Category Archives: 366 Underground

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)

366 UNDERGROUND: MANBABY (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Tim Lightell

FEATURING: Asa Fager, Sidney Jayne Hunt, Anya Maria Johnson, Cherilynn Brooks, Alice Bridgforth, Tom Stewart

PLOT: A comedian whose gimmick is dressing up like a baby pretends a magic potion has turned him into a real infant to try to ignite his wife’s motherhood instincts.

Still from Manbaby (2022)

COMMENTS: The adult baby diaper lover (ABDL) community may be one of the most misunderstood and maligned group of fetishists in existence today. At a surface glance, to many outsiders, the idea of adults role-playing while dressing up in diapers and baby bonnets hews uncomfortably close to pedophilia. Diaper devotees vigorously deny the connection, arguing their passion is instead about a desire to regress to an infantile state to escape adult responsibility (although there is frequently, if not inevitably, a sexual component to the experience). Clinical practitioners agree that there is no significant crossover between ABDL behavior and pedophilia, but most people’s instinctual response to this lifestyle is discomfort, if not outright disgust.

For better or worse, Manbaby isn’t the Glen or Glenda? of the adult diaper lover community. You will find no impassioned pleas for tolerance here, no omniscient Hungarian narrators demanding to “pull the string!” In fact, if you were unaware of this fetish community altogether, you might think Manbaby is just a weirdly conceived switcheroo comedy, an age-based variant on gender-swap movies like Switch. The sexual elements of the lifestyle are referenced as obliquely as possible. Sal, our paunchy, bearded, and tattooed hero, just happens to find himself frequently wearing diapers for reasons totally unrelated to personal gratification: first, as a job, and then as part of a harebrained scheme to trick his wife into having a baby. The result is an innocent, conventionally structured relationship comedy that could at times almost play like a Disney film, but with odd, paraphiliac preoccupations poking their little heads through the straight-laced fabric. For example, a line like “babies don’t poop on walls, they poop in diapers” is not the snatch of conversation you’d expect to overhear at a bar on Friday night. The opportunities baby Sal takes to conspicuously play with the barefoot feet of his mom and babystitter raise an eyebrow. Someone spray-paints the word “CUCK” on a Manbaby promotional poster, at a time Sal’s wife is considering infidelity. There are also a lot of lesbians in the film, many dressing like greasers in leather jackets; at one point a gang of them mugs our hero. The attempt to pursue a mainstream narrative, while a stream of polymorphous perversity gurgles quietly through the narrative, makes for an uneven comedy that is nevertheless quite watchable.

And after all of this, the film takes one final left turn in the third act, abandoning comedy entirely and flash-forwarding into a melancholy future coda of old age and dementia. The final words are a bitterly whispered “it’s a farce”: referring, it seems, to the fact that people are privileged to wear diapers at the very beginning and the very end of life, but it’s taboo to enjoy them in your prime. A strange moral for a movie that, however hard it tries to present its characters as harmless and normal, simply can’t help but follow its own freakiness all the way to the end.

Unfortunately, the movie is currently only available for rental on Vimeo on Demand for $8.99 for 48 hours, a venue and price point that will keep casual viewers away. As a bonus, the rental includes 20 minutes of Kickstarter promos (filmed over 8 years!), which are actually parodies of Kickstarter promos, and which are at least as funny and arguably more clever than the finished feature.

366 UNDERGROUND: HEY, STOP STABBING ME! (2003)

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DIRECTED BY: Josh “Worm” Miller

FEATURING: Patrick Casey, Andy “Hippa” Kriss, Maria A. Morales, N. David Prestwood, Sean Hall

PLOT: College graduate Herman moves into a house with a collection of odd roommates where he is challenged by a job with ill-defined purpose, a needy girlfriend, a strange creature who keeps stealing his socks, and the mystery of what happened to his predecessors.

