Co-op of the Damned Makes Good Use of Horror Clichés on a Tight Budget

Co-Op of the Damned is a cleverly devised comedy/horror web series with plenty of charm and an impressive production look. Made on the cheap, but not cheaply made, the visual effects and prosthetic makeup combine to give the independently produced show a nicely polished homemade quality that will grab the attention of internet viewers, and likely inspire other financially challenged filmmakers to attempt the bold step of “doing it for themselves”.

After a dozen or so years in Hollywood working in a variety of positions behind the scenes I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons. Perhaps the most important one is the fact that if you want to make strides in your career you better be prepared to make things happen for yourself. This includes the possibility of producing your own projects and finding distribution for them. Now that the Internet has come of age and sites such as YouTube and Funny Or Die have proved to be viable venues, the act of self-producing has become a common occurrence for anyone with an idea and a camera. In deed, the online presentation no longer has the stigma of a poorly manufactured B movie, but receives its due respect. You may have ideas as grand as Steven Spielberg and a budget more limiting than Roger Corman’s, but it doesn’t matter anymore. That is, as long as the content is entertaining.

Regardless of budget it’s still not enough to make just anything, post it to the web and expect people to like it. You have to have something people want to see. And this is where Co-Op of the Damned succeeds where others fail. Co-op of the Damned takes two well used story devices and mashes them together; the undead and bad housemates, resulting in the humorous situation of roommates from hell, literally. Set in the most haunted building in New York City, each episode of Co-Op of the Damned takes place in a different apartment. Creator Ned Ehrbar has devised the send-up of a different genre specific scenario for each apartment and introduces a new apartment in each episode. Each installment of horror mayhem offers a clever twist on a popular cliché, and places the extraordinary amongst the ordinary for solid comic effect – often with zombies.

Every new episode of Co-Op of the Damned premiers on My Damn Channel first at http://www.mydamnchannel.com/coopofthedamned, then becomes available on demand on YouTube. You can also find Co-Op of the Damned on Twitter (@CoopoftheDamned) and Facebook (facebook.com/Coopofthedamned). I highly recommend checking it out if only to see what can be done with limited funds and a whole lot of imagination. I can’t wait to see what Ehrbar can do with a real budget. Lets just hope that it doesn’t stifle his ingenuity. After all, when it comes to film production, tight purse strings are the mother of invention.

Mighty Fine is Anything But

In a film meant to examine family mental abuse, Mighty Fine is seriously lacking in the qualities necessary to produce any kind of dramatic impact, let alone empathy. Instead of insight or understanding into an unfortunate and all too common condition, the audience is left wondering why stars Andie MacDowell and Chazz Palminteri felt compelled to portray such average everyday folk suffering from nothing more than what appears to be a domestic rough patch and a case of living beyond ones means.

Set in the early nineteen seventies, Mighty Fine features Palminteri as Joe Fine, a Jewish Brooklyn businessman who moves his family to New Orleans in order to be closer to his manufacturing plant. However, Joe is the type of patriarch who doesn’t bother to tell his family anything until it happens. This includes buying a fancy house with all the trimmings. It’s hardly unusual for the time period that Joe makes the decisions and everyone is expected to fall in line. But the script and the filmmaker make a big deal about this being standard operating procedure for the Fine household. The all too serious voice over (provided by the adult voice of the youngest daughter) keeps implying that Joe’s behavior is based less on a macho attitude and more on some sort of disorder, one that’s highly volatile and potentially dangerous. At least that’s what we’re told.

Outwardly, Joe just seems to be a guy trying to keep up with the Joneses, thereby placing himself under a lot of stress, which naturally worsens when his business begins to fail. This is certainly not earth shattering, making the conflict between Joe and his family nothing unusual and lackluster at best. Heck, my own family experienced the very same thing and there was a lot more daily fallout involved. And even though the voice over routinely states that the tension created by the father is very bad, the action does not support this assertion (certainly noting like at my own house). If anything, the small family appears to be like any other going through tough times. So get over it, already!

