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Bellflower (Blu-Ray + DVD Combo)
Please Note: The images used here are from the standard definition DVD included with the Blu-Ray and not from the Blu-Ray itself.
Woodrow and Aiden grew up together in Wisconsin, obsessing over their Mad Max VHS and dreaming of how they'd survive the apocalypse. When they got older, they moved to California because they thought it would be cool, and since they've been there, they have continued to plan for the forthcoming end of days. They are building a flamethrower and have ideas for a car that shoots fire out of its tailpipes and would signal their supreme power while the rest of us run scared from whatever has rained down on our heads.
Except if there is to be an apocalypse, it's somewhere in the future and so the two boys have to live in the here and now. They do that mostly in Woodrow's small house on Bellflower Avenue. Woodrow is the shy one, and he's played by Evan Glodell, who also wrote and directed and did a bunch of other stuff on Bellflower, his debut feature. He's got a bright future ahead of him. He's come up with one of the best-made movies about nothing I've ever seen. Which isn't entirely a compliment. Bellflower isn't an examination of nothingness, it's a movie that is completely lacking a center--be it emotional, philosophical, intellectual, or otherwise. No, "a girl hurt me and I am not grown-up enough to cope" isn't sufficient justification. Let's not mistake self-indulgence for self-reflection. Emo anger doesn't run that deep.
The essential story is this: Aiden (Tyler Dawson) is a goofball, but he's also fiercely loyal, and he goads timid, nice-guy Woodrow into hitting on wild child Milly (Jessie Wiseman) at a bar. Surprisingly, the two hit it off, and on their first date, Milly dares Woodrow to take her to the filthiest, scariest restaurant he knows. That restaurant is in Texas, and so they drive to Texas. When they return days later, they are in love, and Woodrow comes out of his shell. The romance stuff is actually pretty great, and its sweetness is in direct proportion to how grisly some of the later material gets. The thing is, despite Woodrow loving Milly, he's also getting into fights all of a sudden, and he gets jealous pretty easy. The latter part is justified, as he ends up catching Milly screwing her roommate (Vincent Grashaw, who is also one of four editors on Bellflower). This sends Woodrow into his own emotional apocalypse. One full of violence, hypocrisy, and a demented dream or two. That last part is key, because Woodrow literally gets brain damaged and it gives us reason to question what we see. It's also a bit of a cop-out.
There is a lot to dislike about Bellflower. The characters for instance, are completely unappealing. They are the kind of people who talk too loudly in bars and who dress and maintain their personal hygiene like they don't have any money even though they clearly do. (Aiden builds that car from the ground up, and no one ever seems to go to work.) This could actually have been all right, I have defended unlikable characters before; however, it's always been under the condition that if you're going to be unlikable, then you should at least be interesting to watch. That is not the case here.
Bellflower is a hollow piece of cinema that ultimately goes nowhere. Its violence, though intended to shock, has no weight or meaning, and if the intent is for the blood and death to be meaningless, that is undercut by the movie's final kaleidoscopic sequences. Depending on how you interpret the ending, Bellflower may not even have the courage of its nihilistic convictions. Just how much are the twisted fantasies of a jilted hipster truly worth? Granted, Bellflower succeeds in being disturbing, and it actually grows more unsettling as the film progresses. Yet, it has the unique distinction of getting increasingly moronic at the same time. Its crescendo of mayhem is juvenile in its excess. I don't think this film is particularly dangerous, as some have suggested; it's far too dull to incite much of anything.
As negative as all that is, and as much as I suggest you go ahead and give the film a pass, Bellflower is somewhat difficult to dismiss because the work that went into everything but the script is actually very impressive. The cast, for one, is exceptional. Glodell, Wiseman, and Dawson are all first-time actors, and they appear natural on camera and at ease with one another. Wiseman avoids making Milly cutesy or quirky, she's a real badass. Props to Glodell for not writing her as troubled, needing to be rescued, or looking to rescue his character. Dawson is funny and genuine as Aiden, and has one of the movie's only true emotional moments when Aiden makes one mistake too many. Also good is Rebekah Brandes as Courtney, the girl who gets caught between the other three. She's one of the only actors with prior credits, and it fits that she plays the girl who looks and acts slightly different than the others.
As I said, Evan Glodell's direction shows incredible promise. He understands how to set up a shot, and he clearly has a way with performers. I was a bit baffled by some of the aesthetic decisions that he and cinematographer Joel Hodge made when shooting the movie. The blurry frame edges, the dirty camera lenses--was this some kind of visual fetish carried over from some genuine post-apocalyptic movies? Much of the photography was beautiful, including an expert use of real landscapes, so why mess it up? Hodge also edited the movie alongside Glodell, Grashaw, and composer Jonathan Keevil, and the choppy storytelling was a plus. Temporal clarity disintegrates as Woodrow's mental state deteriorates, but for all the jumping around, it never feels like the filmmakers don't have a firm grasp of the proceedings. It may not add up to anything, but they at least know the numbers.
But again, that's the whole problem. Bellflower wanders all over the place and never really gets anywhere. I didn't expect a big speech at the end or anything like that, but I did expect there to be some sense of purpose. If I want to see a movie about an unhinged jerk who takes his car and goes over the edge of sanity after he is dismissed by a woman, I'll watch Taxi Driver again, thanks. Bellflower is just going through the motions. One can't help to wonder if this isn't Glodell's indulgence in his own adolescent fantasies. He found a way to get his own flamethrower and lash out at the world. It's more productive than if he and his buddies were doing it for real, but that doesn't lessen the time it takes from the rest of us.
Bellflower comes to Blu-Ray as a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, rendered in 1080p high definition. The image quality is stupendous, with bright colors that burn hot and cool darks that convey the varying moods of the film. For as much as I may have not understood why the director chose to smudge up his lenses, you can see those smudges in incredible detail. The photography is also realistic in all the right places, with wonderful images of the sky and the vast Southwestern landscapes, as well as the right kind of grit and grime for the rundown neighborhood where the characters live.
The main soundtrack is mixed in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and while it has a lot of punch, I didn't notice much nuance. The back speakers didn't light up on their own all that often, and I didn't notice any immersive effects. The dialogue comes through clearly, though, and the music sounds great, free of any distortion.
There is also a stereo mix, as well as English subtitles.
Housed in the usual handsome Oscilloscope packaging, Bellflower comes as a dual release, with both the Blu-Ray and a standard DVD.
Extras include your standard behind the scenes featurette showing the cast and crew on set and featuring talking heads discussing the movie. It's 23-minutes long and confirms that the film was made by people who are passionate about what they do, and the camaraderie evident in the joint effort makes me feel like an even bigger heel for not being able to get on board. This is partnered with "Medusa Rundown," ten minutes of looking at the features on the dash of Aiden and Woodrow's car and seeing the custom-built vehicle in action.
Eight minutes of outtakes show the actors at work, particularly when things don't work.
There is also a theatrical trailer, as well as trailers for other Oscilloscope releases.
Skip It. Yeah, it's a harsh judgment, but Bellflower is a harsh film that makes pretensions of big things. It's hard to think of a movie this well made that is also as unsatisfying. The apocalypse-obsessed romantic fantasy (if that's the right word) is propelled by an assured directorial hand and a surprisingly good cast, but the script is shallow and all the blood and flames is much ado about nothing. I was bored more than I was disturbed, and the lack of a substantial resolution was only outmatched by my lack of interest in how it all turned out once we got there. I'll see Evan Glodell's next film, no question, but I have no need to see his first one ever again. I'm not even sure I needed to see it this time, which is why I suggest you don't bother.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.