Still from Hey, Stop Stabbing Me! (2003)

COMMENTS: A well-played joke can wash away a multitude of sins. Countless movies over the decades have managed to cast aside lazy plotting or shoddy filmmaking because the audience left the theater laughing. I remain convinced that the success of The Departed can be attributed in large part to Mark Wahlberg’s pitch-perfect delivery of a single snarky retort. So Hey, Stop Stabbing Me!, a movie possessing zero production values but lots of spunk and all-in commitment from a group of plucky amateurs, has one mark which it absolutely must hit. The team behind this movie knows it can’t compete when it comes to the look of the film or the professionalism of the acting. So they go for jokes. And those jokes have got to land.

More often than not, God bless ‘em, they do. Screenwriters Casey and Miller (of late the storytelling masterminds behind the “Sonic the Hedgehog” franchise) adopt the time-honored strategy of throwing jokes of every shape and kind against the wall in hopes that something will stick. All kinds of jokes. The wall is littered with the sheer number of jokes that have been thrown at it. And amazingly, a pretty solid percentage of them hit. The result is a movie that’s certainly not good, but ends up being pretty great.

The primary vein of comedy pursued here is a completely demented world that everyone absurdly buys into. This is, after all, a movie in which a serial killer systematically offs his roommates and buries them in the backyard, yet his actions go completely unnoticed by everyone around him. It’s the kind of thing that would be perfectly at home on Adult Swim (and the folks at Fox clearly thought the same, as they hired Casey and Miller to script the series “Golan the Insatiable” for their “Animation Domination” slate). But wisely, the writers don’t solely rely on this dissonance. There are so many other jokes to try. Among the other styles of comedy they pursue:

  • Satire – Herman puts his degree in World History to work at a job where he wears a tie while digging holes all day (if only he’d gotten that double major in Comparative Lit like everyone else!)
  • Slapstick – Herman takes it on the chin constantly: abandoned by his family, robbed by a Samaritan, and getting the stuffing beaten out of him on a regular basis, most entertainingly at the hands of an 12-year-old boy.
  • Taboo – Herman’s nymphomaniac girlfriend Carrie has a very dark secret, for which the film slyly lays the groundwork without spoiling its horrible reveal.
  • Sheer Goofiness –  Wuzzel, the mischievous mascot reject who stalks the house in pursuit of socks, drives Herman to literal distraction. Aside from being rambunctious, he’s also a vivid example of the movie leaning into its own weaknesses, looking as he does like a cheap gorilla costume with very visible human hands.
  • Contrast – All this takes place in the extremely nondescript Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington (full disclosure: my wife’s hometown). The surroundings are so bland and inoffensive that these characters pull off the trick of standing out and fitting right in at the same time.

The movie is also surprisingly well made. The use of video is unavoidably cheap, but Miller demonstrates a real visual wit, deploying depth of field, handheld scrappiness, and deft quick-pans to sell the gags. And the story moves at a terrific pace, jumping from set piece to set piece with barely a breath. Even if one joke misses, another is sure to follow.

I fear I’m overselling the end product; Hey, Stop Stabbing Me! was shot for $500 and looks it, created by amateurs and shows it, and treated as ridiculous and feels it. But on its own terms, it’s a genuine achievement, pulling off the feat of being simultaneously incredibly dumb and sneakily smart. Hey, Stop Stabbing Me! gives hope to anybody with an iPhone, good friends, a nutty premise, and a dream.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A genuinely wacky and, at times, seriously funny horror send up that somehow avoids most of the clichés of the countless other SOV horror send ups made over the years, Hey, Stop Stabbing Me! might not win over those who don’t enjoy vintage no-budget endeavors, but then again… it might… this one moves very quickly, using Herman’s endless string of bad luck as a launching pad for all manner of unexpectedly bizarre occurrences, many of which build off of one another very effectively.” – Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!

366 UNDERGROUND: DENKRAUM (2020)

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Weirdest!

