Tag Archives: Independent film

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BAD BATCH (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, ,

PLOT: Exiled as an undesirable, a woman finds herself escorted to the wrong side of the border fence where she is abducted by a society of iron-pumping people-eaters; escaping after some heavy bodily losses, she finds the closest thing to a utopian village this side of the scorched wasteland.

Still from The Bad Batch (2016)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In the follow-up to her debut hit, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, director Ana Amirpour imbues the harsh, sun-drenched world of The Bad Batch with the same dreamy otherness found in her nocturnal black and white feature. An oddly appropriate New Wave soundtrack underscores the joie de vivre that the exiles somehow maintain, while things get good and weird with a ’70s drug-dealer-style Keanu Reeves as the king of Comfort and Jim Carrey’s non-speaking, desert-wandering vagrant oddball. Also in the mix: cannibalism, Keanu-speechifying, and an LSD Eucharist.

COMMENTS: Upon its release, most reviewers dismissed The Bad Batch as a bad movie. 43% “Fresh” at Rotten Tomatoes, an IMDB featured user review railing on about its overall crumminess, and the movie was some several million shy of recouping its six-million-dollar budget. Washed upon our shores because of a quick release on Netflix and DVD, it would seem a hopeless case. It is not. The Bad Batch is one of the more novel films to have come out in a while. Bringing together elements of dystopian allegory and post-apocalyptic survivor story (sans actual apocalypse), it takes the difficult path of providing no backstory. Only as the movie unfolds does the bizarre reality start making (some) sense—albeit with heavy doses of strange circumstance and stranger characters.

We get our only glimpse of “civilized” society during the opening credits. Young Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is tattooed behind the ear with “BB5040” and then shunted through a massive border fence with a sign outside that advises, “Beyond this fence is no longer the territory of Texas […] Good luck.” Almost immediately, she’s nabbed by a pair of muscle-bound bandits on a speeding golf cart and finds herself a prisoner in the shanty-est of shanty-towns. Relieved of both her right arm and leg to feed the locals, she hatches a clever escape: downing a bandit with an iron rod, she slides out of town on a skateboard. Picked up by a vagrant with a shopping cart, she’s dropped off in “Comfort,” where she finds… comfort, but no purpose. She only evolves after taking acid at a town rave hosted by Comfort’s ruler, a man credited as “The Dream,” played with jaundiced silkiness by Keanu Reeves.

The blazing sun of the south-of-Texas desert blinds by day, and the clear skies at night heighten Arlen’s spirit journey as she stumbles into the desert looking for purpose. The engine of the story is, in a way, revenge. She encounters one of her captors (and the captor’s daughter) sifting through a landfill, and the subsequent act of murder ironically forces Arlen to take responsibility for the daughter’s life. The cannibal society lives to pump iron, while Comfort’s society lives for pleasure and self-realization. Even in the wasteland, there is a stark divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Things come to a head when “Miami Man” (Jason Momoa), tattoo and sketch artist, body-builder, butcher, and father, begins his hunt for his missing daughter. Drizzled throughout this sun-and-star-soaked drama are bizarre, eyebrow raising details: a “Jizzy-Fizzy” soda machine, pregnant machine-gun-toting  bodyguards, the solemn trade of a snow-globe, and the Dream’s illuminating question to the daughter: “Is this your rabbit?”

In its bizarre way, The Bad Batch is a remix of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Both films take place in ghost towns populated by unsavory, larger-than-life characters. Both focus on the awakening of a young woman’s sense of self. Both use a skateboard as a metaphor for freedom. The Bad Batch‘s tone is hard to pin down; El Topo springs to mind, but with a esque bent. Perhaps that’s why The Bad Batch did little more than confuse and disappoint the general public. Pity for them; but its eccentricities and meaty characters leave us with something fresh and delicious to chew on.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a trippy, sun-scorched apocalyptic horror film with a rom-com finish that gets as bloody, visceral and cannibalistic as its U.S. R rating will allow. “–Julia Cooper, Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COLOSSAL (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis

PLOT: An alcoholic woman discovers that she unwittingly controls a giant monster who is attacking Seoul.

