Tag Archives: Independent film

LIST CANDIDATE: RONDO (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Drew Barnhardt

FEATURING: Luke Sorge, Brenna Otts, Reggie De Morton,Gena Shaw, Steve Van Beckum

PLOT: Paul has been dishonorably discharged from the military and relies on his sister’s hospitality for a couch to crash on; when she recommends a therapist to help him with PTSD and alcohol addiction, he encounters a sordid world where revenge and unhealthy fantasy experiences can be bought for the right price.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTRondo un-apologetically wrings the viewer through a stylized world of manneristic camera, Edward Hopper-esque lighting, gratuitous violence, and a purposely intrusive soundtrack. It plays like a bare bones revenge murder fest spiked with dubstep Greenaway.

COMMENTS: Even before its international premiere, Rondo was creating mumblings among reviewers who had seen it in the screening room. At the debut, the normally raucous Friday night crowd was uncharacteristically quiet in the theater. Then Rondo unleashed its singular form of magic. Having decided on a whim to catch this, I was very impressed at not only its vitality, violence, and humor, but also its incredible audacity. The director, Drew Barnhardt, started this project with the intention of making, without compromise, the movie he wanted to make. He succeeded spectacularly.

Rondo begins as the story of Paul (Luke Sorge), a young man dishonorably discharged from the army and shattered by PTSD. His daily life consists of drinking whiskey and lying on his sister’s couch. Troubled by her brother’s depression, his sister Jill (Brenna Otts) recommends a therapist who herself recommends that Paul should explore Denver’s fetish scene. Provided with an address and a password, Paul visits an opulent apartment building in which he encounters two others who have been solicited for having intercourse with a doped-up businessman’s wife . But don’t worry, the role-playing and strange demands are all “part of the fun”, insists Lurdell (Reggie De Morton), in a speech teaming with ominous guide-lines (“keep it on the plastic.”) Paul has a cigarette out on the balcony while waiting his turn, looking inside at where the action is taking place. His bad habit ends up saving his life.

Rondo relies heavily on two nondiegetic sound techniques to keep the viewer detached from the goings-on. The first is an advertently intrusive hardcore electro-trance soundtrack that acts as a dissonant counterpoint to much of the on-screen action. Brooding scenes are imbued with a strange, unsettling energy with each musical cue; I could easily imagine Rondo slipping into melodrama otherwise. Narration also spikes the proceedings. With an officiousness of tone to compete with Colin Cantlie in The Falls, Steve Van Beckum simultaneously clarifies and undercuts the narrative flow, adding another barrier between the audience and the action. Whenever his radio-style voice courses from the speakers, it purposely reminds us that Rondo is a movie, while at the same time anchoring us to the movie’s world.

And that’s just the sound. Stylistically, much of Rondo works like Peter Greenaway at his most ZOO-ily formalistic. Scenes are designed more like paintings than real life. That’s not to say that the action is missing, but more that Barnhardt knows what he wants us to look at, and goes to great lengths to make us do so. I mentioned Hopper earlier, and the candy-noir of his paintings springs up again and again. Then there’s the story itself. Narrative twists are a convention for many of the movies we review; Rondo‘s take is more of a narrative convulsion. Ultimately, the finale is the one that we necessarily had to reach, but the path there is like having our arm twisted behind our back (but, paradoxically, pleasantly so). In Rondo, baroque verbiage and baroque violence come together in a celebration of blood-sodden deadpan.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“How much can one ninety-minute film reasonably do within its timeframe? Can a film successfully go from awkward laughs to gore, from femmes fatales to OTT-ultraviolence, and from slacker humour to shock? Rondo (2018) believes it’s not only possible, it’s all part and parcel of its overall appeal.”–Keri O’Shea, Warped-Perspective.com

LIST CANDIDATE: RELAXER (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , David Dastmalchian, Andre Hyland, Arin Bechdel,

PLOT: Abbie is a perennial failure at life, but he makes one final attempt to turn things around by accepting his brother’s challenge to beat the unbeatable Pac-Man score, all while never moving from his seat on the couch.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Starting with a “gallon challenge” and ending not-quite-apocalyptically, the ordeals of a seated young man unspool without him ever leaving the couch, nor us ever leaving the room. All the thirst, sweat, and odors pile on as our entrapment goes on. And on. And on. Until something cosmically mystical occurs.

