Category Archives: 366 Underground

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)

366 UNDERGROUND: THE MAN WITH NO PANTS (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Matthew A. Peters

FEATURING: Stephanie Ward, Ryan Santiago, Joe Cappelli

PLOT: Trinix Spade, junior space detective, has no fear; Colt Cory, outlaw, has no pants. Together they must win a series of death matches to apprehend the Shogun.

Still from Man with no Pants (2021)

COMMENTS: Some viewers might ask of The Man With No Pants, “Why?” I’m more inclined to ask, “Why not?” I have a simple challenge I put to every movie I review: does this entertain? If yes, I can be forgiving. The Man With No Pants, as the title suggests, is intentional nonsense. It’s anti-hero, Colt Cory, channels the traditions of “The Man With No Name,” but moreso his less known counterpart, the Stranger. Trinix Spade captures the enthusiasm of the Indominatable Female Reporter archetype. And the Shogun—well, for some reason I couldn’t help but think of Vampire Burt, whose “serenade” I found simultaneously inept and amusing. Half of this brief movie is combat between unlikely goons: “Master Manchu”, a foppish black fighter with a streak-blond wig, and “El Gatito con Zapatos Azules”, a luchador, being the standouts. But alas, this simple set-up is executed with, to be blunt, imperfect technique.

Conducting a little research while watching No Pants unfold, I discovered that writer-director Matthew Peters has been at this for a while now. I was curious as to how much of a neophyte he might be, as something weighed heavily on me from the start. No Pants is very, very silly, but it was obviously made with joy. This goes a long way, but not quite far enough. I was surprised to find that it was good enough that I wished that just a little more care had been taken in its production. Peters could do with a competent sound guy. The audio was often choppy and obscured. (On the plus side, the soundtrack was pitch-perfect). He could also do with tighter fight choreography—particularly if he’s going to feature combat so prominently.

That said… I could see the foundation of a nichely famous B-movie director here. No Pants had enough zingers that I found myself laughing often, particularly with the running gag about Colt Cory lacking pants. With Ryan Santiago’s husky dead-pan, the spite-filled rejoinder, “You know damn well what happened to my pants!” carried more chuckles than could rightfully be hoped for. Seeing as he’s cranked out a dozen or so features as well as smaller projects, I’d like to challenge Matthew Peters to channel all his focus into his next film. He’s got a “vibe” going, as well as a knack for ridiculous dialogue. It remains to be seen if he can hone the good points, improve on the clunkiness, and launch his actors into the zany orbit he’s so obviously striving for.

Man with no Pants can be rented exclusively from Vimeo through links on Mad Angel Films homepage.

366 UNDERGROUND: MY NEIGHBOR WANTS ME DEAD (2019) WITH BONUS INTERVIEW

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DIRECTED BY: Nick Gatsby

FEATURING: Eric Willis, Scott Mitchell

PLOT: A hapless tenant finds himself dying at the hands of his neighbor over and over again.

Still from My Neighbor Wants Me Dead (2019)

COMMENTS: There’s a grandeur that kicks off Nick Gatsby’s first feature film that is both beautiful and disorienting. Haunting choral music, haunting wind sounds, and a haunting, burning moon (?) behind scraggly, leafless branches. The moon turns green, and there is a cut—appropriately—to psychedelically-lit puzzle pieces. This abstraction crops up throughout the rest of the film: interesting shots cut up by post-production static, over-exposure, jump cuts, and—my favorite—hilarious intertitles. With what seems like zero dollars on hand, but plenty of focus for fastidious editing and micro-effects, Gatsby has put together a creative anomaly; I wouldn’t describe it as a movie, per se, but it would hold its own among the video installations I’ve enjoyed at various modern art museums.

The story, such as it is, remains basic: a man mysteriously appears in a chair, slumped over. He awakens and is quickly menaced by a (largely) unseen neighbor. He’s about to be killed, and on a very short timer. Looming butterflies act as harbingers. Skulls appear, tiki bars are disregarded, and only in the fifth iteration do things seemingly fall into place.

