Three spiteful women play a game of cards that escalates quickly.
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DIRECTED BY: Wendy McColm
FEATURING: Wendy McColm, Alexander Stasko, Lenae Day, Cooper Oznowicz, William Gabriel Grier, Sara Estefanos
PLOT: The lives of six odd characters intersect in increasingly surreal ways.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Wendy McColm’s debut feature is a defiantly odd duck; a near-comedy about self-absorbed young people desperate to connect and perversely unable to get out of their own way. It seems like the kind of script you might write in the aftermath of a post-breakup acid trip.
COMMENTS: Each of the characters is alone, talking to themselves, when we first meet them. A depressed-sounding man (with an effeminate voice) recites bad advice into a tape recorder (“sometimes, you have to put others down to give yourself a boost in self-esteem”). A Russian immigrant practices saying “nice day” in front of a mirror, trying to erase his accent. A woman takes selfies in her underwear and uploads them to Instagram. A stand-up comic recites his (not funny) routine and pumps himself up for a performance. A nurse practices saying the word “ow.” One other character pops up (or at least, is properly introduced) after the opening scenes: a chameleon-like woman who lives in the desert and is easily the strangest of them all. Even though these people will spend the rest of the movie bumping into each other, they remain, for the most part, alone; locked inside themselves by their own insecurities.
Social interactions in Birds Without Feathers often make little sense. In one scene, the stand-up is sucker punched by a passerby, then verbally abused by the passing nurse; he then asks for, and receives, her number. Several of the characters do “successfully” hook up together (never more memorably than in one scene that may change the way you think of Jeff Goldblum forever). But more commonly, social intercourse involves a coworker complaining that the dead look in your eyes is making him feel weird, or someone using “you know the awful thing about you?” as a first date conversation starter. A sense of lonely, uncomfortable melancholy pervades.
Writer/director Wendy McColm plays the Instagram model, and congrats to her on giving herself such an unflattering role: not only is Neil/Janet pathetic, she’s also the only character with (bizarre) nude scenes, and she gets her face spackled with white goop while making an uncomfortable confession. McColm’s character is probably the closest thing to a central presence, but the stories are fairly well-balanced between the six main players, with no one performer overly dominating the narrative. Although their lives all intersect at some point, there isn’t much of an overarching plot. Birds Without Feathers is really about a cast of eccentric characters put into a series of sketches. Some are dramatic, and even touching; some are funny (or almost funny, in an awkward shaped-like-a-joke-but-lacking-a-punchline way); and some are just flat-out weird. They’re not all hits, but there are enough good moments and perspective switches to keep you interested. It should go without saying, however, that this one is not for normies.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
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DIRECTED BY: Tim Kirk
FEATURING: Patton Oswalt, Rob Zabrecky
PLOT: The viewer watches the old exploitation roadshow feature Sex Madness (1938), synced to a podcast where the “Film Dick” interviews the director’s grandson and uncovers shocking secrets about the production.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a clever idea with a mildly weird twist, but the execution doesn’t live up to the premise’s promise.
COMMENTS: In the early 90s, a troupe of comedians from the Midwest revolutionized bad-movie watching with “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which you might recognize as that show where silhouettes at the bottom of the screen toss out wisecracks while a giant monster or juvenile delinquent movie unspools in real time. Like Tim Kirk’s previous experiment, Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein (2015), Sex Madness Revealed takes that conceit to the next level: instead of making a series of one-off jokes at the expense of the film, it invents an entire new fictional narrative and overlays it onto the original. Without going too deep into spoiler territory, Revealed proposes that the base movie, the 1930s VD scare film Sex Madness, is actually a coded message from a secret society. It’s a parody of the way certain paranoid fans 1 believe movies work: directors slide secret messages into their work to signal Illuminati connections, or to slyly confess that they faked the moon landing, or whatever. This cinematic conspiracy theme explains why Room 237‘s signed on as producer.
Sex Madness itself is an oddity, a nearly plotless pastiche of padding, stock footage, subdued salaciousness (an as-titillating-as-possible-at-the-time lesbian seduction), and hypocritical moral shock (grotesque shots of syphilis chancres, both faked and real). The lack of a real plot in Sex Madness leaves the commentators room to speculate and to invent a story that’s more interesting than the one playing out onscreen. The task the writers give themselves is a tough one, and although it is impressive that they are able to craft a meta-narrative that holds water, the script often strains mightily. One character’s passing resemblance tolaunches a major portion of the plot. Sometimes, the writers inspirations are just silly and don’t come across: for example, a mysterious sound artifact leads to speculation that the actors’ performances are being controlled by the offscreen director via electrical shocks. Some minor observations approach brilliance, however: once the grandson explains that grandfather selected the wood grain in one of the film’s drab office sets for its subliminal vaginal connotations, you’ll never be able to see the room any other way.
