Just outside Las Vegas sits a solitary phone booth, as isolated as the restaurant at the end of the universe. Despite its unlikely location, it's a magnet for lost souls; they appear at odd hours to pounce on the ringing receiver and chat with Greta (Shani Wallis), a mysterious, husky-voiced dispenser of advice and moral support. The stories of four loosely connected characters drawn to the booth form the framework of John Putch's Mojave Phone Booth, a rather classic low-budget, HD-shot indie that still manages to avoid cliché as it explores lives facing varying degrees of desperation.
"I'm bothered by all this tape," Beth (Annabeth Gish) tells Greta, referencing the boundless magnetic strips she's noticed littering the landscape. But the line also foreshadows Mojave Phone Booth's recurring theme of recorded troubles. When Beth's car is broken into several times in a single month, she huddles in the backseat with her camcorder, intent on capturing the thief in the act. When Mary (Tinarie van Wyk Loots) agrees to sleep with sleazy Barry (Steve Guttenberg) for cash, she's horrified to discover he plans to videotape their encounter. Michael (David DeLuise) preys on naive Glory (Joy Gohring) girlfriend of suspicious Alex (Christine Elise McCarthy) offering suspicious close-contact "treatments" and an audiotape he insists will help scrub away the aftereffects of her perceived alien encounter. Finally, sad-sack Richard (Robert Romanus) pines for estranged wife Sarah (Missi Pyle), going so far as to make a home-movie compilation of their few blissful moments.
Some of these folks find happy endings. Some don't. But all make their way through life with Greta's guidance though the film does conclude that face-to-face interaction, without the barriers of recording devices or telephone wires, is the key to relationship building. This view holds true in Cutting Edge, Bill McCullough's entertaining slice-of-life doc about a Harlem barbershop that serves as a symbolic and literal "nexus of all black male life" for its patrons.
Cutting Edge is an HBO-produced doc, so its title doesn't exactly extend to the filmmaking style, and it clearly riffs off the expected perception of such establishments as hubs of good-natured trash-talking, thanks in no small part to flicks like Barbershop. But the subjects including the co-owner, who rightfully refers to himself as a "barber-psychologist" are entertaining and unguarded, and the film successfully makes its point about the shop's cultural and community importance above and beyond hair care. Sure, coifs come up in the endless stream of conversation, but they're hardly the shop's sole raison d'être.
But nowhere is a sense of place more delineated than in Sean Meredith's paper-puppet take on you-know-which classic, Dante's Inferno, which features a Dante (voiced by Dermot Mulroney) who finally unseats Clerks' Dante as the biggest slacker named Dante in filmdom, and an underworld tour guide in the form of Aeneid scribe Virgil (James Cromwell). At first I was worried this film would consist of too much sleepy voice-over and distractingly crude animation, but I was so wrong; as Dante and Virgil descend through the circles of hell, Meredith throws in biting, up-to-the-minute jokes that are both timely (randy Catholic priests, pushy Fox news reporters, militant airport security guards) and just plain funny, as when mythical ferry captain Charon appears rocking a headset mic and a bullhorn in the name of Hades-bound crowd control. *
The ninth annual IndieFest takes place Feb. 820 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; Roxie Film Center, 3117 16th St., SF; Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., SF; and the California Theatre, 2113 Kittredge, Berk. Advance tickets (most shows $10) are available at www.sfindie.com.