Still from Colossal (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The premise is strange, but the execution is not as bizarre as it might have been, tending more to light psychological drama.

COMMENTS: The two opening scenes of Colossal are well-matched. In the first, a Korean girl loses her doll in a park, only to find a giant gray monster looming over the skyscrapers of distant Seoul. 25 years later, a tipsy Gloria (Hathaway) meets her own personal disaster among the skyscrapers of New York City when her boyfriend kicks her out of their apartment and onto the streets after she shows up drunk again.

Two women, facing two monsters, which, the movie suggests, may really be the same thing: the Seoul-stomper is somehow connected to Gloria’s screwed-up life. After her world falls apart and she moves back to her quiet hometown, things go to hell as she takes a job in a bar run by old friend and would-be lover Oscar (Sudeikis). That Korean monster, spotted one night 25 years ago, starts appearing again in Seoul almost nightly, although it usually does little more than scratch its head and stumble around aimlessly. These appearances, which naturally go viral on CNN and social media, all seem to happen while Gloria is blacked out. Meanwhile, Gloria ups her drinking and finds herself a boy toy, a handsome younger man without much backbone. That development doesn’t please Oscar, who’s given her a job, TV, and a new suite of furniture in hopes of finally winning his childhood sweetheart.

After this setup, we expect the movie dive into a wacky kaiju/romantic comedy mashup, but things get darker, as the metaphor extends from the monster merely representing Gloria’s alcoholism to embrace co-dependency and abuse—it a conflation of all of her bad choices, along with some misfortunes that befall her through no fault of her own. The script lets the symbolism get away from it a little bit, and neither the mechanism through which the monster manifests itself, nor its origin story, nor its final disposition, quite live up to the cleverness of the original conceit. The movie has serious (if not colossal) tone problems: too many innocent Koreans are killed for it to be an effective comedy, but the premise is too ridiculous to generate the tension needed for action/horror thrills. Colossal does find a way forward, by staying so committed to its allegory that you keep watching just to figure out how it will all be resolved. Sudeikis provides another reason to tune in, as he turns out to be a powder keg with a secret of his own. Colossal had the potential to level much more real estate than it did—lover’s spats and millennial introspections outnumber kaiju battles by at least two-to-one—but you should still find a lot to enjoy lying about in the rubble.

Spain’s Nacho Vigalondo first burst onto the indie scene with the tightly-wound time travel bibelot Timecrimes. Since then, he’s been continuing to make smart movies with sci-fi/fantasy/horror themes, and someday may produce an oddity ready-make for the List of the Weirdest Films Ever Made. This isn’t it, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a unique and bizarre and surprising and original piece of filmmaking… From its weird little prologue to a nearly perfect ending, ‘Colossal’ is a trip in multiple meanings of that word.”–Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: 11:14 (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Greg Marcks

FEATURING: , Hilary Swank, , Ben Foster, Colin Hanks, Henry Thomas

PLOT: A ragtag assortment of small-town misfits shuffle through an eventful night: we follow the small cast through their stories, which all intertwine at the fateful minute of 11:14PM. Someone will die, someone will get arrested, someone will get in a fight, several people will have vehicular damage, and absolutely everybody will panic.

Promotional image from 11:14 (2003)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a great, dark comedy thriller that quaffs a heroic shot of with a chaser of ’ comedy. But it’s not even remotely weird. As a Public Service Announcement, PLEASE stop cramming the reader suggestion box with every random movie you can name just because you like it. This is the WEIRD (Adj.: “very strange, bizarre”) movie site.

COMMENTS: The movie opens with bouncy alternative rock and an animation of the credits driving around on a grid of streets. Yes, you guessed correctly, this is an Indie Flick. Eighty-six minutes later, it proves to be one of those gems that are the whole reason you hang out at film festivals. 11:14 is so clever, it’s almost a fault, like the one kid too smart for his own good that can’t resist showing off, so much that the rest of the class strains for a chance to knock him down a notch. The story intertwines five mini-stories in a small town in Anywhere, America, all of which intersect at 11:14 P.M. on what would have been an uneventful night if everybody had stayed home. It also does that Tarantino thing where it shows the events out of order so we can see how all the parts of the evening fit together. Ready? No you’re not.

