All posts by Giles Edwards

Film major & would-be writer. 6'3". @gilesforyou (TwT)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: RÖCKËT STÄHR’S DEATH OF A ROCKSTAR (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Röckët Stähr

FEATURING: The voices of Röckët Stähr, Abby Ahmad

PLOT: Röcky Stähr, a four-armed glam idol, leads the world revolution of the mind against the war-mongering C. Czar in the year 2165.

WHY IT SHOULD JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: As a glam rock opera presented in Yellow Submarine-style-by-way-of-Flash™ animation with living lyrics, this looks and sounds like virtually nothing out there. But its message is what makes Death of a Rockstar one of the oddest high-decibel screeds I’ve ever borne witness to.

COMMENTS: Death of a Rockstar is a shameless throw-back, from its “revolution through music” mentality, to its repeated homaging, through its bombastic revelry in bygone music eras. Simultaneously, it is a film with a dark (albeit vibrantly palletted) dystopian vision: all the violent, power-hungry nay-sayers have co-opted governments worldwide in a bid for theocratic power. Simultaneously, it has much to say about contemporary conflicts: the merits of and limits to freedom; individualism versus collectivism; victimhood and responsibility; and so on. Röckët Stähr has a lot to say, and Death of a Rockstar is not only his way of saying it, it also feels like he’s thinking things through with us, in real time, to a soundtrack reminiscent of Queen-Bowie-Bolan-Thunders-Sex-Pistols LOUD rock ‘n roll collaboration.

In its Citizen Kane-y beginning, there is a loud clap of noise and a sudden death. Cue the singing globe in a cage, flanked by instrument-playing planets, to jam out the exposition. It’s 2164, and the killjoys have won. Life is meant merely to be survived, and an omnipresent government takes hold to spare the citizenry the burden of thinking freely. Creigh A. Tohr has created a four-armed clone infused with the rebellious, rockin’ sensibilities of some dozen or more glam and post-punk rock luminaries to liberate mankind from the shackles of their own fear and acquiescence, named Röcky (hello, …Picture Show). In tandem, we see the story of Ronnie, a young woman with an abusive father and emotionally distant mother, who is forced to flee the authorities and ends up meeting the titular Rockstar.

Stähr (the filmmaker) knows his film history. He knows his music (he scored and performed the soundtrack). More importantly, he understands visual comedy (he even animated the film). When Ronnie’s writing a letter to her folks, her pen keeps dying, in sync with the lyrics she’ singing, and when shaking, scratching, and licking the nib fail to resurrect the ink-flow, she pricks her finger and the words come down in blood, just as the letter takes a dark tone. There are innumerable little visual touches that play with images, words on-screen, and quite often, the interaction of the two. The man is a natural-born cartoonist, humorist, musician, and singer.

Much of Death of a Rockstar is anti-fascist. It is also anti-collectivist. It has no sympathy for faddish leftie-ism (in a “Museum of Unnatural History”, there are various exhibits featuring banned items such as sugar, trans-fat, and drinking straws), alongside its dismissal of organized religion and martial practice. For awhile I thought this was a something of a libertarian’s dream vision. But by the final act, as Tohr sings a duet with a smashed-mirror-monster, something that had been lurking below the surface finally revealed itself: the importance of deliberation, and of keeping clear of absolutist thinking. It hit me like a moderated ton of bricks: Death of a Rockstar is an anarcho-bourgeoisie screed—one that rocks hard and fun from start to finish, and overflows with comedic self-deprecation as the pontificating rockstar puzzles through his credo to the wail of a guitar and the high-octane blast of his power tenor.

