Tag Archives: Independent film

CAPSULE: DAVE MADE A MAZE (2017)

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DIRECTED BY: Bill Watterson

FEATURING: Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Nick Thune, Adam Busch, James Urbaniak

PLOT: Annie returns home to find her apartment’s living room dominated by a cardboard construct inside which her boyfriend claims to be trapped.

COMMENTS: There is an easy route I could take for this review, but I’m going to put that pathway aside. For now. When we are first introduced to the titular maze, we probably feel just like Annie, who has returned home after a weekend away to find an unwieldy, idiotic edifice taking up far too much space right in the middle of her front room. Seemingly a mere construct of refrigerator boxes with other cardboard accoutrements, it’s a pointless structure, held together by tape, glue, and self-indulgence. The titular man-child inside greets her warmly, sounding a bit muffled and further away than the waist-high craft project should allow. She is nonplussed, and her impatience is immediate. My own impatience was on a hair-trigger, as a hipster party comprised of millennial stereotypes assembled around this monument to immaturity. I joined Annie in pushing aside my agitation as she and the revelers entered the maze to rescue Dave.

Whatever might be (rightly) said in criticism of the pretentious entities in the movie’s “real world,” there was a growing case of wonder creep as they explored the maze-world’s corridors and themed chambers. As Dave’s longtime buddy Gordon observes, the compound must have the traps littered throughout, you see, because “it’s a labyrinth, if it didn’t, it would just be a series of articulated hallways.” In one of the many cute/creative touches, all bodily harm to the victims of these traps (including ‘roid-quirky Jane and Greg approval-junkie Brynn) is conveyed through bursts of blood-red yarn as the traps slice their bodies. One chamber features cardboard-rendered stalactites; another a pit guarded by violent paper cranes; and one toys mischievously with perspective as the cameraman in the distance lifts a large cup that appeared to be resting on a front table. Leaning heavily into the metaphor (which despite its flimsy construction, turns out to be rather robust), there is also the requisite Minotaur stalking the visitors, and Dave.

Oh, Dave (and Dave). I was so primed to hate you both. To hate you and your stupid maze. But ultimately I felt a reluctant respect for this petulant hero for having finally followed through with something. And by the film’s end, I even found two characters I actually liked: the much put-upon Gordon who, though pretentious like the rest, turned out to be one of those ever-reliable types, bravely luring the Minotaur from the survivors once a plot is hatched to escape the arts-and-crafts abattoir. And then there’s Harry, the documentarian friend (for as you know, all true hipsters have a buddy who makes documentaries). Having dabbled briefly in filmmaking myself back many years ago, I understood his dueling urges to both capture what exists and to surreptitiously bend reality to his inclinations. Dave achieves what Harry and the rest of the Scooby gang could not: transposing a deep-seated sense of doubt and angst into a tangible challenge to physically overcome. As a movie, Dave Made a Maze kind of works; as therapy made manifest, Dave grasps a widespread anxiety by the horns and shows that the only way out is to get to the heart of the matter.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Weird’ is one word for it, and it certainly applies. But so does ‘creative,’ ‘inventive,’ ‘compelling’ and, finally, ‘good’… a burst of creativity that seems like a low-rent version of ‘Synecdoche, New York,’ a fever dream of a movie and one of my all-time favorites. If you’re looking for something different – and mean it when you say so — ‘Dave Made a Maze’ is a joy.”–Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Sion Sono

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Mosley, Nick Cassavetes

PLOT: By order of “the Governor”, a nabbed robber must infiltrate the Ghostland to rescue the Governor’s grand-daughter.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Directed by Sion Sono, featuring Nicolas Cage.

COMMENTS: “They helped me because I am radioactive.”

This epic line is delivered, epically, by Nicolas Cage, standing atop a grand stairway beneath a massive clock, his right arm shattered, his left testicle likewise. He stands before a crowd of downtrodden souls. Amongst them is the bookish Enoch, volume of Wuthering Heights in hand, as well as the gaunt undertaker who collects souls. Watching from the periphery is Ratman and his Ratmen, a crew of thieving mechanics. Bernice, chalk-limbed and with obsidian-black eyebrows, begins a chant of rebellion. And so, the prisoners of the Ghostland rally, before marching on Samurai Town to depose the evil Governor.

