Madstone Films, the A (development) to Z (exhibition) company that fashioned an innovative way to motivate cutting-edge filmmakers and get their work on screens economically via digital shortcuts, deserves hats-off for executing a truly alternative approach. Rhinoceros Eyes, the company's and writer-director Aaron Woodley's first feature out the door, is certainly original. But what about those fundamentals of engagement that keep filmgoers in their seats?
Unhelpfully, film hero Chep (Michael Pitt of Bertolucci's The Dreamers) is an inscrutable cipher, a creepy cinephile who lives and works in a cramped, dark prop house owned by greaser boss Bundy (Matt Servitto). Other prop house denizens are Bundy pals Hamish (Jim Allodi), his apparent right hand, and the eye-patched Sweets (Victor Ertmanis), a rotund, largely mute lowlife whose main purpose at the prop place is to take up space.
A prisoner of his fantasies, Chep often imagines some of the prop house junk coming alive, often in the form of creations that serve as his alter (and actually more interesting) ego. In these sequences, Woodley delivers some fairly engaging stop-motion animation.
Chep also spends time at a nearby movie theatre as its only customer. Munching popcorn, he loses himself in genre-driven scenes (adventure, romance, horror) that are accompanied by the engulfing flourishes of appropriate soundtrack music.
If Chep is hardly a guy's guy, he's still a guy and it's the mysterious and beautiful art director Fran (Paige Turco) who awakens his hormones. She materializes at the prop house on several nights to make odd requests of Chep. She wants things like real rhinoceros eyes and a 1930s-style prosthetic arm (made in Ireland, no less). She needs these things fast.
Chep is smitten, so--at great cost--he slavishly obliges. He's remarkably resourceful, which also gets him into trouble, to the extent that detective Phil Barbara (Gale Harold of "Queer as Folk") is put on the case. The gumshoe eventually emerges a song-and-dance man, recreating a choreographed set-piece that evokes Fred Astaire. Rhinoceros Eyes also offers hospital and creaky-old-house scenes that add no value to the story.
What Chep's fantasy and reality escapades do add up to are movie clichs piled upon movie clichs. Obviously a film buff, Woodley has been fortuitously dipped into the business: His uncle is director David Cronenberg, his costume designer mother provided services here, as did his brother, who contributed the music.