In this busy town full of busy people, we meet #1: Jack (Henry Thomas) is a drunk driver who sails under an overpass and gets into an accident; #2: Tim (Stark Sands), Mark (Colin Hanks) and Eddie (Ben Foster), teenage waste-aways who are driving around bored when Eddie injures himself during a completely different accident; #3: Frank (Patrick Swayze), walking his dog and finding car keys belonging to his daughter, Cheri (Rachael Leigh Cook), implicating her in a crime he wants to clear her for; #4: Duffy (Shawn Hatosy) who thinks he has gotten Sheri pregnant and needs money for an abortion, so he goes to his friend Buzzy (Hilary Swank), who works at a convenience store, for help; and #5: Cheri, who is in the cemetery having sex with her boyfriend Aaron when yet another freak accident happens. “Middleton: A happy place to live!” Most of all, this is a movie about people under pressure making hasty decisions.

As you can see, this movie is set up to make life hell for movie re-cappers. How does all this come off? Everybody has a Wile E. Coyote scheme that backfires, and furthermore random events by coincidence steer all of their fates no matter how they try to wriggle out of them. Nobody in this movie is particularly stupid, it’s just that they’re C-average ordinary people who find themselves at crisis points. The dialog is funny, the characters are well-cast, the soundtrack rocks, the plot construction is dizzying, and of course the movie has to keep starting over again to show time from different characters’ points of view as all their drama intersects in an untidy heap at the fateful minute. It’s dark, funny, thrilling, and tickling. It demands multiple viewings so you can retrace the plot intersections and try to spot the exact minute writer-director Greg Marcks is stuffing all the rabbits and doves into his hat. The show-off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Marcks does a number of things quite well. He establishes a difficult tone — part dramatic, part comic, part absurdist — and he maintains it throughout.”–Mick La Salle, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This  movie was nominated for review by “Nick,” who described it as “definitely untypical.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

CAPSULE: ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (2005)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: John Hawkes, Miranda July, Miles Thompson, Brandon Ratcliff

PLOT: A cross-section of humanity, led by a shoe salesman and an aspiring performance artist, struggles to make connections in a world dominated by digital barriers to humanity.

Still from Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Much of the weirdness here comes from the unusual situations that seemingly ordinary people find (or put) themselves in. Ultimately, the outrageousness of some of July’s premises are unexpected and threaten propriety, but they’re not really weird in and of themselves.

COMMENTS: Richard and Christine walk down a street; at the end, they will part company to go separate ways to their cars. But they can see the end coming, and the walk becomes much more. One of them views the stroll as a surrogate first date; the other sees it as an entire relationship encapsulated in these few fleeting minutes. The stakes are high, but leavened with artifice. It’s a meet-cute and a relationship-cute all in one.

July is an artist, so there are plenty of moments like this in her debut feature. In fact, Me and You and Everyone We Know (and that’s the last time I’ll type out the whole title) is a movie of moments, and each of those moments is carefully observed. A magic trick with a flaming hand, the pending demise of a goldfish, an explanation for an inspirational t-shirt… these bits and more are treated with great importance and gravity. Your answer to the question of whether films need to spend more time exploring the inner lives of the characters will ultimately determine whether you view this as unusually fulfilling or as tedious and self-indulgent.

In the spirit of filmmakers like or , everyone is connected in Everyone We Know, but no one can connect. In particular, the lead roles stand as stark opposites in their relation to the world around them. Hawkes’ Richard clearly wants connection, but has been so unsuccessful in making it happen that he’s essentially written it off. July’s Christine, meanwhile, is determined to reach out to others, and is willing to bypass conventional norms to make it happen. She creates artwork that places herself in front of invented throngs of attentive viewers or among people she barely knows; she ferries the elderly around town in a personal driving service, and facilitates a romance for one of her patrons; she even accosts Richard’s ex in a department store and persuades her to buy a picture frame. She’s essentially made the Manic Pixie Dream Girl into the star of the movie, instead than a construct to facilitate a hero’s awakening. We see her desperation as pure, but it’s also not surprising that she comes across as inappropriate, even oppressive, in her determination to break through to others.

