Tag Archives: Independent film

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)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ROAR (1981)

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“The most dangerous film ever made.”–Roar promotional materials

“Never work with children or animals.”–

DIRECTED BY: Noel Marshall

FEATURING: Noel Marshall, , , Kyalo Mativo

PLOT: A family runs a wildlife conservation habitat for lions, tigers, leopards, and various exotic wildlife, struggling to coexist peacefully with the animals while maintaining a funding grant.

Still from Roar (1981)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Roar is a movie that breaks all the rules, including our standards here. The movie itself, on paper, isn’t weird at all. What’s bizarre is the extraordinary circumstances of its making. With a cast of dozens of untrained and barely-half-tamed big cats, unscripted scenes with actors actually getting attacked and bleeding real blood, and the shocking commitment of the crew beyond all limits of sanity, Roar earns its place next to vérité oddities like Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Nobody will be crazy enough to make another movie like this again, so there will always be exactly one Roar.

COMMENTS: Roar is the story of a wildlife refuge for exotic animals, particularly those from the African plains, tended by a family with a heavy “live in harmony with nature” message. If that was all we told you, you might expect this to be a specimen from the mid-1970s slew of mediocre G-rated theater spam of the same ilk, family pictures like The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams or The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (from Sunn Classic Pictures and Pacific International Enterprises, respectively). And that is probably the original intent behind Roar (1981), but then things went… wrong.

As the opening titles proudly remind us, no animals were harmed in the making of this movie. But seventy members of the cast and crew were. This only counts the injuries requiring hospital treatment; Hedren later admitted in interviews that the injury total was closer to a hundred or more. Highlights include cinematographer Jan de Bont (lion attack, 220 stitches to the scalp), Tippi Hedren (elephant attack, fractured leg and head injuries), Noel Marshall ( multiple feline attacks, numerous injuries, hospitalized with blood poisoning and gangrene), and John Marshall (lion attack, 56 stitches). Injuries or not, most of the takes with an attack in them ended up in the final film cut. Understandably, staff turnover was brisk, including one incident where twenty members of the production crew walked off the set all at once. Melanie Griffith also left at one point, telling her mother Hedren “I don’t want to come out of this with half a face.” She had a change of heart and returned to complete her role, whereupon she promptly almost lost half her face (lion attack, 100+ stitches and facial reconstructive surgery).

On paper, the story is a big yawn. Patriarch Hank (Noel Marshall) Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ROAR (1981)

CAPSULE: PERDITA DURANGO (1997)

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AKA Dance with the Devil

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rosie Perez, , Aimee Graham, Harley Cross,

PLOT: Perdita Durango teams up with Santeria priest/bank robber Romeo to transport a truckload of fetuses to Las Vegas, kidnapping a couple of college kids along the way for fun.

Still from Perdita Durango (1997)

COMMENTS: Sexy leads Rosie Perez and . Alex de la Iglesia directing with a mid-range budget. Barry “Wild at Heart” Gifford co-scripting from his own novel. Small parts played by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and .

From this assemblage of talent, you’d predict an unqualified gonzo masterpiece. But, although it has its fans, Perdita Durango‘s results are qualified, at best. True, the film is wild and unhinged: any movie with black market fetuses as a plot point has got some impudent imagination going for it. The problem is that Perdita Durango and Romeo Dolorosa aren’t sympathetic outlaws like Sailor and Lula from Wild at Heart, or the sinful-but-valiant trio of de la Iglesia’s previous outing, Day of the Beast. They’re unrepentant sociopaths, in the vein of Mickey and Mallory, but lacking those characters’ satirical edge. That leaves de la Iglesia trying to navigate a dangerous border between black comedy and grindhouse nihilism; and although the movie work in spurts, he never gets the difficult tone flowing just right.

The big problem is the rape scene that happens fairly early on. It’s one thing to rob banks, or even to plan to eat your victims in a Santeria ritual—those are understandable, forgivable movie crimes, motivated by greed and misplaced mystical beliefs. But this sadistic violation is motivated by pure meanness, and Perdita and Romeo can never quite recover our affection. The script only compounds that problem when, instead of offing the dead weight after their cannibal ritual is foiled, Perdita and Romeo let their blonde collegiate kidnap victims tag along for the rest of their spree. Their neglect in ruthlessly killing these two is totally out of character, and seems transparently motivated by narrative interests—giving the criminals someone to talk to other than each other, providing opportunities for suspense from the teens’ escape attempts, and maybe even granting Perdita some kind of unearned character growth—rather than any sort of logic.

