Tag Archives: Independent film

CAPSULE: RONDO (2019) (DVD RELEASE)

DIRECTED BYDrew Barnhardt

FEATURING: Luke Sorge, Brenna Otts, Reggie De Morton, Gena Shaw, Steve Van Beckum

PLOT: Paul has been dishonorably discharged from the military and relies on his sister’s hospitality for a couch to crash on; when she recommends a therapist to help him with PTSD and alcohol addiction, he encounters a sordid world where revenge and unhealthy fantasy experiences can be bought for the right price.

Lobby card from Rondo (2018)

COMMENTS: As I gear up for my third trip to the Fantasia Film Festival, I am unfortunately reminded that most of what I’ll be seeing up North won’t be available again for months (and months), if it’s released at all. With that in mind, I look back at my original gob-smacked review and consider whether or not Rondo lives up to the hype I expressed directly after my original “live” experience. In brief: it does.

My earlier review covers most of the bases, but I wanted to expand on how well Barnhardt manages Rondo‘s singular atmosphere. Its edge-of-realistic set-pieces present a grisly and tragic tale that are undercut by a narrator that borders on intrusive. Much to my shame, I hadn’t seen ‘s Barry Lyndon until some months ago, well after I nodded in understanding at Barnhardt’s remarks on it during my interview with him. Like the Kubrick epic, Rondo involves a string of events that, though much more in the vein of “thriller”, have a tone that’s on the unsettling side of banal—until, in both films, an impressively indifferent narrator articulates his views on the action. As I have no doubt that Barnhardt would quickly dispel any suggestion he’s at Kubrick’s level, I’ll merely say that Rondo has the feel of a whomping dubstep echo of Barry Lyndon‘s awkwardly laid-back narrative meanderings.

Without dispersing too much insider knowledge (I spoke with both Barnhardt and Guy Clark, the producer, for close to an hour after the interview proper was finished), I can tell you that Rondo was made for substantially less than its shiny veneer and honed camerawork suggest. Indeed, a large part of its modest budget went to the… expressive use of squibs in a pivotal scene. But like a sculptor given a slim brick of marble, Barnhardt (who also wrote the script, scouted locations, and was heavily involved in the casting of largely unknown actors) manages to chisel a tiny objet d’art: it’s charmingly crafted, bloodily lighthearted, impressively detailed, and the whole thing fits conveniently on your desk (or perhaps your knife-filled kitchen sink).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a tour de force of highly assured genre filmmaking, and the mark of a real talent emerging from cinema’s more perverse, less salubrious end. ‘Ordinary’s not the thing that I want,’ as one character puts it. ‘I want the other thing.’ Rondo delivers just that, very satisfyingly.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (DVD)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MIDSOMMAR (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren

PLOT: American grad students travel to a remote Swedish village above the Arctic Circle during the midnight sun to witness an ancient festival.

Still from Midsommar (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With just two features under his belt, Ari Aster impresses with his ability to encase deep and painful psychological dramas inside true-to-form horror stories. The emphasis on bizarre rituals and the wavery psychedelic interludes make Midsommar a weirder candidate for our endorsement than 2018’s (excellent) Hereditary.

COMMENTS: Although it features a memorably schizo performance by a tormented Florence Pugh, flowery pagan pageantry, brilliant cinematography, a frightening folk horror score, and daytime nightmares that bleed into reality, the one thing Ari Aster’s Midsommar lacks is surprise. It’s obvious to anyone who’s seen The Wicker Man (or any horror movie, really) that things won’t go well for the four American master’s thesis students visiting the apparently quaint and welcoming remote hamlet where the villagers still remember the Old Ways. Aster also retreads a lot of the same ground that made his debut Hereditary so intoxicating: grief-based psychological drama, a strong female lead, leisurely pace, ian  pans, and obsessive invention of occult rituals. The one surprise is that Midsommar works admirably on its own terms despite reminding us of so many other movies (including Aster’s last one).

