366 UNDERGROUND: MANGOSHAKE (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Terry Chiu

FEATURING: Matias Rittatore, Jessica McKnight, Ian Sheldon, Philip Silverstein, many others

PLOT: A group of young people hang out in the suburbs running a stand that sells mango shakes, until a rival sets up a stand selling chow mein.

Still from Mangoshake (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s too far down the production ladder. If you make a movie for $0, it needs to be ceaselessly and relentlessly weird to make our List. That’s not to say you shouldn’t see Mangoshake if you get the chance, of course, but realize it’s aimed primarily at no-budget movie fans rather than weird movie fans.

COMMENTS: The most important exchange of dialogue comes at the end. Mangoshake entrepreneur Ian (occasionally pronounced “Juan”) confesses to Spaceboy (the nerd who obsessively documents this lazy summer in his diary, hoping to make sense of it all) that his entire enterprise has not been about building a sense of community, as he publicly claimed, but about getting laid. (How giving away free mango shakes was going to get him laid is one of the many absurdities Mangoshake lays out without explanation). “All of this was just to try to have sex?,” objects Spaceboy. “No, I won’t accept that, it was more than that.” Ian responds, “It’s not. It’s just straight up not.” He pauses. “Look, if it was more than that for you, no one can take that away from you.”

With dozens of thinly-sketched characters (actors clearly in their twenties but acting like teenagers), Mangoshake is a nearly plotless experiment evoking a certain summer slacker ennui through comic vignettes that err towards the goofy side of absurd. It’s sort of a sunny combination of Clerks and that sets out to subvert teen cliches. The comedy is uneven, often relying on gambits like characters suddenly wearing fake beards and reciting dialogue in funny accents, or pitching dumb movie ideas—“clowns crushed by gravity!”—resulting in mock hilarity. There is a whiny monologue from a discarded pizza crust and a pretty good musical number, though. The best bit, which involves a black market fruit dealer named Nancy, could stand alone as a Youtube short. It ends with a food fight where a couple of the actors sort of break character and crack up, but they just keep rolling.

Filming on unforgiving equipment one step above an iPhone, Chiu uses simple techniques—jump cuts, subtitles, upside-down shots, and a crashing-skateboard cam—in an attempt to create visual interest in the bland suburban setting. As is often the case with low budget productions, sound can be an issue, making it hard to make out some dialogue. As a joke, one shy character is always subtitled, but the whole film might benefit from close-captioning. Adding to the proudly amateur aesthetic, the actors have such blank deliveries that you sometimes wonder if Chiu is trying to translate into mumblecore. There are a few moments of genuine melancholy sincerity as the characters awkwardly attempt, and generally fail, to connect with each other on a deeper level than just “hanging out.”

Mangoshake is the DIY coming-of-age-film for people who hate coming-of-age films, a mission it announces up front. Mainly, it seems to be cynical about the possibility of romance. People don’t hook up, or they don’t hook up meaningfully, or they don’t hook up with the person they want to hook up with. The nerd doesn’t get the hot girl, but neither does the douchebag; the hot girl doesn’t get the nice guy, or the cool guy either. The lesbians do seem to do OK. The best thing about Mangoshake may be that it might convince you that you can make your own movie, which would be in line with the director’s intent. From his “mission statement”: “The philosophy is taking nobody-filmmaking to a raw place that can challenge the inclusivity of the cinematic language, and to communicate a story that have-nots could’ve made and could connect with. Regardless of if one thinks this works or not, what could matter more is if it gets across what it could represent. If it could be an honest expression of nobodies putting together a feature-length movie that holds resonance.” Call it a nonifesto for “nobody-filmmaking.”

Mangoshake plays tomorrow at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn; its fate thereafter is unknown.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surrealist comedy of late-summer ennui… This breed of absurdism, however, will only appeal to an audience who will truly appreciate the pleasure of surrendering yourself to the most primitive and instinctual of delights…”–Gary Shannon, The Young Folks (festival screening)

366 UNDERGROUND: SPIDER MITES OF JESUS, THE DIRTWOMAN DOCUMENTARY (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Jerry Williams

FEATURING: Donnie “Dirtwoman” Corker

PLOT: Contemporaries reminisce about the life and times of Donnie Corker, a Richmond, Virginia institution and cult figure in the LGBT community.

Still from Spider Mites of Jesus: the Dirtwoman Documentary (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Donnie Corker lived his life like a John Waters movie, Spider Mites of Jesus is your standard “talking heads” documentary.