COMMENTS: It seems almost a rule that the most mild-mannered directors are the ones that come up with the most eccentric movies. has his very British affability; has been a Midwestern swell-guy since childhood; and now there’s rising star Joel Potrykus with his laid-back hipster self, who is somehow responsible for the giddily grinding post-slacker comedy, Relaxer. “Gross-out comedy,” now that’s a genre I’m familiar with. But a “charming gross-out transcendental comedy”? I can only presume that Relaxer is the first of that ground-breaking genre.

Oh my dear Abbie (Joshua Burge). We only ever see him covered with sweat (and more) cowering on a couch. From the start, he’s enduring a sickening challenge, one of many put to him by his brother, that soon becomes literally sickening. The boy fails to keep the gallon of milk he’s consumed inside after a… well, best not say what he added to the mix in a bit of bathroom desperation. His brother Cam (a wonderfully nasty David Dastmalchian) leaves in disgust, but not before giving Abbie one last ultimate challenge: the Pac-Man thing. The impossible Pac-Man thing. Abbie cannot—and does not—leave his greasy spot on the leather couch during a six month ordeal in which things grow as strange as they grow unhygienic.

Among the venerable sources Potrykus hijacks ideas from are Buñuel, Kubrick, and, I swear, even the New Testament. The first is obvious, and the director even admitted to ripping off a lot of The Exterminating Angel in his remarks to the audience after the screening. Unlike our heroes therein, however, Abbie makes the wrong choice of what pipe to burst open for water—wonderfully fusing gross-out with the surrealism. 2001: A Space Odyssey necessarily comes to mind toward the end, as Abbie breaks the sequence and rises to a higher plane as the masses outside seemingly cheer him on. As for the third reference, I’m possibly stretching things, but over his ordeal Abbie grows to look like a shaggy Jesus, and Simon of Cyrene makes a cameo in the form of Arin (Adina Howard), a friend who helps Abbie on his path toward the divine. What locked it for me was the final scene when Abbie-Jesus seemingly rises from the dead to be greeted by his long-sought Father.

Potrykus stated without shame that he made Relaxer for himself, but its elements suggest that this bizarre slice of late ’90s throw-back might reach more than expected. There’s comedy, there’s cinematic dexterity (the camera stretches to most every available piece of the room without looking like it’s trying too hard), and even an epic feel to Abbie’s journey from Novice couch potato to Master couch potato. Skipping surreptitiously from Clerks-style comedy to an outer-zone of awareness, Relaxer reaches for the impossible—typically with the aid of a grabber-arm.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film takes on an element of magical realism as the days and months pass, framing Abbie as a martyr with superhuman endurance … That Relaxer is structured as a countdown to Y2K suggests that Potrykus is offering a period-specific diagnosis of technologically dependent delusion, of the hallucinations of omnipotence that spring in the minds of marathon gamers. Fuzzy as this hodgepodge of signifiers may seem, there’s a pronounced critique at the heart of Relaxer clearly aimed at young people who are perilously glued to their screens, though it’s one that feels somewhat passé alongside the meaty class commentary of Buzzard.–Carson Lund, Slant Magazine (festival screening)

CAPSULE: INHERITANCE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Tyler Savage

FEATURING: Chase Joliet, Sara Montez

PLOT: A carpenter inherits a northern California villa from the biological father he never knew; the place is haunted by family secrets.

Still from Inheritance (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This indie psychological horror has only a few bare scraps of weirdness scattered throughout infrequent dream sequences.

COMMENTS: When carpenter Ryan is told his biological father has died, his expression is detached and brooding. It won’t change much throughout the rest of the movie. That’s not to say Chase Joliet’s performance is bad; it’s just one-note, by design. Inheritance starts in a  solemn mood and keeps it consistently gloomy from beginning to end. The movie barely cracks a smile, and never tells a joke. The emotions simmer, never quite boiling over into catharsis. Even the sex is serious. The tone is meant to convey a mix of subtle melancholy and lurking menace, but it often skirts too close to the borders of ennui.

The titular inheritance is a 2.5 million dollar villa on the northern California coast. The property is a windfall whose sale would supply a great nest egg for him and his fiancée Isi (Sara Montez) to start their life together; but the husband-to-be feels the need to linger in the home while silently working out his feelings about his biological heritage through a series of obliquely symbolic dreams of about his ill-fated parents and other ancestors. Ryan’s psychology revolves around fear that he will turn out like his biological father—although we get few meaningful hints what dad was like—but he also his has issues with jealousy, and hints of ambivalence about fatherhood. He struggles as much with accepting his upcoming responsibilities as a family man as he obsesses over his biological heritage; Isi suspects the latter is distraction from the former. With our main character so closed off, it falls on Montez to provide some the movie with some life. This she does, literally and figuratively. Hers is the more appealing, and stronger, character.