Watching My Neighbor Wants Me Dead with a group was apt, as the chatter (pleasant though it was) acted as something of a distraction. And wouldn’t you know, the film’s tagline is “A film about distractions.” More than most (more straight-forward) narratives, My Neighbor lends itself to multiple interpretations. I saw it as a meditation on depression: the protagonist continually tries and fails to survive and get out of his door. Distractions subsume him: the promise of a “Tiki Bar,” threats from his neighbor, and even idly wandering through his barren apartment. Knowing a thing or two about depression myself, I know that one of the main challenges it presents the sufferer with is distraction: a simple, but driving distraction from being able to just face the day.

Gatsby earns plenty of bonus points for style, and several more for the oddball humor sprinkled throughout. There’s a cartoon intermission, plenty of ragtime music, and obscenely pictographed phrases during the intertitles. The ending did elicit a bit of, “Well, I should have seen that coming…”; but seeing as how I didn’t, I can’t complain. I am glad to say that I look forward to Gatsby’s next (great?) outing.

BONUS INTERVIEW: In the final minutes of the screening, filmmaker Nick Gatsby mysteriously appeared, telecommuting from his bunker in Colorado. The 366 crew all chipped in questions for him about his film. Continue reading 366 UNDERGROUND: MY NEIGHBOR WANTS ME DEAD (2019) WITH BONUS INTERVIEW

366 UNDERGROUND: SMALL TALK (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Terrisha Kearse

FEATURING: Farelle Walker, Jared Benjamin, Scott St. Patrick, Kiya Roberts, Jermaine Jercox, David Chattam, Gayla Johnson, Mia Sun

PLOT: Ahmed attends a dinner party with Corah, his fiancée, to meet his prospective in-laws. Did we mention that they live in Wonderland?

COMMENTS: “Down the rabbit-hole” is as apt a phrase to use with Small Talk—literally as well as figuratively—since the film is a very clever bounce off of Carroll’s “.” The original story has been adapted and interpreted as everything from social commentary to political allegory, but writer/actor Farelle Walker uses it as a pointed and even more surreal look at information overload, behavior defined by social media, and any “ism” (race, sex, class, etc.) that she can come up with—and that’s quite a lot.

It’s a chaotic package; quite a lot is thrown at the audience, and at “Alice,” in this instance represented by Ahmed Mogadam (Jared Benjamin) as the voice of reason. He (and we) are introduced to the Hamner Family, described in the opening statement as an “interesting family of strong opinions and disturbingly small-minded chatter.” There’s Corah (Farelle Walker), Ahmed’s fiancée, an African Goddess (we meet them as they’re listening to her podcast on her “Yanniverse”; she refers to Ahmed as a “Moor”) and a conspiracy believer (trying to avoid chemtrails as planes fly overhead). Her sister, Senna (Kiya Roberts) is “White” based, having ties to the “White Lives Matter” movement. Her husband, Edwardian ‘Eddie” Licenter (Scott St. Patrick) is a “White” rabbit (“Creole,” he insists). Brother Grant (Jermaine Jercox) is a sinister Army officer, describing himself as “the Black Man They can trust.” Poppa Hamner (David Chattam) is a pig who acts and talks as a stereotypical black patriarch, and matriarch Athyna Hamner (Gayla Johnson)—The Red Queen —is a pious Christian for White Jesus, who watches all via a portrait on the wall.

Amongst all of this is the Asian housekeeper, Soon Yook (Mia Sun), who gives condescension as good as she gets it; and the constantly streaming “Wonderland News” with the Mad Hatter, Dormouse and Rabbit as news anchors in the background. It’s a dense package that might seem, at first glance, a mad cluster… but it’s a film that one needs to pay close attention to, especially the wordplay. It’s a film for smart people. Some of the banter  may go over a lot of heads, especially as far as some specific cultural aspects are concerned, but for those willing to go on the ride down the hole, they’ll have a wild time.

