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Saturday, 16 November 2013

Pizza Shop: The Movie (2013)

Director: George O'Barts
Stars: Robert P Bielfelt, Cian Patrick O'Dowd, Brett Buzek, Chelsea Claire Breibart, Kathy Blaze Jefferson, Bhavin Patel and Debbie Overbey
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
I despise insanely short reviews, because they usually mean that reviewers either can't be bothered or they're trying to hide that they never even watched a film. I call such things 'Shit Sandwich' reviews, after possibly the most famous example of the breed, a fictional one in This is Spinal Tap. The funny thing is that that review would almost be appropriate here, though 'Shit Pie' would be closer. It's a gift of a film to Shit Sandwich reviewers, as writer/director George O'Barts begins very deliberately with a scene that's guaranteed to empty seats. It's a test, a challenge and a burst of blistering honesty all in one swell foop and it'll separate the men from the boys. Many won't make it to the five minute mark and they'll pray that it doesn't traumatise them or haunt their dreams. Anyone who stays has passed the test and deserves all they'll get from then on; most of them will laugh at the delicious wrongness of it all. And any reviewers lost by that point will be driven to writing a Shit Sandwich review.

The most obvious would be, 'He went there,' because quite clearly, O'Barts did. A lot. 'Whatever the line,' one might say, 'Pizza Shop crosses it. Gleefully.' Another could be: 'Name a taboo. Pizza Shop breaks it.' Even more simply, I'd expect to see: 'Yes, they just did that.' One joy about this polarising picture is that even those who love it wouldn't find it difficult to say so in snappy soundbites. 'Pizza Shop goes where other movies fear to tread,' would be honest. 'The best Troma picture not made by Troma,' would be an easy comparison, as would 'Poultrygeist without the chicken' or 'Pizza Shop is a live action Viz cartoon.' Reviewers with turns of phrase might conjure up, 'Will piss off anyone older than you are,' or 'Guaranteed: Not FDA approved!' More clich├ęd souls would go with, 'Just when you thought it was safe to go for a pizza,' or, 'You'll never order pizza again,' or even, 'Be afraid. Be very afraid.' I really should google to see how many of these have been actually used already.

Now, anyone who's spent more than five minutes at Apocalypse Later knows that my reviews aren't Shit Sandwich reviews, as I'm more likely to list the ingredients for you, so after having written a full baker's dozen of them, I'll settle down and give you my take on this memorably haunting adventure into microbudget cinema. I first saw this at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival, then again as part of the monthly Arizona Filmmakers Showcase at FilmBar in Phoenix. Just two viewings was enough to allow it to find a spot in my brain and resurface at inappropriate moments. For instance, we ended up at Domino's after Steampunk Street VI because the all you can eat Chinese buffet was closed, and I couldn't help but sing 'Pizza Shop!' during each break in conversation like the frequent Batman style transitions here. Now I have to wonder if the folk working there had seen the movie, and if they did, what might have ended up on my Philly cheesesteak pizza. Hey, it tasted good to me.
Of course, I have to start with that opening scene, with the full knowledge that anyone who wouldn't make it five minutes through the film isn't going to make it past four paragraphs of my review either. Unsurprisingly given the title, we follow a man delivering a pizza. He seems rather happy, though he doesn't get a tip, and even the narrator chimes in to wonder why. He promptly rewinds the film so we can see what happened before the delivery and I'm sure your twisted minds have already figured out where we're going. Sure enough, Mr Jones is a notoriously cheap customer and Jason recognises that by working on a very special topping for him. In the bathroom. The camera doesn't just venture in to show us Jason squeezing hard, it ventures all the way in to show him fish the resulting turd out of the bowl, pop it into a blender with '#1 Customer' stuck on the front and hit the power. Even the narrator pukes up. I'm sorry,' he tells us, 'I can't do this. You'll have to go on without me.'

If you made it all the way to this paragraph, you're likely to get at least something out of this picture, possibly a lot. You won't be surprised to find that the technical quality isn't spectacular, though we're able to see and hear everything throughout. There's back and forth editing, odd focus problems and it often feels like it was shot in natural light. The leads are clearly not experienced, even those who have gone on to better work since, like Chelsea Claire. Their timing isn't always good; in some instances it isn't often good. Many of them grin a lot as they deliver their lines, which may be appropriate for Pete but generally isn't for anyone else. Perhaps this helps in an unlikely way, by constantly prompting us to wonder what they know that we don't. You also won't be shocked to discover that the pizza shop in Pizza Shop is called Pizza Shop and the key sets are as generic as that might suggest. You won't be blindsided by the juvenile humour that perpetuates the piece, because that never goes away.