The cinematography, courtesy of Drew Daniels (It Comes at Night), is the film’s best asset, alternating bright beach scenes with well-lit nighttime dreamscapes. (In contrast to Ryan’s clouded psyche, his home is about the sunniest haunted house you’ll ever see.) Isolated shots are poetic; whiskey cascades over ice in slow motion, scored to the sound of ocean surf. Inheritance is well-crafted, but it’s too slow and monotone for most audiences, with too little dramatic payoff. About one hour into the movie, when a ghostly figure tells Ryan “I trust you know what to do now,” I caught dim echoes of The Shining. Then, I realized that by this point in ‘s ghost story, we’d already seen the blood in the elevator, the spooky twins, a foreboding Room 237, and starting to lose both his temper and his mind. Inheritance had yet to really get into gear, and although it tries to cram a lot of action into an effective final fifteen minutes, it isn’t quite worth the leisurely trip it takes to get there. The movie has a sophisticated psychology and there’s a lot of talent involved on both sides of the camera, but it doesn’t quite achieve its ambitions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie’s last 20 minutes are a deftly woven, completely beguiling amalgamation of surrealist nightmare and pure state-of-nature human dread.”–Shawn Macomber, Rue Morgue (festival screening)

CAPSULE: I AM HERE…. NOW (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Neil Breen

FEATURING: Neil Breen, Joy Senn, Elizabeth Sekora

PLOT: Jesus visits Earth to fix our energy dilemmas while performing random miracles along the way. It’s that simple, we’re done.

Still from I Am Here.... Now (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Did this movie actually get recommended for the whole seven plastic doll heads out on the ground in the desert? Or, wait, was it for the knife soaked in strawberry jam to represent street violence? The Halloween mask that flickers into view a few times? The only way anyone could claim this movie is the weirdest thing they’d seen is if they were literally a fetus watching it from inside a womb somehow.

COMMENTS: Holy ! This movie was not only written, directed, and produced by Neil Breen, but he plays the lead role in it too, which is apparently his usual mode. And Jesus Christ! No really, Jesus Christ is in this movie, played by Neil. Who is here. Now. So this is a whole vanity project where the creator wants to play Jesus—just try to tell me that we’re not in for a grand old time! Jesus has computer parts glued to him, though, and he lands in the Nevada desert from an incoming comet, so he’s Space Jesus. He angrily shakes a skull (there’s always one laying about when he needs one) while demanding of it why humans have failed him. Yorick doesn’t answer. Space Jesus is really bummed about how humans have turned out. Because we humans sit around drinking beer, getting stoned, and shooting guns, even if Space Jesus happens to be standing in the way. But if you try to shoot Space Jesus, he will take your clothes and truck and drive into Las Vegas, so he can find more things to scowl at. Hope you’re stocked up on your Depends, because the pants-pissing hilarity is just beginning.

While Space Jesus approves of our finally getting the hang of solar power, he’s unhappy about our greedy money-grubbing capitalism slowing progress down and vows to make it go away. So we hear speeches about clean energy vs. greedy business, and then we know what message Space Jesus wants to pound into our stubborn, concrete skulls for the remaining hour. As Big Business shuts down Solar Power, a laid-off employee laments the state of affairs while pushing a baby in a stroller; hopefully this long-winded dialog is not taking too much time out of the baby’s schedule. We follow her predicament for awhile, as her twin sister steers her into being a stripper to support her baby. She sinks into a world of urban depravity right away. In fact, “sinks into depravity right away” is pretty much Team Human’s job in the whole film, because only Team Space Jesus can rescue them with the power of his deadpan pout and Photoshoped glowing hand.

As hilariously somber as Space Jesus is when he’s onscreen, it gets even funnier when extras have to memorize and recite his Wikipedia paragraphs of dialog at each other without a whiff of actual acting, because they are just finger puppets to Neil Breen. Finger puppets who are never allowed to wear bras or button their blouses up, and who lash out in violence at the drop of a jump cut. Really, the supporting cast is the biggest puzzle: none of them, not even the ones who are supposed to be thugs, look like they’ve lived through hard enough times to be willing to be in this embarrassing movie for nothing. They must have been paid in grown-up money, yet not a single one of them puts out a spark of effort. They even scream in lower-case: “don’t cut off my hand. aaaaaaaaaaah.” In every shot with Neil and a supporting cast member, watch their faces as they try not to crack up. Out of all the things Breen’s bad at, scriptwriting is his weakest suit.

