The Big Take

Probably some of the weirdest and wildest stories from established actors are about how they got their big break.  Hopefully not too many of these stories involve actual crimes, because there’s all too much of that in Hollywood.  In The Big Take, however, the crimes get wildly out of hand when the search for funding for an indie film — something that doesn’t normally lead to anything more nefarious than a pushy kickstarter campaign — instead sets off a chain of blackmail, burglary, assault, and worse.

It starts when aspiring producer Vic (Slate Holmgren) runs into famous actor Douglas Brown (James McCaffrey) at the exclusive club where Vic works.  When Douglas — unsurprisingly — turns down Vic’s offer to star in a low-budget movie by a couple of broke unknowns, Vic seeks revenge.  I’m not sure what he originally had in mind, but after he roofies Douglas things take a direction I’m fairly sure Vic would never have predicted.  He’s still quick to take advantage of events, however, and the next thing Douglas knows he’s being blackmailed for the $200,000 bankroll Vic needs to produce the film his friend Max (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) has written and hopes to direct.

You don’t want to mess with Oxana.

A panicked Douglas turns to his agent Jack (Bill Sage, who somehow reminds me of Brad Pitt now and then) for help.  Not to worry, Jack says, he can spin anything.  When he gets a look at the blackmail material, however, he decides sterner measures are needed and he contacts his “fixer”, Frank (Dan Hedaya).  Pronouncing the blackmailers to be amateurs — and he couldn’t be more right there — Frank is confident he can solve this problem easily. Unfortunately, Vic has accidentally left a clue that points straight to Max, who is blissfully unaware of any blackmail and thinks that Douglas is bankrolling his movie because he likes it.  When the overconfident Frank fails to retrieve the blackmail material — Max is pretty much a pushover, but his feisty Ukrainian wife, Oxana (Oksana Lada), not so much — the fixer calls in his own fixer, Edie (Zoë Bell).

It’s at this point that things get completely out of control, with alliances made and broken, houses robbed, people shot and kidnapped, and generally desperate measures taken all around.  Aside from having the misfortune to get caught up in events in the first place, Max is otherwise so ridiculously lucky as to strain credulity — Frank and Edie veer back and forth between incompetence and absolute professionalism, whatever it takes to help Max survive at any given moment.  And Max doesn’t really have much else going for him besides luck and his wife, the character being otherwise unremarkable.  Then there’s the nature of the blackmail material, which is first of all completely tasteless, and second of all far more useful for blackmailing the person who’s with Douglas on the video rather than Douglas himself.

There is good news, though, in that the script is otherwise well-written and the performances solid, with an excellent blend of action and comedy.  Most of the characters are wacky but likable, though Vic occasionally struck me as a possible sociopath.  The zaniness gets a bit too zany for my taste here and there, but  it’s otherwise an entertaining romp through the roller-coaster world of Hollywood that is often laugh-out-loud funny.  Breaking into the movie business can really be murder.

Written and directed by Justin Daly.

Reina

We all know the things you’re never supposed to talk about on a first date: politics, religion, and past relationships.  Sometimes, though, despite knowing we shouldn’t and despite our best intentions, we still somehow find ourselves ranting about the last election or saying something vaguely rude about the Pastafarians and then discovering that your date is one.  In the short film Reina, our first glimpse of Seth (Sergio Castillo) is of him telling a long, emotional, clearly not appropriate for a first date story about being cruelly separated from Reina, his longtime love.  Meanwhile, Seth’s date Michelle (Kat Pena) is playing on her phone and occasionally almost pretending to care about his tale of woe.  So you know there’s very little chance of a second date at this point.

Michelle takes a break from texting the gory details to her friends.

Realizing his mistake, Seth apologizes profusely and manages to talk the apparently extremely forgiving Michelle into starting over with a drink at the bar down the street.  Unfortunately, they realize too late that they’ve walked into a dangerous situation, as Dmitry, Sergey, and Vlad (Ron Orlovsky, Travis Mitchell of Partitioned_Heart, and Woodrow Proctor) are up to no good.  For a while, it seems as though this is one awkward date that might end up as a tragedy instead of just a horror story to share with friends.  But much to everyone’s surprise, it seems as though Reina — or at least her full, sad story — just might change everything.

