Tag Archives: Independent film

CAPSULE: STARFISH (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Al White

FEATURING: Virginia Gardner

PLOT: Aubrey is understandably depressed: her best friend dies, and soon after the end of the world arrives in the form of an invasion of alien monsters.

Still from Starfish (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Starfish is a weird exercise with interesting ideas and a good performance from Gardner, but its mopey and lingering moments drag it down. Still, it’s a promising, professional-looking debut from Al White.

COMMENTS: Just like Starfish‘s heroine, whenever I get tired of the hassle of dealing with other people, I sometimes fantasize that an apocalypse has hit and wiped out everyone but me. I’m free to roam around grocery store aisles and grab all the bags of Lays Sour Cream Potato Chips I can carry, and eat all the pints of Ben & Jerry’s before they melt.

This is a common solipsistic daydream, even though we all realize that this predicament would be nightmarish in reality. For Aubrey, both the fantasy and the tragedy of this scenario become “real.” I put “real” in quotes, because it’s clear that depopulated world in Starfish is a metaphor for the protagonist’s bereavement and isolation. The death of her best friend and confidant sparks her crisis, but a guilty memory that we glimpse in fragments as Starfish (slowly) progresses fuels her alienation. Starfish does not spell out its underlying story in sxplicit detail; it’s more impressionistic and often dreamlike. The literal plot is inessential: there’s no attempt to make the end of the world seem reasonable, no serious explanation of where the monsters that roam the streets came from, little backstory on the survivors who occasionally break the silence to speak to Aubrey via walkie-talkie. The “mixtape” she assembles is a roadmap to redemption (it contains seven songs, just like the Seven Stages of Grief), and the “signal” is a pure MacGuffin. And so, given the symbolic nature of the script, the ending may be a bit too ambiguous for the audience’s liking; after everything Aubrey’s been through, it would have been nice to end on a more unconditionally hopeful note. (The ending we got would have been perfect for a different movie.)

Virginia Gardner deserves praise for carrying the film; she’s alone in almost every scene, usually either talking to herself or bouncing ideas off a turtle. Gardner conveys a real sense of loneliness—nothing that she does (or wears) matters, yet she carries on, finding a purpose and dragging herself through the wreckage of the world. The deliberate pacing, which punctuates long pauses with brief, intense bursts of crisis, aids in conveying that sensibility. And yes, while slow at times, the movie is duly weird, with frequent dream sequences—from the dinner settings that suddenly turn weightless to a radical (if brief) stylistic change at the halfway point (I won’t spoil the surprise, but it would have been more of a  shock in a less-strange movie). Underwater, surf and oceanic imagery (including a reading from the opening of “Moby Dick”) flood the film, further reinforcing the sense of loneliness, as if Aubrey is marooned on a desert isle or bobbing alone on a life raft far at sea. Or in the process of slowly drowning.

It’s not a movie for those who value plot, but Starfish earns a recommendation for anyone who appreciates a heavy dose of psychological drama in their genre films.

Debuting director Al White (also known as A.T. White) also heads the U.K. based band Ghostlight. He wrote all the songs heard in the film, from the spooky cello cues to all seven of the indie-pop mixtape songs (a number of which have a silly “They Might be Giants” vibe; others rock). He’s got talent and is still young, and idealistic: he says that all of his profits will be donated to cancer research. Starfish plays at select theaters throughout the U.S. through April. Click here for a list of screenings. Home video/streaming dates have not yet been announced.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a beautiful, emotional, weird, and fascinating movie.”–Germaine Lussier, io9.com (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EATING RAOUL (1982)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Bartel, Robert Beltran

PLOT: An urban middle-class couple notices they live in a world where they’re surrounded by expendable idiots—so they take to robbing and killing them in order to finance their modest dreams.

Still from Eating Raoul (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Every weirdophile has seen this movie and remembers it as a satirical cannibal-comedy, quirky but not on the memorably weird end. It isn’t until you re-watch it fresh and recall all the throw-away details—the ketchup on the milkshake, the wine bottle plushie doll in Paul’s bed, the Doggie King dog food commercial—that you appreciate the weirdness bursting from the seams in this unique oddball masterpiece.

