Sitting on its prime location at the top of the hill of historic Main Street in Park City, Utah, it has been weeks since the 21st annual Slamdance Film Festival ended. The excitement in the Treasure Mountain Inn (where Slamdance operates out of) was felt every time I walked into the building meeting with old friends and being introduced to new folks. Truth be told, I did not get the opportunity to see any of the films at the festival, but thankfully, I was sent plenty of DVDs and links to view as part of my planned coverage on Slamdance. The biggest surprise and best film was by MN filmmaker, Britni West, where she premiered her absolute delightful indie drama, Tired Moonlight, which took home the Narrative Jury prize. (I also interviewed her for Vita.mn.)
The Slamdance tagline or mantra, “By Filmmakers, For Filmmakers,” is quite a conundrum, if you ask me. I always search for finding the next new, exotic, inventive, surprising, and entertaining films, especially by first time filmmakers and Slamdance seems to be a great stop for discovery. Unfortunately, most of this year’s selections were lackluster at best. “Many of these films will be invited to play other film festivals,” states Peter Baxter, President/Co-Founder of Slamdance in his opening statement at the beginning of their catalog. I am fond of the Slamdance film fest for many reasons, having been a loyal attendee for the past eight years; the biggest reason to attend is they are the friendliest and genuine bunch of folks invading Park City during the week. I have enjoyed most of the films I have seen throughout my years there, but from the dozen films I saw this year was a disappointment, I would be shocked if many of these films, find a theater screen outside of Utah.
Maybe I am being hard on these filmmakers selected for Slamdance 2015 edition, many of them are first features which I applaud and I am for one, am not a filmmaker, so I many never know all the headaches, heartaches, financial situations, and struggles involved getting your first film off the ground and into festivals. My point is, I had high hopes for this year’s Slamdance line-up, and many of the films, fell short for me. There may be others who found more promise in this year’s slate, but for me, I wish I could have found more to enjoy and recommend.
I did see a few films, which made me a believer in independent film, again including West’s, Tired Moonlight, but director Ryan Wise’s admirable and jubilant documentary, I Am Thor, on Jon Miki Thor, is a completely ridiculous true story on Miki, a Canadian and American bodybuilder, theater performer, B-movie actor and lead singer of the 70s & 80s heavy metal band Thor, might have been the most entertaining film. (He was kidnapped at one point before his first album “Keep The Dogs Away” was about to be released.) Some will compare this documentary to another great comeback story in fellow heavy-metal Canucks, Anvil or Pentagram lead singer, Bobby Liebling in Last Days Here! Wise’s doc differs in showing how Miki kept pushing and pushing into being a respected muscular superhuman, getting his renewed comeback status vindicated, continuing to become successful, which nearly kills him. Miki’s journey is an unbelievably one with miscues around every bend, brush with celebrity stardom almost in his reach, and the pitfalls of the falling into his own ego, and almost losing everything including his sight. In one great sequence, Thor drummer Mike Favata knows he can die a happy man, when he sees hundreds of Finnish fans singing along to their 30-year old music in concert, whereas guitarist Steve Price is greeted by fans, and he acknowledges them by saying, “they like me more than I like me.”
Speaking of comebacks, the demise of former WWE professional wrestler Jake “the Snake” Roberts from his glory days in the late 80s and early 90s is semi-explored if somewhat amateurish in The Resurrection of Jake the Snake, by director Steve Yu. Starting off in 2012, overweight and sitting alone in his house drinking and drugging his fame and fortune down the tubes, director Yu attempts to help Jake, along with Jake’s former mentor “Diamond Dallas” Page to get Jake’s life back to the road of recovery. While the story has the makings of another washed-up celebrity having hit rock bottom and needing that extra motivation to get out of the gutter, Yu, Page and even Scott Hall (“Razor Ramon”) begin working together to help Jake out and slowly, Roberts health and lifestyle begin to change. What also begins to change is Yu’s interaction of forcing himself into the film more than he needs to be, (he is no Morgan Spurlock) and part of documentary feels like an PSA for Page’s own yoga business, (DDP Yoga), in which Roberts incorporates in his comeback. Page also serves as a producer on the film, which seemed questionable, however Page and Yu really do work out the kinks in Roberts. A damaged soul, without question, Roberts’s candidness on camera is alarming throughout especially in some horrific testimony about his upbringing and discussing his father, also a professional wrestler. Roberts begins to show signs of change, in large part to Yu and Page. One would have hoped a more polished filmmaker could have done more with this ripped material making this a body slam of a doc, instead of mildly executed, DDT.
