Written and Directed by Evan Glodell
Starring: Evan Glodell, Jessie Wiseman, and Tyler Dawson
MPAA: R - For Disturbing Violence, Some Strong Sexuality, Nudity, Pervasive Language, and Some Drug Use]
One of the best things about how movies have evolved over the years is that basically anyone can make a movie now. If you can handle your budget accordingly, and you know some people who can act or do technical asides, you're set to go. The DIY-era of film-making is on a gigantic rise and it's led to some incredibly interesting products ranging from mega-hit mockumentaries like Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, to experimental projects such as the mumblecore movement started by the Duplass brothers and the enigmatic Lynch debut Eraserhead.
There's just something so inherently cool about learning that just a bunch of average schmoes like us funded their own movie, got their friends to do all the acting and camerawork and such for them, and sent it out to the world via YouTube, film-festivals like Sundance, and the like. Even if the movie winds up not being a total masterpiece, you can admire the craftsmanship and energy that went into making it.
Such is the case of one of 2011's Sundance darlings: Evan Glodell's Bellflower. Bellflower is probably the epitome of the DIY movie. The film was written, produced, directed, and has a protagonist played by one man, Evan Glodell; he got most of his friends to play the other major roles; he filmed on location at his hometown on the titular Bellflower Street; he designed all of the explosives, flamethrowers, and muscle cars heavily inspired by Mad Max that are prominently featured in the movie; he even built his own camera rig from scratch. If that isn't commitment to get your vision across, I don't know what is.
The film's low-budget charm is incredibly admirable and the film is definitely one of the most unique and interesting experiences I've ever had with a movie all year. I just wish that it worked as a legitimately good movie.
Bellflower has been marketed as an "apocalyptic romance", which can be seen as false advertising since it has almost nothing to do with the apocalypse. The main characters are Woodrow (Evan Glodell) and his friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson), who are master tinkerers (Both in the movie, and in real life) that spend their days preparing for the apocalypse after becoming obsessed with the Mel Gibson film Mad Max. They create everything from flamethrowers to biker gang emblems, all surrounding their own Mona Lisa: The Medusa, a badass muscle car that belches flames at top speeds and is perfect for traversing the wasteland around.
Along the way, Woodrow sparks up a romance with a blonde, vulgar maiden named Milly (Jessie Wiseman) who beats him at a cricket eating contest at a local bar. They drive all the way to Texas, eat at a crummy restaurant, buy a motorcycle, and do all sorts of other shenanigans together. But it becomes clear from the start that this relationship won't end well. After a dramatic break-up, the film takes turn upon turn, twist upon twist, and genre upon genre, layering itself into a messy but mesmerizing sandwich that tastes unlike anything you'd ever eaten, but still probably gave you some bad indigestion.
Now, when I say that it's unlike any other film I'd ever seen, I meant it. As mentioned earlier, Glodell literally made his own camera rig out of dozens of other camera parts and Russian lenses, creating a look and feel that's fitting for it's apocalyptic themes. Everything is grimy, grungy, and overly saturated in color. It's a look that feels wholly unique and original without even really trying; an impressive feat coming from a first-time director.
However, it should be made clear that this is very much a style-over-substance film, and while Glodell clearly has an eye for visual candy, his first time out writing and directing shows clear signs of a first-time student trying to make it to the big leagues in his first swing, like Richard Kelly and Miranda July before him.
To say that the film's tone dramatically shifts during the second half is an understatement. Bellflower incorporates so many genres than you'd think from an "apocalyptic romance". There are elements of comedy, mumblecore, action, horror, psychological drama, Lynchian indistinguishability between dream/memory/reality, etc. It is never boring. The way the film infuses all these different elements together is wildly inventive at all times. Unfortunately, it doesn't feel natural like, say, The Evil Dead II careening effortlessly between slapstick comedy and straight-faced horror.
First and foremost, with a movie that features so many elements, certain ones aren't as strongly developed as others. Namely, the romance between Woodrow and Milly doesn't feel terribly strong. It's nice and there's some charming dialogue here and there--and it also helps that the actors do a fine job--but it never really becomes a relationship that you truly care about. This makes the film's dramatic crutch, the break-up, feel loose and wobbly, thus making it hard to hold up the more serious shifts in tone.
Even stranger are the moments in which it takes a Lynchian turn of mind-bending confusion. Yet the film feels more like it's trying a bit hard to be like David Lynch or David Cronenberg rather than really being as successful. Whereas Lynch was able to turn the nonsensical into poetry by creating an intense mood and a clearly abstract visual language that allows for numerous interpretations.
Glodell gets as far as the intense mood, but still has a long ways to go to match the genius of Lynch to make a language using his imagery. Instead, it feels more like a haphazardly assembled collage of cool images that don't really seem to thematically connect. I'm sure that there's a clear meaning in the ending that I'm probably not getting, but Lynch's endings are also like that too, only far more successful. But what made it that way was because the entire movie was nonsensical and abstract. Bellflower shifts its tone so much that the Lynch ending is treated more as an enigmatic aside rather than making the entire film a riddle that ropes you in so you're dying to untangle it yourself.
And yet, despite all of the shifts in tone, Bellflower remarkably has its own identity. It feels unlike almost any other movie I'd ever seen, and for that I won't forget it. I just wish that the script was more fine-tuned, the direction was more clear, the tonal shifts more fluid, and the striking imagery more of a complement to its thematic material rather than a separate entity to stare at. Otherwise, it could've been the next Donnie Darko cult classic.
Final Verdict: I wouldn't say that Bellflower is a good movie, and it's tough for me to recommend it. But if you have an hour and forty five minutes to sink in on a maddeningly absorbing but destructive experiment of a film, then it's worth a watch. The film has a clear style that feels unique and cool, and there are some interesting ideas lying somewhere, hidden beneath the dusty cracks of the movie. But the tonal shifts are too awkward, the romance isn't developed enough, and the direction still amateurish and unable to make it all thread together nicely. An insanely interesting failure of a movie.
That is all.
See ya next time. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna whip out my copy of Fallout 3 again. Cuz I don't want to set the woooorld on fiiiiire...