Tag Archives: D+

RUSHLIGHTS

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D+

Director Antoni Stutz intends his first feature to be a twisty, moody modern film noir in the tradition of the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple.” But though it’s slickly made and boasts a formidable cast, the picture falls way short of its models.

The screenplay by Stutz and Ashley Scott Meyers focuses on Sarah Johnson (Haley Woods) and Billy Brody (Josh Henderson), a couple of down-on-their-luck L.A. folk who hatch a con when Sarah’s roommate dies of a drug overdose. The dead girl had recently gotten a letter naming her the heir to her uncle’s estate in Texas, and since Sarah’s virtually her twin, Billy suggests that she impersonate her and claim Zackary Niles’s inheritance. Once they arrive in little Tremo, however, they find the going difficult. Billy doesn’t trust the dead man’s sleazy lawyer Cameron Brogden (Aidan Quinn), and the local sheriff (Beau Bridges), who happens to be Cameron’s brother, suspects that Billy and Sarah are up to no good. When an autopsy reveals that the uncle’s death was murder rather than an accident, the waters get muddier and muddier.

And that’s only the tip of an iceberg of deceit and calculation so large that it could swallow the entire North Sea. Among the additional shards the script throws into the mix are a scummy L.A. drug dealer named Romero (Crispian Belfrage) who’s followed Billy and Sarah to Tremo; the Brogdens’ mother Belle (Lorna Raver), who has secrets in her past; another lawyer appropriately called Sly (Philip Lenkowsky); a nasty storekeeper and his equally nasty son; and a DVD that shows Zackary to have had an interest in young men. ln Stutz and Meyers’s construction, these elements, and more besides, fit together eventually, but very implausibly indeed. The result is like a puzzle with too many pieces that, when assembled, reveal little of interest.

The cast respond to all this in one of two ways. Quinn and Bridges play to the rafters, with exaggerated accents and lots of scenery-chewing. Most of the supporting cast follow suit. But they’re all pikers compared to Belfrage, who goes so far overboard that an evil cackle is the only thing missing. By contrast Henderson is so sullenly low-key that he’s nothing but brooding emptiness, while Woods veers between sweetness and hysteria. Technically the picture has professional polish, but Gregg Easterbrook’s cinematography overdoes the noirishly lurid light-and-shade, and Jeffrey Coulter’s score obvious in its use of shock effects and way too loud. Maybe it was a mistake to allow one of the producers to serve as the composer; it seems as though he decided to make his creative contribution way too prominent.

Ultimately the problem with “Rushlights” is that it’s an example of narrative overkill, taking too many turns along the way. Just because you have an idea for yet another plot twist doesn’t mean you should toss it into the mix. By the last reel the picture already become overstuffed with zigzags and improbabilities, but Stutz nevertheless offers up still more “shocking” revelations in yet another climax. The result is a genre exercise that shows some promise, but descends from pleasant obfuscation into patent absurdity.

SCATTER MY ASHES AT BERGDORF’S

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D+

One of the most annoying things about going to movies nowadays is having to sit through the plethora of advertisements—not trailers, but ads for cars, soft drinks and cell phones—shown in theatres before the feature starts. But with “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” you have something new: the opportunity to simply wallow in a ninety-minute commercial without having to wait for a real movie at all.

Matthew Miele’s documentary is a basically a love letter to the famously upscale New York department store, lacking any critical sense. Structurally it’s rather a mess; though divided into “chapters,” it skips from topic to topic without giving much thought to smooth transition. Despite the occasional appearance of graphics illustrating timelines, it doesn’t evince much chronological sophistication—the only plot thread that has an arc along those lines is one that follows the creation of the store’s flamboyant holiday windows from conception to unveiling.

What the film does have is interview excerpts—scads of them—virtually all of them rhapsodic. Designer after designer appears to enthuse about having a spot on the store’s racks or shelves. One of the longer episodes shows how one of them was discovered working across the street and promptly offered a place at the store. To balance the scale, others who were rejected by Bergdorf’s arbiters appear briefly—usually to say that their relationship with other outlets has made them very happy. (One of the repeated notes has to do with Bergdorf’s insistence on exclusivity deals that freeze out their competitors.) And we see Linda Fargo, the head of the decision-making staff, looking over the presentations of new applicants with a jaded air, either welcoming the newcomers to the Bergdorf fold or dismissing them with kind words about coming back later.

Fargo is one of the few people we meet along the way who’s given much screen time—a woman who would hardly be described as classically beautiful but who wears (sometimes outrageous-looking) outfits well and is treated like royalty. Another is David Hoey, who’s in charge of the window displays and works closely with the artists attached to design them. And perhaps the most interesting of the lot is Betty Halbreich, a veteran “personal shopper” with a disdainful attitude, who declines to say that she hates anyone but admits to disliking certain folk.

Perhaps the film’s most unnerving aspect, however, is its glorification of obscene wealth, including the take-home salaries of many of the staff. We hear about legendary shopping sprees by both Elizabeth Taylor and John Lennon, the former of a hundred or so white mink earmuffs and the latter involving nearly that many fur coats—and are apparently meant to share the enthusiasm that the sellers had for the windfalls. The Bernie Madoff scandal is briefly introduced so that we can commiserate with the drop-off in receipts that followed, only to be assured that the store has worked its way back. Any feeling of sympathy one might have for the poor Bergdorfites, in any event, will probably be alleviated by the revelation that with good commissions, a salesperson might rake in half a million a year. And most crassly, we’re told that charges of elitism are overblown because any passerby on the street, no matter how humble, can press up his nose against the window for a closer look. (Equally questionable is a remark about how wonderful it is that an American family still owns a whole block on Fifth Avenue, when so much of the street has been bought up by “foreigners.”)

The sad thing is that from the snippets the film includes about the store’s founding and the Goodman family indicate that an intelligent story of American entrepreneurism could be fashioned around them. Unfortunately, Miele is content to offer a ninety-minute panegyric to conspicuous consumption, enhanced—if that’s the word—by occasional contributions from regular customers Candice Bergen, Susan Lucci and Joan Rivers. Rivers, in one of her moments, makes an offhanded comment that she intends as a joke but, after ninety minutes of this film, you might be inclined to take to heart. “Anybody who takes fashion seriously,” she says (as “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” clearly does), “is an idiot.”

The title, incidentally, is taken from a famous 1990 New Yorker cartoon by Victoria Roberts. A pity the absurdity of her caption finds no counterpart in Miele’s film, except accidentally in its ridiculously reverential air.