There were plenty of dark narrative films presented at Slamdance and I for was all for it, until I sat through a majority of them, feeling disgusted or underwhelmed. The premise of the horror/thriller, Body, sounded like a perfect B-movie set-up on paper; three girls bored over Christmas vacation break into a mansion as a prank, thinking they are alone, begin partying it up, until they hear someone else in the house. Not knowing what to do about the intruder, they attempt to leave the house and one of the girls accidently knocks into the intruder, who tumbles down the stairs and appears dead. Left with limited options on what to do, the girls’ devise a plan saying the male intruder tried to rape them, and the girls killed him in an act of self-defense. Once they have agreed upon the plan, it changes dramatically with all the girls pinned against each other, when the body appears to be moving. Barely reaching the 70 minute mark in running time, writer/directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, seem to have failed in finding a reasonable or satisfying way of pleasing the genre fans, with this ill attempt of bringing any new twists or scares to the dire situation and secluded locale. The closed-off mansion is a great start, and having cult actor/director Larry Fessenden in the film helps, although he is said, “body” and is reduced to lying on the floor and hardly visible. The most noticeable problem about Body is a script so thinly written, all three actors are given very little to do in this seemingly scary life changing action, except turn to one another and the audience looking for answers.
Writer/director Branden Kramer’s painfully shallow, Ratter, a film built on fear using technology, cyber space and hacked software, known as RAT, to help creepers further along is astonishing dreadful. An unknown predator has tapped into Emma’s (Spring Breakers Ashley Benson) computer and cell phone leaving the audience forced to watch this trite paranoia through software screens, or more and less navel gazing on grad student Emma in her private, damn expensive penthouse apartment! Will she find out who is watching her every move? The bigger question is, does anyone really care? One feels this ship has sailed on the cyber-space terror in low budget filmmaking, even if our society has become consumed by taking “selfies” and updating our every move on Twitter, Ratter surely is making a point on our obsession with technology, even if it means skirting the voyeuristic barometer just below exploited trash.
Perhaps not as dark as it could have been, but definitely one of the weirder entries at Slamdance, Birds of Neptune, had me for most of the film until I started to realize, I disliked all the characters and found nothing more then contempt for their actions. Two sisters Mona (Molly Elizabeth Parker) and Rachel (Britt Harris) lost their parents and have not dealt with their major loss, until Mona brings home a new boy toy Zach (Kurt Conroyd) who begins to intervene further into each of their pasts. What begins as an aggressive reaction to mourning process (Mona is a cabaret dancer, Rachel a musician) turns into a spiteful family awakening of the two sisters finally dealing with their parents in large part by Zach overstaying his welcome. Co-writer/director Steven Richter displays a naturalist story unfolding at a deliberate pace and finds some nice performances in his film, even if one has difficulty dealing or understanding what to make of these troubled souls or sister strangers under one roof.
The dark and gloomy continued with writer/director Patrick Ryan’s Irish revenge tale Darkness on the Edge of Town. This beautifully shot (no pun intended) is a grim take on the “eye for an eye” story. Cleo (Emma Eliza Regan) has found out her sister has been murdered, so it is a good thing she is a professional sharpshooter who will be seeking revenge on her sister’s killer. Things become complicated when Cleo’s friend, Robin (Emma Willis) also is the next target for Cleo, as Robin was the one who murdered her sister (shown in the opening scene) starts to help Cleo search for her sister’s murderer. Ryan’s film tonal seems to evoke a neo-noir in the stance of a whodunit, but plays more up to its western showdown of the two friends matching wits and weapons against one another, as we know what is pitting them together, which begs the question, how and why did Cleo’s sister have to die? Knowing the ending at the beginning, does take out some of the mystery to Ryan’s narrative while unloading plenty of bloodshed along the way.
I Am Thor photo courtesy Slamdance Film Festival