COMMENTS: Eating Raoul was too ahead of its time. You can hardly find a weird movie fan who doesn’t love this movie, and yet it still gets listed near the bottom of great black comedies. Now, we’re enthusiastic about and Matt Stone, the , and even the alumni getting recognized as the heralds of modern black comedy. But this movie opens with Paul Bartel getting bitched out by his liquor store boss for not selling the right wines. He is interrupted by an armed robber, shoots said robber dead (deadpan: “Mr. Cray, you killed him!”) and then goes right back to chewing out Paul Bartel’s ass. Next scene: Mary Woronov is a nurse who goads a horndog patient into finishing his pureed slop hospital food with the promise of hot nursey time, only to switch off with a burly male sidekick for an enema party. None of us filthy sinners love this golden apple enough, and that is why we are not worthy of it.

Our star couple is Paul and Mary Bland, two Hollywood middle-classers who are exasperated, stuck in the me-generation late-1970s swingers era while wanting nothing to do with them. They hate the disco party freaks almost as much as they hate being too broke to pay their bills and open the restaurant of their dreams. When one of these swingers ends up accidentally dead at their hands, a connection between the two issues takes shape, and the Blands decide to turn tricks, seducing swingers to their apartment. Said swingers are expecting a filthy payoff, only to meet the business end of a frying pan to the head. Tutored by “Doris the Dominatrix,” who shares her tricks of the trade in between spoon-feeding her baby, the Blands place an ad in the local kink mag, and the suckers bite right away. Might as well take the bread in their wallet, then. Just toss the bodies down the furnace chute, who’s going to miss them? It’s not like any of these tongue-waggling perverts had parents or anything.

But they do eventually meet one other individual with a clue, Raoul, who runs a suspiciously cheap locksmith service and moonlights as a Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EATING RAOUL (1982)

CAPSULE: AN EVENING WITH BEVERLY LUFF LINN (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Aubrey Plaza, , Craig Robinson, , Matt Berry

PLOT: Lulu is unhappy with her cappuccino-store managing husband, so she runs off with a man who stole money from him to go see an old flame’s “one night only” performance at a nearby hotel.

Still from An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn (2018)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though advertised in-film as a “magical” evening with Beverly Luff Linn, the onscreen evening is not so much “magical” as “eccentric.” Luff Linn is a hulking teddy bear, leaking stuffing, and with one eye holding on by a thread. It stays surprisingly true to romantic comedy conventions while employing light, sub-Brechtian alienation techniques.

COMMENTS: For a few viewers, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn will be their first exposure to the weird world of Jim Hosking. Most, especially readers of this site, will be drawn to it to see what the director of 2016’s transgressive The Greasy Strangler would come up with given a bigger budget and professional actors. The answer is that he compromised by scaling back the most aggressively bizarre elements of his shock debut, while still indulging in enough skewed reality to keep the comedy firmly on the surreal side of the ledger. So, for example, in Luff Linn you will see cigarette snuffed out in an absurdly oversized meatball, but no baths in vats of half-congealed grease; a couple of characters repeating the word “immediately” across scenes, but no painfully extended “bullshit artist” segments; Craig Robinson in a 40s-style one-piece bathing suit, but no full-frontal prosthetic nudity. Whereas Strangler felt a little dangerous, like  meets , Beverly is more like a  awkward/quirky concoction, slightly out of step with reality, but without the offal and outrageousness. The results are not entirely satisfactory, but they are also not nearly as much of a sell-out as they might have been.