A pair of foci orbit around each other throughout the movie. The first is the failing relationship between the two leads. Christian, an unfocused grad student with no idea what he’s going to write his masters’ thesis on, feels trapped by the emotionally needy Dani. She’s already neurotic, popping lorazepams to dampen her frequent panic attacks, before the tragedy she fears actually strikes, making it unseemly for Christian to abandon her. Swedish student Pelle invites Christian, along with two buddies, to visit his remote northern homeland, an isolated pseudo-utopian commune where the people live in harmony with nature, for a pagan midsummer festival that only takes place once every 90 years; a trepidatious Dani tags along, even though the affable Swede seems to be the only one who actually welcomes her presence. When they arrive, the film’s other focus comes to bear (so to speak), as Aster builds a familiar-yet-novel nature worshiping cult out of details like icky surreptitious love potions, runic holy texts dictated by deformed inbreds, and an elaborate (and rigged?) drugged dance around the maypole. The two plots collide in a finale that should leave you with a queasy, ambiguous feeling, since it works quite differently on the metaphorical and the literal levels.

As the only horror movie I can think of filmed almost entirely in bright daylight, Midsommar gives a new symbolic meaning to “day for night” shooting. With its white-haired elders in white robes standing on white cliffs above rune-encrusted white standing stones, the film is lit in blinding, blanched whiteness, decorated with red and yellow wildflowers and lush green fields. The special effects for the psychedelic scenes are legitimately shroomy, with the dilated camera showing off lots of breathing objects, including a flower disc that pulses independently in Dani’s headdress. It’s lovely to behold.

The audience, a mix of Hereditary fans and patrons shut from sold-out screenings Toy Story or Spider-Man, gasped collectively at the midpoint when the villagers’ rites suddenly turned from the picturesque to the grisly. The third act brought genuine, if uncomfortable, laughter with one of the most awkward sex scenes ever filmed. People muttered as the credits rolled. These are sounds you like to hear in the theater.

We’re living in a golden age of adult psychological horror at the moment, so enjoy it while it lasts. Personally, I could do with a new Jordan Peele release every winter and a new Ari Aster release every summer for the foreseeable future. Just throw in more frequent pictures while you’re at it, please.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Midsommar‘s core themes still land when they come back into focus in the third act; it’s the indulgent weirdness in the build-up that dilutes the movie’s overarching impact… it’s hard to imagine that this one won’t end up going down as the most WTF wide release of 2019.”–Sandy Schaefer, Screen Rant (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by J.R. Kinnard, who gushed, “The third act is a masterpiece of weirdness.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE SIGNAL (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry

FEATURING: Anessa Ramsey, Justin Welborn, A.J. Bowen, Scott Poythress

PLOT: A mysterious signal broadcast through television distorts people’s thinking and turns an entire city into a horde of homicidal maniacs.

Still from The Signal (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Signal is a tough call, because does get increasingly weird (especially at the end). On the whole, however, its experimentation puts it more on the outer edges of the apocalyptic horror genre than firmly inside the weird movie genre.

COMMENTS: You might say that a movie looks like it was directed by three different directors to criticize its lack of continuity or coherence. In The Signal‘s case, however, it’s actually, literally true, and it’s an asset rather than a liability. Working from a script they co-wrote together, David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, and Dan Bush each direct one of the movie’s three acts sequentially, with each section taking the perspective of a different character affected by the homicidal signal. Although the Atlanta-based trio has continued to work in the horror scene, none of them have achieved this level of success in their solo work.