Forgive me if I am telephoning in this review, but I was up until almost two o’clock this morning and arose shortly after six. Though rendering me useless for almost anything else, this primed me perfectly for Sion Sono’s latest, Prisoners of the Ghostland. Having snaked its way through the festival circuit all this past year (thank you very much, Covid, for keeping me from covering this at Fantasia…), this oddity has finally hit a handful of screens as well as pay-to-stream services. Under-slept and over-caffeinated, I watched, intermittently overcome with awe, perplexion, and hearty guffaws.

“They helped me because I am radioactive.” Even within the confines of this film, the line makes no sense. There is a permeating sense that something deeper is going on here: the growing flashbacks of a robbery gone wrong, the strange drawl-stilted speechifying by the white-suited baddie the Governor, the analogue slide show—narrated by a Greek chorus of the dregs of humanity—recounting the horrific crash between a truck full of convicts and a truck full of nuclear waste. There are moments of surreal whimsy, as when a hail of bullets cracks open a gumball dispenser, its candy-coated contents clattering in slow-motion throughout the carnage; or when Nicolas Cage’s “Hero” catches a burnt-out football helmet and busts out his gravedigger audition for Hamlet. Yes, the minds behind this story aimed for a much-too-muchness, half hitting the mark, half sputtering into the fizzly “What the?” of miscalibration.

I should be slapping the “Recommended” tag on this; I should have had my “Must See!” entreaty swatted aside by more reasonably-minded site administrators. However, as much as I enjoyed watching Prisoners of the Ghostland, it suffers from one or more of the following: too much incoherency, not enough incoherency, too much crazy, and not enough crazy. Nicolas Cage, as always, delivers; but his too much is only mostly enough. Its Sergeo Leoneciousness borders on Jodorowskity, but never quite makes the final leap. As a movie, Prisoners falls short, constituting merely a wacky, weird exercise in eccentricity and nuclear-samurai-symbolism; but in memory, I have little doubt it shall blossom into a strange patchwork of giddily campy memories of a Hero, played by Nicolas Cage, whose force of will makes me believe that he is, indeed, radioactive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No movie with Nicolas Cage, directed by the wonderfully weird Japanese director Sion Sono, should be this taxing, drawn out, and plainly boring…  Cage and Sono are truly kindred nutcases: they are artists who do not question themselves, and while they have a sense of humor stranger than we can comprehend, they are too sincere for irony. But ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ is truly just a beginning; a false start to what should, and still could be one of the greatest cinematic collaborations since sound met motion.”–Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MONDO HOLLYWOODLAND (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Janek Ambros

FEATURING: Chris Blim, Alex Loynaz, Alyssa Sabo, Jessica Jade Andres, Ted Evans

PLOT: A being from the 5th dimension enlists the help of a purveyor of magic mushrooms and observes a cross-section of the town’s residents in an effort to define the concept of “mondo.”

Still from Mondo Hollywoodland (2019)

COMMENTS: The fabled Hollywood sign, symbol of dazzling entertainment throughout the world and physical representation of the film industry’s outsized sense of self-importance, began its existence as an advertisement. “HOLLYWOODLAND” arose in the Santa Monica mountains nearly 100 years ago to lure prospective Southern California residents to a new real estate development. The last four letters were stricken when the sign made its shift from billboard to civic symbol, and the sign enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom.

So while the most obvious inspiration for the title of Mondo Hollywoodland would seem to be the similarly named 1967 quasi-documentary about the region’s curious subcultures, the newer film leans more into Hollywoodland’s origins as a neighborhood. The Dream Factory is ever-present in the lives of the absurd, deluded, ridiculous people chronicled here, but they are still people, and this is a movie that looks for the community among them.

Early on, when the narrator identifies himself has being from the 5th dimension (presumably not the band), we can take comfort in knowing that everything about to ensue is pretty silly. Further exemplifying the flimsy structure of this endeavor is the decision to divide Southern California society into three classes, each of which is trying to buy into the Hollywood dream despite repeatedly seeing the cracks in the façade.