The plot is ultimately merely serviceable, and so are the performances. Oswalt and Zabrecky recorded their lines in one day, and it sounds like it. That’s not to say they are bad: they both deliver professional readings. But they don’t have time to dive deeply into their characters to create something more than a competent caricature. As the gung ho but arrogant podcast host, Oswalt is OK, but his character isn’t completely convincing; his exhaustive command of minutiae from the dregs of exploitation cinema (e.g., instant recall of a minor exploitation actresses’ high school mascot) is a little much, even for a bad film nerd. As the eccentric grandson delivering shocking revelations, Zabrecky gives a laid-back but melodramatically sinister performance that also fails to transcend the workmanlike. If you’re drawn to this type of cinema and this type of narrative experiment, the end result is something you might enjoy listening to once; but it’s not a movie with heavy replay value. Which is a shame, since Sex Madness Revealed is currently only available on physical media, whereas it would be a fine choice for a on-demand rental one evening. (If you’re a legitimate fan of Sex Madness itself, by all means buy this disc—and may God have mercy on your soul.)
As usual, Kino Lorber treats even its nichiest releases with respect. Extras on the Sex Madness Revealed DVD or Blu-ray include the option to watch the original version of the film with no commentary track, or to listen to a real commentary track from co-writers Tim Kirk and Patrick Cooper overlaid on top of Oswalt and Zabrecky’s fake commentary track. There’s also the trailer for Kirk’s Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein and a short installment of Rob Zabrecky’s comedy seance series, “Other Side with Zabrecky,” where comedian Will Forte asks to speak to the spirit ofThat last one is pretty weird; and, personally, I enjoyed it more than the feature film.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Aliens come by to liven up an otherwise uneventful night at the ranch with some unintelligible gibberish and nipple tickling.
Content Warning: This short contains gross humor.
DIRECTED BY: Brendan Steere
FEATURING: Greg Cohan, Alyssa Kempinski, Daniel Steere
PLOT: During a crisis of faith, Pastor Jones travels to China where he is cursed by an ancient dinosaur tooth; his newly found powers, and his crusade for righteousness, attract the attention of an international drug cartel with unlikely motives.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Steere’s campy intentions are clear throughout, and so it can’t fall into the “” category. The narrative is silly, the acting is silly, the effects are silly, and the priest is a were-velociraptor (which is silly). This movie feels like an audition video to join the production team.
COMMENTS: “Wild with fear, the Trachodon hurries toward the water. But its fat, hulking body can only move slowly. In two leaps, the King of Tyrants lands on its back. The giant’s head seems split apart as the great mouth opens and clamps shut on the Duckbill’s neck. The dagger-teeth crunch through bones and flesh like shears cutting paper. There is frantic thrashing for a time as the colossal beasts roll into the slippery muck. Then the Trachodon lies still. Its head hangs loosely, almost severed from the neck by six-inch teeth.” 1
There is a telling scene in The VelociPastor that distills the two things to bear in mind when (for whatever reason) you find yourself watching it. Attempting to learn about his condition, Pastor Doug Jones reads up on dinosaurs using Roy Chapman Andrew’s book, “All About Dinosaurs.” Originally published in 1953 (and read by yours truly in his more intellectual childhood days), this volume has absolutely nothing to say about velociraptors. When Doug’s mentor walks into the room to check on him, he covers the dinosaur book with the Bible, pretending to read that instead.
But as to those two things I mentioned: The VelociPastor is silly and pointless. I make no complaint that I’m out five bucks having rented this; at least its 70-minute runtime made it a quick bit of silliness. And, indeed, there were some funny lines. Coming to terms with his condition (through which, in case my oblique references and the title didn’t clue you in, he transforms into a velociraptor when angered), Pastor Jones talks to a hooker (who is, of course, working her way through law school), who encourages him to embrace his curse as a gift to help him rid the world of scum. She provides the caveat, “I know nothing about God.” He rejoins, “And I know nothing about dinosaurs.”.
The opening informational paragraph has been included to flesh out this review, as there isn’t much to say. VelociPastor is cute, but not great; it’s clever, but not very; and it’s good natured, but perhaps not worth $5 for 70-minutes. Some, I suspect, may have been hopeful (or fearful) that The VelociPastor might be nominated for Apocrypha status. Unfortunately, Brendan Steere has only proven that he can carry a premise most of the way through a minimal runtime. But I do feel I am on the hook for this franchise, I suppose: the promise of interminable, possible sequels concludes this ninja/samurai/drug-cartel/Catholic Church(?)/Methodist Church(?)/dinosaur saga. Frankly, I’m more curious as to whether the hooker finishes her degree.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
A burn victim with an affinity for motor oil tries to fit in with a motor scooter gang that rides around in a skate park.
Content Warning: This short contains brief strong language and some lewd behavior.
