Tag Archives: Independent film

CAPSULE: ASSASSIN 33 A.D. (2020)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Jim Carroll

FEATURING: Morgan Roberts, Ilsa Levine, Geraldo Davila, Donny Boaz, Lamar Usher, Jason Castro

PLOT: Muslim extremists use a time machine to go back to 33 A.D. to try to assassinate Jesus; with the encouragement of his Christian girlfriend, an agnostic genius tries to fix the time stream.

Still from Assassin 33 A.D. (2020)

COMMENTS: I wouldn’t say its impossible to make a good Christian time travel movie; would have nailed it. But I am pretty sure it is impossible to make a good Christian time travel movie that involves terrorist strike teams with assault weapons going back to 1st century Judea to assassinate Jesus. Assassin 33 AD is Donnie Darko meets The Passion of the Christ done on the kind of budget usually reserved for an episode of “The 700 Club.”

Assassin33ad.com boasts that the script has “won more International Screenplay Awards than any know [sic] script in history.” Starting straight off with the line “I’m just struggling. I went from saving an embassy and killing terrorists to being head of security at a research lab,” delivered casually by a rugged man to his wife on a Sunday drive, you can see why. That’s the kind of expository introductory dialogue slick Hollywood movies are too afraid to put in for fear it might sound “clumsy.”

The wife who needs filling in on what her husband has been doing with his life is Heidi Montag, a former Playboy model and current aspiring Christian pop singer who, like much of the cast and crew, was drawn from a cable TV show called “Marriage Boot Camp Reality Stars.” In another fine bit of screenwriting, Montag’s husband chuckles fondly, “That British accent!” This is necessary foreshadowing, because the accent will turn up as an important plot point late on, and without that bit of dialogue we’d have no way of knowing  that she spoke with a British accent. Assassin33ad.com reveals that a producer warned the director when he was planning to cast Montag that “Reality stars can’t act.”

Maybe all the praise for the screenplay comes from its nimble handling of the multiple timelines that infest the second half of the movie. I can’t opine on that, because I quickly lost track of how many time-clones there were running around, and which one were alive and which ones were dead, after the second or third time the hero (Ram Goldstein!) and/or villains leapt  backwards or forwards in time like chronological yo-yos. Personally, it seemed to me that they made up the rules of time travel on the fly:  somehow, even though he just invented time travel accidentally twenty four hours ago, Ram knows that there’s a lag between changing the past and overwriting the present that could take “minutes, possibly hours, maybe longer,” Continue reading CAPSULE: ASSASSIN 33 A.D. (2020)

CAPSULE: MURDER DEATH KOREATOWN (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: None listed

FEATURING: None listed

PLOT: An unemployed man becomes obsessed with a murder that happened in a nearby apartment complex, but his investigation turns paranoid as he imagines a wide-ranging conspiracy.

Still from Murder Death Koreatown (2020)

COMMENTS: Though taking its starting cue from a real-life murder, Murder Death Koreatown is, it’s safe to say, fictional, as you will doubtlessly decide for yourself by the time its deranged protagonist starts spouting theories about the Pastors, ghosts, and voices speaking to from the sewers. It’s like a re-edited version of one of those paranoid YouTube videos that leave you wondering whether the uploader is genuinely crazy or is just stringing you along for the lulz, or like Under the Silver Lake remade on a $100 budget in the style of The Blair Witch Project.

Our unemployed, over-stressed narrator begins by following (real-looking) blood splatters on his sidewalk, and then discovering that one of his neighbors murdered her husband in a neighboring apartment complex in L.A.’s Koreatown. He discovers some minor inconsistencies, and interviews some (real-looking) locals to see if they noticed anything unusual. As his investigation continues, he starts uncovering connections which aren’t really connections—and which sometimes don’t even rise to the level of coincidences—but which are completely obvious and convincing to the protagonist. We ought to be suspicious when we focuses the camera on the blinds in his apartment and marvels, “look at this weird light…” (we have no idea what he’s talking about, but it’s a hint that he takes significance from stuff we wouldn’t even notice). Also, unless you’re Dale Cooper, it’s never a good idea to admit evidence from your dreams into a murder investigation. It’s not really a spoiler to suggest that the movie is a believable study of one man’s descent into delusional paranoia.