Bruckner’s opening segment covers the advent of the mysteriously broadcast signal, which manifests itself as psychedelic fractals on TV that speak telepathically to viewers and prey on their weaknesses. It introduces protagonists Mya and Ben, who are having an adulterous affair but seem like basically good kids. When Mya returns home to the apartment she shares with her husband Lewis, she observes that everyone in the city is acting oddly. Their behavior gradually changes from eccentric to outright psychotic, as hubby Lewis flies into a fit of violent jealousy, while another neighbor is in the hallway outside killing people with gardening shears. It’s the most straightforward and conventional bit of filmmaking, which is the necessary approach to establish the premise. Gentry’s second act takes the movie into grisly black comedy territory, shot from the POV of people suffering from signal-induced delusions and hallucinations at the most awkward New Year’s Eve party/massacre ever. Although it contains some of the most gruesome horror moments, including dastardly uses for pesticide sprays, this segment is the best and most memorable. It features a couple of sly comic relief victims: a kitschy party hostess who doesn’t realize she’s killed her husband, and a horny male guest whose single-minded dedication to getting laid blinds him to the carnage around him. It’s fortuitous that this only a third of the film—there wouldn’t have been enough jokes for feature length, but a half hour of palette-cleansing comedy is about perfect. Bush wraps things up with a denouement that’s perhaps a bit weaker than the other three, focusing on Ben’s attempts to fight the signal off by sheer willpower. This section contains a lot of “is this really happening or is it just a hallucination?” montages and dream sequences.

Though generally innovative, The Signal settles for some horror movie clichés and credibility stretches. People take what should be fatal amounts of physical abuse and come back later brawling like Ali vs. Foreman. And I’m pretty sure you can’t kill someone by shoving a plastic balloon pump into their jugular. These lapses are partly covered up by the hallucinatory nature of the proceedings, but at times they feel like a typical horror cop-out. Nonetheless, The Signal is a successful experiment, one that leaves its message about media oversaturation implicit rather than hammering it into your poor skull.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An outright horror film that nonetheless veers on occasion into surreal black comedy, The Signal (a favorite at last year’s Sundance and SXSW Film festivals) takes Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement ‘the medium is the message’ to extremes not explored since David Cronenberg’s seminal, frighteningly prescient Videodrome in 1983.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “bannanar,” who said ” that one blows my mind… good good stuff.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE TEXTURE OF FALLING (2018)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Maria Allred

FEATURING: Julie Webb, Patrick Green, Maria Allred, Benjamin Farmer

PLOT: Some millennials with plenty of time and money skirt around different affairs with each other before it’s revealed that we’re watching a movie about some millennials with plenty of time and money who skirt around having different affairs with each other.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It pitches itself as “unlike any film that you’ve ever seen”. That is true: never have I seen something so bold in its combination of earnest pretentiousness and skull-sagging tedium.

COMMENTS: Recent experience suggests that among today’s millennialist youth, the trend of making movies that end up being about making movies is growing. Perhaps the would-be artistes grew up watching them and thought, erroneously, “That looks easy. I bet I can make something that impressive.” Flustered as I am at this moment, I just had the horrible realization that I wish I had just re-watched Paris Is Us instead of this one—and trust you me, I am fully aware of the ramifications of that errant thought.

The drama begins in Portland, Oregon—definitely not Seattle, Washington. Louisa (Julie Webb) is an aspiring film-maker and “love-skeptic” who finds herself, against her will, falling for quiet-but-blandly-hot pianist-composer, Luke (Patrick Green). In a parallel story, not-so-happy-with-his-wife Mike (Benjamin Farmer), an architect, is beginning a bondage-lite affair with a woman whose character was so hard to pin down I can only confidently refer to her by the descriptor “Blondie” (Maria Allred). As love chatter goes back and forth and up and down, each of the leads makes various compromises (?) and claws blindly toward an actual plot.

On at least two occasions I wrote in my notebook, “Big question: is this going anywhere?” And this was twice during a movie lasting a blip of an hour and a quarter. While watching various characters I had absolutely no interest in putz around and make emotional and social idiots of themselves, I was nearly relieved to find that I was watching one of them there “movie” movies. Turns out Louisa is writing a script, and lifting her lines from her interactions with Luke. But wait! No, it turns out that she’s actually fallen for the moody pianist (who is married, with children) on whom she’s basing a character. But wait! Louisa is just the role played by a character who seems to be an assistant to the real driving force behind this mess.