Death of a Rockstar was completed in 2020 but released in 2022. It currently streams exclusively on Tubi for free (with ads).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Röckët Stähr’s Death of a Rockstar deserves to be considered at least by those who seek something different in movies. Trust me, you will headbang your way into a weird universe of raunchiness, stardom, and powerful lyrics. But it isn’t a film for everyone.” -Federico Furzan, Movie-Blogger.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: VIDE NOIR (2022)

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Vide Noir is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Ariel Vida

FEATURING: Victor Mascitelli, Ashleigh Cummings, Todd Stashwick

PLOT: When his fiancée leaves him for a mysterious music promoter, Buck leaves his hometown in an effort to get her back.

COMMENTS: From what I’ve read, “Vide Noir” is a Lynchian-cool jazz-lounge space album that was quite well received. From what I’ve seen, I am unsurprised that Ariel Vida, director of Vide Noir, is a professional music video director. From what’s on the internet, the little consensus there is about this film can be summarized thusly: Golly if it doesn’t look good, but what’s up with the hazy story and crummy performances?

A hazy story is not a problem—not for 366 at any rate. But something has bothered me since I watched the eighth chapter of this film, which covers the closing twenty minutes. Until this “Z’oiseau” segment (preceded by others titled “the Emerald Star”, “Whispering Pines”, and so on, depending upon the locale/character/artifact focused upon), I really didn’t care what was happening. Everything looked neat, if a little over-edited for the purposes of a motion picture (90+ minutes of music video-esque shot blending is a little distracting); the sound design was adequate (all the little scrapes, plinks, and peripheral noises fleshed things out nicely); and the plot was clear enough. The title, and main narrative hook, “vide noir” refers to an hallucinogen that, as explained by one of the dead characters (this was an added ambiguity that was neither explained nor pertinent), “comparing ‘Vide Noir’ to LSD is like comparing a space shuttle to a Greyhound Bus.”

The Z’oiseau character is referenced throughout in hushed, often frightened tones. He is Vide Noir‘s “Mister Big”, and he does not disappoint: calmly suave, marvelously mustachioed, and endowed with an erudition Buck lacks. That might be part of the problem, come to think of it. Buck is determined, and modestly resourceful, but, for whatever reason, he oozes corn-fed “charm,” despite being a Detroit native. Which finally brings to mind Vide Noir‘s primary problem: the heroine-femme-fatale-mystical-beauty. As heavy a weight of mystery and charisma is laid on Z’oiseau, a far greater weight of sheer mythic wonderment is laid on Lee, the fiancée. Buck is obsessed with and smitten by her, which might be excusable considering his simple nature. What makes less sense is the Lee-adoration from the incidental characters Buck encounters, and it makes even less sense from the villain of the piece. Lee’s reputation for desirability cannot merely be stated ad nauseum—the audience needs to see it (and believe) themselves.

On the topic of this noir femme, a second element (just barely) saves this film from any withering flippancy I would have otherwise been tempted into. As flawed (or, more accurately, pointless) as the opening and middle might be, the ending is refreshingly unexpected. Buck spends days-to-weeks pursuing the girl. He suffers humiliations, encounters ghosts, endures violence, and barely survives one nasty-looking overdose on his quest to find her and take her home. But the poor bastard never considered for a moment that he was not the hero of Lee’s story. While Ariel Vida would have done well to have kept her mysteries mysterious, Buck would be better off had he spent more time thinking through his own motives.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The band Lord Huron has produced, I guess, this trippy feature film inspired by their album ‘Vide Noir.’ And for the record, the music’s pretty cool, kind of twangy ‘Twin Peaks’ ethereal, unmoored in time, fitting for a pseudo-psychedelic film noir set in 1960s LA. The movie? It’s best summed up by the phrase ‘interesting failure.'”–Roger Moore, Movie Nation (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TO SLEEP SO AS TO DREAM (1986)

夢みるように眠りたい

Yumemiru yôni nemuritai

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Kaizô Hayashi

FEATURING: Shirô Sano, Koji Otake, Fujiko Fukamizu, Yoshio Yoshida

PLOT: A retired film star hires Uotsuka and Kobayashi, a pair of down-on-their-luck detectives, to track down her daughter Bellflower, who was kidnapped by riddle-loving criminals.