The cinematography is competent, letting the desert look beautiful, and this movie at least succeeds at clearly and boldly telling the story it wants to tell (yes, Breakfast of Champions scarred me deep). Any idiot could follow this: it is about Space Jesus the entire time, and at that, it’s a more likable Jesus story than could produce. Granted, this movie was produced on an architect’s budget (no really, that’s his day job), and Neil Breen is obviously nuttier than squirrel poop. But at least he has a point, one which resonates with every Millennial who joined #OccupyWallStreet. It’s not even that bad; I Am Here…. Now has a tranquil pace and long, quiet stretches, so at least the movie shuts up and lets you reflect on how thankful you are to have moved the hell out of Las Vegas before he started filming random people on the street. Even the soundtrack is relaxing, and doubtlessly royalty-free (stockmusic.net appears in the credits). In sum, Neil Breen is clearly suffering from nearly the same set of mental symptoms that plagued , just without being an innovative jazz musician. Well excuuuuuse him.

Neil Breen does not allow retailers to sell his films. All DVDs must be bought directly from him at either http://fatefulfindings.biz/ or http://www.pass-thru-film.com/. For older movies like I Am Here…. Now, write a note in the comments box when ordering.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

I Am Here….Now is a messy but absolutely hysterical film.  Breen’s complete inept ability to create a film made me bust out laughing a lot but it also had me saying the phrase “What the f#@k?” at least every two minutes or so.”–Rev, Ron, Rev on Movies

Also see the snarky video review at Cinema Snob.

CAPSULE: FAGS IN THE FAST LANE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Josh Collins (as Sinbad Collins)

FEATURING: Chris Asimos, Oliver Bell, Matt Jones, Sasha Cuha, Airsh “King” Khan, Justine Jones, Aimee Nichols, Pugsley Buzzard, Luke Clayson,

PLOT: A gay superhero and his team go on a quest to retrieve a golden penis stolen by a gang of circus freaks.

Still from Fags in the Fast Lane (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This cartoonish gay superhero grossout flick will almost certainly make one of our lists: we fully expect to see it on our 10 Weirdest Movies of 2018 list. It’s a big jump from one of the weirdest of the year to weirdest of all time, though, a leap the slight Fags isn’t quite capable of making.

COMMENTS: When 69-year-old -ex Kitten Natividad counts as your star power, you know you’re aiming at a very particular audience. Fags presumes (or at least hopes for) a certain level of familiarity with yesteryear’s trash culture, although if you’ve seen at least one movie you’ll recognize the silly-yet-offensive spirit. Obviously, is an inspiration (one of the better throwaway jokes is a reference), but given the bright comic book design and heedless incoherence, I suspect Australia’s surreal Nazi-fighting comedy adventure “Danger 5” was a more direct stylistic influence.

Set in an anything-goes world of freak show gangs, Aztec cults and GILF brothels, the plot is bonkers. The action begins in small-minded small-town “Dullsville,” where dashing yachtsman Beau (AKA the “Cockslinger”) and his beefy, mustachioed longtime companion Lump are brought in to handle a gang of gay-bashing thugs. (“The toughest gays in town,” this avenging duo eschews limp wrists for pimp hands.) Soon enough, they find themselves chasing after jewels stolen from mama Kitten’s retirement home bordello, along with a mystical dildo. A buxom killer transvestite and a lethargic Indian eunuch (the original owner of the phallus in question) join the team, along with the young thug hostage Squirt, who opens up to his queer side as the adventure continues. The team is opposed by burlesque queen Wanda the Giantess and her gang of freaks (including a bald gal with crab claws) and tailed by the local sheriff and his sadistic hacker assistant. The gang’s adventures take them to a booby-trapped tiki truck stop, a gender-bending pagan temple, and into a freaky Freak Town final showdown. And that’s just scratching the surface of the maximalist mayhem.

The plot moves quickly enough and takes itself with so little seriousness that you probably won’t mind some suspect writing. Very few of the jokes land, tending towards the obvious, the juvenile, and the toilet-minded. (Baseball bat sodomy is not one of my favorite sources of comedy, but at least no one can accuse Fags of being overly PC.) The plot often makes little sense, but coherence was not a major point of emphasis. A melee at McBastard’s Meat Pies has almost no visible motivation but lots of cheesy violence and stiletto-heeled crotch-kicking. At one point Lump is captured and tortured with a laser finger; it’s not completely clear how he is abducted, and entirely unclear how he escapes. Plot points seem to have been left on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, the design elements—a grab bag of colorfully bizarre sets and costumes, low budget CGI, and animation both traditional and stop motion—are impressive, all the more so considering the obvious low budget. Key set pieces include a psychedelic musical number sung by the castrated fakir and a trip into a swamp filled with stop-motion penis-themed vermin. And if that’s not enough for your money, there’s a roadside performance by horror rockers “the Mummies” thrown in for good measure.