Your enjoyment of Murder Death Koreatown will be linked to your tolerance for watching feature-length shot-on-cellphone vlogs. The movie is, by necessity, talky—there are no significant effects or action sequences. Unfortunately, the narrator’s voice isn’t compelling: he delivers most of his lines in a drab “woe is me” tone, and at one point his bleats of terror make him sound like a Muppet startled by a spider. On the plus side, the actor they found to play the shifty-eyed homeless vet in the alley is so convincing that you might believe he’s a real hobo, and that the plot was actually built around his schizophrenic ramblings. The effective horror soundtrack is another element that supersedes the budget; in fact, it’s so well-made that it at times undermines the film’s found footage credibility. Ironically, it’s too professional a touch for a movie that’s trying to make its amateurism into a selling point.

If you’re willing to overlook the budgetary issues, however, Murder Death Koreatown is a solid watch—and if you plot it on a dollars spent to entertainment value curve, it’s off the chart. It holds our interest for just over 70 minutes and does an exceptional job of viral marketing, which is a solid double for a microbudget feature. You can read some of the movie’s promotional gimmickry at the link embedded below.

For more along these lines, Graham Jones’ Fudge 44 (2006) has a similar low-budget, mock-vérité appeal.

K Anon / Murder Death Koreatown

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in mystifying its own ending, Murder Death Koreatown leaves us, like the investigator, grasping for a transcendent truth that the film itself cannot sustain.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SAVAGES (1972)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: James Ivory

FEATURING: Lewis Stadlen, Anne Francine, Ultra Violet, Sam Waterston, and many more of approximately equal importance

PLOT: A tribe of “mud people” find a croquet ball, follow it to an abandoned mansion, put on the clothes they find, host a dinner party, then fall back into savagery.

Still from Savages (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Carefully structured but thoroughly strange from start to finish, Savages is a unique experiment from an unlikely source. Part mock-anthropological study, part absurd satire, the movie is made in the spirit of and of American underground filmmakers, but with the high level of craftsmanship imposed by the Merchant/Ivory team. It’s an oddball outlier in an Oscar-bait canon.

COMMENTS: Savages is a movie that’s almost as strange for who made it as for what it is. When you think of Merchant/Ivory productions, you think of their run from 1985 to 1993 when they produced three massively praised historical costume dramas: A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and Remains of the Day. Watching these staid and starchy dramas aimed at audiences packed with little old ladies, you might never guess that the filmmakers were once young and willing to experiment with movies about stone age tribespeople who morph overnight into well-heeled gentlemen and ladies who throw lavish dinner parties and do the Charleston before spontaneously reverting back to savagery. Movies with nudity and lesbian sex and transvestites and a Superstar in the cast. And yet, strange as it seems, Merchant and Ivory were young and foolish once, and Savages exists.

It begins in the primeval forests (of upstate New York), where a tribe of “mud people” goes about their business of gathering narcotic leaves, kidnapping females from other tribes, and forced ritual lovemaking with the high priestess. These scenes are all silent, with explanatory intertitles and an eerie soundtrack of jungle drums, pan flutes, and bird calls, heavy on the reverb. Following the mysterious appearance of a croquet ball, the tribe makes its way to an abandoned manor house, explores, and after licking a few portraits on the walls, put on the clothes they find in the wardrobe (sometimes getting the genders wrong). Flash forward, and suddenly we’re in color and the cast is speaking English—although dialogue is often fancifully absurd and scarcely more illuminating than the grunts of the mud tribe. (The funniest bit in the whole movie is the ersatz-Broadway musical number”Steppin’ on a Spaniel,” with lyrics like “Close your eyes and give those guys a big smooch, right now/As you’re jumpin’ up and down and steppin’ on a pooch, bow wow!”) They throw a dinner party, complete with gossip and scheming and affairs. They drink too much after dinner, and take drugs, and have sex, and gradually their little society breaks down, until they all pour out onto the lawn at dawn, whacking drunkenly at croquet balls before shedding their clothes and meandering back into the forest to start anew.

Merchant/Ivory here mock the same species of bourgeois drawing room manners they will later romanticize in their Oscar-nominated features. Civilization is a farce; the tribespeople play the same social roles as they did in the jungle, but now with a veneer of sophistication. The enslaved woman serves as maid to the others, a young warrior becomes a bully, and the couple who were always shamelessly humping in the forest are now slipping away every chance they get for illicit assignations. Civilization is presented as a cyclical proposition, rising and then declining back into savagery (as things get turbulent near the end, we are tempted to place a pin in the timeline with a marker reading “you are here.”) It’s all very abstract, but there’s a recurring theme of imitation: the intellectual character is obsessed with an architectural model in the drawing room and how it recreates reality, only smaller, while the limping man tells a story but is unable to answer questions about it because he has merely memorized a book entry verbatim. The savages act out the manners of the civilized without understanding the purpose behind the traditions they carry out.