Despite how dire it might sound, this is absolutely a comedy, with Dmitry’s gang sometimes in danger of stealing all their scenes with their antics.  But it’s also a comedy with heart, as it delves into some of the more painful experiences all humans share and how they can help bring us together — even with people we might normally be terrified of.  Pena as Michelle speaks volumes with her expressions, clearly often convinced that she’s the only sensible person in the room.  Castillo’s hapless Seth is a decent guy but also seems to be one of those magnets for trouble and bizarre events, and sometimes seems to be barely muddling through.  The end result of throwing all these characters together is a charmingly funny film that’s both sweet and a little zany, realistic and over the top.  It’s one of the worst — and the best — first date stories you’ll ever hear.

Le Sequel

A quick glance at Gofundme or Kickstarter will demonstrate how difficult it can be to get financial backing for an indie movie.   No doubt many bad deals have been struck by filmmakers desperate for their ideas to come to life, and possibly also by investors anxious to strike it rich and / or become famous, not that either is all that likely in the world of indie film.  The deal struck in Le Sequel, however, may set some sort of record for Worst Repercussions for the Most People, since this agreement sets off a chain reaction that would put the Manhattan Project to shame.

Carlos (Kyri Saphiris) is the hopeful director, veteran of 22 films, searching for investors for his next venture.  He finds Dirk (Andrew Tiernan) who represents a group of Nollywood investors from the Nigerian film industry.  No, they’re not a bunch of princes trying a new scam; the Nigerian film industry is actually huge, and they’re ready to invest ten million pounds in Carlos’s new film, or so Dirk says.  His office says otherwise.  But the millions are all for Carlos, as long as he puts up half a million of his own.  I’m not sure which is the worst part of the whole thing; the fact that he mortgages his house to raise the cash or the fact that apparently none of this is ever committed to paper, let alone looked over by an attorney.

In exchange for his investment, Carlos expects to return six months later to find a large studio set waiting, ready for him to film his horror movie epic, Le Sequel, follow up to Le Fear.  Instead, he finds an old, smelly caravan — which for those of us in the States means an old, smelly RV — along with the most unlikely support crew any film has ever had.  Carlos’s people, like cinematographer Jacques (Hadrien Mekki) and production manager Jessie (Leila Reed), seem to know what they’re doing, but not so many of the others.  For instance, Africa (Roxy Sternberg) is a special effects “expert” with only boundless, misguided enthusiasm going for her, while makeup artist Queenie (Victoria Hopkins) spends far more time hitting on anyone who’s breathing than doing her job.  And I do mean hitting, since there’s absolutely nothing subtle about her come-ons.

But none of these doubtful crew members hold a candle to producer / con artist Efi (Seye Adelekan) who’s been in charge of everything, including the substitution of an old, smelly caravan for an actual movie set.  I’m guessing he and the other Nigerian crew members couldn’t make it in the real Nollywood and decided to try their luck in England.  He’s full of promises — I’d use another word but I like to keep these reviews family friendly — and often seems genuinely confused when others don’t think he’s come through on those promises.  In his eyes everything is wonderful, the movie going along just as it should, and I can’t decide if that makes him enviably optimistic or a total psychopath.  Maybe both.

I won’t even attempt to explain how this scene happens.

Take them and the rest of this zany cast of characters, tell them they need to film a no-budget movie in about five days(!), and you’ve got Le Sequel, or possibly a particularly out of control Monty Python sketch with John Cleese at his most hapless as Carlos.  Nothing is scripted and scenes frequently dissolve into chaos, but chaos is just the logical result of these situations and the film manages to be completely realistic and utterly bizarre by turns, sometimes both at once.  It’s a bold experiment that doesn’t work all the time, but when a scene clicks it really clicks and any unevenness is all part of the charm.  Improv can be ridiculously difficult to keep moving, but the cast manages that task beautifully while staying in character besides, and the result is a riveting, crazed, train wreck of a comedy that’s every indie director’s worst nightmare made into film.

Special kudos to Saphiris, who makes Carlos a true Everyman, someone who’s just trying to chase his dreams as we all want to do, and then has to watch this particular dream slip slowly and painfully away into the depths of the most cursed film shoot ever.  Meanwhile, Adelekan’s Efi walks the finest of lines between amoral scammer and likable rogue, though I’m still not quite sure how he managed to avoid being strangled.  And all the characters (I wish I could mention them all!) help create the wildest of rides, a twisted journey into the darkest, funniest side of filmmaking that will leave you wondering every moment if things can possibly get any stranger — and they will.