We begin with the Titans, ostensibly the power brokers who make blockbuster entertainment and break the hearts of aspiring stars. And yet our focus on Ted, a perpetually coked-up mid-level executive desperately trying to bring a Disney Channel starlet to heel, reveals these masters of the universe to be puny. There is no world beyond sci-fi epics and last-minute dialogue changes for these Titans, and Ted’s triumphant fist pump (earned by completely caving in) belies his fear at losing what little power he has.

The Weirdos occupy the opposite end of the spectrum, determined to better their world and generally clueless about how to do so. Hoping to take down a Trump-allied neo-Nazi, they pass out flyers at a gun-sense rally. Meanwhile, on the artistic front, they advocate for harmony. One even mediates a conflict between two pieces of wood. They are obsessed with politics, the state of the world, and whether their empathy and good intentions are enough to bring about utopia. At least, they are when they’re not tripping. Weirdo Daphne is so disillusioned with the slow pace of change that she takes matters into her own hands, torching a car. “Hope they got the message,” she says, even though it’s doubtful if even she knows what the message might be.

Enter the Dreamers, certain that their taste of fame and fortune is just around the corner. Not surprisingly, this section of the film flirts with sadness, as all these dreams seem to be deferred. From an agent whose clients are all up for the biggest roles but never get the gig to an acting coach whose credibility derives entirely from his stint on “Mad About You” to a wannabe fitness guru who longs for even the reflected glory of training the stars. Central to this section is Anna, the granddaughter of a one-time Grace Kelly stand-in who goes on a date to a concert by the grandson of Bing Crosby. The barest glimmer of Hollywood’s allure is being pushed away by generations.

Boyle, the hapless mushroom dealer, is our connecting thread, popping in and out of stories while still carrying on his own peculiar battle against the rats hiding in his rented bungalow. Regularly high on his own product, he is frequently flummoxed by the simplest interactions, and wants only for things to be “groovy,” a condition that has eluded him since the disappearance of his cat. But he also becomes the unifying force that brings our Titan, Weirdo, and Dreamer together in a genuinely hilarious low-rent heist. They’re a marvelously motley crew, and the success of this scene as the film’s climax is a tribute to the laid-back vibe the film has cultivated.

We never learn, precisely, what “mondo” is to this crowd, but if it means anything, it’s a special kind of magic that happens when aspirations manage to outdistance reality. Mondo Hollywoodland is self-evidently a Dreamer’s enterprise (having nabbed actor James Cromwell as an executive producer, the film’s publicity spares no effort to highlight the connection), but it is determined to face down the formidable opposition of a negative world and to be, in the end, groovy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Our lead protagonist, Boyle, is a mushroom dealer, and the entire film feels like a psychedelic bender... If you’re a fan of the experimental or WTF genre, you will find a home here.” – Alan Ng, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: GIVING BIRTH TO A BUTTERFLY (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Theodore Schaefer

FEATURING: Annie Parisse, Gus Birney, Constance Shulman

PLOT: A suburban mother and her son’s pregnant girlfriend take a surreal road trip to try to fix a financial mistake.

Still from Giving Birth to a Butterfly (2021)

COMMENTS: Diana is the matriarch of an average suburban family who’s made an embarassing mistake. Her husband Daryl hates his job and has dreams of opening a restaurant. Daughter Danielle is assisting in the school play. Son Andrew has a pregnant (though not with a butterfly) girlfriend, Marlene. Marlene’s mother is delusional, believing herself a famous but forgotten actress about to be rediscovered.

Giving Birth to a Butterfly starts out as a domestic drama, but one with a very dry sense of absurdity. Marlene reads off eye-catching headlines from a tabloid magazine: “Child Sings in the Womb,” “Dead Couple Wed at Their Funeral,” that sort of thing.  Diana’s co-workers have confusingly similar names and appearances. Characters drift into improbably poetic monologues. And Marlene’s mom is totally bonkers, a good excuse for the movie to cut loose from some of its subtlety. But although the dialogue is sometimes ridiculous, the dynamics between the characters are believable: Diana and Daryl share a low-grade, polite hostility. Dad wants to impose his dreams on the whole family. The children either try to defuse family tensions or are absorbed in their own worlds. Marlene, the reluctant interloper, wants to ingratiate herself into her boyfriend’s family.

