Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review: Standards of Living (2014)

I love watching independent films, especially those that lie within the horror genre because it seems they are more ambitious, risky and creative as opposed to their big-budget counterparts (zombie flicks being my favorite). It seems fitting that my first review in three years is an indie flick called Standards of Living by Aaron Mento, who I have the pleasure of talking to every now and then on Twitter. The movie is a mixed bag, not exclusively yielding to one genre. It has elements of horror, science fiction, fantasy and thriller. I can’t help but speculate that Mento is trying to appeal to the fans of all the genres he admires, and I would say that he succeeds in doing so. For a first film (shot on iPad 2, of all things!), it’s a damn fine production. At the very least, to you naysayers, he made a feature film. So, what’s the movie about? Well, before I lay out the details, I must admit that this is where the film gets a little convoluted, which may be the biggest setback it has. Not to say that it’s glaring or jarring but if you were to sit down and ponder it, it does make you scratch your head (perhaps that’s what it’s suppose to do).

NOTE: I may or may to be coming up with “fan theories,” here. Also, slight spoilers.

The plot in its most basic sense is this: Peter (Scott Yarborough) is a stand-up comedian who isn’t all that funny. Nobody seems to like him. Then, one night, he receives a phone call by a man known as Mr. Randall (played stupendously by Bill Ferris), who offers him a unique opportunity including double his pay. Peter takes the offer, arrives at his home and discovers that Mr. Randall has the ability to make objects disappear, than reappear with improvement. Example: he makes Peter’s scruffy silver peanut disappear only for it to reappear as a gold peanut. Well, Mr. Randall wants to send Peter to the place where the objects disappear to so that he could retrieve his daughter. Some time ago, a mysterious man with black teeth arrives to bestow this magical gift onto Mr. Randall but he also seems to have enchanted his wife and unborn daughter. That same night, she kills herself (it’s implied that the stranger warped her mind, somehow) and Mr. Randall attempts to use his gift to save his unborn daughter. Sadly, he ultimately makes her disappear entirely from the womb. Peter crosses over into the alternative dimension and finds his now-grown-up daughter living with Alternative Mr. Randall and his alternative servant Stu (played by Derek Houck). They believe he is an angel from God sent to deliver salvation. However, Peter soon discovers that the man with black teeth isn’t who he appears to be, and that Mr. Randall my have… dare I say it… alternative motives.

Now, to go back to my one complaint: I don’t think everything was completely fleshed out, which is why it was a little hard to keep up with the story. Let’s start off with the stranger with black teeth. Some may ask: who is he or where did he come from? That’s irrelevant. My question is, what’s his motive? Why is he doing this? We don’t need him to explicitly state why, but maybe the answer lies somewhere within the reality of the alternative dimension. This dimension is inverted from ours: non-Christians are firm-believers, and the Union seems to be the Confederacy, as there are still slaves. However, our black-toothed stranger claims that Mr. Randall’s daughter is the second savior and that he brought her there to save them. That’s some understanding into his motives but why does that dimension need saving? If we understood the alternative dimension a little more, we will understand why it needs saving, and thus the motives of the stranger. Fan theory alert and SPOILERS: I gather that this stranger is some inter-dimensional being, perhaps a police officer of sorts that regulates different dimensions. It would explain why he is so invested in everything. I understand why he gives Mr. Randall the ability (so that he could ultimately use it to benefit the other dimension) but why doesn’t he take it away right after?  What would be the benefit of leaving him with that ability? I wish we knew a little more about the character or perhaps about the alternative dimension. Mento gave us pinch of sugar when, maybe, we needed a teaspoon.

Onto the main characters! I loved all of them. First lets talk about Peter. Living in Chicago and going to an art school, I know tons of people who yearn to be successful stand-up comedians. It’s a tough gig to get into and if you’re not funny, you’ll fall hard. Immediately I understand Peter and his plight. He is our ‘fish-out-of-water’ character who is an everyday guy caught in a supernatural situation. When he’s confused, we’re confused. When we need some clarification, he asks for clarification. I enjoyed him quite a lot. He’s funny too! The audience just sucks. Now, lets get to Stu, my favorite character. He’s like Dave Thomas in Rat Race: monotone, not very expressive, devoid of personality on the outside but inside… he’s exploding. He gets impatient but he’s passive about it. He has a constant frown or grimace that adds just a little more depth to his character, and he genuinely cares for his employer (and possibly only friend). The striped Polo shirts and suspenders are fantastic touch, and he has some of the best lines. “It’s about a stormy interracial romance in an intolerable small town,” he says after defending his boss’ work. The context is lost, I know, but it’s presented completely straightforward. The genius of it is that it foreshadows what’s to come. As for Mr. Randall, he is a character who is shockingly complex. He is a loving husband and father. He makes an honest living, and he seems levelheaded. Underneath this mask he is an extremely determined man who will stop and nothing to save his daughter, however, when conflicts arise, he seems to question the morality of what he’s doing. It’s not explicit but you gather it based on his body language. I don’t want to discuss any other characters because it may reveal major plot details and spoilers.

Also, Bill Ferris looks an awful like a young Stephen McHattie.

The whole film plays out like an X-Files episode. The plot is essentially a missing persons report with a supernatural twist. From a horror perspective, I see influences of Raimi (visually exclusive), body disfigurement reminiscent of early Cronenberg or Gordon, and biblical themes as previously explored by Bergman or King. I may be far-fetched in those comparisons but it’s what I see. I believe there is something to be said about shooting on an iPad. The independent scene is rapidly adapting to the consumer market. Now, anybody can pick up their iPone or Galaxy Touches and make a movie. You’ll have hollow audio (thankfully all the dialogue in this movie is recorded separately and synched later) but you’ll have a movie. The future for the micro-budget filmmaker lies within these devices. They may not be widely accepted, now, but soon we’ll be seeing movies at Sundance or Cannes that were shot on phones or tablets. It’s the future folks! Standards of Living is a great kick-starter to this new style of filmmaking. Needless to say, I look forward to what Mento has in store for us. 

If you are curious, you can catch the movie here


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