COMMENTS: I feel like I need to have my brain hosed down. Having been accused of having an almost Victorian prudishness, perhaps I should have exercised some caution before volunteering to cover this new film, Spider Mites of Jesus: the Dirtwoman Documentary. The title stems from the subject’s mother misspeaking Donnie’s childhood diagnosis of “spinal meningitis”, and whether from this disease or other inner compunctions, Donnie Corker led a life that left a big-honkin’ (300+ pound) mark on his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. I had never heard of “Dirtwoman” until now, but judging from Williams’ film, Donnie was a well-known (and well-loved) fixture of the LGBT community in central Virginia.

Born on some mean streets in 1951, Donnie spent much of his life being big. He was a big guy with a big mouth and a big penchant for being a loud and proud cross-dresser. Facing countless problems throughout young adulthood—picked on for being mentally disabled, picked on for being gay, and even being raped at the age of 13 by a group of men—Donnie’s story is a hybrid of uplifting defiance and deeply unsettling tragedy. In his heyday, he’d proudly walk the streets looking to turn tricks, protect his neighbors by defusing tense criminal encounters, and was even relied on by the local cops as a street smart guy who kept his ear to the ground.

Spider Mites of Jesus covers all of this and a bit more through the typical “person in front of camera” method coupled with interview footage of the drag queen himself (or, “herself”; the pronoun shuffles back and forth throughout depending upon who’s talking). To flesh out “Why It Won’t Make the List”, it wasn’t all fun and games. Donnie got his moniker from an encounter with the cops when he defecated in the back seat of their car, ostensibly throwing the result at one of them (though anecdotal evidence about that last bit seems contradictory). His performances as a dancer and what-have-you could be stomach-turning for many normals. It was this notoriety that led to him to be featured in a GWAR music video, having (perhaps) been sexually involved with Dave Brockie (group founder and Richmond native). Donnie’s life ended slowly, unpleasantly, and tragically, and this documentary doesn’t shy away from the clinical ickiness involved.

But it’s all done with earnestness and love. Not everyone interviewed is terribly interesting, and some of their little stories go nowhere, but it’s cute to watch them all nonetheless. My life hasn’t changed, and I’m not too troubled I never managed to meet this far-out individual, but Spider Mites of Jesus is a pleasant reminder that it takes all sorts to make a world, and without the outcasts and weirdos, proceedings on this plane would be a damn sight more tedious. R.I.P., Donnie.

Spider Mites of Jesus: The Dirtwoman Documentary home page

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a solid documentary about an outstanding eccentric…”–Carl F. Gauze, Ink 19 (festival screening)

366 UNDERGROUND: SHE FOUND NOW (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Zachary O. Burch

FEATURING: Francesca Caterina Ghi, Nidalas Madden, Peyton Rowe, Tyair Blackman

PLOT: With a storm approaching, a group of housemates try to resolve their personal relationships, while a mysterious entity lurks in the shadows.

Still from "She Found Now" (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: She Found Now is a curious little film, featuring interesting screen images and loaded with portentous symbolism and mannered acting. But the dream state dramatized is not new enough to be surprising, and the weirder elements feel less motivated by the plot than positioned to obscure it.

COMMENTS: The pretty girl looks up from her pasta, searches for the right moment, and then makes her play to break the ice with her paramour: “So, I heard around that there’s supposed to be a hurricane coming by. Would you feel comfortable at my place?” Such is the nature of things in the universe of She Found Now—disaster lurks around the corner, but people show only the most casual awareness of it.

This scene, which kicks things off, is not like any other in the film, and yet it’s strangely representative of the movie as a whole. Most of the action, such as it is, takes place within a single apartment, but the characters are mentally elsewhere most of the time, either in a dream locale (like the restaurant, rendered in amusingly obvious green screen), a landscape of their own fears, or in the mind of someone outside. Our characters are trapped, but longing for an elsewhere they can only imagine.

The filmmakers clearly appreciate surreal humor. A scene in front of a static-filled television almost has a vibe to it, as more people keep arriving to gape at the screen. Similarly amusing is a game of Trivial Pursuit where the trivia is people’s lives: “How do you feel?” “Are you satisfied with yourself?” Director Burch and co-screenwriter K. L. Scott also have a knack for striking imagery: a monochromatic encounter with a mystery doppelganger is effectively creepy, while a shadow puppet that lingers and transforms is genuinely unsettling.

Given their limitations, the makers of She Found Now do a lot with a little. They clearly learned the trick of leaning into their challenges. For example, one can easily surmise that actors were not available to re-record dialogue. Instead, they cast new voices that are blatantly out-of-step with the visuals. It adds another layer of dissonance to a storyline that is built on mystery.