It goes without saying that neither homophobes nor the easily grossed-out will want to encounter Fags, but if you’re made of sterner stuff, you should find it fast-paced fluff that satisfies your guilty desire for absurd sleaze served with a twist of retro pop-culture surrealism. Currently in very limited release in the U.S., a DVD release is scheduled for June 1. More information can be found on the movie’s home page.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The mood is madcap, as pop-art expressionism meets ’60s trash meets Benny Hill action, while the entendre are single and spunky.”–Craig Mathieson, The Age (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HARD CANDY (2005)

DIRECTED BY: David Slade

FEATURING: , Patrick Wilson

PLOT: A teenage girl turns the tables on a sexual predator, subjecting him to torture in retribution for his misdeeds.

Still from Hard Candy (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For regular consumers of torture-based horror, the turnabout of predator and prey in Hard Candy is an interesting surprise. But twist aside, what’s notable about the movie isn’t how strange it is, but how it uses the genre to address heavy questions about guilt, justice, and gender roles.

COMMENTS: In January of this year, confessed serial child molester Larry Nassar was forced to sit quietly while 156 women confronted him about his crimes and the pain they have endured ever since. And Larry Nassar did not like it. This man, whose systematic abuse was aided by America’s top gymnastics coaches, abetted by the country’s gymnastics federation, and protected by Michigan State University, submitted a letter to the judge protesting that having to endure the testimony of his many targets was detrimental to his mental health and asserting that he was a good person who was being unfairly victimized by hateful, hateful women. Suffice it to say, the letter was poorly received.

The reason I bring this up—aside from maybe wanting to add just one more link on Google that reminds the world that Larry Nassar is heinous slimeball—is because Hard Candy does a fantastic job of getting inside the deluded mind of the privileged sex criminal: rejecting the existence of a crime, then mitigating its seriousness, and finally claiming victimhood for himself. The film’s subject, photographer Jeff, uses all these techniques to deceive us into sympathizing with him, even as we watch him go through all the steps of sexual predation: grooming, leading passively, shifting guilt back onto his targets. And he’s good at it, so when the 14-year old girl he’s been expecting to seduce drugs him, ties him up, and proceeds to insult and threaten him, there’s still this lingering sense that he’s a decent guy who has just gotten himself into a real pickle.

The plot evokes memories of Audition, which is appropriate, as Brian Nelson’s screenplay was evidently inspired by news reports of gangs of girls in Japan who lured businessmen into traps online. But where the earlier film hides its intentions behind the tropes of romantic comedy, Hard Candy quickly adopts the conventions of horror, including bondage and body mutilation. The film’s innovation is to flip the script and turn the diminutive (Page is a full foot shorter than her co-star), incautious heroine into the diabolical, unstoppable engine of terror. The result is that she can be read as a violent lunatic, when it is vital to remember that the man she is tormenting is a very bad person.

Movies can be victims of changing times. In 2005, many reviewers called Page’s Hayley a psychopath and lamented the film’s second-half descent into cat-and-mouse thriller. But today, she comes across more as an avenging angel come to force the guilty to acknowledge their sins. It’s noteworthy that the scene that falls the flattest—Page has to sidestep Sandra Oh’s inquisitive neighbor—is the one that tries the hardest to impose the conventions of a thriller onto a battle over the nature of evil. Hard Candy turns out to have been ahead of its time.

Page is truly magnificent, by the way; this was her breakthrough performance, and she has never since had a role that equals it in power. But it’s worth noting that she has a good partner in Wilson, who hits all the right beats for a character who is innately gifted at evading, deflecting, and denying responsibility for his actions. His bland dismissals and patronizing defenses are essential in pushing her forward, validating her anger and justifying her ultimate plan.