Interestingly, while the central romance is viewed purely through emotional need, most of the people in their orbit see love exclusively through the prism of sex, and that’s where the film plays with surprising and incendiary material. A man sidesteps laws about pedophilia by posting his dirty thoughts on signs he hangs in his window. Two teenage girls attempt to prove their maturity by performing oral sex on a neighborhood boy they don’t even much like. In the most shocking interlude, that same boy’s much younger brother unwittingly engages in a corprophilic chatroom session and then arranges an assignation with his online partner. At every step, the same question arises: “Are they really going to go there?” July absolutely is going to go there, because she wants to show how inarguably deluded these people are, mistaking kink for being grown-up, crudeness for connection.

It’s tempting to say Me and You features adults acting like children and children acting like adults, but that undersells the dangerous behavior everyone finds themselves engaging in. These are all children, some chronologically, all emotionally. July sees a way for all them to grow up, but it’s something they’re going to have to do together. As the film closes, some of them are going to try, and from July’s perspective, that’s cause for hope.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In an age of formula films, writer/director/actor Miranda July has discovered the priceless value of people – ordinary people who behave in a magnificently bizarre fashion. Yet every single one of them in Me and You and Everyone We Know seems highly credible, more real than imagined. A clever screenwriter and inspired director, July takes us places no other filmmaker has ever visited.” – Bruce Feld, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead”. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: A GHOST STORY (2017)

DIRECTED BY: David Lowery

FEATURING: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

PLOT: A young musician dies and comes back as a ghost, moving back to his  house and silently observing his wife’s grief.

Still from A Ghost Story (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A melancholy meditation on man’s ephermerality, A Ghost Story‘s weirdness goes beyond its guy-in-a-sheet gimmick, but not far enough beyond to reach the realms of one of the all-time weirdest.

COMMENTS: Though modest in countenance, A Ghost Story is filled with formal audacity underneath its blank exterior. It’s got an Academy-Award winning actor who’s silent and hidden under a sheet for 90% of his performance; a constricted 4:3 aspect ratio with rounded corners, to evoke the feeling of a picture frame; and shots that go on for so long that would be tapping his finger on his armrest impatiently. (Not really, but you get the idea). And yet, what easily might have become a purgatorial ordeal emerges as a moving and thought-provoking experiment.

The plot is so simple it’s almost a wisp. The unnamed main character dies, wakes up in the morgue in a sheet, returns to the house where he and his wife lived, and watches her as she silently grieves (and grief-eats a pie). This sounds dull, and if the movie stayed in this rut, it would be. But, although Affleck doesn’t speak and barely moves, doing little more than turning his head or shrugging his shoulders, A Ghost Story finds ways to create narrative dynamism. There is a flashback or two, and a seemingly minor incident from the pre-mortem opening is fleshed out over the length of the movie. Affleck’s ghost engages in a bit of minor poltergeistism when distressed. In one of the film’s most poignant bits, which would almost be considered a running gag if it weren’t so sad, Affleck’s ghost spies another bedsheeted figure in the house next door, and they communicate in the terse language of the dead (translated to us in subtitles). The ghost experiences time differently than we do, and we gradually become accustomed to the rhythm of his eternal observation as time moves on without him. A new tenant in his house (musician ) gives a speech about the vanity of human existence. And the ghost persists, chained to the plot of land where his house stands and inevitably once stood, waiting for a release from his sentence. The movie plays with the idea of eternity in a philosophical sense that may be new to audiences, but which makes it ripe for post-viewing discussion.

A Ghost Story is definitely not a horror movie (unless you consider it an extremely subtle existential horror). It definitely is a philosophical/poetic drama about the psychology of grief and the nature of time, and it carries an implicit message about appreciating the now. It is, dare I say, haunting—at least, if you’re the type of attuned spiritualist who can see the ghosts around us.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Interrupted by death, a couple’s love finds a weird way forward in this slice of supernatural risk-taking… Lowery is spending the capital he’s earned on big gigs like Pete’s Dragon to make something bizarre and experimental, and as his film starts flitting through the weeks in unannounced leaps, you’ll come to appreciate his gamble.”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: LOWLIFE (2017)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Ryan Prows