MacDowell does do a decent job of portraying Joe’s meek, polish immigrant wife who continually tries to keep the peace, although the routine gets tiresome. MacDowell’s real life offspring, Rainey Qualley plays the eldest daughter who is nothing more than a typical bratty, teenager who thinks of nothing but how events affect her social life. She’s a beautiful and capable actress, but both the script and the director let her down by giving her nothing more than a barely two-dimensional character with which to work. Likewise, Jodelle Ferland is extremely likable as the youngest child, a shy tomboy who puts her thoughts into writing, ostensibly creating the voice over of the film. However, the climax for each of these women is, well, un-climatic.

Although Palminteri is given a couple of potentially powerful moments with Joe (both involving guns) they just don’t come off. So MacDowell’s moment of resolve is subsequently diluted, and comes off kind of silly with its overblown presentation. It’s a situation of too little too late, but accompanied by a lot of bells and whistles (literally). Qualley as the eldest daughter also has a parallel moment with a boyfriend that hits the nail way too precisely. And Ferland as the youngest daughter is given the painful duty of summing up the story through a poem she reads at an awards ceremony. For what it’s worth she does a good job, but it’s hardly worth anything.

What bugs me the most about Mighty Fine is the missed opportunity. Having experienced a similar upbringing I know what the filmmakers were going for, and that’s why it’s so disappointing that they didn’t even come close to satisfactorily representing that on screen. Maybe it’s the inexperience of a first time director, or the fault of a sub-par script. Either way, Mighty Fine serves as a mere stepping-stone in the resumes of all those involved.

Tonight You’re Mine Has Appeal for its Target Audience But for Few Else

Tonight You’re Mine is the tale of two rock musicians (Luke Treadaway and Natalia Tena) who happen to meet shortly after arriving for a huge, outdoor music festival. While displaying their instant and mutual dislike for each other an eccentric stranger handcuffs them together in order to make a point and teach them a lesson. Before anyone can stop him, the man quickly disappears, and despite attempts to free themselves the pair are stuck to each other’s side for the next twenty-four hours. Through thick and thin, performances and bathroom breaks, and even a night with their significant others in tow, the two manage to have a good time and even learn to like each other as they develop a natural attraction. That is until she discovers they didn’t have to stay attached for as long as he led her to believe. Was it a big joke to him, and is she really as upset about it as she seems? Or will they find a way back to each other before the end of the event? The ending is probably every wannabe-rocker-girl’s dream. However, I suspect it’s less than satisfying for the sincere musician, girl or boy.

The upside is that Tonight You’re Mine does an impressive job of capturing the unbridled energy of a massive, live event. Set amongst one of the largest outdoor festivals in the world, the film literally has a roaster of 100,000 ready-made background players who seem to flow freely about and around the main cast, giving the film a truly authentic atmosphere teeming with sex, drugs (drinking any way), and rock n’ roll. Director David Mackenzie uses documentary-like footage of the actual festivities to good effect. There are shots of throngs and hordes of people listening to music and generally milling about interspersed amongst the montage sequences of the hero and heroine as they participate in the festival. And lead actors Treadaway and Tena do a good job portraying the successful pop/rock star and the up-and-coming grunge rocker. Their respective personas feel authentic in every detail including their highly charged stage performances. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where the positive aspects of the film end.

Sadly, there are several aspects to the film that just don’t work, and the most important one is the implausible set up of the two leads being handcuffed. It’s not a bad concept, say for a screwball comedy. However, the actual implementation here (meaning the way it was captured on film) is extremely awkward and heavy-handed. I just don’t believe that no one couldn’t, or wouldn’t have stopped this oddball stranger who very slowly and meaningfully links the squabbling duo together as he makes a speech about the true meaning of music bringing people together. Nor do I think it’s realistic that not one of the other five people standing by had the ability to stop the guy from speeding away (in the mud) on a golf cart. And then there’s the fact that out of all the equipment used to put up the stages and fences, etc. for the festival, there’s nothing that can break the small link of a handcuff. There’s a very feeble attempt made (not once, but twice) to obtain bolt cutters. Neither failure is satisfactory. It seems only logical that someone involved with the location would have bolt cutters. It’s a basic need when dealing with temporary fencing, let alone any road crew.