The key to enjoying the film may be in trying to figure out where it's going to go next and how far it's going to go as it does. Certainly the script doesn't continue with the same level of cinematic ingenuity that the early rewind/narrator combo promises, but it never skimps on the taboos and there's a great deal of fun in watching people watching this film, so that you can see their reaction to the next 'OMG! WTF! No! She's not... he's not... OMG! WTF!' moment. Some watch Pizza Shop through their fingers as if they're afraid they won't be able to deal with what might happen next but their curiosity won't allow them to avoid trying. Most of the film is built like a pizza, layer upon layer, by adding new sketches. A lot of these scenes are long jokes where we realise the punchlines quickly but the script takes a while to catch up, though the relentlessness is part of the charm. O'Barts is a pixie who continually sets us up to imagine the worst, wonder if he'll find any restraint, then gleefully discover that he hasn't.
As sketch based as it is, a coherent bigger picture does gradually emerge and that's why Pete is the lead. Jason is one of the slackers at Pizza Shop, along with Vick and a pair of brothers, Fred and Todd, but Pete is the go getter who drives everyone else nuts. He isn't just infuriatingly cheerful, he's also naive enough to fall for obvious pranks (such as delivering a large stack of twelve inch Big Meat with Serious Sausage pizzas to a gay bar called the Cockpit) and he's clueless enough to take the Pizza Shop training video seriously. It's an outrageous affair that goes further with double entendres than even the Carry On folk ever did, as Pizza Shop founder Richard Head ('You can call me Dick') explains to new hires about the process of FISTING, which is fortunately an acronym. Jason cleverly gets rid of Derek, the new guy, because he's too much like Pete and, as Vick says, they 'can't take two Petes'. It doesn't take too long for him to focus on the original and there are no depths too deep to plumb.

I should praise Robert Bielfelt for making this story arc viable. Initially he makes Pete as annoying to us as he is to Jason and the Pizza Shop crew but, without changing who he is, he gradually becomes a sympathetic lead and, in joining his side, we realise that there is some substance here beneath all the icky toppings. The film does slow down during the second act, but it's Pete who brings us through it to see how he and everything else will change during the third. This is Bielfelt's only film, something not unusual with these leads; most of the cast haven't made another movie and most of those who have only played tiny roles in local films. Cian Patrick O'Dowd's only previous credit was as a party guest in Paranoia, Brett Buzek had a small role in Sacrifice, which I really need to get round to reviewing, and a couple of others. Bhavin Patel is up to six pictures, including a bit part in Queens of Country. The only actor to start here then get busy is Chelsea Claire, whose credits now span three different IMDb pages.

Any recognisable actors are down in the supporting roles, stealing little scenes with a vengeance. The boss is only visible in the training video, but Gary Herkimer has an absolute riot with it, clearly in full knowledge of how outrageous it is and having trouble not laughing his way through. One of his busty assistants is played by Honda King, whose performance in I Don't Even Know Your Name deservedly won her the Best Actress award for all last year's IFP film challenges. Debbie Overbey, mostly known for running the zonie.com resource site for the last fifteen years, clearly collects oddball acting roles as bag ladies, prostitutes, hippies and wild, creepy or vomiting women; I'd love to see her demo reel and her naked beer bottle trick here would be a great addition to it. Kathy Blaze Jefferson was in four features that screened at Jerome but none of those roles could have been as outrageous as the one she plays here as a nymphomaniac who drinks chocolate syrup neat.

Small but memorable performances aside, this isn't an actor's movie; neither is it a technician's film nor a scriptwriter's picture. It's a deliberate exercise in bad taste that succeeds as well in a game of taboo bingo as anything John Waters made with Divine. I can't remember seeing a film with a more brutally inappropriate prank and I've seen enough eighties movies to be an honorary member of a fraternity. I'm unable to think of another picture that includes serial killers, rape and adult diapers. I doubt O'Barts has met a bodily fluid that isn't tied in his mind to food production and, given that he worked in the industry for 22 years, I shouldn't ever eat out again. This is like a live action Viz comic strip done for gits and shiggles, what John Waters might have conjured up if Troma had hired him to direct a Carry On movie back in the late seventies. And if you're still reading, you have a good idea whether this is a film for you. It surely isn't for most people, but the few will wear out their DVDs.

Pizza Shop: The Movie can be bought from the Cole O'Barts website store.

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