In the beginning, at least, we learn more about Diana from her relations with others than from herself, which may be the key to her character. The first act sets up the characters. When Diana and Marlene embark on a journey, Diana slowly comes more into focus. When the pair arrive at the home of a couple of old ladies who are both spooky and wise, the movie launches into full surrealist mode, as Diana’s dreams become her reality.

Giving Birth to a Butterfly is a short movie, only 75 minutes long. But like a particularly dense poem, its brevity belies an entire world of thematic and intertextual references. The title is taken from a 1917 poem by Mina Loy (the relevant stanza of which is read over the credits) and there are references to Homer. The characters monologues are draped in metaphor. A number of motifs recur: naming people, twins, trains and journeys, damaged artworks. The dreamlike ending is not explicitly explained, but these themes give you a lot to think about. Enigma is the dominant tone. It’s an intelligent, and even poetic debut film from Theodore Schaefer, but it’s not always an engaging one. But its short runtime may make it worth a gamble if you find the idea of a Sundance-style dramedy with a surreal twist at the end appealing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a dream-like experience with relatable themes, but the surrealist drama plays more like a philosophy lecture than a film. Feeling like a co-production between Kelly Reichardt and David Lynch, Schaefer’s directorial debut shows promise as a filmmaker, but the film never concretely comes together.”–Jon Medelsohn, CBR.com (festival screening)

Short promotional clip from Giving Birth to a Butterfly (2021)

CAPSULE: THE WANTING MARE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Nicholas Ashe Bateman

FEATURING: Jordan Monaghan, Josh Clark, Edmond Cofie, Christine Kellogg-Darrin, Nicholas Ashe Bateman

PLOT: Moira, the latest in a matrilineal line, suffers the nightly dream of a hopeful yesterday while enduring the desperate circumstances of her dystopian milieu.

COMMENTS: Imagine yourself outside, idly contemplating the setting sun. You are about to arise to go and do something—anything—when an insect lands on your forearm and begins crawling around. The next thing you know, you’ve been observing it for the better part of ninety minutes, intermittently enthralled by some detail, but mostly in a trance-like state as arm and insect come in and out of focus. Suddenly the insect flies off, heading over the horizon as you gaze placidly in the direction of its escape. So it was with this reviewer and The Wanting Mare.

Moira lives a life of wistful ennui in a rustic hipster’s paradise. Her home is well-worn but soundly constructed. It’s not in the city, but within easy walking distance. And it overlooks a beautiful stretch of coast. Her days are spent milling about, in the house or on the beach, and her nights are spent in town, in the basement of a derelict building. Deep-blue mood bulbs are strung around what was once a dance floor, and a superannuated eight-track player blasts out a live recording of a singer who we eventually learn was Moira’s mother. Moira does not like sleeping, because she always has the same dream.

Nicholas Ashe Bateman (whose full name always showed up wherever I read of him online, so I shall extend this courtesy—up to a point) tips the viewer off right from the start. The film’s opening line, spoken by a dying mother to her infant daughter, is “You’re gonna have a dream.” So will the audience. If “smash cut” refers to scattershot sequences of violence in action movies, then I shall dub whatever NAB is up to “drizzle cut.” Despite concrete scenes of action (mostly dialogue), The Wanting Mare primarily drips micro-scenes together in montages of hypnagogic (a word I looked up exclusively for this sentence) smears of images. Movement along a beach. Swaying to some music. Even the handful of scenes featuring amateur bullet extraction have a lazy, semi-shaky effect.