Still from To Sleep so as to Dream (1986)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The detective genre is turned on its head and spell-bound to slumber in Kaizô Hayashi’s silent film debut. This playful noir is fueled by dream logic, pantomime capering, and a nostalgia more full-throated than ‘s—as well as hundreds of hard-boiled eggs.

COMMENTS: In the market for the best P.I. in town? Then look no further than the Uotsuka Detective Agency. Sure, his schedule may be empty—so much so that his chalkboard agenda has nothing more than a doodled face on it. And he may not have the best assistant—Kobayashi idles away his time riding a pneumatic horse. But Uotsuka is as hard-boiled as they come, as proven by his in-office hen and his egg-only diet. Fine, fine, he may not be the best for everyone, but for an aging silent film star whose daughter has disappeared, his knack for riddles and protein-fueled energy fits the bill perfectly.

Kaizô Hayashi places his love of nigh-lost cinema squarely in the foreground in To Sleep So As To Dream, his directorial (and screenwriting and producing) debut. He presents the film in the Academy ratio, records in black-and-white, and, in his clever way, makes a “silent” film. Audio effects (knocked doors, clinked metal, thumped guns) are sprinkled in judiciously, but there is no spoken dialogue from the on-screen characters, who communicate through facial expressions, gestures, and often-novel intertitle cards. (As the detective obsesses over the clue “General Tower,” those words completely fill the screen.) Two circumstances break this silence: whenever a recording is played—invariably from the kidnappers, whose love of money is matched only by their love of riddling—and in the presence of a benshi.

Another throw-back to classic Japanese cinema, the benshi was the live narrator of a silent film, telling the story and interpreting the on-screen action as a film is projected. This aural eccentricity underpins the embellished performances, making for a self-aware, but never parodying, silent-style experience. The combination of off-kilter and heightened reality makes To Sleep a creditable facsimile for a dream, and Kaizô is well aware of what he’s up to. Pursuing a trio of gyroscope-peddling magicians (a “chase” sequence I can only describe as “goofily suspenseful”), Uotsoka has a nasty run-in with a handful of goons and loses two million yen. After awakening from his wallop, he meets up with his client to reassure her, “…Bellflower and the money will be found—if the whole thing isn’t just a dream.”

Kaizô Hayashi is a film nostalgist, bringing to that embryonic genre his impressive visual sense and deft sound engineering to craft an experience both innovative and sentimental. (If To Sleep So As To Dream wasn’t an inspiration to Maddin, I’d be much surprised. ) Our experience of Uotsuka’s and Kobayashi’s serpentine meanderings through theme parks, carnivals, dreamscape movie theaters—and even a memory-warping film shoot—is what movies are all about: the bending of technique to vision so as to create storytelling art.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Cinema is of course a medium of dreams, and this metacinematic film about the belated, backward-looking pursuit of something as elusive as lost youth or a bygone medium certainly comes packed with elements of an oneiric nature. Not since Giulio Questi’s similarly surreal Death Laid An Egg, from 1968, had there been a film so singularly obsessed with chickens and eggs…”–Anton Bitel, Little White Lies (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: THE SEED (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Sam Walker

FEATURING: Chelsea Edge, Lucy Martin, Sophie Vavasseur

PLOT: Three young women spend a weekend in a remote home for a photo shoot, but their plans are interrupted when a meteor shower delivers an alien.

Still from The Seed (2021)

COMMENTS:

  • Deidre: vapid; (conventionally) smokin’ hot; internet influencer.
  • Charlotte: geek-nerd; works at a pet store; has an old phone.
  • Heather: required because her father owns the remote house the three women are stranded in.

There are three other (human) characters, but here’s the thing: I’m talking about a low-budget science-fiction/horror thingy that is the kind of story horror filmmakers have been re-tooling since… (research pending). Gosh, if only I had Charlotte around to help me here—writer/director Sam Walker makes it obvious she reads books and knows things. Also made obvious is the fact that wherever these three pals are spending the weekend has no phone reception, or wi/fi, or even a land-line. (This last fact was deftly established by Charlotte’s line, “People don’t have land-lines any more”; this is patently a falsehood, as I assure you that I myself have a landline.)

