Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Review: Buzzard Hollow Beef

Buzzard Hollow Beef (BHFF 2017)
Cert: tbc / 76 mins / Dir. Joshua M. Johnson / Trailer

As a film-writer far greater than me often said, "they can't all be winners". The fact that Buzzard Hollow Beef exists in its final form at all is to be commended. Right, I think that's the pleasantries out of the way...

The second film of the day about an awkward family gathering, this time a Thanksgiving weekend, BHB is a borderline-psychadelic tale of insular, small-town paranoia. With the setup of single-parent Jordan visiting her parents accompanied by her young son and best friend Paige, the trio arrive in Buzzard Hollow, an ostensibly normal town which screams of oddness - not least with the locals' enthusiasm for the local beef. As the weekend wears on, Jordan's family's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, and things reach crisis point when the redneck sons of the local butcher come go hunting in the nearby woods. And like a school-party of drunk toddlers let loose in an abbatoir, the film is a wince-inducing mess.

Whereas The Unwilling's first scene is an unnecessarily premature plot-reveal, BHB's is not only a borderline red herring but is never referred to again, like it's from another version of the screenplay.

One minute the film is a hillbilly cannibalism-conspiracy, then it goes through Poltergeist, into Nightbreed, then dials back down to The Guest (all within one five-minute stretch). There's a certain amount of misdirection in the plot which never really works as a reveal, since everything around it is in stylistic chaos. The acting proficiency is as wildly variable as the camerawork, trying new approaches well into the runtime, and apparently for no real reason. There are very funny lines in the script and they're performed well in isolation, but aren't framed as comedic content by the larger (or even smaller) surrounding context. Tonally, BHB is all over the place, and the pacing suggests an eleventh-hour panic in the editing room*1.

A script which feels it would look naturalistic on paper is undercut by the cast delivering it with no convincing emotion, the result of which feels like a room full of actors waiting to recite their lines. Some backstory is delivered conversationally with not-quite-enough clarity for the audience, while other characters (the butcher character, the doctor character) are a case of someone walking on-set to give an unnaturally lengthy and detailed monologue. Meanwhile, the sheriff character is referred to early in the script but not seen until fifteen minutes from the end where walks in and starts talking, essentially un-introduced (he's wearing a badge: that's it). Then two members of the main family just wander out of the film in an unresolved exit. By the time Jordan arrives at the film's crescendo yelling "What have you done? What have you done?", I have to admit that I was largely on the same page.

The worst part, for me, is that there are some solid ideas in here, lost in a web of compromise, interference and creative indecision. Buzzard Hollow Beef reminds me of the under-budgeted, over-directed filler content I used to rent from Ritz Video in the early 90s, suckered in by cool box-art. The film looks like it was a lot of fun to make, but when has that ever been an indicator of quality*2. This is a reasonable second draft of a practice-run film, it'll be alright when it's finished.

This main feature was prefaced by two shorts; Mark Kuczewski's 6-minute film Happy Anniversary, a mix of zombies and (nicely restrained) 1980s nostalgia. Great fun and reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead for all the right reasons. This was followed by Jonathan Brooks' 3-minute Glasshole, a pub-set comedy about fear of technology and consumer conformity. Far smarter and more incisive than a film this short has any right to be.

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
House Of 1000 Corpses without the gore; The Guest without the uneasy charm.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
I shouldn't imagine you'll get the chance outside of festivals and genre all-nighters, but even so: only if you're sure you're going to enjoy it.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
I hope not.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
I hope not.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Probably not, but that will depend on how vociferously you defend the film.

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Nadia Kamil's in this, and she was in a 2011 episode of Holby City which starred Guy 'Tarkin' Henry.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 In what turns out to be a major plot-point, Jordan's dad says Paige brought a variety of craft beers that they're trying out, but a) we only ever see the same bottle/label design, placed artlessly toward the camera in every other shot, and b) Paige and Jordan have driven in from out of town, yet the beer is very clearly from the town they're visiting. On a related note, Paige says she's still tired from that drive down, yet she's been there for two days by that point in the film. How many drafts of the script were shot? [ BACK ]

*2 The writer said in the post-film Q&A*3 that the cast drank their way through much of the film-shoot. Which explains some of the haphazard nature of the final product, at least. Although as many auteurs have noted, the process of filmmaking is constant compromise; with BHB, one can only imagine... [ BACK ]

*3 Oh yeah, the Q&A. The 49-seat auditorium was around half-full, which is awkward enough at a festival screening with the film's writer present. Although worse still was the post-film question-and-answer session in which I sat tight-lipped, lest I be tempted to dryly ask "...did that really feel like the film you remember writing, though?". Hey, these guys made a film and I didn't. They're already better than I am, I know this. I'm not slamming BHB because it's an indie or it gives me any pleasure - I'm slamming it because it should be better. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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