I set out with the intention of creating a mirror image of what I saw happening in my Social Media feed, while simultaneously shining a light into the dark corners of assimilation. As each minority group gains wealth, independence, and power there is a collective cheer amongst us. There is also a collective responsibility, which requires us to understand just how intricately racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and hatred of ‘others’ was woven into the structure of society. If we take note of how these concepts are interlaced we will start to understand why these ‘isms’ have not only outlasted their creators, but also started to be reflected in numerous people of color and minority groups. Recognition of our responsibility to be better should not make us kowtow to those that would oppress us; you will not hear a rally from me to turn the other cheek. Whether we find ourselves in opposition with a different ethnicity, opposite sex, or even a different religion; we must utilize our hard fought gains towards a higher standard in our approach to dealing with those we oppose. For if we act, problem solve and sound like those who oppressed us, are we really any different? ” – Farelle Walker

You can watch the 45 minute feature for free at www.flyrenegadeproductions.com or embedded below.

Small Talk The Movie from Farelle Walker on Vimeo.

366 UNDERGROUND: SHADOWPLAY (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Tony Pietra Arjuna

FEATURING: Tony Eusoff, Megat Sharizal, Juria Hartmans, Iman Corinne Adrienne, Radhi Khalid

PLOT: Anton Shaw is an unlicensed detective hired to track down a missing college student, but his own traumatic past keeps derailing his investigation.

COMMENTS: Under a glaring neon sign, at the cross-section between pulp-detective and pulp-romance, you will find Tony Arjuna’s Shadowplay—a movie with ambition. Among the themes explored, it primarily focuses on:

  • The effects of childhood trauma
  • The influence of dreams on reality
  • The slipperiness of identity
  • The cross-section between the written word and real life
  • The unreliability of memory

The question then becomes, does Arjuna’s reach exceed his grasp?

The story, as best as one might decipher, involves a would-be private investigator named Anton Shaw (Tony Eusoff), as he minds the shop for his friend and mentor (who is busy with a run of the mill adultery case). To kill the time, Anton reads a “choose your own adventure” novel, one with no author credited and no publishing house mentioned. The phone rings. Does he choose to answer? Turning to page 18, he does so, and thus begins the investigation of a young woman’s disappearance—an investigation that neatly mirrors his own past. His choices in the book are shown in real life, or perhaps vice-versa. For Anton, nothing is made clear until the end—and even then, he may have gotten no further than the chair in his friend’s office.

I’ll say right now that there are problems. The acting quality is very inconsistent, particularly with the female characters. As this is a riff on the “hard-boiled detective” story, there needs must be a femme fatale–several, in the case of Shadowplay. This numerousness is fine, but hearing a sultry dame huskily inquire, “Are you of indigenous descent?” strained even my generous incredulity. Perhaps it’s the script: the story is truly novel (so to speak), but many of the players are stuck with platitudinous lines that even the best actors would have difficulty giving weight to. Also, the scattered nature of the narrative leaves a lot of unhelpful ambiguity.

But, Shadowplay succeeds in two key ways. It’s beautifully shot, with a clever lighting and color scheme that creates a genuinely otherworldly aura. The aerial shots—of a very ’80s-looking Kuala Lumpur—ably define the environment, a nighttime hybrid of neon reality and neon dreams. The soundtrack, also very 1980s, enhances this effect, and by the film’s end I was in one of those pleasantly altered states of contemplation; the movie had transported me from my viewing room to its twilight vision of shadowy luminescence.

Shadowplay is, in all honesty, a very amateur outing, but it does give me hope for Arjuna’s future. He’s got a lock on sound and vision, and if he can just tighten his stories (and find better actors), I’ve no doubt he’ll be making great–and, hopefully, weird–movies in the future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Shadowplay is halfway there thanks to its aesthetic, I cannot stress enough how beautiful this film is to look at. Arjuna deserves praise for turning Kuala Lumpur into a psychedelic neon dreamland and…the soundtrack is outstanding, but this is where the good ends.” -Husna Anjum, EasternKicks.com (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: BLOODSUCKER’S PLANET (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Beal

FEATURING: , , Adrienne Dobson, Joe Grisaffi,

PLOT: Responding to a distress signal, the crew of a cargo spaceship find themselves on a remote mud-harvesting planet inhabited by the charming Bartlett, who harbors a dark secret.

Still from Bloodsucker's Planet (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: While it’s difficult to tell the deliberate weirdness from simple budgetary limitations, there’s no denying that this film’s minimalistic approach to its seemingly simple tale of vampires in space gives rise to some creepy and trippy visuals.