The final woman to stand up to Larry Nassar in court was the woman whose testimony triggered his downfall. Rachael Denhollander— whose name also deserves to be remembered—demonstrated unbelievable magnanimity by promising to pray for Nassar, that he find true repentance and forgiveness. And that is probably the most moral and decent response that anyone could hope for under the circumstances. Hard Candy suggests an alternate response, and while it plays more toward wish fulfillment and is by no means appropriate in a civil society, in the face of an evil that is often unspeakable, the movie shows why it still has appeal.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Hard Candy is one sick movie. Sick and horrifying. Sick and mesmerizing. Sick and well-scripted, well-acted, well-directed and well-shot. Sick and comical; sick and suspenseful; sick and surprising; sick and sickening. Maybe if I take another shower, I’ll feel less scummy for enjoying it so much.” – Amy Biancolli, Houston Chronicle (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lee Eubanks

FEATURING: James Feagin, Kristin Duarte, David Brownell

PLOT: A man and woman make preparations to attend a burial: existential dialogues and strange events happen along the way.

It Takes from Within (2017)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: Given the suffering on display, the film could just as easily be titled Life Takes from Within, tearing away at the character’s insides. It’s certainly weird, but also derivative of films that have done existential angst much more effectively.

COMMENTS: Drawing equally from , , , and , this independent feature gets off to an engaging start with a vignette involving a patch of grass illuminated by high key overhead lighting. A male and female pair drag themselves across the grass in some form of wailing agony. A different couple (who eventually emerge as the film’s leads—James Feagin and Kristin Duarte) enter the light and stand statically before us, their faces unknowable and shrouded in shadow. A third male and female, much older, lie on a bed on the lit grass, before being assailed by Feagin and Duarte, who in turn are clamored on by the crawling couple at the beginning. Feagin lowers his head and body, prostrate before existence perhaps, while Duarte raises her hands to the heavens in appeal. It is a largely wordless and beautifully lit sequence begging multiple interpretations and capturing the viewer’s attention with its evocative and allusive nature.

Sadly, its largely downhill from that point on, with two opening exchanges between Feagin and Duarte setting the existential tone of the film and hinting at a “Waiting for Godot”-esque pairing (Feagin and Duarte in Vladimir and Estragon’s roles, respectively) without ever capitalizing on that potential. Feagin still believes in a “finish,” a possible meaning to their existence, while Duarte has resigned herself to the pointlessness of creation and seeks distraction and amusement. They are bound to their location by a funeral later that day, but their relationship has reached “its end” and they’ll go their separate ways to the service.

Capitalizing on the Gogo and Didi relationship could have injected some much-needed humor into the proceedings, but sadly director Eubanks opts for the bleak, existential angst of a Bergman films, without the dramatic weight of Bergman actors to soften the suffering. With her fleshy, open features and “make the best of it” attitude, Duarte makes a fairly engaging lead, a sympathetic figure in stark contrast to Feagin’s squinty scowl and petulant, unending mewling. Unfortunately Eubanks has us follow this disagreeable combination of Nick Cave and Hodor for much of the run time. If the male lead, genuinely suffering under the weight of reality, had ached in a manner that was sympathetic for the audience, i.e. his anger and pain Continue reading CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

366 UNDERGROUND: MANOS: THE RISE OF TORGO (2015)

“I made Rise of Torgo following what I call ‘Hal’s Rules’: very few takes, no shots over 30 seconds, shoot without sound and pay no one up front. There’s no way to copy what Hal Warren did, so I set out to make a film that is a sibling to the original, similar yet different.”–David Roy, 2016 interview with 366 Weird Movies

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jackie Neyman Jones, Joe Warren, Danny McCarty, Elizabeth Redpath, Matt Rogers

PLOT: In this prequel to the notoriously bad cult film Manos: The Hands of Fate, we learn the origin of iconic characters the Master and Torgo.

Still from Manos: The Rise of Torgo (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Rise of Torgo is an often-striking addition to the Manos world, with several inventive and unique aspects that had potential, but ultimately its slavish devotion to the original and a plodding pace prevent it from being a satisfying prequel. It’s not good enough to be great and not terrible enough to be an entertaining “bad” film, falling somewhere between competent and ordinary.

COMMENTS: Manos: The Rise of Torgo faces two major concerns from the outset: one, it follows up an iconic cult film fifty-something years after the fact; and two, it purposefully sets out to make a “bad” movie. The first concern is similar to the dilemma faced by the recent follow up to 1982’s Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, which I though was plagued by the weight of its highly influential predecessor and was most successful when it strayed from the source material. Similarly, Rise of Torgo is most engaging when building its own mythos, and least successful when recreating or reusing elements of the original film. Obviously there’s no comparison between the two franchises (Blade Runner vs. Manos) in terms of production value or popular success; I mention it only because of the comparable uneven mix of old and new elements, the considerable lengths between installments, and because both films feature actors from the original franchise.

