When it’s Comic-Con time — more specifically, the San Diego one — we get a whole slew of press-related events and opportunities, both inside and outside the convention center. Because it’s technically a “comics” convention, a good amount of these ops are to cover artists and new book releases that really have little to do with TV or movies. Sadly, with so much relevant stuff to cover at SDCC, we can’t help but file all the little stuff off to a folder for “just in case.”
One obscure invitation that came to my inbox and luckily not filed away was for a movie screening several blocks away from the convention center, and in what appeared to be an apartment building. This was for as-of-yet little-seen, independent film starting — most notably — Amber Benson, whom some of you may remember as Tara in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series. Having Benson’s name up front and center did what they hoped it would, as I made a point to drag my arse out to this screening to see what it was all about. Plus it promised free booze.
Indeed the screening was at an apartment complex, in a small, private 20-something-seat mini theater, complete with huge beanbag chairs you could collapse into while watching the large projection screen. Among the maybe 25 of us watching the screening was creator/director Ward Roberts, actor Travis Betz and his wife, and Amber Benson. We were told we were the first to screen the movie outside the cast and very few others, so our feedback afterwards was highly encouraged.
For me, it was a somewhat surreal experience. Yeah, this wasn’t watching a screening of Dark Knight Rises with Chris Nolan sitting in the room, but it was the first and probably only time I’d have the opportunity to screen a movie so early and with the director and actors present. I admit I was afraid I’d feel pressured to put a positive spin on this movie because of the environment I was in. I don’t think that’ll be the case.
The premise for Dust Up is somewhat straightforward — it’s the ride that’s definitely not. Jack (Aaron Gaffey) is a ex-military man living in the deserts of Southern California, living in a mobile home and pretty much minding his own business … that is, when he’s not dodging arrows shot by his one friend, Mo (Devin Barry). Enter Ella (Amber Benson), who — while trying to essentially be a single mother to her incredibly cute baby girl (Lucy, played by the director’s own daughter) — is running into a bit of trouble at her own place in the desert. And since Jack just so happens to be the closest handyman in the area, he’s off to the rescue. From there things get a bit crazy for Jack, and a day that started out with some meditation (and near-miss arrows) in the California sun turns out to be one hell of a nutty few days. Jack may be a typical handyman, but he decides to jump in and fix a whole lot more for Ella than she — or anyone else for that matter — ever expected.
It’s difficult to get into too much detail without further confusing the hell out of you, because, on the surface, describing the entire film’s plot isn’t really what the movie’s about. The shining stars here are the cinematography, the direction and the characters. The style of Dust Up is what some in the room — including myself — described as an almost spaghetti western mixed in with a grindhouse flick. The film being set in Joshua Tree heightens that feeling of grungy, grindhouse-y flicks, along with a soundtrack that fits the tone perfectly. There’s a definite sense of “this feels like a Tarantino flick.” There are some flashback scenes with Jack in the Middle East that stand out, which are once again held up well by Aaron Gaffey.
Though headliner Amber Benson was flawless as usual in her role, she’s a bit outshone by her costars, though that’s more because of what little was given to her to work with rather than what she did with it. Aaron Gaffey and Devin Barry are likely names you’ve never heard before, but their acting and their characters in Dust Up are some of the best things coming out of it. If Gaffey doesn’t have anything significant lined up in the near future, it’d be a crying shame. Devin Barry is one of those characters you take away from a grindhouse flick and never forget. Who can forget a lanky Native American guy who, today, dresses in an over-the-top native wardrobe and long sports socks, and has absurd accuracy with projectile and throwable weaponry, including arrows, darts and tomahawks? And by accurate I mean being able to get a dart under a man’s fingernail. As I told Ward Roberts and Amber Benson, Devin Barry’s Mo is one of those perfectly-fit characters for the SDCC crowd — put him up on stage after a screening of that to a big room, and he’d get the biggest applause (well, besides Ms. Benson of course — this is Comic-Con).
Oh, did I mention the movie’s incredibly violent? Yes, that’s where the “grindhouse” thing comes in. There’s no holding back on the absurd violence, and I mean “absurd” most positively. There are a couple of scenes in particular that are very much cringe-worthy, so much so that it’s very likely the movie will retain an NR rating. There is one scene that’ll definitely come across as uncomfortable for many folks, and yet another that’s not really “violent” per se, but is definitely something suited for NR movies. Oh, and for the record, Amber Benson herself mentioned that she insisted one particular scene stay in the film. Unfortunately I can’t tell you what it is without ruining the shock value, but you’ll know it when you see it; it’s “money.”
Now let’s get down to where Dust Up misses. While I like a grindhouse-style over-the-top gore flick like the next person, it seemed at least the one major gross-out scene in the bunch didn’t quite fit. It helped that the characters in the movie were even put off initially by what was going on, but it still felt a bit out of place and ruined the pace. The evilness of the protagonist (Jeremiah Birkett‘s Buzz) could have been easily left with something less over-the-top to clearly let us know he’s crazy, he’s bad, and Jack and company need to take him down. The film starts out a bit slow, too, though that’s not to say the scenes we’re given aren’t good ones; they’re just not meaty in the sense of what you’d expect from this kind of movie.
All in all, I came out of the screening surprised. For a film that had essentially zero budget and cast with friends and family of director Ward Roberts, it’s definitely quality. We were told that the film recently obtained a distribution deal for sometime this fall, though the ink was too wet to tell us who that deal was with. My feeling is it’s unlikely you’ll catch this at many theaters across the country, though stranger things have happened. Dust Up is one of those films you’ll want to rent with friends anyway; it lends better to home viewing.
Thanks to Ward, Amber and the rest of those present at the screening for bringing us in for a unique experience. I wish you all the luck in the world to make Dust Up blow up … in a good way, of course.