Maria Allred: I understand that making a movie is a very difficult undertaking. Furthermore, that your credits list includes, but is not limited to, director, writer, editor, producer, costumes, casting, designer, and art department forces me, despite my complete dismissiveness, to give you some respect. But perhaps you should take on a lighter workload next time. The Texture of Falling is, technically, a well put-together movie. But it is, almost objectively, a boring mass of bad dialogue, superfluous meta-twists, and somnolent acting. If your next Kick-Starter1)Kickstarter was mentioned on no fewer than 3 occasions. campaign is for a movie with an actual plot, consider me on the hook for at least a one-hundred dollar donation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“How are these people connected? What’s real and what’s fantasy? But again, I run the risk of giving the impression that The Texture of Falling is compelling, which it is not. It’s 74 minutes of mediocre actors giving meek, low-energy performances while reciting clumsily written, faux-philosophical dialogue.” –Eric D. Schneider, Portland Mercury (contemporaneous)

References   [ + ]

1. Kickstarter was mentioned on no fewer than 3 occasions.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DARK STAR (1974)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Dre Pahich, Cal Kuniholm, Brian Narelle

PLOT: A tiny crew of astronauts is on a maintenance mission to wipe out unstable planets, while contending with beach-ball shaped aliens, megalomaniac AI smart bombs, toilet paper shoratges, and their own petty disputes.

Still from Dark Star (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Dark Star explores just enough dark matter to make it a heavy contender for the List, given its narrow category of sci-fi-comedy. The main things holding it back are that it hasn’t aged well, it’s a shoestring budget production with a syrupy pace, and the fact that it really could have fit a few more ideas into its runtime. But some details demand its consideration, such as the theme song: still the only country-and-western quantum-physics love-ballad so far in cinematic history. And a damned catchy one!

COMMENTS: Dark Star is such an enduring and beloved cult film that nothing I could say here could dent its reputation. It marks the origin of two heavy-weight genre-film talents: director John Carpenter, of Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and They Live fame, and Dan O’Bannon, who would go on to pen the screenplays for Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, Lifeforce, and Total Recall. This is about the film you’d expect if you gave these two juggernaut talents a camera and turned them loose when they were students on a dormitory budget. Dark Star is a sci-fi comedy and a clever satire on the Golden Age of science fiction. It cheerfully plunders your memory if you grew up munching “Analog” and “F&SF” magazines and pulpy sci-fi paperbacks from thrift store spinner racks (that’d be me!), in the same way plunders grindhouse cinema. This is all done with a relaxed, broken-in pace, giving it a unique tone even among sci-fi comedies.

The crew of the good ship Dark Star are on a 20+ year mission in deep space to detonate unstable planets around star systems wherever they may find them, to clear space for potential future colonization. They get pep talk video transmissions from Earth mission control with a ten-year delay; the crew has tenuous support at best and their mission is not particularly urgent. They’re a crew of expendable red-shirts. Indeed, Commander Powell is dead already, but kept as a meat popsicle able to telepathically counsel the crew. Morale is in the pits: Talby (Dre Pahich) has retreated to the observation bubble where he avoids as much responsibility as he can, Doolittle (Brian Narelle) escapes with daydreams of his good old days surfing in Malibu, Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) fitfully takes out his aggression with laser rifle target practice, and Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) has adopted a farting orange ball alien, whom he seems to identify with more than the rest of the team. In between, the crew’s intense boredom and frustration makes them lash out at each other with testy, passive-aggressive acts of random pettiness.

Outside of all that, there really isn’t much of a plot. We have a crew of burnouts who have allowed their beards and mustaches to grow into Freak Brothers‘ territory, surrounded by banks of computer monitors and endless colorful buttons and switches, earning this movie the well-deserved moniker of “hippies in space.” Everything electronic talks, from the ship’s guiding computer to each individual bomb (note that this movie predates “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”). The hilarious alien gets loose and Pinback has to chase it down, in an extended slapstick sequence that brings him to peril in an elevator shaft. Various computer and electronics malfunctions cause the sentient bombs to go haywire, creating a crisis where the crew must talk a bomb down from exploding with the ship still attached. Funny throwaway moments are all over; the crew tokes doobies in joyless resignation, and thumbs through D.C. Comics’ romance titles. And of course, numerous sci-fi works from the classics up to that year are referenced, including, without spoiling it, a Ray Bradbury short story—you’ll know it when you see it.

