Editor’s Note: This review originally ran during the 2012 LAFF, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release.
There are few things that navel-gazing filmmakers like gazing at more than, well, their own navels, which is why independent cinema is flooded with vaguely veiled stories that are obviously about their makers and little else. In Red Flag, writer/director/producer/star Alex Karpovsky embraces this mini-genre (to the point that his character is named “Alex Karpovsky” and he’s on the road showing his film Woodpecker, a film Karpovsky actually made and a trip he really did take) to characteristically witty and dry effect. But it’s Karpovsky’s willingness to make his own character not look like a sensitive genius (or “a charismatic mega-fauna” as a deranged fan calls him or even “an adroit filmmaker” as he eventually tries to tout himself as) that frees the film from ego and opens it up to actual humor and significant proficiency.
For the sake of clarity, this review will refer to the character of “Alex Karpovksy” as “Alex” and Alex Karpovksy the filmmaker as “Karpovsky,” because this could get a bit confusing (fortunately for Karpovsky, his final film is not).
Alex is clearly unhinged. When we first meet the character, he’s been tossed out of his home by his dismissive girlfriend, Rachel (Caroline White), after nearly five years and apparently innumerable disappointments. The break-up stings, but it gets worse, as Alex is about to set out on a screening tour to puff up a feature he made some time ago, a mockumentary about woodpeckers, called, of all things, Woodpecker (interestingly enough, Red Flag treats Woodpecker very much like a straightforward documentary, an amusing choice for those familiar with the actual work), and Rachel was going to go with him. Alex doesn’t like to be alone, which is why the break-up forces him to reach out to myriad friends and associates in the hope that one of them will join him. Eventually, his friend Henry (a hilarious, somewhat insane, and quite warm Onur Tukel) decides to come along for the ride, and that’s when Red Flag really unfurls.
Karpovsky takes his time with Red Flag, settling his audience into both Alex and his life of repetition on the road. There’s screenings (which all feel the same), post-screenings chats (which Alex closes with the same, seemingly off-the-cuff remark every night), hotels that refuse to let him check out late (a problem compounded by a back injury that won’t let him rest), tedious driving, and enough loneliness to make even someone mentally and emotionally healthy go a bit cuckoo. It’s a good thing when Henry comes aboard, because Alex is acting out in ways that, while understandable, only lead to more heartbreak (and to one heck of a clingy fan, played to the hilt by an unnervingly funny Jennifer Prediger).
When Red Flag really hits its stride, which happens somewhat late in its second act, it becomes the film it should be through and through — a funny, well-observed, keenly acted feature about drama, trauma, and second chances. It’s also bruisingly amusing, thanks to a host of solid performances, notably from Karpovsky and Prediger. There’s payoff in Karpovsky’s work, but impatient viewers will likely balk at some of the set up that needs to be waded through before the film really begins to tick along.
And, of course, there’s also the wonderful inherent irony of Red Flag being played at a festival that comes complete with a post-screening Q&A in which audience members will inevitably ask the same sort of questions that Alex deals with (and with impressive aplomb) during the actual film. There’s always going to be someone asking “what was the budget?” and it’s to Karpovsky’s credit that both he and Alex keep their composure every single time this happens. It’s a nifty twist, and one that keeps the audience in the film even after it’s ended.
The Upside: Amusing, skillful performances from the entire cast; a disarming lack of ego; both looks and sounds good.
The Downside: While Karpovsky builds in a number of elements, themes, and callbacks to his film that eventually pay off, Red Flag takes too long to get to many of them. Likewise, the best bits of the film take too long to get rolling. The film will likely lose some viewers in its first twenty to thirty minutes, but it’s worthy of a complete watch.
On the Side: Yup, Woodpecker is a real film, and you can get the DVD on Netflix right HERE.