My biggest problem, though, concerns that mystery. All the surrealism, all the deliberate oddness and opaqueness… it doesn’t add up to very much. In the final act of the film, when all of our main characters are being stalked by a malevolent force, the antagonist is rendered as a guy with bear paws whose face is blocked out by a big dot. Should we know who this is? Is the absence of a face a metaphorical comment on our fears? Or is it just a lo-fi solution to an inability to properly represent the horror being invoked?

I was plagued by questions like this throughout She Found Now. Even the title flummoxed me. Is that a comment on the lead’s predicament, or her conclusion? Which now is “Now”? And should I draw any inference from the fact that the title is not only drawn from a song by cult shoegazer band My Bloody Valentine, but that the album in question marked that band’s emergence from a 14-year hiatus? She Found Now feels like a word problem that is impossible to solve because there just aren’t enough clues to piece the answer together, and yet the film is nothing without its mysteries.

There’s the hint of something powerful in She Found Now. I suspect the filmmakers were hoping to invoke something ian, a visual metaphor for potent psychological roadblocks. But the reference point I kept coming back to was “No Exit,” the legendary play by Jean-Paul Sartre in which three people trapped in a room for an eternity come to learn that “hell is other people.” These flatmates do not hate each other, but they are trapped in each others’ self-destructive orbits. But so much is invested in deliberately obscuring those real emotions in surreal decoration that the movie never gets to be what it really is.

366 UNDERGROUND: THE GOD INSIDE MY EAR (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Joe Badon

FEATURING: Linnea Gregg, Dorian Rush, Collin Galyean, Alex Stage

PLOT: Eliza, an average Jane in a contemporary US city, has lost her boyfriend to a mystic cult; she gets pulled into the cult too, experiencing how much it sucks to be without a man in the 2010s, as a big Roman-candle middle finger to Alison Bechdel.

Still fromThe God Inside My Ear (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a banal, vanilla, ordinary, trite lover’s lament about a woman getting dumped by her boyfriend, with a stale can of film-festival cliche symbolisms spray-painted over its face. The weirdest part of this movie is the realization that apparently 366 Weird Movies is now so popular that impostors are wearing a disguise and flashing our gang signs in the hopes of infiltrating our cool kids’ club. If that makes you feel dirty just for liking weird movies, just watch some good Buñuel or Gilliam and the hangover will vanish in minutes.

COMMENTS: We’ll save some time here if you want to take shortcuts: The God Inside My Ear starts out faintly clever and then loses one IQ point per minute of runtime until its brain-dead ending. The cold open skips the credits to flash a series of images, eyeballs and teeth, pyramids and dolphins, little girl in an orchard and mysterious red-robed figure in fog. Nice try, but I take notes, and these better all tie together later! The image of the tattoo of an ear on the palm of a hand at least gets explained first, as in the first scene Eliza’s boyfriend dumps her at a cafe because he’s found this cult that’s showing him enlightenment, see, and he gets messages through the ear-palm job. Goodbye plot, it was nice knowing you! In case you missed it, the entire point to this movie is: “boy dumps girl; girl sad.” Thank you, folks, goodnight.

Now we have 95 minutes for the autopsy of Eliza’s achy-breaky heart. Her coworker unsympathetically tries to hit her up for a rebound date, while her barfly friends tell her she’s better off without the loser, and her nosy neighbor pries into her business. Eliza recounts a long parable about the magician who yanks the tablecloth off the table to illustrate how she feels shattered like a wine bottle. Valentine’s Day gets brought up a lot, as her friends push her back into the dating pool. Cue the montage of quirky failed date candidates, babbling dialog that sounds like they’ve watched too many Richard Linklater films. Her only friend seems to be a sympathetic telemarketer, whose mysterious voiceover gives the the wisest counsel, but the script even drops that bit to opt for the telemarketer to become just one more male creep in Eliza’s life. Alas, he will be back as a creepy stalker, because this cruel world is out to get Mary Sue—oops, I mean “Eliza”—which is why it stole her boyfriend.

Are you ready to tell Eliza to just buy a vibrator already? By this time, anybody watching cannot possibly give a damn whether Eliza ever finds love again, because she has been given no character development, no backstory, and no B-line subplots for the movie to hang onto. We also saw nothing of her much-lamented lost relationship; the all-important sperm donor gets one goofy scene at the very Continue reading

366 UNDERGROUND: TURN IN YOUR GRAVE (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Rob Ager

FEATURING: Marc Bolton, Jennifer Moylan-Taylor, Debra Redcliffe, Christopher Honey, Richie Nolan, Christopher Pavlou, Bonnie Adair

PLOT: Seven characters wake up with no memory inside a warehouse; they’re besieged by a menagerie of monsters and teased with abstract clues as they search for an exit.

