‘Red Flag,’ ‘Rubberneck’: Two for two

February 18, 2013

It’s rare that a filmmaker has more than one film out in a single year, unless they’re either making both features and documentaries – or they’re Steven Soderbergh.

But Alex Karpovsky actually has two films out the same day: “Red Flag” and “Rubberneck.” They’re being released as a double-feature tomorrow (2/19/13) on Tribeca’s VOD outlet, as well as in a New York theater on Friday (2/22/13), which is a fine way to see them because they are so categorically different.

They also happen to be surprising and compelling, in very separate ways. “Rubberneck” is a quietly tense thriller about romantic obsession gone wrong. “Red Flag,” on the other hand, is a loosey-goosey romantic comedy, an improvised road movie that finds unexpected laughs in the ramblings of its shambling, self-involved hero.

Beside writing and directing both films, Karpovsky stars in both as well. In “Red Flag,” in fact, he plays a filmmaker named Alex Karpovsky, who breaks up with his girlfriend and moves his things to his brother’s house – just a couple days before he leaves on a tour showing a film of his at venues across the South.

The tour itself is pretty lo-fi, with Karpovsky selling DVDs at a card table after the screenings. He’s driving himself from town to town and staying im cheap motels – where they routinely deny his request for a slightly later check-out time. Ah, the glamour of show business.

At one of the early stops, he connects with a woman in the audience, who asks a question during the post-screening Q&A, then all but flings herself at him afterward. Her name is River (Jennifer Prediger) and Karpovsky immediately spots her as trouble – though not until after he’s had sex with her in a public park alongside a river. He goes so far as to drop her in front of her house, politely declining her invitation to come in and speeding away before she’s even up the front steps.

red flag

He gets a call from a pal from back home, taking him up on Karpovsky’s offer to join him on tour, as company. They meet in Memphis – only to discover that River has followed them to Memphis as well. Then his pal Henry (Onur Tukel) hooks up with River and invites her along for the rest of the tour.

There’s more as well, mostly having to do with Karpovsky’s continued efforts to win back his old girlfriend (who dumped him because, after almost five years together, he still wouldn’t commit). It all builds to climax on the campus of Louisiana State University, in a moment of comic chaos.

As loose and voluble as Karpovsky is in the mainly improvised “Red Flag,” he’s that buttoned up and repressed in “Rubberneck.” Here he plays Paul, a scientist working in a professional laboratory outside Boston. One weekend, he hooks up with one of the women in his office, Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman) – and then can’t quite process it when she subsequently stonewalls his efforts to turn that hook-up into an actual relationship.

But he has to keep working with her – and watch when a new hire, brought in to run a protocol for an experiment done in conjunction with one of Boston’s many universities, starts to flirt with her. But Paul’s not a guy to force himself on the woman.

Instead, he just keeps an eye on them, filling his time by hanging out with his divorced sister and her son. He confides in her a little – but mostly keeps to himself, suffering heart palpitations and sweats in moments of extreme stress.

With Hitchcockian self-assurance, Karpovsky deliberately lays out this plot, which is scripted in a great deal more detail. You know that Paul is headed for a breaking point; though he obviously loves his work, he goes so far as to seek work elsewhere, just to remove himself from the distress that being around this woman causes him.

Ultimately, however, he can’t help himself, as the film builds to a moment of sudden violence. His life quickly unravels, though Karpovsky is able to inject an element of surprise and uncertainty even into the film’s final moments.

Karpovsky is an engaging screen presence, whether he’s doing comic artistic neurosis in “Red Flag” or giving a mostly interior performance in “Rubberneck.” The two films show his range as an actor, and as a director; the contrast between the single-camera, no-lights fluidity of “Red Flag” and the more classical composition and construction of “Rubberneck” is stark – and yet each achieves what it sets out to. They are an impressive set of films, an explosion of work from an intriguing filmmaker.

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