The plot, although a bit shaggy, is not so bad, with Lulu’s urge to reconnect with a younger and more vital romance bumping up against a couple of subplots in her husband’s suburban gangsta theft of a cashbox and Luff Lin’s mysterious melancholy (which results in his only being able to communicate in Frankenstein grunts for the much of the movie). Aubrey Plaza’s sarcastic resentment, Jermaine Clement’s clueless earnestness, and Emile Hirsch’s petty criminality are perfect matches to the material, but Craig Robinson doesn’t come over as the kind of charismatic mentor Lulu would fall for (which is perhaps part of the joke), and Matt Berry makes little impression as Luff Lin’s platonic partner/manager. Hoskins sprinkles in supporting performances from a couple of his regular stock company: Sky Elobar as a cappuccino-store henchman and Sam “potato” Dissanayake as an angry yet polite convenience store owner. He also finds a few more odd-faced weirdos to add freaky texture in a moon-faced toady and a hulking, pasty hotel clerk with a Ren-faire hairstyle. Though set in the present day, the anachronistic circa 1970s wardrobe choices—Colin’s turtleneck sweater and amber-tinted tinted eyeglasses—garb a world out of whack. It’s the kind of movie where three amateur robbers go on a robbery wearing women’s wigs as disguises, but never bother to cover their familiar faces. Low synths lay a doomy horror movie soundtrack over what is basically a light comedy, adding yet another level of alienation.

And yet, for all its absurdist insouciance, Luff Linn surprisingly has heart—something conspicuously lacking in Greasy Strangler. The boy gets the girl—the right boy gets the girl. The sentimentality may be a put-on, or it may be a concession, but it feels like an honest choice.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s not perfect, and it certainly isn’t for everyone, but oddballs who love weirdo cinema will probably get a kick out of An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn.”–Diedre Crimmins, High-Def Digest (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE LAST MOVIE (1971)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Stella Garcia,

PLOT: A stuntman stays on in Peru with his mistress after his American movie crew has moved on, and is involuntarily cast in a movie the locals are making with fake cameras.

Still from The Last Movie (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The initial critical assessment of The Last Movie said it was a stumbling, self-indulgent mess of random, stoned footage that director/star Dennis Hopper tried (and failed) to salvage by editing it into something resembling a ian Western. Now that years have passed and we can reappraise the work from a more sober perspective, we can see that this knee-jerk reaction was absolutely correct. It’s half-baked Surrealism, with the emphasis on the “baked.”

COMMENTS: So here’s how I like to imagine the making of The Last Movie went. “Dennis, you’re a genius, and ‘Easy Rider’ made a gazillion dollars, so let’s fly to Peru and make a Western about Hollywood types going to Peru to make a Western!” (Puff.) “Get a crate of whiskey! He can play the director.” (Glug.) “Great! Sam, now shoot a bunch of Western-type scenes, put a guy in jail, get some dancing girls to do the can-can, blow some stuff up. Doesn’t matter what you shoot, there’s no plot. It’s not a real movie.” (Puff.) “Kris, can you play us ‘Me and Booby McGee’ while Dennis rides a horse? Cool.” (Glug.) “OK, everybody get drunk and we’ll film it. Dennis, cry a little.” (Puff.) “Wait, it’s been 25 minutes, did we remember the opening credits? Throw ’em up on screen while Dennis and his chick kiss in a field.” (Puff.) “OK, now let’s have the villagers film some scenes using cameras made out of bamboo… see, they can’t tell the difference between reality and the movies anymore. Did I just blow your mind?” (Snort.) “Damn, that’s some fine Peruvian coke. Get that chick naked in that waterfall, Dennis wants to make out with her!” (Puff.) “Throw in a ‘scene missing’ intertitle at random. Remind ’em it’s a movie.”  (Puff.) “I know what we need: a gold mining subplot! It’ll be, like, a metaphor for Hollywood!” (Glug.) “Let’s all get drunk and go to a brothel.” (Next day.) “Let’s film a scene where everyone gets drunk and goes to a brothel.” (Sniff.) “Wait, is that ether? Let’s have Dennis try to get a fur coat from this guy’s wifuuuh sajkagkudsigkuytadijah… bluh… panties.” (Puff.) “We still got some time? Gold mining expedition montage.” (Sip, looong puff.) “I think I’m peaking… what was in that tea? Anyway now the villagers are shooting the movie for real with live ammo and they put Dennis in jail and shoot him while he rides away on his horse and he gets drunk and slaps some whores and no one will believe he’s actually in a movie cause they’re too busy making a movie and he stumbles into a church and then a woman lactates on his face and the villagers throw a fiesta with fireworks and let’s have Dennis confess to the priest that he sinned ‘in movies,’ and then everyone gets drunk and Dennis dies for their sins, but he does a couple of takes, because it’s a movie.” (Puff, glug.) “Did we remember to tie up that gold mining subplot? Let’s close with a scene with two guys by a campfire talking about whether you need mercury to pan for gold. Just improvise. Has anyone seen my Quaaludes?”

