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Sunday, 21 October 2012

Dust Up (2012)

Director: Ward Roberts
Stars: Amber Benson, Jeremiah W Birkett, Aaron Gaffey, Devin Barry, Travis Betz and Ezra Buzzington

I find myself in the rather unique situation where I know Amber Benson as a director rather than as an actor. I never got far enough in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to see her most famous role as Willow's girlfriend, Tara, though I can still be jealous, of course, and the only acting I've seen her do was in The Crush when she was merely sixteen. Yet I got a kick out of Drones, a quirky indie sci-fi flick she co-directed in 2010 with fellow Buffy star, Adam Busch. Now I get to catch up with the rest of the world and see her as she's known best, as an actor, albeit in what purports to be a grindhouse western written and directed by another actor finding his way to the other side of the camera. Benson is excellent: innocent and everyday but also magnetic and desirable, which is a pretty good combination if you can find it. She's not in this film enough but she's great to watch whenever she is, even when she's not chained up in her underwear.

While she gets top billing as Ella, she's not really the lead character; she's more the damsel in distress. Before we meet her, we meet the hero, Jack, and his sidekick, Mo. Those names sound deceptively normal, given that Jack is a one eyed ex-marine turned High Desert Handyman who wants to rebalance his karma and Mo is a rather Jewish red indian in traditional dress (except for sneakers and tube socks). Both of them have escaped modernity by returning to the land, Jack living in a mobile home and Mo in a teepee with a solar panel outside. They find our story when Ella calls Jack to fix her plumbing and he takes it upon himself to help with her bigger problems, namely her husband, Herman. While Ella is a cute and likeable young mum, Herman is a jackass speedfreak and meth addict, offering handjobs to all and sundry to pay his substance abuse debt which is being called in by the villain of the piece, That's Buzz.

Buzz is played by Jeremiah Birkett, who manages to steal a great deal of this film, even though it's peppered throughout with memorable and quirky characters. He's hardly stable to begin with but he continually ratchets up the lunacy to true grindhouse levels and he's magnetic to watch. He's been around for a long time, it seems, with many TV roles going back to 1990 and films a year further. Perhaps best known for lead roles on TV in AJ's Time Travelers and Police Academy: The Series, I last saw him in an offbeat horror comedy, Mutant Vampire Zombies from the Hood! in 2008, but I don't remember him at all. I'm certainly not going to forget him after his showing here though, as he plays Buzz like a freaky combination of revivalist preacher, game show host and fringe cult leader, which ensures that every scene is all about him, even when it isn't. It's a whirlwind of a role, gloriously out of control, and Buzz becomes the backdrop for everyone else.

Most of these characters are archetypes, easily defined and understood. They're colourful and quirky and they're tied together by outlandish humour, but they're not deep and they don't try to expand beyond the boundaries set them. Jack and Mo are peaceful warriors, just waiting for the right battle to join. Ella is a damsel in distress who doesn't want to be a damsel in distress, while her husband is a big child whose one talent is to keep her in distress. 'Baby, it's the crank,' he tells her. 'You know it turns me into a maker of bad decisions.' We never discover why she made her one bad decision, namely to hook up with him. Sheriff Haggler is a textbook corrupt cop. Keith is a delightfully obliging stooge, all the more funny for being one dimensional. Perhaps the best example is Buzz's enforcer, Mr Lizard, the most outré character on show with his lime green skull tattoos and pointed teeth. He acts tough and looks weird but he's given zero background.
Breaking Glass Pictures are advertising this as a 'grindhouse western', which to me conjures up memories of Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead. While Hurricane Buzz is surely sourced from seventies excess, he's filtered through a very contemporary sense of humour and apocalyptic outlook. Everything else feels like an eighties cult comedy, one that was ahead of its time and people didn't know what to do with. It would sit well as a double bill with Six-String Samurai, not only because of its wild and quirky outdoors setting, but because of the spiritual moments and the strong but unusual use of musical accompaniment. Dust Up features the psychedelic rock of Spindrift rather than the Russian rockabilly of the Red Elvises, but both soundtracks are high in the mix and harness the power of nostalgia. The track backing Adam K Tiller's memorable title sequence sounds like nothing less than a psychedelic surf take on the Rawhide theme.

Technically, it looks fine but betrays its lack of budget, given that we can easily tell that much of it was shot against a greenscreen. The camerawork and effects are variable, some of each being great but some of each being a lot less great too. The colours are garish, which may or may not have been deliberate, but the look worked well to underpin the comic book characterisation. The fight scenes mirror the movie as a whole in that they're strongest in details but more lacking in their sweep. Mo does get to show off the best use of darts ever in a movie, but it's hard to keep track of the fights generally. The tone of the script is inconsistent too, with writer/director Ward Roberts setting up moments of subtlety only to swamp them with overkill. One scene compares Jack with Buzz, both ex-marines with bad field experiences but who took completely different paths in life, but the next goes hog wild with fringe social commentary to justify cannibalism.

At the end of the day, it's the people who shine brightest, mostly on screen. Amber Benson is delightful as Ella and I hope she continues to work with Drexel Box Productions on whatever's next on their agenda. The regulars are all solid. Aaron Gaffey, Devin Barry and Travis Betz do exactly what's required of them, whether that's subtlety, action or grossout. Much of the joy is rooted in their dry delivery of wild dialogue in wild situations, none of these characters doing much on their own but all coming to life in pairings and groups, regardless of the combination. Mike C Nelson and John Karyus get great moments, as do some of the extras, but Al Burke could have done a lot more if his lizard job had been more authentic. Real lizardmen look a lot scarier than this, even though Burke was the tough guy on set responsible for stuntwork and weaponry. Jeremiah Burkett flamboyantly steals the show though and I'm eager to see what else he's done.

After a limited theatrical run, Dust Up will be released on DVD by Breaking Glass Pictures on 13th November.

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