Dark Star‘s cult following today is at least halfway due to the intelligence at the core of its lightweight premise. It is a grand piss-take on the science fiction epic blockbuster, a genre at that time still in its salad days. Ironically, Carpenter and O’Bannon would go on from here to make some of the most definitive movies in that very genre. Dark Star counters the unfolding corridors of wonder reflected in David Bowman’s eyes with caustic pragmatism: space travel sucks when you run out of toilet paper. There are no Captain Kirks or Mr. Spocks here to deliver ringing speeches about the nobility of mankind’s quest for discovery. When new stars or intelligent lifeforms are discovered, Lt. Doolittle sneers “Who cares?” and “Find me something I can blow up!” Have Stephen Spielberg and his imitators given you the impression that our first contact with alien life forms will be a sweeping cosmic epiphany? Naw, it’ll probably be something like the orange ball with horrid clawed feet which has to be chased and corralled like a rowdy puppy. Dark Star pops our Atomic Age balloon to remind us that no matter what amazing things humans accomplish, most of our problems will still be with us just because we’re dumb monkeys who can barely get anything done through the choking bureaucracy that is our only form of self-governance. This makes Dark Star a contender for the very first cyberpunk movie. Ain’t it groovy?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Dark Star’ is one of the damnedest science fiction movies I’ve ever seen, a berserk combination of space opera, intelligent bombs, and beach balls from other worlds.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Looking back at John Carpenter’s Dark Star – An in-depth review and tribute by Lawrence Brooks at “Den of Geek”

(This movie was nominated for review by “Roland Mangan.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

CAPSULE: STARFISH (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Al White

FEATURING: Virginia Gardner

PLOT: Aubrey is understandably depressed: her best friend dies, and soon after the end of the world arrives in the form of an invasion of alien monsters.

Still from Starfish (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Starfish is a weird exercise with interesting ideas and a good performance from Gardner, but its mopey and lingering moments drag it down. Still, it’s a promising, professional-looking debut from Al White.

COMMENTS: Just like Starfish‘s heroine, whenever I get tired of the hassle of dealing with other people, I sometimes fantasize that an apocalypse has hit and wiped out everyone but me. I’m free to roam around grocery store aisles and grab all the bags of Lays Sour Cream Potato Chips I can carry, and eat all the pints of Ben & Jerry’s before they melt.

This is a common solipsistic daydream, even though we all realize that this predicament would be nightmarish in reality. For Aubrey, both the fantasy and the tragedy of this scenario become “real.” I put “real” in quotes, because it’s clear that depopulated world in Starfish is a metaphor for the protagonist’s bereavement and isolation. The death of her best friend and confidant sparks her crisis, but a guilty memory that we glimpse in fragments as Starfish (slowly) progresses fuels her alienation. Starfish does not spell out its underlying story in sxplicit detail; it’s more impressionistic and often dreamlike. The literal plot is inessential: there’s no attempt to make the end of the world seem reasonable, no serious explanation of where the monsters that roam the streets came from, little backstory on the survivors who occasionally break the silence to speak to Aubrey via walkie-talkie. The “mixtape” she assembles is a roadmap to redemption (it contains seven songs, just like the Seven Stages of Grief), and the “signal” is a pure MacGuffin. And so, given the symbolic nature of the script, the ending may be a bit too ambiguous for the audience’s liking; after everything Aubrey’s been through, it would have been nice to end on a more unconditionally hopeful note. (The ending we got would have been perfect for a different movie.)