If there’s one big complaint with Savages, it’s that the scenario drags on far too long. The early reels, in the forest primeval, are the most interesting; a conscientious editor could have cut the rest down by fifteen minutes or even a half hour without doing any damage to the overall effect.

The film was made specifically to take advantage of an abandoned manor house location; Ivory thought up the savagery-to-civilization scenario and then hired a couple of writers (New Yorker essayist George W. S. Trow and National Lampoon‘s Michael O’Donoghue) to pen a script (which was still unfinished by the time the cameras started rolling). The Criterion Collection released Savages as part of their Merchant/Ivory collection. The disc includes an interview with the producer and director alongside the pair’s 1972 BBC documentary The Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No wit, no thought, no surrealist flair, just vacuous decoration.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by Brian, who explained “Don’t be put off by its Merchant/Ivory parentage; this was quite early in their career and one of the main brains behind it was the late weird Michael O’Donoghue, the famed Mr. Mike of National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live fame.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: BUTT BOY (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Tyler Cornack

FEATURING: Tyler Cornack, Tyler Rice

PLOT: I.T. specialist Chip becomes obsessed with sticking items into his rectum; years later, he becomes an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor for a police detective who grows to suspect Chip is involved in a child’s disappearance.

Still from Butt Boy (2019)

COMMENTS: Butt Boy It’s the inverse of the bigger-budgeted horror/drama Swallow (2020), which is a very serious and psychological-minded take on a woman with pica which causes her to swallow inedible objects. (Indeed, although I’m fairly sure neither filmmaker saw the others’ work beforehand, a couple of shots of the respective protagonists studying objects with a mind towards inserting them into admittedly different orifices are eerily similar.) Superficially, Butt Boy is (almost) equally serious to Swallow in tone, but its focus on the opposite end of the digestive tract (and its title) makes it impossible to take seriously.

Despite lacking the high poetry implied in the term, “magical realism” would be a technically correct designation for Butt Boy. What makes the experiment work, to the extent it does, is its dedication to remain absolutely deadpan, never wavering, never winking. It is, most definitely, weird in its conception; but not, for the most part, in its execution. In fact, the idea of a detective who suspects his A.A. sponsor of having committed a terrible crime is so rife with inherent drama and suspense that, in a fit of spontaneous normality, I almost thought it was wasted in a movie where the chief suspect is—literally, not figuratively—an asshole.

Director Tyler Cornack tackles on the central role with a dull and detached take that suits the dry tone, but Tyler Rice, who has sort of a Joe Pesci-in-a-goatee thing going on, brings a needed burst of energy in the role of detective Fox. The perpetually defensive mannerisms of a newly recovering alcoholic mesh perfectly with the eternally suspicious nature of the archetypal career cop. (He even comes with a poignant backstory, efficiently conveyed through a glimpse at a mysterious woman through a cracked door.) Passable cat-and-mouse action takes up the second act, although there are no real surprises or standout suspense scenes to be had (at least, not until the blankly funny moment where Chip drops trou during a violent confrontation). It’s done well enough to pass the time until act three, however, when the movie goes all the way to the end of its alimentary canal of a premise.

Inspired partly by the horror he has seen, and a narrow escape, Fox falls off the wagon just as things start to get really weird. Naturally, his by-the-book supervisor refuses to entertain his explanation for the disappearance, so he’s forced to go looking for the missing boy himself. We then get into the bowels of the story, so to speak; and although thankfully things don’t get too gross, the sights are not for the meek. Then again, the meek probably won’t be streaming something titled Butt Boy in the first place.

While your attention will naturally be drawn to the Butt, but pay attention to the Boy as well. While Butt Boy may play like a simple parody, if there’s any serious subtext under the surface, it’s an attitude towards fatherhood that isn’t necessarily obvious.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The whole thing is just a gross-out joke stretched to absurd proportions, seemingly designed to attract epithets like ‘weirdest film of the year.’ But you know what? It works.”–Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, The Daily Dot (festival screening)

CAPSULE: SEVEN STAGES TO ACHIEVE ETERNAL BLISS (2018)

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AKA Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh

DIRECTED BY: Vivieno Caldinelli

FEATURING: Kate Micucci, Sam Huntington, Dan Harmon, Taika Waititi

PLOT: Claire and Phil move to a spacious L.A. apartment with suspiciously low rent and discover it’s not a lucky find.