FEATURING: Nicki Micheaux, Mark Burnham, Ricardo Adam Zarate, Santana Dempsey, Shaye Ogbonna, Jon Oswald

PLOT: Unhinged restaurant owner Teddy Haynes runs a people-processing facility below his fish taco building, harvesting organs of undocumented immigrants and pimping out underage women. His enforcer, the luchador El Monstruo, is worried about the well-being of his pregnant wife Kaylee, while Kaylee’s biological mother suspects Teddy’s offer of a kidney for her ailing husband is too good to be true. Joining the madness is ex-con Randy, and soon this gang of oppressed underlings join forces to take Teddy to task.

Lowlife (2017) PosterWHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As you can read above, the plot is a mouthful—and that’s only covering its barest bones, so as to maintain coherency. Pitch-perfect editing leaves the viewer with countless narrative teases and denials. While we’re left wondering what’s going on plot-wise, Ryan Prows bombards us with Jacobean violence interspersed with hilarious dialogue and sight gags. Topping it all off, when El Monstruo’s rage becomes untenable, the sound crashes, and someone’s probably dead.

COMMENTS: Few of the movies at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival were primed with so much hype from the festival organizers. Out of the blue, they received Lowlife through their general Inbox, unsolicited and unexpected. From nothing, Ryan Prows’ debut feature became the must-see event of Fantasia. A heavy burden, for sure—with three weeks of movies to compete against, including the new space epic, Marc Meyers’ much lauded Dahmer biopic, and (to a lesser extent), the latest Jojo movie with its ravenous fans—but Lowlife comes up trumps.  Nothing is wasted in this movie; and more importantly, it would be a welcome addition to the 366 canon.

The story is told through the perspectives of each main character: the simple but passionate luchador el Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate); a bad-guy straight out of Dante’s “Vice City Infernus,” Teddy (Mark Burnham);  a hard-working, junk-hoarding motel owner, Crystal (Nicki Michaux); and a pair of friends—African American accountant Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) and his long-time pal, now with Swastika tattoo, Randy (Jon Oswald). Each of their Venn-diagram stories interact on the others’ heels, slowly moving into place, synchronizing as all the characters come together for the final action. This neat narrative stunt was pulled off by deft editing, and, to paraphrase the director, “[writing the $#!&] out of that story.”

During the disorienting narrative flow are the touches that further make Lowlife the visceral-but-surreal experience it is. When Crystal’s husband finds out the source of the kidneys he’ll be receiving, a combination of a flippant note, a heart-felt phone message, and visual exclamation point bring violence, tragedy, and humor into one tight scene, pulling the viewer’s emotions in all three directions. Then there’s the scene where Teddy, squaring off against some troublesome yahoos, seems licked when his six-shooter runs out of bullets. Heading back to his Italian-opera blaring sports car, he pops his pregnant hostage in the trunk, grabbing in her place the AR-15 that happens to be lying around in the back seat. And that’s not even mentioning the tragicomedy of el Monstruo and the comic tragedy of Hip-Hop Wigger Randy: two men marked for life from the neck up.

Lowlife plays like elements of movies many of us have seen before, but is a force unto itself. Imagine Inherent Vice on cocaine instead of marijuana; or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels as Grand Guignol; or maybe the best comparison I can think of, Pulp Fiction with cajones. Like a spastic playing with a rubber-band, Lowlife plays with the viewer, pulling first toward shock with heartless violence, then laughter with gut-busting non sequitur (yup), then sadness with beastly tragedy. This gang of monsters, fiends, thugs, and criminals have a wacky adventure in a land of poverty, cruelty, and hilarity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The legacy of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ looms the largest over ‘Lowlife,’ with its flair for unexpected, quick violence, and interweaving vignettes. But there is also a touch of David Lynch in the film’s unflinching exposure of America’s seedy underbelly.”–Jamie Righetti, Indiewire (Fantasia screening)

293. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971)

“From the very beginning, back in 1957, people were always commenting on my films being a little weird in subject matter, and the angles I used, and the superimpositions and things like that.  Me, I figured that it came from the fact that I was self-taught and missed the technological colonization of the white aesthetic. Anyhow, back then everybody just thought I was crazy.”–Melvin Van Peebles, “The Real Deal: What It Was... Is”