Still from Turn in Your Grave (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We’re jaded weirdsville patrons around here. The creators of Turn In Your Grave have certainly made a passing acquaintance with our wild jungle, but they obviously haven’t seen Maximum Shame yet. But it’s still just weird enough to warrant keeping an eye on Rob Ager, in case he comes up with a more distilled brew later.

COMMENTS: Shot in black-and-white or muted color, we open to bewildered people waking up in a warehouse, silhouetted by puzzle pieces and with industrial tones on the soundtrack. If you’re looking to grab the attention of a weird movie site, you’re off to a good start! The group of seven take in their surroundings, with boxes, mirrors, nonsensical paintings and flags of several countries. All of the characters question what this place is and how they got there. Sounds like we have another ontological mystery on our hands. Sure enough, they all start talking and asking each other what’s going on.

The space they’re in seems set up to mess with their minds—paintings flip over, doors appear, and several of them have conflicting views of their environment. This of course leads the paranoid dude in the camo jacket (seven and a half minutes in, what took him so long?) to accuse the group of harboring a planted agent and to start threatening violence against them if they don’t fess up. And did we mention some of the boxes they rummage through contain weapons? No sooner is the fight getting started than loud noises from outside cause them to scramble for arms to meet this new threat. Through the dark doorway, otherwordly zombie-like beings immediately emerge and begin to attack, but their bodies phase out like static while our cast struggles with them. The first monsters are easily defeated, promptly dematerializing after they fall.

We’re just getting started. The warehouse eventually turns out to be more than just this one big room, and the place is crawling with monsters, ranging from guys in childish papier-mâché head masks to full-on gory ghouls. And so we go on, puzzles and unexplained events piling up while the cast banters in “Waiting for Godot” terms, wondering why somebody is doing this and is it some kind of joke or test, that sort of thing. The events follow a poetic logic, such as when stricken monsters vanish into flutters of paper scraps, while other scraps of paper turn up stuck to boxes and shirts with teasing clues typed on them. Illusions and delusions abound, but one thing is certain, the monsters are getting feistier and harder to fight off with every wave.

Bring on the cast questioning their fragmenting sanity, or running in terror through hallways with nightmarish aberrations in pursuit. Think of Cube (1997), Circle (2015), and Exam (2009) for touchstones the same genre. With a story like this, you can settle down to being pitched an onslaught of riddles mounting into a confusing haze, and it isn’t going to matter whether at the end we get a satisfying explanation or are left in limbo. What’s going to matter to the weird movie viewer is how the journey goes. Things do get pretty creepy within this framework, mixing some outright horror with its surreal mystery, suggesting alternate dimensions, or that perhaps they’re all imprisoned in a psychotic’s dream. For the record, the ending, a blessed relief from the claustrophobic former acts, is certainly an original twist on the run-of-the-mill ontological mystery.

Bear in mind that this is a micro-budget production, but you can see where they made every penny count. The acting is solid and capable, the film work is expert level, and the props and effects squeeze in as much imagination as they can. It has a style of its own, especially as the paintings are one-of-a-kind and suitably loopy, to suggest a well-oiled imagination somewhere around the corner. Later monster attacks double down on elaborate costumes and imagination levels, with rows of wood screws doubling for teeth or DVDs lodged on the face for eyes. There’s some good jump scares and spooky sound effects to keep things skewed, and at least the monster attacks and action stop it from becoming a talky bore. Hey, the ending even invites fanciful interpretations! This is exactly the kind of first project a larval-stage or would make while still in school, so we can’t say there’s no potential here. Of course, this is also the kind of production you’d make if you were a stoner college student who’s a big fan of Cube and Exam and didn’t have any better ideas, so we also can’t give it an unqualified rave.

Bottom line: not too shabby a starting act! As a freshman midterm, it gets an A. But it’s far too early in his career to tell whether Rob Ager is destined to shake up the world.

Turn in Your Grave is available exclusively from the official website.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“When there is a concept in a filmmaker’s head that he/she is trying to communicate to an audience, that’s great… but somehow that concept needs to make it out of that filmmaker’s head and into the heads of the audience eventually. If that never does happen then what you get is a film that only makes sense to the filmmaker, while leaving the audience dazed and confused.”–Don Sumner, HorrorFreak News