I’m something of an idiot when in the act of watching a movie, so it took me until the final scene to realize that this story was a parable. I had already begun to forgive the filmmaker for the shambling first half, and this new awareness effectively cleared the faults I had been stacking in my mind. The Wanting Mare‘s plot device is a promise of leaving on a ship that departs this city once a year, a voyage for which you need a white ticket. Time and again, key characters forego an opportunity to escape to a mystical land of horses and winter, in order to live their lives as best they can, and change their world for the better. It took awhile to get there, and I risked falling asleep at times, but when that insect on my arm flew off at the end, I kind of missed it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a gorgeous effort, poetic and somber and dreamlike. But it lacks a central voice, and without that, any real connection with the audience.” -Hope Madden, UK Film Review (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: AGNES (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Molly C. Quinn, , , Hayley McFarland, Sean Gunn

PLOT: A demon possesses a sister at a conservative Carmelite nunnery, causing a crisis of faith for one of the nuns.

Still from Agnes (2021)

COMMENTS: Perhaps it would be better to go into Agnes knowing nothing about it beforehand; I won’t give major spoilers, but if you’d prefer to be surprised, stop reading now. OK, for the rest of you, all I will really say is: be prepared for a drastic tonal shift around the middle of the film. Agnes‘ most important characters will not be those you initially assume, and some questions may go unanswered. What appears to be a rambunctious exorcism spoof evolves into something far more thoughtful. Agnes gets crazier and crazier, then gets less and less crazy, until it ends on a note of pure emotional earnestness. Although it flows from a single incident, the film is split into two parts; this procedure will frustrate some. But I found looking at the connections between the two halves, and thinking of reasons why the material might be handled with such stylistic polarity, to be a fascinating exercise.

With that said, I think it’s safer to describe the film’s “fun” first half, and leave the viewer to experience the more serious back nine on their own—except to advise you to stick with it all the way to the final scene. The first thing to note is that, although it plays its humor pretty close to the vest, Agnes is never really a scary demonic possession movie; it’s a comic take on the genre. The Church here is so riddled with clichés—hints of pedophilia, scheming monsignors concerned with public relations, an institution embarrassed by its own exorcism rites, a crusty old priest undergoing a crisis of faith contrasted with a pious young initiate, a sexually repressed nunnery—-that Agnes could almost function as a satire of movies about Catholicism. Then there are the plentiful campy bits sprinkled throughout: too-thick horror music cues at inappropriate times. An action-movie style montage of determined priests and nuns marching to exorcism. A nun named Sister Honey (!) It all seems to be heading into territory with a renegade cowboy priest who comes complete with a chain-smoking groupie in a beehive hairdo and too much bronzer. And then… well, I leave it for you to discover the rest for yourself.

Agnes is so unique, I can’t really decide if it’s firmly within the weird genre, or not. The film’s hemispheres are aimed at different audiences: the first half at a savvy genre crowd, the second at the arthouse set. It will probably appeal most to those with a religious mindset. I don’t mean people of any particular faith—I believe atheists can get as much out of it as devout Christians—but people who are concerned with and interested in the questions that religion seeks to address, questions about meaning and suffering. Seen in that light, the movie’s movement from ironic caricature to clear-headed sincerity feels like a legitimate spiritual journey. Agnes is justified by faith.

Giles Edwards adds: Agnes makes a promise to go full Ken Russell on the viewer, as Greg remarks. Of particular note is the rogue exorcist, one of those mystifying characters that I hope is based on a real-life person, but is more likely a bold combination of the Dude from The Big Lebowski and Bobby Peru from Wild at Heart. The sleek cinematographical maneuverings of the first act could have built into something wonderfully nuthouse, but the thrill of exploitation gets cut off at the bite of the face and an almost mystical exhalation of smoke. The second act—very nearly its own second movie—is slowly paced, and dwells on kitchen-table dramatic musings of identity, financial solvency, and relationship power dynamics. The bombast of the foundation kept me on the edge of a chuckle throughout, with its repressed mother superior, sketchy-swain mentor priest, and the excommunicated demon specialist; the melodrama built on that foundation wasn’t nearly as entertaining in my view, but it was much more respectable as a cinematic outing. It’s as if the director had designed a bondage fun-house basement and felt oddly compelled to hide it from the world with a factory line split-level ranch above ground level.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as specific as it is almost uncategorizable… while the first half of Agnes takes place in the hermetic, often bizarrely humorous world of the convent, it’s the second half that gives the film its resonance.”–Matt Lynch, In Review Online (festival screening)

CAPSULE: MOBY DOC (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rob Gordon Bralver

FEATURING: Moby,

PLOT: A wandering, essay-style autobiographical documentary by musician Moby, who discusses his career, his alcoholism, and his veganism in a series of sketches that range from comic to philosophical.