DIRECTED BY: Melvin Van Peebles

FEATURING: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, John Gallaghan

PLOT: An African American boy grows to manhood in a brothel, where he is nicknamed “Sweetback” for his sexual prowess and taught to perform in live sex shows when he reaches adulthood. One night two detectives perform a fake arrest on Sweetback as part of a political scheme; but when they beat a black activist while Sweetback watches, he beats the two policemen into a coma in a fit a righteous rage. The bulk of the film follows the fugitive as he makes his way toward the Mexican border on foot, staying one step ahead of the cops as his legend grows within the black community.

Stillfrom Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Melvin Van Peebles’ personal history is colorful, to say the least. He began his career making short films, and one feature, in France. On the strength of these Columbia Pictures invited him to direct a feature film. His first Hollywood feature, the racial satire Watermelon Man, was a small hit. Columbia offered him a three picture deal, but he chose to make Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song instead.
  • Van Peebles says that he played the role himself because he couldn’t find an established black actor willing to take it due to the fact that they pay was so low and Sweetback only has six lines of dialogue in the film.
  • Van Peebles says he actually had sex with the actresses while shooting film’s sex scenes, and contracted gonorrhea from one. He says he applied to the director’s guild for compensation and that they were so surprised by the claim that they paid him. He then used the money to buy more film.
  • The soundtrack was written by Van Peebles and performed by a pre-fame Earth, Wind and Fire, the same year their debut album. The check bounced.
  • Van Peebles ran out of money while filming Sweetback and begged investors to help him finish the movie. Finally, Bill Cosby loaned him $50,000, interest-free, to finish the movie. The film went on to gross $4.1 million at the box office and eventually earning more than $10 million. Van Peebles was able to keep all the profits himself.
  • Sweetback was rated X by the MPAA and prints were often screened with up to 9 minutes of sex removed, inspiring Van Peebles to promote the movie with the sensational (but technically accurate) tagline, “Rated X by an all-white jury!”
  • The remarkable story behind the making of Sweetback is told in the fictionalized 2003 film Baadasssss!, written, directed by and starring Van Peebles’ son Mario. Mario had also played Sweetback as a boy in Baadassss Song, where he was pressured into performing a sex scene with an adult actress.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sweetback running. Runner-up: Sweetback sprinting. We also considered Sweetback loping, Sweetback jogging, and Sweetback trotting.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sex will make you a man; the Good Dyke Fairy Godmother; lizard lunch

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD Take a radical experimental filmmaker with narcissistic tendencies, give him $150,000 dollars (in 1971 money) and an amateur cast and crew, give him carte blanche to make a Black Power film with lots of sex scenes, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the result. You’d think it was a deconstructionist version of a blaxploitation film, except that it was made before the blaxploitation formula existed.

Clips from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song

COMMENTS: In 1971 the Civil Rights movement was almost two Continue reading 293. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971)

LIST CANDIDATE: SEQUENCE BREAK (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Graham Skipper

FEATURING: , , John Dinan,  Lyle Kanouse

PLOT: A young electrical technician unwisely installs a mysterious circuit board arrives that arrives at an arcade game refurbisher’s office and finds himself getting increasingly absorbed by the machine and its game—literally.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Here’s a list of nouns: nipple console buttons, white goo circuitry, and coital gaming seizures.

COMMENTS: From the first man to star as Herbert West in Re-Animator: the Musical comes a science fiction debut catering directly to the Cronen-bourgeoisie. A millennial update to the classic Videodrome (and even to eXistenZ), Graham Skipper’s Sequence Break is a creepy love letter to the 80s tech-gore genre. There are tips-of-the-hat to those who have come before—Skipper’s most obvious inspiration is David Cronenberg (explicitly stating as much in his introduction to the movie’s world premiere)—but there are elements of Steven Lisberger’s Tron, and even John Hughes-style romance between the teenage-acting, 20-something boy and girl nerd leads.

