala the *ahem* “vampires” of Twilight that don’t look, act, or die like true vampires). Instead, Parker’s undead are a mix of Romero’s Z-Force and the cannibals that inhabited Italian gut-munching cinema in the 60’s and 70’s. (No, not the Romero clones, but the actual Cannibal genre). That’s actually what they become; more immortal cannibal than zombie. They retain memories, can speak and recognize people, they just can’t be killed nor do they care who they eat. We come to learn that they don’t need to eat people to survive. They can get by on beef, they just prefer people meat. Upon reflection, one can argue that being a Christine Parker Zombie ain’t a half-bad existence, once you get over the taste of human flesh. Red meat every day and immortality? Sign me up!

To be honest, the movie fails when it tries to be funny. So much so, it makes me wish it doesn’t try to be, but the biggest problem I have with the story is the lack of a sympathetic character. Sheriff Earp rules over the town with an iron fist and has no problem murdering people that rub him the wrong way. The townsfolk are stereotypical country bumpkins that are either stupidly ignorant of or lazily content to live under the immoral regime of such an asshole. I mean, it’s not like a bullet couldn’t take care of the problem and give the sheriff a taste of his own medicine at the same time. The new pastor is a pervert in the truest definition of the word, who prefers the company of girls, boys and farm animals. Dead Eye, the stranger with the zombie-inducing magic water elixir is in town to build an undead army to fight his twin brother, Lazarus, who also has an undead army. The exact “why’s” aren’t really explained, and Lazarus isn’t as evil as your typical villain, so Dead Eye is ruining the lives of everyone in town because of selfish, sibling rivalry? My undead army is bigger than your undead army? Asshole.

Not even the purported protagonists are people you really want to see succeed past not being eaten alive. I mean, Jack and Lily are introduced to us as brother and sister. So to see Jack hit on her (even from a jail cell once he’s sobered up!) is both creepy and disgusting. Then, later in the film we discover that they’re not really blood siblings but they were raised as such because eeeeviiiil Sheriff Earp killed Lily’s real mom, or something. It could be a lie, for all I know because Jack reveals this to Lily only moments after she’s turned down another one of his sexual advances. Regardless, upon hearing this story that may or may not be a lie, Lily has no problem jumping in the sack with a guy she thought was her brother not two minutes ago. Ew. Even creepier. Lie or truth, these two are just slightly more moral than the rest of the people in this town, and again, it’s hard to root for such unlikeable people. Plus, this diminishes the effect of the twist ending that, under different circumstances with different people would have generated the reaction I think Parker had in mind from the audience.

Internet addict PornoCat says, "I noticed that nowhere in the review does Turz use the word 'pedantic.' I guess it's a safe assumption that he recommends this film. Meow."