Still from Moby Doc (2021)

COMMENTS: “I know we’ve been in a fairly conventional narrative for a while, but now we’re going to go back to being weird,” sings Moby, accompanying himself on banjo, at about the twenty minute mark. We then see him dressed as a Buddhist monk, walking down an L.A. street striking a bowl with a rod while a group in white robes and animal masks follows him. Alternating typical documentary techniques with weirdo tableaux is the method here, but while there is plenty of rambunctious imagination to the sketches, this isn’t quite the “surrealist biographical documentary” it’s pitched as. Moby Doc is not surrealist, although it contains the fleetingly surreal imagery you’d catch in any modern music video. It is, more accurately, a “collagist biographical documentary,” a story that moves logically and chronologically through Moby’s life and career, but proceeds by stitching together scraps of information cast in different styles and textures. Thus, we have Moby monologues, comic psychodramas where miscast New York actors play Moby’s parents, appreciations from David Lynch, career-spanning concert footage, staged therapy sessions, humorous one-way telephone conversations, space shuttle footage, grandiose shots of Moby standing alone atop a majestic mesa, animated bits, a -esque gag where Moby talks to Death, and a tribute to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” video.

As someone with a casual acquaintance with Moby—a few tracks from “Play,”  downloaded on mp3 a decade after they were recorded, have made it into my rotation, and I knew virtually nothing of the artist behind them—I think this documentary may play better for people like me than for longtime fans. Rabid followers have heard all these stories before (the musician has already published two memoirs), and there’s not much new music here. The quirky presentation, tailored to a cultured rather than a mass audience, means it serves well as an introduction to those of us with a marginal interest in the musician. Well aware that he is aging out of dance floor relevance, Moby seeks to rebrand himself as an elder statesman and Serious Artist: thus, the recent concert footage of orchestral arrangements of his electronica hits.

As candid as Moby is about his hedonistic excesses—the middle section of the film is peppered with unflattering AA-styled confessions, some involving poop—critics point out that parts of his history are whitewashed or ignored (a scandal involving goes unmentioned). Such spin is to be expected in a self-funded vanity project. The bigger issue is how you respond to the narcissist paradox at the film’s core. which may determine how well you like the film (and, by extension, how well you like Moby). He begins the film by announcing he intends to explore nothing less than “the why of everything,” but then, naturally, proceeds to explore nothing more than the why of Moby. He realizes that he is addicted to fame, confessing how bad reviews and “kill yourself” troll comments wound him, and reveals that he aggrandizes his image in order to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. He wants to share universal wisdom—much of it genuine—-with the viewer, but he has enough self-awareness to realize that this mission will inevitably make him look pompous. He compensates with little self-deprecating jokes: when he talks about his music as a form of self-healing, he cuts to a reaction shot of his fake therapist stifling a yawn.

So Moby Doc ultimately becomes a lavish, 90-minute, million dollar humble brag. This could understandably rub some people the wrong way. But I relate to Moby’s dilemma: everyone has something to teach others, everyone has valuable life-lessons to share, but how can we do this without looking presumptuous and egotistical? Comic irony is the go-to strategy, and Moby deploys it as well as he can. So instead of being a recitation of rock-n-roll clichés about an artist seduced by fame, money, and pleasures of the flesh who goes through some shit and comes out the other end rededicated to his Art, Moby Doc is an obfuscational comedy: Pink Floyd the Wall with a sense of humor. And that’s not a bad thing; it’s probably as much profundity as a man who’s lifelong passion is to make music for teenagers to shake their asses to can hope to produce.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a self-portrait, an acid flashback, a therapy session, a rumination, and a surrealist music-video package all rolled into one.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)