Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Film Review: Fateful Findings (2014)

For much of the past decade, Tommy Wiseau's The Room has set the gold standard for terrible movies. Other contenders have challenged it for the title of Best Worst Movie, including legitimately incompetent films like James Nyugen's Birdemic and decidedly more ironic efforts like SyFy's Sharknado trilogy, but they haven't managed to dent the aura of Wiseau's cack-handed attempt to meld the roiling passion of Tennessee Williams with the green screen technology of a teenager's first web series. As bad as those other films may be, they lack the feverish vision of Wiseau, a man with so much to say but absolutely no clue how to express himself.

Enter - Neil Breen. An architect based in Las Vegas, Breen uses the money from his commissions to produce ultra low-budget films which he writes, directs, produces and stars in. He has been around for a while now - his first film, Double Down, was released in 2005 - but he only started making waves when it was added to Netflix a few years ago, exposing a huge audience of bad movie fans to his particular brand of insanity. With Fateful Findings, his third film, Breen makes a strong case that he should be placed alongside Ed Wood as one of the true masters of joyously terrible filmmaking.

Breen plays Dylan, a sort of half-melted Gene Wilder doll brought to life who writes books about something. That may sound vague, but that is literally all the information that the screenplay provides about the profession of its main character. Anyway, Dylan's writing isn't that important since he has now dedicated his life to hacking - which he does by randomly banging away on the keyboards of clearly turned off laptops - in order to expose secrets. What kind of secrets? Government and corporate secrets. What kind of government and corporate secrets? Secret government and corporate secrets. If nothing else, Breen ably proves that specificity truly is the soul of narrative.

That description may seem straightforward, but it's only one of roughly half a dozen plot lines running through the film, and it can only be considered the central one because, unlike the rest, it's the one that the film doesn't forget completely. In addition to being a hacker, Dylan also possesses a magical black stone which seems to bring him back to life after he is nearly killed by a mysterious woman who runs him over, presumably as part of a plot to steal said magic rock. (This is one of several plotlines which is never explained.) He also seems to be protected by a spirit, represented by a puff of white smoke which passes across the screen, an effect which makes it look like one of the crew happened to be taking a cigarette break at an inopportune moment (assuming that Fateful Findings even had a crew; the mostly static camerawork suggests otherwise). He also repeatedly goes to see a couple of psychiatrists, one of whom offers Dylan pills to which his wife (Klara Landrat, a kind of off-brand Mary Lynn Rajskub) has become addicted, while the other delivers dialogue so cryptic that it almost feels like it was written using William S. Burrough's cut-up method.

There's also the story of his best friend Jim (David Silva, who looks like what would happen if you conglomerated every member of Smash Mouth into a single person), whose alcoholism is so out of control that he occasionally spills drinks and knocks food on the floor. Jim is slowly drifting away from his wife Amy (Victoria Valene), an emotional distance represented by their constant non-sensical fights, which usually resolve with Jim going to lightly polish his car. That part of the film is notable mainly for the many opportunities it offers for some bizarre plot twists, arguments that come out of nowhere, and some of the flattest performances you'll find outside of an episode of Ivor the Engine.

If you were to try and make a Venn diagram of all of these various plots to see which ones overlapped, you would have five or six circles floating freely and pointlessly in space. There is as much chance of them connecting as there is of Mercury and Pluto crashing into each other.

A certain roughness is to be expected from a non-professional production, but Fateful Findings doesn't feel like a film by people with no experience making films, but like a film made by people who have never even seen a film before. It's highly probable that Neil Breen is the first filmmaker since the Lumière Brothers to have directed more films than he's watched.

Every single aspect of the production is off. From big things like the use of a laughably fake-looking green screen to make it seem as if Dylan is standing in front of The Supreme Court during the film's ludicrous climax, to little things like the way that 80% of the film is shot in close-up, yet no effort is made to make sure that eyelines match, so it always looks as if characters are talking to the left ear of their scene partner. There's a sense throughout that Breen could not keep the members of his cast together for more than a minute or so at the time, so presumably he shot the film that way to hide the film's limitations, but he ends up accentuating them. (As do multiple scenes in which actors are shot from the neck down so that the audience cannot see their faces, presumably to make it seem like they have extras, rather than the main actors wearing different clothes.)

Combined with the beyond sleepy editing - which makes every single moment last much longer than would be reasonable - the film's lack of even the most basic building blocks of film grammar make it seem like a joke, or something that was created on a dare. As if a couple of filmmakers got drunk and bet that they couldn't make a film where literally every single aspect of the production was wrong. Or perhaps it's a knowing deconstruction of the building blocks of cinematic storytelling to demonstrate the importance of things like shot composition, editing and even the most barely competent sound recording. There are some moments, such as a "passionate" love scene in which Dylan clears his desk (presumably to throw his wife on it, though they remain standing, awkwardly kissing and not quite undressing, which is a recurring trope within the film) by very slowly knocking his laptops onto the floor, not unlike how a man-sized housecat would, which are so objectively terrible that it's hard to imagine anyone shooting them without intending them as part of a huge joke.

Yet the film is such an earnest and incoherent piece of storytelling that it could not have been created in such a cynical manner. When people try to make pre-packaged cult films, a la Snakes on a Plane and the aforementioned Sharks-nado, it's clear that the filmmakers are winking at the audience. Neil Breen is not winking at all. He is trying to tell a story about political corruption and (maybe?) spirituality in a way which clearly means something to him, but he lacks any of the skills needed to make it mean anything to anyone else. He writes in such vague, general terms that it's hard to tell what his story is actually about, and his approach to filmmaking runs so counter to every single basic rule of visual storytelling that it's hard to focus on the story because the presentation is so off-putting and weird. Scenes are composed in ways which are ugly and assembled in such a haphazard manner that on several occasions it seems like he has placed them in the wrong order. Not as some sort of experiment in non-linear storytelling, but through sheer ineptitude.

Fateful Findings' cult status seems all but assured given the growing fascination surrounding it and Neil Breen's other works, which seem equally baffling. Perhaps the only thing holding it back from making a true run at The Room for the title of best worst movie is the relative lack of moments which could make for fun audience participation. Unless cinemas are going to shell out for outmoded laptops that audience members can hurl at the screen, which would be the most apt and entertaining, yet costly, option, people might have to settle for merely watching the film and marveling at its transcendental shittiness.

Grade: ?