Then there’s the moment when Treadaway indicates to his band buddy that he doesn’t want to be released from bondage, but we don’t know why. There’s no indication either way that he’s falling for Tena or just a schmuck messing with her. And the moment she discovers the truth seems very rushed and thrown together, like suddenly the filmmaker needed a complication to force the film to a final climax. And Treadaway’s creative plea for forgiveness lacks emotion and sincerity because of the lackluster editing. Here, the actor is not allowed to achieve his moment of inspiration, but rather appears to be delivering what’s called for in the script. Some of this could be due to the improvisational nature of the film (many of the supposedly intimate moments suffered from this). Lacking strong direction the actors are left to fend for themselves when what’s really needed is some solid guidance from either a completed script or a director with a solid vision. Some close ups of Treadaway during his thinking process would have helped too.

Ultimately the audience is robbed of an exciting ending that should have been generated by an “aha” moment like there is in When Harry Met Sally. Instead, Tonight You’re Mine just rushes together what’s suppose to be a cool rock n’ roll fairy tale ending. One that the heroine from the beginning of the film wouldn’t have liked, but now embraces like some kind of wannabe, grunge Cinderella. It might have worked, and could have worked if only it had been handled more gracefully. Although, I don’t suppose the target audience will mind very much. There are just enough elements of the festival itself to satisfy their entertainment needs. What bothers me is that I feel the film had far greater potential for appealing to a much broader audience. And by just doing what appears to be a “good enough” job, the filmmaker committed a disservice to himself and the audience that could have been.

The Perfect Family Falls Far Short of Perfection

The Perfectly Family is based on a pretty simple premise. From the very beginning we learn that a devoutly Catholic woman is nominated for one of her church’s top awards. Promised the blessing of absolution if she wins, the dedicated churchgoer tries her best to present her family as “perfect” in the eyes of her peers, refusing to accept (let alone see) those closest to her for who they really are, lifestyles and all. This is hardly an earth-shattering situation. In fact it seems like a rather dated conflict in which to base a feature film. However, these situations do still exist, and just because it isn’t an original concept doesn’t mean it couldn’t still work given the right circumstances. Unfortunately, The Perfect Family has not been provided the right circumstances regardless of the impressive cast led by the incomparable Kathleen Turner.

The main fault lies with the film’s inexperienced first time director. I hate to do anything other than cheer for a new female voice in the male dominated world of moviemaking but The Perfect Family fails to live up to its potential, and to me that shortcoming is due to the director. With only a single short film under her belt Anne Renton certainly does an able job of helming a low budget independent. However, the charming young filmmaker falls far short of demonstrating the skills required to provide the right leadership necessary to make the most of a small budget. The compositions aren’t quite right, the editing is often a bit off, the performances feel more like rehearsals, and the whole rhythm of the film is terribly inconsistent. The result is an uneven film that feels like it should either have been left to the Lifetime Channel, or given a firmer hand to steer it down the road to indie fest success, rather than be released in major markets.

I suppose it wouldn’t matter so much if it weren’t for the considerable talent with which Renton had under her watch. Working against the script and some truly awkward moments in the production Turner (Romancing the Stone, Prizzi’s Honor) rises above the material as the matriarch, “Eileen”. Turner’s character has over the years turned a blind eye to her family rather than accept them for the imperfect people that they are. This is a role that could have easily been depicted as an over zealous bible thumper, but it’s Turner herself that makes any part of Eileen work. Her sheer presence lends a much-needed air of believability to a woman who knows who and what she is and likes it. You can feel her difficulty in understanding why anyone wouldn’t want to be the same way, including allowing the church to do one’s thinking, especially when it comes to complicated or uncomfortable issues.

With a stronger director The Perfect Family could have been a much more memorable film, but sadly it is the previously mentioned shortcomings that will inevitably cause it, and Turner’s performance to be seen by very few. Likewise, the rest of the performances by Emily Deschanel, Jason Ritter and Michael McGrady also suffer from the common mistakes made by an inexperienced filmmaker. They’re all good and very likable, but you just can’t help but feel as if you’re watching a rough cut rather than a polished film. No doubt, in time and with a few more films added to her resume, Renton will become a director worth watching. For now, however, I’d wait until her next film comes out before paying to see one.