COMMENTS: The idea of vampires in a science fiction setting has a great deal of promise, but it’s been largely restricted to B-movies. It’s hardly a more ridiculous conceit than that of many films that break box office records. Yet personally, my sole encounters with the genre have been 1985’s Lifeforce, a film whose genuinely intriguing concepts were hard to take seriously thanks to the film’s needless sexualization, and Dracula 3000, an embarrassing bore from South African Darrell Roodt.

Point is, Bloodsucker’s Planet—which, really, spells out its whole concept right there in the title—has a promising premise right off the bat. It’s true that there are parts of it that, through no fault of the filmmakers, I probably didn’t fully understand (I unfortunately never saw Bloodsucker’s Handbook, the film that this is a prequel to; and I’m not especially familiar with 60s-era sci fi, from which Planet draws many cues); but still, I can recognize a solid and underutilized concept when I see one.

Bloodsucker’s Planet evokes the classics right from the opening, with the crew of a small cargo ship responding to a distress signal that leads them to the isolated planet of Mara, home to an abandoned mud harvesting operation now occupied only by the charming Bartlett and his gynoid assistant Adrianna. The sci fi parallels to the classic vampire tale are evident almost at once. The solitary Bartlett has that gentlemanly charm and likeability befitting the more romantic sort of vampire overlord (though he himself doesn’t seem to be afflicted with the condition); Adrianna brings to mind one of Dracula’s concubines; the somber graveyard on the planet’s surface evokes traditional horror imagery; and the vampiric disease, it seems, is spread by a native species closely resembling (and, indeed, explicitly referred to as) bats.

Unfortunately, this intriguing setup, which promises a sci-fied take on a classically Gothic setup, ends up feeling underexploited. A big reason is clearly the limitations of the budget.

I don’t look down upon a film for having a low budget. I don’t think any fan of arthouse or independent cinema could ever justify such an attitude. But I do think that, to execute certain concepts, a certain level of resources is required. Low budget charm is all well and good; but sometimes, a film’s resources can be so limited that a great portion of its central concept gets lost. And in this case, the plain sets and scenery don’t evoke a far-distant future to any significant degree. And while this might be forgivable in a film where the  setting was more incidental, it becomes noticeable in a movie that is centered on the novelty of “vampires in space.”

There are moments of brilliance, to be sure, where the limited budget evokes the setting in a creative, surrealistic manner (most prominently in several brief shots of uncanny, slightly-off miniature models of characters wandering the planet’s surface or hurtling through space). Moreover, there’s a classic subplot centered on Adrianna struggling to reconcile her emotions with her artificial nature, and all that. I get the sense that it’s there to reinforce the connection to classic science fiction; but despite taking up a good portion of the film’s midsection, it doesn’t go anywhere or relate to the plot in any significant manner (though, not being an expert in classic vampire lore, I’m more than ready to admit I might be missing a reference). If nothing else, I’d have appreciated a few more scenes of the wisecracking space roach; sure, he also had little bearing on the central plot, but he was far and away the most entertaining character.

As much as I genuinely hate saying this about any indie effort, I do feel that Bloodsucker’s Planet attempts to tackle a concept a bit beyond the reach of its resources. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad effort by any means—there are moments where that surreal shoestring charm does its job, and Joe Grisaffi, at the very least, takes to his role with an elegant charisma. But all in all, Bloodsucker’s Planet has more promising potential than solid execution.

Either way, Planet made me more than a little curious to check out Bloodsucker’s Handbook—a film which, allegedly, was far weirder than this one. It struck me that embracing the inherent weirdness of the premise could have spiced up Bloodsucker’s Planet and helped it overcome its limitations. After all, weirdness is one of the few things that, personally, I don’t believe can be held back by budgetary constraints.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Viewers who love such recent mind-bending indie retro outings as Joe Badon’s The God Inside My Ear (2017) and Drew Bolduc’s Assassinaut (2019) are bound to have a blast with Bloodsucker’s Planet, which is an absolute delight from before its ultracool animated opening credits to its postcredits cracker jack.”–Joseph Perry, Horror Fuel (festival screening)