Denkraum is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Luca Paris

FEATURING: Manuel Melluso, Danilo Paris, Alba Barbullushi, Valerio Mariani, Ilaria Del Greco, Salvatore Di Natale, Giacomo Aversa

PLOT: Alex observes videos on a computer monitor for a new social network named “Denkraum” (which may also be a self-aware entity).

Still from Denraum (2020)

COMMENTS: I think it’s fair to call Denkraum a Surrealist film; although there might be a science fiction or even a mystical solution to its conundrums, any answers are buried under so many abstractions and layers of speculation and contradiction that the search for meaning becomes an exercise in the paranoiac-critical method. Fortunately, we have a director’s statement (appended to the end of this review) to provide some clues to interpretation. Even so, I think most viewers will be completely perplexed by the film’s ambiguities.

As a cinematic experience, the movie proceeds something like this: Alex (whose youthful baldness combined with a baby face make him look simultaneously thuggish and nerdy, a look that seems calculated to invoke Max in Pi) scrolls through videos on an app branded “DENKRAUM.” Every now and then, he clicks play and we “enter” a vignette and watch it play out. These may be real recorded events, memories, or dreams. Most are too dialogue-heavy to make much of an impression; in one of the better ones, four nymphs lead a man into a swimming pool and drown him while a woman in a red dress previously owned by a dead girl watches. Although they all seem to know each other and be part of the same social circle, it’s not easy to keep the characters straight or to construct any sort of narrative connecting them; this is probably intentional. When not watching videos, Alex texts with various characters or AI entities, stares at the portraits he’s hung on his walls, and walks the streets looking grim and intense, with a various color filters suggesting alienation. The screen is constantly invaded by text messages (originally scrambled, they decode before our eyes). Sometimes these come from characters in the videos, sometimes from “Denkraum” itself. They are rarely helpful (“There is a distant and hidden place where nobody listens to your screams and a drunken dancing snake.”). Are they real communications, or simply cybernetic manifestations of the voices inside Alex’s head?

Denkraum is packed full of themes, including a shadowy religious cult, schizophrenia, techno-alienation, postmodern philosophy, misogyny and sexual violence, stalker (but not quite Stalker) vibes, a possible murder or two, pseudo-fascist gangs, indistinct conspiracies, toxic homophobia, and apocalypticism. Even on multiple viewings, the choppy delivery of the ideas makes it almost impossible to form a firm interpretation of the film. Again, I suspect this is intentional: the deluge of information suggests a nightmare version of a Facebook feed, where a political rant is followed by a relationship update status followed by a kitty meme followed by a livestream of college girls making out, while various friends and acquaintances are Continue reading 366 UNDERGROUND: DENKRAUM (2020)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CYBERSATAN APOCALYPSE NIGHTMARES (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Niko

FEATURING: Csaba Molnár, Zalán Makranczi, Diána Magdolna Kiss, Niko

PLOT: A hitman takes on a series of jobs delivered to him by a pizza courier.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Hazy dream-noir creeps into every darkened corner of this film as an unnamed hero eases slowly toward sanguine annihilation. That’s the dramatic way to phrase it. More prosaically, Cybersatan Apocalypse Nightmares rides along a weird alleyway of deadpan, hazy narration, zero budget, and big ideas, transporting the viewer to another world of specific details wrapped in general ambiguity.

COMMENTS: Well, that was something: and with a title like Cybersatan Apocalypse Nightmares, it had better be. I cannot rightly say I’m sure what this movie is—not specifically. “Nightmares” is just about right, with its dream-like haziness; “Apocalypse” is implied, with its apparent dystopian setting; the “cyber” prefix is apt, as virtual, augmented, and telephonic reality come under criticism. The “Satan” element fits, too, I suppose. We do meet him, or at least an earthly incarnation of Hellish designs. But Cybersatan Apocalypse Nightmares is far too light-hearted, in its roiling-boiled noir detective kind of way, for the threat of pretension suggested by its title. Of the many things this movie is, pretentious it is not.