And then Dennis Hopper takes all the footage back to his shack in New Mexico and drops acid and starts editing it together. Then his good friend shows up and looks at the rough cut and says “Dennis, it’s good, but it makes too much sense. You need to put all these scenes in random order.” And then Dennis passes out on the editing machine.

I kid The Last Movie, but there’s one thing that can be said for it: absolutely no drugs were spared in its making.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the all-time classics of pretentiously incomprehensible cinema.”–Radio Times

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

CAPSULE: BRAID (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Mitzi Peirone

FEATURING: Imogen Waterhouse, Sarah Hay, Madeline Brewer, Scott Cohen

PLOT: Two girls scheme to steal from their rich, but psychotic, old friend, but doing so requires them to go along with her fantasies: “the Game.”

Still from Braid (2018)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A hallucinatory thriller with modest ambitions to blow your mind, Braid finds itself in the weird pile, but not at the top of the heap. It’s a perfectly reasonable “B” selection to watch while waiting for something weirder to come down the pike.

COMMENTS: In the official opening scene of Braid, two collegiate drug dealers are inventorying their stash in their Manhattan loft, oblivious to the distant sound of police sirens. When the banging comes on their door, the film suddenly switches to black and white, security cam-style, as they make an improbable escape out the window and down the fire escape. What was decadent and glamorous in color suddenly turns dingy and desperate. At a later point, one of the girls pops what she thinks is Vicodin, but turns out to be a hallucinogen that turns the lawn purple (pro-tip: popping random pills is not recommended when you’re in the middle of pulling a caper). These visual dislocations, which are a constant in Braid, serve as a reminder of how fickle perception can be. They’re a reflection of the main plot device: a young lady trapped in a delusion that’s she’s still a little girl playing doctor with her friends. Later, we view a scene filmed upside down, for no apparent reason; debuting filmmaker Mitzi Peirone is often just using the delusion excuse to throw a lot of stuff on the screen that she thinks will look cool, like water flowing backwards into the faucet. (Actually, that’s not a bad strategy for a movie with a theme of disorientation.)

Petula and Tilda, the two college dropout robbers, are sufficiently rude and narcissistic that we’re amped to see them get their  comeuppance at the whims of their fruitcake ex-friend. Of course, Daphne, living in a dilapidated mansion and still playing house even though she now actually owns a house, herself is too detached from reality to root for. There is a detective sniffing around, but he seems fated to fall victim to the last of the game’s three rules: “no outsiders allowed.” Still, even though things threaten to get a little torture porn-y at times when Daphne goes to any lengths to keep her friends playing the Game, the film does make a dash for meaningful empathy at the very end.

There is a twist about a third of the way through that I didn’t see coming. It’s no stunner, but it is clever enough for an evening’s entertainment. A number of seemingly odd moments—such as the cliche old doomsayer cackling at the pair as they prepare to re-engage with their long lost gal pal—start to make (some) sense in retrospect. On the other hand, it also makes you conscious of how some of the early scenes were contrived specifically to fool the audience, rather than for organic story reasons. And some stuff never really adds up at all, such as a foot fetish scene. Still, the reveal is done well, and allows Peirone to pull out a lot of stops for a schizo-surrealist montage the supplies a high point before things start to peter out in a dreamy, melancholy epilogue (the film had been tautly paced up to that point).