DIRECTED BY: Gerard Damiano
FEATURING: Al Goldstein,, Viju Krem, Gerard Damiano
PLOT: A board room full of executives get into deep debt to a mobster named “Mr. Big,” so they decide to create a porno to earn the dough.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: After the shock of “puppet porn,” this movie runs out of steam really, really fast. It leaps off the platform of its premise and tumbles down the pit of mediocrity before it ever reaches for the trapeze swing to True Weirdness.
COMMENTS: A puppet porno, all mine to review? I cackled and sharpened my barbs. I prepared all my smart-ass observations: “When a puppet gets pregnant, why doesn’t the fetus fall out?” and “Technically, doesn’t all puppet sex count as a hand job?” and “How do you stay lubricated when you’re covered in felt?” Then I never got to use them, because this movie was just tragically unlucky. I don’t want to mock it, I want to treat it to an ice cream cone and pat it on the head and tell it “There there, it just wasn’t your time.” I rank “Making Puppets Edgy” right up there with “Perpetual Motion” and “Squaring The Circle” in the category of “Things That Never Work But People Never Stop Trying.” Between Meet the Feebles and The Happytime Murders, the puppetry tag on this site alone goes on for three pages, which is two and a half pages longer than anybody needed. So of course you expect Let My Puppets Come to be a Feebles rip-off, until you find out that Puppets was, hot damn, the very first adult puppet movie! No really, wiki and weep. It even predated The Muppet Show, which debuted in September of that year. When you consider all this and view the movie in the context of 1976—Patty Hearst was on trial, Apple Computer was just founded, was still alive—Let My Puppets Come gets 100x bigger balls. Neutered ones, sadly.
The plot is a loose framework wherein three (puppet) business executives doing business things receive a telegram delivering bad business news: they owe a half million bucks to a mobster, “Mr. Big,” with no way to scare up the funds. The telegram delivery boy has a swell idea: make a groovy porn flick! The group speculates on what kinds of stories they want to do, with swirly transitions to fantasies. That’s the first thing to know about this movie: it’s a loosely connected series of sketches, even down to parodies of popular TV commercials of the time (a bit like Kentucky Fried Movie, released the very next year). The structure makes it sleepy, despite the very first sex scene being between a puppet woman and her puppet dog, who seals the deal by reassuring her “I have all my shots.” (Hey, you bought a ticket to a puppet porn, it’s a little late to pretend you have standards now.) We swim along through more sketches, like a massage parlor and the canonical nurse-on-patient fantasy, all the porn standards. The gents frolic off to make their movie, recruiting from an adult toy shop clerk just so we can gawk at all the kinky novelties. There’s a Diana Ross stand-in, a Pinocchio stand-in, and a rip-off of the puppet character Madame.
All these scenes amount to exactly one lame joke each. A couple of them are funny, more of them are a groan, and the rest just die before they hit the floor. There’s random songs tossed in and multiple parodies of contemporary pop culture. The puppet sex is mostly puppet blowjobs, which take the form of clumsy duels between inflexible clam-shell lips and wobbly foam willies. I lost count after the third time the “William Tell Overture” was played over a sex scene to make it “funny.” There’s also original songs, all pleasant enough, but none of them show-stoppers. You get so used to looking at foam actors that when a real live go-go stripper shimmies onto the screen, it takes you a while to work out what’s wrong with her before it dawns on you that she’s made out of meat. In making a movie about characters making a porn movie, director Gerard Damiano gets in some good therapeutic role-playing to recover from the scandals around his infamous Deep Throat (1972). This extends right to the puppet directors being thrown into puppet jail for obscenity charges. Damiano tastefully cuts his pillow-sobbing short to allow the movie an ending, which brings out Luis de Jesus as “Mr. Big,” and then wastes him.
Let My Puppets Come is not without its tacky, corny charm, but it’s a shaggy dog story that goes on too long. I am a proud supporter of pansexual freedom, and a dirty old pervert too, so I wanted to like this movie more. The puppetry is on-point, at least. Good puppetry takes time to film, which makes it all the sadder to see it go to waste. This movie is left without an audience. It’s too silly for Vanillas to consider sexy, and doesn’t get nearly freaky enough to arouse the kinky, despite the puppet-on-human spanking scene. It isn’t funny enough to work as a comedy, doesn’t have enough songs to qualify as a musical, and isn’t even campy enough to get a cult following when the opportunity is practically handed to it. The poor thing is so ambitious that it sabotages its own mission. Had Let My Puppets Come just relaxed and been happy with what it is, it could have been a cult classic.
For the record: There’s various cuts of the film with time-spans ranging from 40-75 minutes. The full, uncut version is now available on a Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray, which means you’ll no longer have to resort to the low-res pirated version on PornHub (which is how I originally saw it). I love my career.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“There’s nothing that can prepare you for [Damiano’s] 1976 feature film Let My Puppets Come, an XXX film where the main characters are puppets…. truly one of XXX cinema’s most unique films.”–Cliff Wood, 10K Bullets (Blu-ray)