It’s almost Christmas, and our protagonist starts out back-footed, having to justify his meat-grilling methods to his video-game entranced son. This man, referred to variously as “killer” and “cop” (Csaba Molnár), has the aged look and cynical wit of a private detective from a century prior, going about his grim business wearing a smirk and a trenchcoat. A cigarette is nearly always jammed between his lips. And he is closely associated with two other consumables: meat, which he eats at every opportunity; and milk, a jug of which he always has in-pocket to administer to each assignment’s final victim. He’s of a mind that things are getting worse, musing that after decades on the job, “we’re at the same place. Or not. Even lower.”

Cybersatan Apocalypse Nightmares draws on and film noir (making this exercise particularly noir-y, as much of Dick’s output was also tinged by that genre). Computers abound—and they are the enemy. Among his semi-random encounters, Cop chastises a handful of Gen Zed kids for living their lives merely staring at their phones. But Cop isn’t much better off than these drones, as he suffers from his own pointless distractions in the form of internal monologues he wishes would just shut up. It is likely we meet the titular “Cybersatan” in the form of the film’s one weak point. Whether it is the direction, the script, or the actor, something is problematic with Zalàn Makranczi’s performance as a Cyber-/Cloud-/Binary-Messiah, but that made his fate all the sweeter to witness.

In the haze of well-made-with-no-money scenes, two stand-outs make me look forward to more from this Niko guy. Cop is driving between assignments, falling asleep behind the wheel. This transitions seamlessly into a dream sequence wherein Cop is gripping a railing at an empty cabaret, passed out, as Cop dressed as a custodian Santa Claus emerges with a broom. (“What is going on?”, you may ask. I have no idea.) The second comes after the bullet-heavy climax, when Cop is absorbed by an 8-bit entity emanating from the massacred computer banks. White lights, black stetson, and our hero takes a seat to ponder the void.

You can visit the Cybersatan Apaocalypse Nightmares homepage for more information, including upcoming festival screenings and future distribution.

366 UNDERGROUND: 5000 SPACE ALIENS (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Scott Bateman

FEATURING: 5,000 individuals, new and old

PLOT: None.

COMMENTS: Before diving into a brief review, let me say that this is one of the coolest things I’ve seen this year.

Wow.

Now, removing my fanboy hat, let me don my critical reviewer cap. Expanding on his 600 Space Aliens short from 2016, Scott Batemen enters “feature length” territory with this barrage of rotoscoped, scrapbooked, distorted, pigmented, animated images of 5,000 individuals1. According to the brief introduction, all entities on display have been determined to be “space aliens” according to the “Space Alien Commission” (which receives a special thank-you in the closing credits). Bateman advises us to “[w]atch carefully. Memorize all 5000 space aliens. After viewing, please dispose of this film by eating it.”

The introduction’s playful tone is maintained throughout the eighty-three-and-a-half minute run-time. (For our “physical and mental safety, each alien is shown for only one second.”) Each clip is altered in one way or another, sometimes simply (blurry black-and-white), sometimes elaborately (intricate underlays behind a stylized rotoscoping of the “alien” in the foreground). Random textual blurbs are scattered throughout in the form of three-to-six word phrases cropping up somewhere on the screen (a couple of my favorites being, “give thanks to our fetishes” and “science brain parts”).  A pulsing, power-pop synth score composed by the filmmaker drives the whole shebang, making 5000 Space Aliens an absolute must for your post-COVID art-dance house party.

Of the dozens (hundreds?) of word blasts, the most pertinent may be “text book on embalming.” I feel it distills the nature of this smilingly cryptic project. The torrent of humanity and movement Bateman captured is hypnotic; it isn’t often that I happily sit through over an hour of random images. The effect was pleasantly disorienting, so much so that when an un-doctored image of a young woman appeared, I was seriously thrown for a loop. (Mind you, the solid blocks of vermilion red streaming up from her coffee mug were probably added in post-production).