The Seed spends the better part of an hour establishing their remoteness, their vehicleless-ness (though this assertion is later undermined), and the stinkiness of whatever it was that falls from the sky during a “once in a lifetime meteor shower.” I watched in vague impatience as the characters’ personalities were dictated, molded, established, reinforced, and etched in carbonite. An hour goes by, the vapid one vapids, the daughter of the homeowner freaks out about damaging the place, and the geek-nerd spares the life of a space entity and, in the one thing that kept me hopeful in the opening two-thirds, has an odd kiss with the odd boy who comes around to tend the lawn.

This capering, however, finally becomes interesting in the closing act. Elements from Eraserhead, and even Society, creep into the action. When Charlotte brings in the stinky baby-alien, its look and its swaddling (and its intermittent screeching) bring to mind Henry’s ordeal with the evil duck-fetus. And when Deidre attempts to kill the whats-it while Heather and Charlotte go off in the “buggy,” she instead partakes in something with a… shunting kind of look. And oh yes, there’s a bit of an Edward Blake-meets-2001: A Space Odyssey scene (with boobies). The final half hour ultimately makes The Seed worth watching, as the over-long opening setup allows a new personality for the two least interesting characters. Even Heather succumbs to the strange wiles of the alien entity and, in a stroke that emphasizes just how tedious she is as a person, transmogrifies into an unsettling facsimile of a chill young person.

This damning with faint praise (or, not even that I suppose) may suggest that I am not happy to have spent my time in this odd world of privilege, swish housing, and Chekhov’s mace. Somehow I was smiling by the end, even through the requisite “Oh-ho, you thought the problem may have been addressed, but you were wrong!” final shot. The Seed is effective B-movie fare, with sun-shiny pool scenes, fun creature effects, and just enough suspense in the finale to have me talking back to the television screen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a psychedelic interplanetary strain that’s like Society meets a Cosmopolitan photoshoot. Shudder’s latest original also brings to mind something akin to The Cleanse, in which an adorable puppet becomes something much worse. I don’t mention Critters or Gremlins because that denotes a bit more creature polish—The Seed has more in common with Brian Yuzna or Stuart Gordon weirdness.”–Matt Donato, Paste (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: KING JUDITH (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Bailey

FEATURING: Nicole Fancher, Joanna Schellenberg, Jenny Ledel, Emily Ernst, Rhonda Boutte

PLOT: A police detective investigates a car crash which ends the lives of three women and triggers the disappearance of a fourth.

Still from King Judith (2022)

COMMENTS: Viewer discretion is advised: this film is best viewed as a treatise on American feminist folklore. The plot’s threads remain unwoven until a quiet reveal at the finish, and even then the pervasive mystery is not put to rest. This method of storytelling is in keeping with the Southern Gothic style, relying heavily on ambience and spirituality—both religious and otherwise. The ethereal-but-anchored tone also echoes the subject matter: ghosts, memories, and revenants. And despite the sun-infused imagery and wispy, often (overly) poetical dialogue, there is a sense of unspecifiable loss wrapped around the ambiguous happenings.

The facts at hand are scant. Known: three women died in a car crash while en route to a “macabre literary festival.” Known: the sudden appearance on the road of a fourth woman, recently evicted from her tent-home of twenty years, triggered the crash; this woman’s whereabouts are unknown. Known: this tragedy is followed by a series of deaths-of-despair on the parts of several ostensible witnesses. Through the detective’s interviews with the victims’ friends and associates, and obliquely pertinent poems sent to her by an unknown observer, the meandering turns of events are uncovered. But what it all adds up to remains opaque, both for the film’s protagonist and for the audience.