The second concern arises when a competent filmmaker attempts to recreate the errors of people with no concept of how to turn out a polished, coherent product. The errors often feel forced or labored, and the schadenfreude derived from witnessing genuinely misguided filmmaking is replaced with boredom and irritation. The great “terrible” films like Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959), Troll 2 (1990) or The Room (2003) were made by genuinely misguided filmmakers, outsiders like or who seem removed from ordinary human experience and can only write dialogue and cut footage together from their own strange impulses. They show instincts devoid of even the slightest knowledge of how ordinary human beings communicate, or of how filmmakers arrange footage to create meaning and coherence.

The original Manos brimmed with the kind of odd editing choices and bizarre dialogue that truly defines bad cinema. It featured twenty second shots of Torgo stumbling around with luggage, accompanied by his own music cue, alongside his tremulous delivery of lines like, “I meant no harm, Madam, I’ll protect you… I’ll protect you.” Director Harold Warren had no formal film training, and it shows, especially when a shot of the clapperboard is featured in scenes with the kissing couple. The amateur nature of the production is stamped throughout the exasperating length of the film.

Rise of Torgo’s auteur, David Roy, is clearly no slouch at film making. His shots are well composed, the color grading enhances elements for effect, and there are even special effects (admittedly cheesy ones, probably designed as such to fit the Manos universe). This is a capable filmmaker attempting to make a bad film, and as such a lot of the fun is taken out of the picture. What we get instead are elements of garbage woven through a competently produced picture.

Rise of Torgo gets off to a good, campy start, with an introduction to the Master and the God Manos (represented by Jackie Neyman Jones, the little girl from the original), presented as a floating head, like the ghost of Mufasa in The Lion King. We then learn the origins of Torgo’s birth, involving twin midwives (who later turn out to be his grandmothers) and a blessing from a cross-eyed gypsy. She is promptly jettisoned from the rest of the film and her presence never explained. All original and amusing “bad filmmaking” choices so far. A woman in the woods inexplicably sings about her love for goats, and given Torgo’s hinted-at satyr nature in the original film, we might even expect the two to meet and develop a romance. Sadly, at this point in the film Manos “call-backs” take over. The girl merely becomes a victim of the Master’s original caretaker, and an otherwise fresh, surreal characteristic goes unutilized.

The “Them” Torgo’s Mother speaks of is an interesting aspect thrown into his psychology, but ultimately becomes pointless in his transformation into the Master’s slave. That transformation arises from a combination of bullying and the power of Manos. The twin Grandmothers speak and move in sync, an interesting feature that remains merely a curiosity and fails to inform the story in any significant way. It’s a device that had potential, but ultimately falls to the necessity of sticking to the elements of The Hands of Fate. The film occasionally even fails to satisfy this requirement: Torgo doesn’t have the same quavering, tremulous voice as the original, not even after his transformation by Manos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you enjoyed the original Manos, you’ll probably find this to be a worthy sequel, in the sense that it strives to stylistically be as similar as possible. If campiness is your thing, you’re in for a fun ride.”–David Gelmini, Dread Central

Manos: The Rise of Torgo Facebook Site

CAPSULE: ONE-EYED MONSTER (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Adam Fields

FEATURING: Jason Graham, Amber Benson, Veronica Hart, , Ron Jeremy

PLOT: At a porn shoot in a remote cabin, an alien possesses Ron Jeremy’s penis and sets about killing the cast and crew.

Still from One-eyed Monster (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird, just a one-joke premise that might have held five minutes worth of comedy, stretched out to feature length.

COMMENTS: A movie about an animated killer penis? Starring (sort of) Ron Jeremy, as himself? It’s both a can’t-miss and a can’t-hit idea. Sure, people will tune in for the high concept, but even if you do your very best, could an idea that sounds like it was thought up during middle school recess work as more than a passable time-waster?

The answer, of course, is “no.”  You may giggle occasionally, but aside from the “writes itself” gimmick, this is by-the-numbers B-filmmaking about attractive people in a cabin being killed by an unseen presence. And I do mean “unseen”: we don’t get our first glimpse of the titular monster until the movie is 2/3 over (spoiler: it’s not worth the wait). Not only that, but this is a movie about a porn shoot that only has one nude scene. In other words, almost everything the target audience tuned in to see—penis monsters, penis monster kills, sex, nudity—occurs offscreen. That leaves us with a very talky movie relying on a few limp industry jokes—such as referring to an actress who’s only been in a hundred adult videos as a “newbie”—while following the Night of the Living Dead playbook by rote (there’s even a scene where the obnoxious white villain locks the noble black hero out of the cabin).