Virginia Gardner deserves praise for carrying the film; she’s alone in almost every scene, usually either talking to herself or bouncing ideas off a turtle. Gardner conveys a real sense of loneliness—nothing that she does (or wears) matters, yet she carries on, finding a purpose and dragging herself through the wreckage of the world. The deliberate pacing, which punctuates long pauses with brief, intense bursts of crisis, aids in conveying that sensibility. And yes, while slow at times, the movie is duly weird, with frequent dream sequences—from the dinner settings that suddenly turn weightless to a radical (if brief) stylistic change at the halfway point (I won’t spoil the surprise, but it would have been more of a  shock in a less-strange movie). Underwater, surf and oceanic imagery (including a reading from the opening of “Moby Dick”) flood the film, further reinforcing the sense of loneliness, as if Aubrey is marooned on a desert isle or bobbing alone on a life raft far at sea. Or in the process of slowly drowning.

It’s not a movie for those who value plot, but Starfish earns a recommendation for anyone who appreciates a heavy dose of psychological drama in their genre films.

Debuting director Al White (also known as A.T. White) also heads the U.K. based band Ghostlight. He wrote all the songs heard in the film, from the spooky cello cues to all seven of the indie-pop mixtape songs (a number of which have a silly “They Might be Giants” vibe; others rock). He’s got talent and is still young, and idealistic: he says that all of his profits will be donated to cancer research. Starfish plays at select theaters throughout the U.S. through April. Click here for a list of screenings. Home video/streaming dates have not yet been announced.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a beautiful, emotional, weird, and fascinating movie.”–Germaine Lussier, io9.com (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EATING RAOUL (1982)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Bartel, Robert Beltran

PLOT: An urban middle-class couple notices they live in a world where they’re surrounded by expendable idiots—so they take to robbing and killing them in order to finance their modest dreams.

Still from Eating Raoul (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Every weirdophile has seen this movie and remembers it as a satirical cannibal-comedy, quirky but not on the memorably weird end. It isn’t until you re-watch it fresh and recall all the throw-away details—the ketchup on the milkshake, the wine bottle plushie doll in Paul’s bed, the Doggie King dog food commercial—that you appreciate the weirdness bursting from the seams in this unique oddball masterpiece.

COMMENTS: Eating Raoul was too ahead of its time. You can hardly find a weird movie fan who doesn’t love this movie, and yet it still gets listed near the bottom of great black comedies. Now, we’re enthusiastic about and Matt Stone, the , and even the alumni getting recognized as the heralds of modern black comedy. But this movie opens with Paul Bartel getting bitched out by his liquor store boss for not selling the right wines. He is interrupted by an armed robber, shoots said robber dead (deadpan: “Mr. Cray, you killed him!”) and then goes right back to chewing out Paul Bartel’s ass. Next scene: Mary Woronov is a nurse who goads a horndog patient into finishing his pureed slop hospital food with the promise of hot nursey time, only to switch off with a burly male sidekick for an enema party. None of us filthy sinners love this golden apple enough, and that is why we are not worthy of it.

Our star couple is Paul and Mary Bland, two Hollywood middle-classers who are exasperated, stuck in the me-generation late-1970s swingers era while wanting nothing to do with them. They hate the disco party freaks almost as much as they hate being too broke to pay their bills and open the restaurant of their dreams. When one of these swingers ends up accidentally dead at their hands, a connection between the two issues takes shape, and the Blands decide to turn tricks, seducing swingers to their apartment. Said swingers are expecting a filthy payoff, only to meet the business end of a frying pan to the head. Tutored by “Doris the Dominatrix,” who shares her tricks of the trade in between spoon-feeding her baby, the Blands place an ad in the local kink mag, and the suckers bite right away. Might as well take the bread in their wallet, then. Just toss the bodies down the furnace chute, who’s going to miss them? It’s not like any of these tongue-waggling perverts had parents or anything.

But they do eventually meet one other individual with a clue, Raoul, who runs a suspiciously cheap locksmith service and moonlights as a Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EATING RAOUL (1982)