While enduring the first third of the movie, I felt a growing apprehension—the bad kind. I feared I would have to spend an entire review dumping on an unlucky indie filmmaker. The opening mystery-tedium and the lead actress’ unconvincing performance (imagine a keen twelve-year-old girl attempting to come across as a thirty-something “seen-it-all” kind of cop) nearly sunk it. To my relief, King Judith manages to transcend both the sum of its parts and its myriad flaws. (As with anything “Southern” or “Gothic”, patience pays off, in this case handsomely.) The second act opens with a bar scene in which writer/director Bailey at last finds his storytelling voice. What follows is an encounter where an awkward fellow beautifully regales a childhood ghost experience, and the young woman he’s speaking with (one of the three car-crash victims) in turn share the amusing story of the “Mounted Aristotle” caper from Alexandrian times.

King Judith never fully shakes off its pretensions; there are too many random shots of poetical movement in front of poetical backdrops, plenty of “quirky” artist characters, and dialogue of the “…reckless urges to climb celestial trellises, and slide down them” variety by the bucketful. The grandiloquence is heading somewhere, however, and its meandering way covers interesting intersections of folklore and psyche, feminist and otherwise. And Richard Bailey’s detective-story frame is apt. In the world of memory, tales, history, the supernatural, and the hereafter, there are “no answers to our questions, only rewards—fascinating details, luminous things; on and on it goes: the work of gathering clues.”

Kind Judith is currently streaming for free on Tubi.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird little film that mixes folklore, and Southern Gothic, with a dose of women’s studies, and comes up with something that feels almost like a stage play that was adapted for the screen.”–Jim Morazzini, Voices from the Balcony (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MONA LISA AND THE BLOOD MOON (2021)

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Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ana Lily Amirpour

FEATURING: Jeon Jong-seo, Kate Hudson, , Evan Whitten, Ed Skrein

PLOT: A young woman with telepathic powers escapes from a mental hospital to New Orleans and is befriended by a down-on-her-luck exotic dancer.

Still from Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2021)

COMMENTS: Society’s fringes probably have no storyteller more sympathetic than Ana Lily Amirpour. From her shadow-filled debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, through the sun-soaked dystopian Bad Batch, and now with the perpetual street-light glow in Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, Amirpour has maintained a fascination with folks on the periphery of civilization. While the likes of Harmony Korine dwell in tragedy, staging his tales amidst the horrific grind of poverty, Amirpour regards tragedy as nearly an afterthought—it’s present, certainly, in all its violence and sadness, but overcome through the by-the-nails vibrancy that courses through every character. The misunderstood get a fair shake; the downtrodden have their small pleasures; and, just as importantly, the inexplicable remains that way.

It is possible that Amirpour arranges her films around the music. Every scene glides along to a rhythm, with every character slotting perfectly into their dancing role. Mona Lisa makes this focus explicit with the second of its primary characters, Bonnie Hunt (a delightfully trashy Kate Hudson). As a middle-aged stripper, she’s showing signs of wear, but still has the moves, and always holds her head up high. The titular Mona Lisa (Jeon Jong-seo) possesses a feral artistry, first when slinking around her cell at the mental hospital, then when wandering the side streets of New Orleans. Even awkward neophyte Evan Whitten fits with the choreography as Bonnie’s pissed-off-and-confused son: a boy who escapes his daily troubles and unwieldy self through “hashing,” or, as he explains, “dancing aggressively. To metal!” It’s appropriate, then, that the one “hero” here—and my favorite character—is the hyper-chill DJ by the name of “Fuzz”; explaining his sobriquet, he glides Mona Lisa’s hand over his facial hair and scalp, “See? It’s soft.” It’s a rough life out there, so you gotta take it easy.