COMMENTS: Liberate yourself from the shackles of your thought.

Or so goes the opening tract from the Book of Storsh. An absurdist comedy that explores the space where “self-help” and “suicide cult” intersect, Seven Stages is another strange baby from the SpectreVision production company. They seem intent on bringing weirdness to the wider world of film, no matter how off-the-wall or bleak its progeny may prove to be. This movie’s relentless energy is to its credit; by the end, though, Seven Stages descends into a nihilistic abyss that papers over human despair with a folksy, up-tempo delivery.

For reasons explained during a bathtub vision, Paul (Sam Huntington) and Claire (Kate Micucci) find themselves in a suspiciously large apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Claire is doing her damnedest to get ahead in the advertising business; Paul is doing his damnedest to loaf around their new home and avoid reality. On their first night in their new home, a fanatic sporting a red spiral mark on his forehead breaks in and engages Paul in a bizarre quotation challenge (somehow involving esoteric civil infraction statutes from Iowa), then tap-dances to the bathroom and slices his own throat with a cake knife. When the police are summoned, Detective Cartwright (Dan Harmon, coming across to me as strangely familiar) explains that it’s just another case of a Storsh disciple knocking himself off (“Didn’t you read the lease?”) Slowly at first, and then dramatically, Claire and Paul embrace their circumstances, eventually becoming followers of Storsh’s teachings.

Seven Stages has the feel of an “Upright Citizen’s Brigade” sketch stretched out a bit too long and never quite hitting top gear. There were a number of laughs (often involving the detective who is hell-bent on pitching his screenplay to Wesley Snipes). And the moment when Paul and Claire decide to follow only the “good” parts of Storsh’s religion was a clear and succinct indictment of the whole self-improvement media complex. But when the final sections—Let the Tub Runneth Over and Change Your Story—begin to unravel, the often-silly, occasionally-funny tone plummets into something far more sinister.

I may be overreacting here, perhaps having mentally shifted into a wholly unintended direction, but the feeling I was left with afterwards was not one of comedic satisfaction (or disappointment, for that matter), but of emptiness. I have more of a fatalistic joie-de-vivre than many, but the lesson hammered home here–delivered glibly in the opening scene by Storsh himself, “That’s what death is: eating that ice-cream on your own terms”–suggest that this movie’s screwball antics merely mask a dark mind. But, I did see Elijah Wood‘s name in the credits, and I know from recent experience that SpectreVision will get up to whatever it wants to. I cannot recommend this movie, but I’ll admit I’m impressed that something so comedically hit-and-miss about something so staggeringly bleak got a green light from anyone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The comedy flickers between playful and obscene, and the story bounces back and forth between strange and absolutely screwed up… if you like your humor with a side of WTF, then this is your film.”–Kristy Strouse, Film Inquiry (festival screening)

CAPSULE: LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)

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DIRECTED BY: John D. Hancock

FEATURING: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Mariclare Costello

PLOT: Jessica is fresh out of the psych ward after a mental illness when her husband moves her out to the New England countryside, but the house they have purchased and the surrounding town have a Dark Secret™️.

Still from Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

COMMENTS: Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971) is the directorial debut of John Hancock; nothing in his career would resemble anything like this movie ever again. Reportedly the script was originally written as a satire of horror movies, but Hancock wanted it reworked as a serious horror movie inspired by psychological thrillers like The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House. Horror veterans may groan at this point, because movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) taught us that converting a horror satire into straight horror is a precarious proposition. Amazingly, this movie outshines these modest expectations as well as its low budget—though not by much. It’s a dubious mix of giallo and Gothic set in a Connecticut location just south of Lovecraft country. True to Hancock’s aim, the tone does land somewhere between Shirley Jackson and Howie P. Right from the opening monologue, we have the title character adrift in a rowboat raving madly to herself while Atlantic seagulls fuss off-screen, followed by our opening theme in somber piano notes. You’ll be double-checking to see if Aaron Spelling produced this for TV.