Osgoode (Chase Williamson) works at “Jerry’s Arcade Spot,” using his technical prowess and tunnel vision to bring old upright consoles back to life. Tess (Fabianne Therese), an out-of-work geek girl, enters his life just as Jerry (Lyle Kanouse) tells him that he’s going to have to close the place. A mysterious zealot (John Dinan) delivers a circuit board on a night Jerry is supposed to be out of town. After an unfortunate murder the parcel is forgotten until Osgoode makes the mistake of installing it in an empty frame. Playing the game, reminiscent of the arcade classic “Tempest” by way of a Tibetan mandala, Osgoode finds himself increasingly absorbed—first metaphorically, then in dreams, and then physically—and his grip on life outside his machines loosens considerably. Does he have the focus to regain control? More importantly, is there the possibility of a second play-through?

Beyond its arcade premise, Sequence Break is a throw-back in many ways. Most of the special effects are of the practical sort, an art that—thank goodness—keeps coming back to life despite the assault of ever-advancing CGI nonsense. The sexual goo and manipulation of the “haunted” arcade console feels real as we see the controls squishify in Osgoode’s able hands. Simple editing and camera techniques create an increasingly jarring perspective: flash-cuts, image-distortion, twin-screen action, and most hauntingly, facial disintegration. Like Osgoode, we become unsure of what’s real, what’s a dream, and what’s in the machine.

The organic-mechanical world of classic Cronenberg is a frightening thing, and Graham Skipper pulls off the tricks nicely. Combined with the sickly-sexual imagery is a story of a young and talented fellow who only seems to have discovered human love well after adolescence. In a way, Sequence Break is a “love-conquers-all” kind of romance, where the male protagonist has to find the desire and focus to choose the real world over a sticky facsimile. As a directorial debut, Graham Skipper’s effort is an impressively unsettling but ultimately uplifting piece of low budget sci-fi cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The grand finale, in particular, goes into deliriously weird territory, in the best possible way.”–Mike McGranaghan, Aisle Seat (Fantasia)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE HONOR FARM (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Karen Skloss

FEATURING: Olivia Grace Applegate, Louis Hunter, Katie Folger, , Mackenzie Astin

PLOT: After a disappointing senior prom, Lucy and Annie ditch their dates and join up with a clutch of hearse-driving students who are heading to the haunted prison, the Honor Farm, to take psychedelic mushrooms; Lucy slips in and out of reality as events take alternatingly sinister and joyful turns.

Still from The Honor Farm (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTThe Honor Farm is an unlikely fusion of “teen-coming-of-age” drama and “teens-in-danger” horror. Combined with the rampant symbolism (a prom, a stag, and a donut), things might just be weird enough for us.

COMMENTS: Shroom-chomping teenagers, a dreamy hearse ride, an abandoned prison, and a looming stag adorn the universe of The Honor Farm. This fun mix of ingredients from filmmaker Karen Skloss jumbles together with gusto, emerging as a horror-tinged and symbolism-soaked high school drama. The New Age blood-dream opening sets the ambiguous tone of calm and dissonance that continues throughout the feature.

Waking from a dream at the dentist’s office—a girl does have to have her teeth as white as possible for prom, you know—Lucy (Olivia Applegate) seems all set for the first big night of her adult life. After her beau nearly vomits on her in the back of their rented limo, Lucy and her friend Annie (Katie Folger) run off to a nearby gas station and encounter a group of senior girls in an old red hearse. One City of Women-style ride later, the gaggle of teen ladies arrive at the outskirts of the “Honor Farm”, an old prison with a bad history of brutality. Lucy meets dreamy (and interesting) high school boy J.D. (Louis Hunter), who doles out the mushrooms. After a bout of faux-intellectual philosophizing, teen-style, ambiguous events begin in earnest. Cue the horror music.

Narrative tricks and references abound. When one young woman attempts to channel to a dead boy, J.D. leads Lucy through a tunnel opening in parallel. As we see the tunnel exit collapsed, the ritual, too, is interrupted. We award points both for the arrival of a dentist with laughing gas as well as a vision of a sacrifice victim posing the riddle, “What has no end, beginning, or middle?” Answer? A donut, obviously. And oh yes, Skloss also tucks in faerie ring imagery (mushrooms, again), the goddess Diana-as-Stag spirit guide, and a flaming playing card with a purpose. (This last example could almost be a meta-reference to “The Simpsons” “Twin Peaks” parody: “this suit burns better.”)