The film’s insights into the subjectivity of human perception never really threaten to get beyond the superficial, but they do make a decent substrate for a weird-ass thriller. Peirone shows skill in putting the whole together, and with the help of cinematographer Todd Banhazl has a great (if undisciplined) visual flair. Keep your expectations at the level of a smart B-thriller and you may be pleasantly surprised by how well Braid threads these three women together.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bolstered by its kinetic cinematography and stellar production design, Mitzi Peirone’s surreal nightmare Braid is a crazy fever dream of deranged games and broken realities.”–Adam Patterson, Film Pulse (festival screening)

CAPSULE: STRAIGHT TO HELL (1987)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Joe Strummer, Dick Rude, Courtney Love

PLOT: Three gangsters, with a pregnant girlfriend in tow, blow an assignment, rob a bank, and hide out in a Central American village ruled by a band of coffee-addicted desperadoes.

Still from Straight to Hell (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This silly, violent and absurd attempt at a Western comedy made by non-comedians doesn’t really work, except as a curio.

COMMENTS: The story behind Straight to Hell is that filmmaker Alex Cox had assembled a number of punk bands for a concert in Nicaragua, which had to be canceled due to political turmoil. With his schedule involuntarily cleared and time on his hands, he sat down with a guy named Dick Rude (!) and scratched out a movie script in three days, using the musicians and whoever was available on short notice as actors. The result is a silly spoof, made on the spur of the moment, with punk rockers trying to be comedians. There’s a party vibe, and it’s clear that the cast and crew had a blast farting around in the desert. It’s equally clear that you will never have as much fun watching it as they did making it.

Sy Richardson (whom Cox had worked with before on Repo Man and Sid and Nancy) was one of the few actual actors available for the project on short notice, so the prolific character actor gets a rare featured role here, and makes the best of the opportunity. (Because he’s cool, black, and wears a suit and tie while brandishing a gun, he’s often pointed to as a precursor to Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules in Pulp Fiction). The Clash’s Joe Strummer is second-in-command, while Rude takes the role of the youngest and jumpiest of the gang. Courtney Love is Sy’s shrill, preggo girlfriend, who’s so effectively annoying that they effectively write her out of the script after the setup. Besides the main cast, Eighties underground culture aficionados can keep an eye out for cameos by the Pogues, Elvis Costello, Grace Jones, , and even .

And yes, it is weird, although more in the vein of a spectacularly drunk Mel Brooks than of . The credits list a “sex and cruelty consultant” (a bit tongue-in-cheekly, since there’s not terribly much of either). What you do get it some attempted slapstick from musicians trying to be comics, scenes spoofing Once Upon the Time in the West and Cool Hand Luke, hard-to-understand accents (not only from the rotten-toothed Shane MacGowan), a Western hot dog vendor, a butler who serves coffee to desperate killers, a barrelhouse piano version of “Night on Bald Mountain,” a musical number (including “Danny Boy”) or two, and a long conclusory shootout to prune the cast (including a few extra bodies like Jarmusch who show up at the last minute to get mowed down). Perhaps the oddest touch of all are two brief shots of Ray Harryhausen-style animated skeletons: a wolf who howls at the moon and a human clutching a knife between its teeth. It’s like Cox bought a few seconds of unused footage from a Charles Band production and shoehorned them into his movie at random. Whatever charm Straight to Hell possesses comes from the fact that you seldom have any idea what will happen next.

The story is supposedly based on the Canonically Weird Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot!—Cox went so far as to secure the adaptation rights—but the similarities between the two films are completely superficial. Remastered with new digital gore effects and re-released in a director’s cut in 2010, Straight to Hell is obscure, but Kino-Lorber’s 2018 edition with director’s commentary is actually its third appearance on DVD (it was released by Anchor Bay in 2001, and by Microcinema DVD under the title Straight to Hell Returns in 2010). The film is also available on Blu-ray or streaming outlets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a very weird vibe, and it requires one to not only accept, but also embrace, boredom. If the movie has one theory, it’s this: if you stare long enough at a certain spot, something weird and cool is bound to happen.”–Jeffery M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid (DVD)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UMBILICAL WORLD (2018)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of David Firth, Paul MacKenzie, Christian Webb

PLOT: A remixed collection of David Firth’s absurdist flash animation cartoons, like “Salad Fingers” and “Health Reminder,” assembled into a stream-of-consciousness feature with some new material.