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) is a bubbly gal recently released from the mental hospital, whose hobby is riding around in the back of a hearse touring cemeteries so she can do charcoal rubbings of headstones—but don’t worry, she’s going to be right as rain! Her concerned husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) has bought a home out in the country for her, based on the old “fresh air and simple living” cure for the mentally twitchy. Duncan’s buddy Woody (Kevin O’Connor), along to help them move in, ends up staying on. Despite the fact that Jessica hears voices in her head every two seconds and sees phantoms that disappear in the space of a jump cut, she’s optimistic for her recovery. The strawberry blonde vagrant they discover squatting at this home when they move in (you better believe she’s revealed with a jump scare) isn’t helping matters any. Emily (Mariclare Costello) offers to pack her things and hit the road, but Jessica begs her to stay for dinner, then indefinitely. No sooner does Emily play her guitar over after-dinner wine (Duncan is a retired Philaharmonic orchestra player, so he brings out his double-bass for accompaniment) than Woody puts the moves on her. You see, this clan is set up to be hippies, or at least part of the counterculture, although the usual Hollywood portrayal of Flower Children is muted Continue reading CAPSULE: LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)

CAPSULE: STAR LEAF (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Cranor

FEATURING: Julian Gavilanes, Tyler Trerise, Shelby Trerise, Russell Hodgkinson

PLOT: Ex-Marine James Hunter is stricken with PTSD after a tour of duty in Afghanistan; back home, he finds a trek to discover the legendary “star leaf” strain of marijuana to be less relaxing than he’d prefer.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aliens, drugs, and psychedelia do not a weird movie make. But in the case of Star Leaf, they do somehow make a rather enjoyable exploration of redemption.

COMMENTS: I’ve watched a great many films over the years, both professionally and otherwise, deserving of their IMDb ratings in the low single digits. Some are gloriously inept; others, just straight-up inept. Despite this, it was without trepidation that I sat down to watch Richard Cranor’s stoner/horror/sci-fi outing, Star Leaf. Despite having attended one of those herb-laced, East Coast liberal arts colleges, I’ve never quite understood the allure of marijuana. Fortunately, while Star Leaf is heavy on the cannabis, the weed merely serves as the leafy wrapping over a heart-felt, and fairly funny, musing on PTSD.

James (Julian Gavilanes) is a Marine sniper in the Hindu Kush, stationed with his friend Tim (Tyler Trerise). During a hillside stake-out, Tim encourages James to embrace the “pink mist” and take a shot at a boy whom they witness being fitted with a suicide vest. Fast-forward two years to civilian life in the Pacific Northwest, James, still haunted by this event, joins Tim and his girl Martha (Shelby Trerise) on a different mission: to find, and smoke, the fabled “Star Leaf,” a powerful strain of marijuana allegedly left on earth by extra-terrestrials. Things get crazy and then a little sinister when a strange Park Ranger appears mid-buzz.

There is a lot that Star Leaf doesn’t get right. The extra-terrestrial angle is underdeveloped (or should have been ignored); grey alien-types appear from behind trees every now and again and hassle the drug seekers without much purpose and zero scares. A time-loop/stacked realities “thing” doesn’t stack up logically, even allowing for the speculative physics. And then there’s the final problem that I often have with horror films: having made some fairly interesting characters, the director seems happy enough to kill them off. Or does he?

That final ambiguity is also problematic, but I know I’m giving you the wrong impression. Star Leaf actually hits a lot of right notes: witty banter, a good message, and yet another of those great nightmare-vision police officers (or, as he repeatedly corrects the trio while tapping his shoulder insignia, “Park Ranger”). This sinisterly-stilted entity is played by none-other than director Richard Cranor, and his Ranger Dave goes a long way to making Star Leaf into an odd-ball mix of hipster/stoner “Twilight Zone.” Russell Hodgkinson even appears as the ex-biker, still-Jewish stoner guru (if that name isn’t familiar, he plays a doctor in The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle). And then there’s the underlying message: forgiveness of one’s self and others. Star Leaf has all the makings of a “throw-away” movie (as well as a “throw-away” review), but it’s one those gems that makes the trash heap worth sifting through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the biggest qualm is in the form of the film’s second half… It’s unclear whether this is all just a part of the bad trip from the weed (judging from their weird trips after first smoking), or if it’s really happening. As such, there’s a question of whether the situation is a dangerous one or just head games. There’s just never a concrete feeling of real fear for the characters’ wellbeing, which is off-putting when there are aliens and terrorists after you.”–Mike Wilson, Bloody Disgusting (contemporaneous)