After the harsh glow of the opening asylum, the remainder of the movie is washed in the ambient late-night-light of the one town where everyone is welcome. Whereas Las Vegas’ inclusivity is tainted (it wants your money), New Orleans is the city for all-comers, a bacchanal which demands only that you let others revel alongside. The camera work is smooth, gliding unobtrusively—staying chill—as Mona Lisa’s meandering journey unfolds. Most everyone is bottom of the barrel: strippers, drug dealers, loiterers, townsfolk, and even the cops coming across as workaday stiffs who aren’t seeking a hassle. Like a mellow Jell-O, everyone moves along with the underlying thump of the background house music.

Mona Lisa starts with no explanation of its protagonist; a policeman’s background research into the mysterious young woman brings up zilch, a slight foray into supernatural refuses to elucidate matters (a Voodooienne consulted by the cop leaves it at, “You don’t pick Voodoo, son. Voodoo picks you”), and things wrap up with an escape from the authorities toward… Well, the geographic destination is Detroit, but otherwise no hints are given and no promises are made. Amirpour’s interests aren’t in pointlessly digging for root cause behind life’s sturm und drang. All you can hope to do is dance to life’s wave and, as a fortune cookie advises the cop at the start, “Forget Everything You Know.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Par for the course with writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and The Bad Batch), Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon lives and dies off a hypnotic wavelength that’s increasingly bizarre… The blunt themes are worthy conversation starters, and the film is still strange enough to recommend, but by the end, all the best elements might as well be sacrificed to the blood moon itself.”–Robert Kojder, Flickering Myth (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THEY CRAWL BENEATH (2022)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Dale Fabrigar

FEATURING: Joseph Almani, Karlee Eldridge, Michael Paré

PLOT: A series of earthquakes has unleashed deadly nematodes, and Danny is forced to confront his lineage while awaiting rescue from this wormy menace.

Still from They Crawl Beneath (2022)

COMMENTS: Upon finishing They Crawl Beneath, I discovered a message on my answering machine regarding a matter that required prompt attention. This effort took approximately eighty minutes to bring it—not quite—to a close. During my various intervals of being put on hold while I was shuffled around between departments, an unfortunate thought occurred: I was finding this mundane tedium far more satisfying than Dale Fabrigar’s film.

They Crawl Beneath has no respect for the audience’s attention, or intelligence. And a creature feature has no business being this slow, much less waiting until the midpoint (the first half ranking among the least pleasant 40 minutes I’ve endured in a movie) for the crawlers in question to fully mount their offensive. And speaking of offensive, I was nearly tickled with dismay at the character Doctor Wu, a definitely-Asian scientist who somehow has all the answers and, somehow, meets an off-screen death mentioned in one of the throwiest-away of throwaway lines I’ve ever heard. But I get ahead of myself: Jimmy the Cop is a good guy with a bad uncle and a dead dad, who gets trapped under a vintage car in a garage geographically situated in an earthquake-prone part of the world. He faces some worms and familial demons while his girlfriend hovers in the periphery—usually delivering lines in a monotone trance.

Sound cues do all the work for you, be they declarations of “Here there be melodrama!” or of “Here there be scary!” The heavy-handedness of the score bordered on ridiculous, but unfortunately maintained a heartfelt dalliance with boring bombast. Whatever they paid the actors, it was too much—and even more so, the screenwriter. It’d take someone with the B-movie charm of ten Bruce Campbells to compellingly deliver lines like, “Gwen, listen to me: I want to live. For you, and our baby” (oh yes, I had forgotten they threw in a truly random pregnancy to ratchet up the… something), or what I can only presume was an attempt at comedy, “I am definitely hallucinating.”

The movie did nothing well—my time could hardly be described as valuable, but even I felt insulted by this rotten attempt at storytelling. And though my game of phone-tag and being put on hold is, alas, not quite complete, I take considerable comfort in the fact that at least my experience with They Crawl Beneath is over with.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The result is a really weird combo platter of interpersonal dysfunction within the context of a monster movie, and however many creatures are lying below, They Crawl Beneath might have resonated better had it decided on what kind of a film it really wants to be.”–Jeffrey Kauffman, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)