Still from Umbilical World (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The nature of the project—an anthologized (though “remixed”) collection of previously published material as opposed to something originally conceived as a unified piece—makes Umbilical World somewhat suspect as an official List entry. There is enough bizareness here to merit the “” tag, however, and that will be more than enough endorsement for many folks.

COMMENTS: Umbilical World begins with “Salad Fingers,” the sweet green goblin with vegetable digits (and David Firth’s most popular creation) struck by lightning and dissolving into a puddle, out of which a glistening umbilical organ rises and glides into low Earth orbit, where it grows on to have relations with celestial objects.

It’s totally and delightfully surreal, of course, but this opening is also a way of implying connectivity between these shorts, although in reality there is no serious connective tissue between the segments. The absurdist miniatures here range from the silly tale of Salad Fingers adopting some sort of oil-soaked battered tin war surplus cylinder, to a skit with skinless gangsters using twisted Prohibition-era slang to order drinks, to straight-up satires of ads and public-service announcements, to a truly nightmarish bit involving a razor-taloned doctor puppet who wounds a horse and feasts on its blood. (Those who have only been exposed to Firth’s lighter, satirical side may be shocked by how terrifyingly dark he can go.) There is, at least, a unity of style and attitude, themes of insanity and death and despair and tubes suck through your skull, and a consistent vein of coal-black humor used to cope with these existential terrors. Extra-weird bits include a character vomiting scrabble tiles when questioned by a head sticking out of a tree stump—not to mention a baby-faced umbilicus entering a photograph of a vagina, emerging from a photograph of an anus, and vomiting eyeballs. There’s a new insane concept once every thirty seconds on average. And there are a surprising number of decapitations—usually not fatal—running throughout the work.

The transitions between the sequences are new material, with ideas like Salad Fingers taking place on a microscopic world on a piece of moldy bread. Characters also watch new cartoons on televisions embedded in the back of other characters heads. Stylistically, much of the animation remains true to Firth’s original flash versions, updated to HD; there are also segments dabbling in an ultra-grotesque form of cutout animation, with cross-eyed photorealistic heads bobbling unsteadily on animated bodies. One extended, trippy bit of digital manipulation, where 21st century  amoebas morph in pseudo-3D over the image before exploding into a fractal supernova and then turning into a stop-motion / homage with mannequin heads and a spinning plate of fruit and sundered body parts, ventures into brave new territory. The music—by Flying Lotus, the late Marcus Fjellström, and others—is eerie and well-matched to the mood. And while the individual pieces featured here may work better as shorts—there can be too much of a good thing, at least in one sitting—the experience is like leaving Firth’s YouTube channel on autoplay while waiting for the drugs to kick in, then checking in just when you’re peaking to find something on that plays like a collaboration between , , and a serial killer.

On a personal level, I was only familiar with the three Firth shorts previously published on these pages, plus a few more we screened and passed over for another day. I suspect someone like me may be in the best position to appreciate this collection. If you have too much familiarity with Firth’s work, you might be disappointed in how little new material is here, or be upset if your personal favorite was left out. If you have too little familiarity with Firth’s work, you might miss out on a bit of context or some of the umbilical connections, or simply be stunned by the mix of -style jokes with nightmares that would make bolt up in bed screaming. In any case, there is an obvious pitch to this work: Firth has worked hard publishing on YouTube to build a fan base, but paltry streaming advertising revenues don’t pay the bills for 99% of content providers. Like a Kickstarter reward, Umbilical World offers fans a chance to show him a little financial support, and to receive something new and exclusive in exchange. Umbilical World also immortalizes Firth’s work in a less ephemeral fashion. It’s available streaming (click here for options), or on DVD with a bonus “making of” documentary and director’s commentary.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In terms of the vibe, think Bill Plympton crossed with Eraserhead.”–Joe Bendel, J.B. Spins