The SF IndieFest is currently in its 21st year, and is bringing a fresh crop of original films to the city. Spanning a range of styles and genres, this year’s lineup features both bigger names and newcomers to the scene. Here are three of this year’s selections that are a true testament to the varied nature of the festival’s cinematic offerings.
“Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through the Gateway Chosen By the Holy Storsh”
Ritualistic suicide cults are not often fodder for comedic films. But in “Seven Stages,” this subject matter quickly turns from the freakish to the farcical as more and more bodies start to pile up. Claire (Kate Micucci) and Paul (Sam Huntington) are a couple who move to Los Angeles from Ohio. Upon settling into their new (suspiciously cheap) home, the couple finds that it’s the final destination for a ritualistic suicide cult led by the inimitable Storsh (Taika Waititi). “Seven Stages” plays out as both a sketch comedy romp and a parody of LA’s most touted tropes — the most cursory of which being the city’s reputation for attracting and producing cultish figures.
There’s also the haphazard detective (Dan Harmon) trying to shill off his screenplay, as well as the gold-digging young wife of a millionaire (Rhea Seehorn) who becomes a victim of the cult by happenstance. These tropes don’t stray too far into the formulaic, but rather offer up a funhouse mirror reflection of thecity and the entertainment industry via the cult of Storsh. It’s a fun film that also manages to explore the dynamics between Claire and Paul in a sincere way amidst the blood, gore and “bliss juice” that comes to decorate their apartment. It also captures their eventual spiral into madness in a way that ends up being funny rather than grating. Additionally, any movie is made infinitely better by the presence of Waititi, whose brief, wacky interludes as Storsh are scene-stealing.
“The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot”
This film’s title tells you everything you need to know about its plot: Calvin Barr (Sam Elliott), a venerated soldier played with typical gruff stoicism by Elliott, kills Hitler and then Bigfoot. Little else is explained or made convincingly clear but this is the type of film where you should just roll with it. “The Man” plays out like a comic book adapted directly to the screen, with two action-packed parallel stories detailing Barr’s first mission (killing Hitler) and his call back to service (to kill Bigfoot). Some of the World War II scenes feel a bit like “Inglourious Basterds” knockoffs — but the general campy-via-melodramatic tone keeps the movie feeling fresh, even if ridiculous.
There are only a few characters in the film and it relies heavily on pithy soliloquies uttered by Barr, who’s just a man trying to right what’s wrong in this world. His motives are vague and there are some plot points that genuinely don’t make sense. There’s literally a scene where Barr is holding Bigfoot’s hand and crying after eliminating the creature, which had been terrorizing the country. Barr is also acknowledged as dead at one point in the film but then attends a local play as if nothing had happened. It’s a bizarre story that still somewhat works — as long as you’re willing to buy into the world the film builds.
“The Unicorn” is director Robert Schwartzman’s second film and has some of the bumps and tonal discrepancies that a sophomore effort oftens entails. At the center of the story are Malory (Lauren Lapkus) and Caleb (Nicholas Rutherford), also known as Mal and Cal. The pair is in their fourth year of engagement, and after feeling pressure to spice up their relationship or at least to take it to the next level, decide to seek out a third. This turns their couple into a thruple and sets off an evening of farcical turns as Mal and Cal entertain potential “unicorns” in the style of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”: one is too forward, one too aggressive, one just not interested.
The film is a bit formulaic in this sense and has, at times, the feel of an extended SNL skit at parts. This is possibly in part due to the presence of cast members Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney, as well as the screenwriter contribution from Rutherford, who used to write for the show. Another effect of this format is that the film sometimes comes off as twee, with the hipster characterizations of the leads and the peripheral characters becoming a little bit excessive.
“The Unicorn” is at its most compelling as the couple navigates the deeper issues within their relationship, alongside their quest for a third suitor. Throughout the night, their journey makes them question their commitment to each other and what they want out of their relationship, while simultaneously unraveling their own sexual histories as new experiences are thrown into the mix.
SF IndieFest is running through Feb. 14
Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].