Tag Archives: 2020

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

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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 MIGHT 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)

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.

CAPSULE: APPLES (2020)

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Apples is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Christos Nikou

FEATURING: Aris Servetalis, Sofia Georgovassili

PLOT:  After falling victim to a syndrome that causes sudden memory loss, Aris enters an odd recovery program designed to create new memories for a new identity.

Still from Apples (2020)

COMMENTS: When a man snarls traffic by abandoning his vehicle in the road and sitting on the curb, then denies it was his car, a fellow passenger takes it in stride and calls an ambulance. In Apples, an incurable plague of sudden-onset amnesia is so common that people don’t get angry about the inconveniences it causes. When Aris forgets his name and where he’s going on a public bus, he is routinely sent to a hospital wing dedicated to amnesiacs. After no friends or family come to claim him, he is enrolled in an experimental new program designed to give amnesiacs a new beginning. The regimen involves the subject recreating a series of representative experiences—riding a bicycle, crashing a car, having a one-night stand—and taking Polaroids of themselves at the scene, which they place in a special memory album. With no other obvious options, Aris dutifully enters the program and sets about following the doctors’ instructions for creating a life. A few tantalizing memories of his old existence occasionally break through the fog: a dog’s name, a street address. But all we can be reasonably certain of from his previous life is that he loved apples.

Apples will necessarily be seen as a late entry in the Greek Weird Wave—launched by with the deadpan absurdity of 2009’s Dogtoothand I doubt debuting director Christos Nikou would disavow the influence. Apples is Lanthomisian in rhythm and style, but pared-down to its essential moods. The acting is restrained but subtle, as opposed to the in-your-face, disconnected-from-reality non-acting that inhabits much of the Weird Wave. Servetalis’ nondescript, bearded face forms the perfect blank canvas on which we can project our own anxieties and melancholy. The sense of humor is absurd—Aris on a child’s bike, a doctor suggesting patients’ make therapeutic Molotov cocktails—but never approaches the surreal heights of something like The Lobster. The world here is only slightly askew, with the unexplained amnesia plague and the low-tech setting (Polaroids and cassette tapes instead of cell phones) serving as the only clues we’re not in present day reality. The spare cinematic compositions are designed to reinforce a sense of isolation, even in urban settings, but they are classically framed. (A cemetery scene with bone-white tombstones set against a gray sky and Aris standing in a slumped silhouette is one of the sweeter shots of the year.) It all seems designed to be more audience friendly than usual for the genre, but that choice doesn’t feel like a calculated compromise; rather, Nikou locates a natural space between standard arthouse drama and experimental film where he’s comfortable exploring penetrating ideas.

Note that there are two parts to the program Aris enters: constructing false memories, and creating a new identity for himself. Apples‘ plot focuses our attention on the bizarre methodology of the first part, but thematically, it’s more interested the second part of the formula. Apples becomes an existential fable raising open-ended questions: is Aris’ amnesia a result of traumatic event? Is it, in some sense, a choice? How essential is memory to our identity—if I forget everything, am I still me? Does the hospital’s structured regimen help or hinder Aris to live authentically? Apples invites you to puzzle out these questions on your own. The ending is, ironically, memorable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It all sounds bizarre on paper. But Apples, the first feature from the director and co-writer Christos Nikou, unfolds with an understated deadpan wit that makes even its weirder touches seem plausible, even logical. At times it reminded me of some of the brilliant absurdist satires, like Dogtooth and Attenberg, that have put Greek cinema on the map over the past two decades.”–Justin Chang, NPR (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: INSPECTOR IKE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Graham Mason

FEATURING: Ikechukwu Ufomadu, Matt Barats, Grace Rex, Jessica Damouni, Ana Fabrega, Anthony Oberbeck, John Early

PLOT: Inspector Ike investigates a murder at an avant-garde theater group.