And on the topic of post-production, I shudder to think how long that took Scott (mind if I call you “Scott”?) to compile this. Every single second is bursting with life from his augmentations, be it kinetic line-o-grams or the overtly -esque animations utilizing black-and-white photographs of older “space aliens.” The second thank-you in the credits went to his cowdfunding backers, and with my brain joyfully glazed over by his efforts, I wish I could have helped him out myself. When you next have five-thousand seconds to kill, I advise you take up the challenge of observing and memorizing this barrage of human space-alien cinematographical wonderment.

OFFICIAL SITE:

5,000 Space Aliens – Official website providing plenty of  information (screening times, contact links, “About the Filmmakers”, etc.) as well as a sample from the soundtrack

366 UNDERGROUND: SISTER TEMPEST (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Joe Badon

FEATURING: Kali Russell, , Holly Bonney

PLOT: Anne must defend her version of a complex series of misunderstandings, tragedies, and hallucinations before an inter-dimensional tribunal.

Still from Sister Tempest (2020)

COMMENTS: I do not research a film before watching it. This typically works in a film’s favor: having formed no preconceptions of what it should be, I tend not to measure it against the wrong yardstick. As in general, so with Joe Badon’s sophomore feature—a rather messy, rather creative, and rather abstruse story about two sisters, several dramatic mishaps, and the nature of memory. Sister Tempest (or, as the credits arrange the title, “Sister Temp Est”), over the course of two hours that felt alternately drawn-out and hasty, presents me with some difficulty. I want to make this review a pitch for it, but I don’t think I can. And I feel a little awkward about that.

It starts off with a breezy sense of promise. The death-of-parents montage that begins the movie had the not-uncharming feel of a Maddin and Brakhage co-production for Troma Studios. The “confession” gimmick, involving a six-entity tribunal headed by a cosmic judge who could moonlight as a Rankin/Bass cartoon-land king, was perhaps an obvious choice, but that didn’t make it a bad one. Slices of temporally re-arranged scenes are smattered alongside hallucinations and false awakenings, but the crux of the narrative is: older sister, Anne the art teacher, alienates younger sister Karen after years of acting as a parent figure. Karen leaves in a huff to spend time with her drug-dealer boyfriend; arriving in her stead is Ginger Breadman, a fragile young art student who appears one day in Anne’s class.

I try to eschew dismissing opinions as being “wrong.” But now, having read up a bit on Sister Tempest, I wonder if my own opinion is in error. (The rest of the IMDb-ternet appears to be in love with this thing.) The film has quite a lot to unpack—symbols, metaphors, metaphoric symbols, allusions, illusions, nods, acknowledgements, Jeff the Janitor—so I wouldn’t say it lacks substance. I never really mustered the will to care, though. It didn’t help that the film was sliced into eight pseudo-cryptically-titled chapters that came across as a, “Hey guy, check out these Smarty-Pants we’re putting on,” more than as anything narratively useful.

From what I’ve read about Badon’s first movie, I presume that he’s improving, which brings to mind the opening sequence’s wrap-up.  Alone at a desk, manning his typewriter, sits the screen-writer. Rolling out a sheaf, we watch him read it, crumple it up, and toss it aside. His presence echoes throughout the film, as distant type-clacks occasionally occupy the soundscape. It was an interesting scene that set up an interesting aural motif. There was also good fun to be found in Sister Tempest (even the final iteration of the “gingerbread man” joke got me laughing). But spare me the Looney Tunes gimmicry; spare me the needless musical numbers; and for Heaven’s sake, spare me the multi-Messiah finale. In Tempest‘s spirit of cryptic cognomens, I shall thus conclude with, “The Movie’s Blood is in the Execution–Please do not get blood everywhere.”

Sister Tempest is in online theatrical release until May 31. You can find information on how to watch the film at the official website.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Club MC Jason Johnson (playing himself) introduces a karaoke act on stage with the words: ‘I’m gonna show you something new tonight, something ethereal, something trippy, something you haven’t ever seen before.’ His words might as well be describing Sister Tempest itself…”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)