Though I may be rambling here, Skloss never does. Those who’ve read my reviews know that I’m a big fan of efficient films. At 77 minutes, The Honor Farm certainly isn’t over-long, but neither does it skimp on narrative and character development. Lucy is at a new place in her life, wanting to “feel something real.” Ironically, it takes unreal experiences to satisfy this craving. The Honor Farm has just the right levels of teen-comedy, scares, myth, and ambiguity to sit well with itself. Kudos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While there are definitely some interesting aspects to The Honor Farm, it often succumbs to a lack of focus, ultimately feeling like a mishmash of five different movies with none of the elements coming together in a truly complimentary way by the end of the film. Skloss offers up a hypnotic coming-of-age tale with shades of horror—there’s some supernatural stuff thrown in, as well as a weird cultish subplot… I just wanted more for Lucy on her journey of self-discovery than what we ultimately get here. The film does offer up some stunning cinematography, particularly during The Honor Farm’s more surreal moments during Lucy’s fantasy…”–Heather Wixson, Daily Dead (SWSX screening)

366 UNDERGROUND: SUGGESTIVE GESTURES (2013)

DIRECTED BY: David Finkelstein

FEATURING: David Finkelstein, Cassie Tunick

PLOT: A montage of concrete and abstract symbols, a dialogue of nonsense sounds and philosophizing, and an ever-present labyrinth: there is no story, per se, but a series of audio-visual landscape vignettes, as a combination of words and images collide.

Still from Suggestive Gestures (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTSuggestive Gestures clearly falls into the category of “weird”—which is to its credit. A lot of times one can be on the fence and hem and haw about weirdness. It isn’t really a movie, however, as much as a video art installation piece.

COMMENTS: Considering the nature of Suggestive Gestures, I strongly suspect that the filmmaker would be pleased to hear that I had a dream about it last night. In that dream, I fully understood the depth of its symbolism and the pertinence of every bit of wordplay. In fact, I even wrote a witty and lucid review. Alas, I woke up, and it was just a dream — here below this line I see blank chunks of “Comments” still to type. However, I am undeterred: David Finkelstein’s “movie” was a pleasure to watch, and I’ve been obliged to write about “movies” that were far otherwise.

My original write-up for the “Plot” section was the words, “not applicable,”, and I wonder if I should have stuck with that. The opening of the film was subtle enough that I thought perhaps I was watching a little production company animation before getting to the opening credits. I was mistaken. What was being shown was the canvas, as it were, on which all the subsequent events were to be painted: a stylized maze with what looked like an aloe plant at the center. Once the spinning pink glasses showed up, I realized taking plot notes was going to be a fool’s errand. At that point I just sat back and let the sights and sounds wash over me like a refreshing wave.

Combining (purposefully) low-level computer graphics with two talking heads, it suggested to me, oddly enough, what Begotten might look like as an elaborate HyperStudio project done by . The male character (David Finkelstein) comes across as a neurotic Super Ego, counter-balancing the various ravings and rants of the female (Cassie Tunick), an Id-like being. Glued at various times to a symbol-strewn backdrop (birds flying through the ground, water flowing in the sky, jagged rocks labeled “sharp” dropping on and slicing other images), they partake in a sort of meta-discourse that, as the artists’ description relates, relies as much on the words’ sounds as the words themselves. This went on (somehow enjoyably) for approximately 75 minutes before melting into the opening maze image.

I apologize if I’ve expressed myself poorly, but I’ve never reviewed such a thing as Suggestive Gestures before. To anyone with the vaguest interest in the description I’ve provided, I recommend you give it a go—as something new and intriguing, it hits the mark nicely. I mean the following in no way as dismissive, but I think its best placement might be on a loop in your hotel room. Puttering around, getting ready to go out, you can absorb the images, fuse them with the words, and find yourself contemplating the various sounds and branches of a word like “glorious” as you go through your busy day.

Suggestive Gestures: Trailer from David Finkelstein on Vimeo.