Strill from Inspector Ike (2020)

COMMENTS: Inspector Ike is a parody of a very specific subgenre— 1970’s mystery-themed “movies of the week,” a la “Columbo”—from the nearly extinct Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker-Mel Brooks school of tomfoolery. Presented as a faux episode of a ongoing movie-of-the-week series, complete with animated intro with a magnifying-glass carrying, trenchcoated sleuth, the movie drops us into a world where Inspector Ike already exists, catching new crooks week after week with his signature finishing move: hiding handcuffs near some incriminating piece of physical evidence, then toasting the perp with a wink and a glass of champagne.

This “episode” (“Audition for Death”) follows an struggling actor who kills his mentor so he can take the lead in his troupe’s production of the one-man musical “Mannie.” In “Columbo” fashion, we see the murder first, and suspense comes from watching Ike try to put the pieces together, while the killer tries to cover his tracks. The theater world setting allows the film to poke some gentle fun at the off-off-Broadway scene (the mythical “Avant-Garde Alley,” where you find mimes and kabuki actors smoking on stoops in-between rehearsals); that milieu, after all, is not all that different than the world of New York’s underground comedy scene from which Ike‘s cast was drawn. Like a true TV villain, murderer Matt Barats hams the hell out of his part, all sideways glances and sly grins before the heat turns on, then big-eyed and twitchy, like a hack in the Scottish play seeing an imaginary drop of blood on his corduroy sleeve. By contrast, Ufomadu’s Ike is totally deadpan; suave and quietly competent whether he’s fixing a tilted picture with his shadow or cooking a pot of chili in a nervous suspect’s apartment. A wide range of always humorous supporting actors occupy the spaces between these two combatants, most notably scene-stealing Deputies Hawthorne and Dinardo, who can never seem to stay on topic during their consultations with Ike.

Inspector Ike gets the fond camp tone exactly right—possibly because there’s not a lot of well-worn tropes to overparody in this extremely specific subgenre, which allows the script freedom to simply wander in the direction of whatever joke it finds most amusing at the moment. Despite the minuscule budget, Ike seems like a relic of the era, based mainly on accurate 70s wardrobes (Harry’s mustard turtleneck, Ike’s powder-blue suit with wide striped tie) and appropriate touches like commercial fadeouts. The film was shot on the streets of Brooklyn, carefully avoiding anachronisms. Casting such a project with local stand-ups rather than full-time thespians was a wise choice; low-budget comedies often fail because the actors lack comic timing and instincts, which is never an issue here. I’ll confess that I rarely found any of the gags laugh-out-loud funny, but that wasn’t a problem, because the likeable cast carries the movie along on a pleasant current of low-key absurdity that never becomes either boring or upsetting.

So it’s fun, but is it a weird movie? Well, mildly so, in at least in its general conception. In his director’s commentary, Mason says that he was trying to create something that “nobody asked for,” an artifact that would leave the audience wondering “why does this even exist?” but glad that it does. He succeeds in this goal admirably, and I’d love to see more stuff from the Mason/Ufomadu team that I never asked for.

It’s a shame that Inspector Ike did not land a streaming deal so that more people could see it, but the Blu-ray package is well worth the purchase for comedy fans. It features a commentary track by director/co-writer Mason, and a booklet with more Graham commentary, an “Inspector Ike” episode guide, and a word search puzzle. Along with the memorable trailer, two comic Ufomadu/Mason short collaborations round out the package: “Words with Ike” (a “word of the day” TV parody) and “The Photos of Ana” (with “Detective Hawthorne” Ana Fabrega). Both shorts have the same underplayed, off-kilter comic sensibilities as Inspector Ike. The package even includes an official Inspector Ike recipe card, which you can use to jot down ingredients and directions for Ike’s detailed chili recipe when prompted.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As pop culture deep cuts go in 2022, ‘Inspector Ike’ certainly has the weirdest inspiration in recent memory… Ufomadu is terrific in the part, and the rest of the cast commits to the weirdness of the effort. Not every joke lands, or is even attempted, but there are spirited, dryly hilarious performances to enjoy throughout the endeavor.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)