While One-Eyed Monster is generally unexceptional, there are a few high points: some cute moments with a “neurotactile simulator” and a funny, campy Vietnam flashback monologue from a grizzled Charles Napier. But my feeling is that they should have turned this script into an expensive porn movie instead of a cheap horror movie. We use our “” rating sparingly, but One-Eyed Monster comes close to meriting it. It’s not like it’s loathsome—just puerile. Be warned: watching it is a waste of time. (Its 4.2 IMDB rating supports this thesis). You might be cool with wasting your time, though, and if so, have at it. Maybe you’ll get a couple of chuckles out of the deal. The DVD does include a 35-minute reminiscence about the early days of the adult film industry from veteran porn stars Jeremy and Hart, which is a good bit more interesting than the feature film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There is the postmodern thrill of a film-within-a-film and actors playing themselves – and Jeremy proves particularly sporting in allowing his legendary proportions to be reduced to alien bait…  too short to let any of its more flaccid moments bring it crashing down, and funny enough (at least in a drunken crowd) to make your eyes water.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (festival screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by “philbymon,” who called it “[t]he weirdest thing I’ve seen recently.” We bet he’s topped it by now. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

315. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (2006)

AKA Brand Upon  the Brain! A Remembrance in 12 Chapters

“[Children are] constantly constructing, and then reconstructing and amending and annexing a model of their cosmos, their universe. The real joyous intoxications and wonderment come from building faulty models, and then tearing them down and rebuilding. But you never completely tear down your model, I think you just keep adding on to your faulty model of the way the world works. All if us, by the time we’re grown-ups, have built this really elaborate model, which we feel is right now finally. But at its very foundation, at the very bottom, its very earliest days, there are these errors that run like a motherlode through the ensuing years.”–Guy Maddin, “97 Percent True”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sullivan Brown, Gretchen Krich, Katherine E. Scharhon, Maya Lawson, Erik Steffen Maahs, (narration)

PLOT: “Guy Maddin,” who has not been home in thirty years, returns to Black Notch, the island on which he spent his childhood, to fulfill his mother’s dying wish: to give the family lighthouse/orphanage two good coats of paint. The trip sparks Guy’s memory; he recalls when celebrity teen detective Wendy Hale arrived on the island to investigate the strange holes found on the back of orphan’s heads. Guy develops a crush on the detective, but Hale goes undercover as her own brother, Chance, and seduces Guy’s sister, all while investigating his dictatorial mother and mad scientist father on her way to uncovering secrets that will tear the family apart.

BACKGROUND:

  • Brand Upon the Brain! was funded (for a reported $40,000) by a Seattle-based nonprofit organization on the condition that Maddin use a local Seattle cast and crew. The film was shot in nine days.
  • This is the middle entry in Maddin’s unofficial autobiographical trilogy, in which each film has a (different) protagonist named Guy Maddin. (The first was 2003’s Cowards Bend the Knee and the last was 2007’s My Winnipeg).
  • The script was written with Maddin’s frequent collaborator Geroge Toles, but Maddin regular (who usually appears as an actor) wrote the narration.
  • The idea of narration for a silent film was inspired by “explicators,” people who would be hired by theaters to explain visual and narrative concepts the audience might not get on their own during live screenings of silent films.
  • Originally staged as a live event with a small orchestra (including a “castrato”) and foley artists, different performances featured different guest narrators, including Isabella Rossellini (who does the definitive reading), Laurie Anderson, John Ashberry, , , Louis Negin, , Eli Wallach, and Maddin himself.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The lighthouse lamp, an all-seeing orb, sort of a rotating papier-mâché rendition of the Eye of Sauron. Several of Guy’s family members come to bad ends before it.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rumanian womb birthmark; holes in orphan’s heads; the undressing gloves

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s another mad Maddin false autobiography! This time, the director imagines himself as the offspring of a mad scientist and yet another iteration of his domineering mother archetype, raised in a lighthouse among a band of orphans. Absurd but emotionally true memories are jumbled up, with a melange of archaic obsessions each taking their turn in the subconscious spotlight: teenage detectives, confused genders leading to confusing crushes, family members transfigured into zombies and vampires, with all of this lurid melodrama shot on blurry Super 8 and edited by a drunken, psychotic subconscious. Pure madness.


Original trailer for Brand Upon the Brain!

COMMENTS: “The past… into the past!” Memory is the theme of Continue reading 315. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (2006)