And that’s a shame, because Perdita Durango has a lot of cool pieces that could have cohered into a fun movie: Javier Bardem’s Aztec mullet. Random Herb Alpert music scattered throughout. Genuine sexual chemistry between Perez and Bardem. Santeria rituals involving snorting obscene amounts of coke and tossing hearts at the wall while Screamin’ Jay wails in the background. A jaguar dream sequence. But alas, when there’s no one in the movie to root for, and not enough humor (or weirdness) to compensate for the depravity, it’s all for naught.

Normally, I would blame the distributors for cutting the film by ten controversial minutes, retitling it Dance with the Devil, and barely releasing it at all—but this project was a mess from the beginning. It was originally to be directed by Bigas Luna, with Madonna, Victoria Abril, , , and all variously attached before dropping out. Four writers worked on the screenplay. Dialogue slips from Spanish to English (heavily accented, often difficult to understand English, in Bardem’s case). Overall, the production was unsettled, and the chaotic, underwhelming results were almost to be expected. Bardem would go on to better things, Barry Gifford would again collaborate with on Lost Highway, and de la Iglesia would bounce back; but this is something of a low point for most everyone involved. Nevertheless, thanks to Severin films and their 2021 Blu-ray release for rescuing this early de la Iglesia film from oblivion.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[a] kinetic and bizarre journey through the dark underworld of wild debauchery, reckless abandon, and Santeria.”–Jason Buchanan, All Movie Guide

(This movie was nominated for review [as Dance with the Devil] by “StarWanderer.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: WINTERBEAST (1992)

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DIRECTED BY: Christopher Thies

FEATURING: Tim R. Morgan, Mike Magri, Bob Harlow, Charles Majka

PLOT: On top of a mountain near the remote Wild Goose Lodge, ancient Indian stop-motion demons are stirring.

Still from Winterbeast (1991)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: There are numerous bizarre touches scattered throughout Winterbeast, but there is one scene that earns this scrappy little amateur film an outside shot at our list: an unexpectedly ian masquerade at about the two-thirds mark of the movie, scored to a scratchy phonograph recording of the children’s song “What Can the Matter Be?”

COMMENTS: Begun in 1986 and released (to VHS) in 1992, Winterbeast is a few minutes of fairly competent stop-motion animation padded with about 75 minutes of totally incompetent live-action story. The action features mostly cardboard characters, with the exception of a hard-drinking, girlie-magazine loving NYC reprobate park ranger, and a plaid-jacketed businessman who sounds like Larry “Bud” Melman and does for New England wilderness lodges what Jaws‘ mayor did for public beaches. It’s nowhere near a good movie, but it has a small cult following for a reason: it’s peppered with weirdness.

Some of the weird bits are just the sloppy mistakes you usually find in bare budget films. There is, for example, a moment when a man breaks out a glass pane in a door window, presumably so he can reach inside and undo the lock. But when he strikes it, the door immediately swings open, because it wasn’t locked at all. So why didn’t he just use the door handle in the first place? (Maybe because the door in question doesn’t even have a handle.) With segments filmed over a period of years, there are constant editing boo-boos: shots from the same scene are often poorly matched, using different film stock and sound equipment (and sometimes costuming). Lead Tim R. Morgan’s mustache appears to change length and even color randomly throughout the movie.

These mistakes are likely the result of little care being put into anything except the monster sequences. But other flakes of weirdness are almost inexplicable: when Charlie opens his case of Indian artifacts, there’s one item that’s very out of place (I won’t spoil the surprise, you’ll know it when you see it). There are just plain goofy moments, such as when a character unconsciously copies a pose of a cigar-store Indian statue. (It’s worth shoehorning in here that Winterbeast‘s understanding of Native American ethnography appears to be based on research done at 1980s off-reservation souvenir shops.) And then there’s the previously-referenced musical number, complete with a plastic Halloween pumpkin prop, which is a genuine mini-masterpiece of microbudget surrealism.

Oh, and did we mention the rampaging stop-motion monsters? There’s a tentacled dream demon, an animated tree, a bug-eyed Bigfoot, a dinosaur, a giant chicken, and more. For the most part, they look pretty good—except when the giant models are shown picking up their quickly-made hunk-of-clay human victims, and either decapitating them or—in the case of one hapless, topless victim—smashing them against the side of a building. The creatures are only seen briefly, but the filmmakers obviously believed they could carry the picture, and they just needed to build enough movie around them to showcase these effects.

Remember how much fun 1970s homemade Harryhausen tribute Equinox was? Now imagine if it was done by a crew with half the talent at animation, and a tenth of the talent at every other aspect of filmmaking. Still fun, but in a different way. Realizing that he had created the perfect film, Christopher Thies never wrote or directed another movie after this.

Winterbeast is available as part of Vinegar Syndrome’s “Home Grown Horrors” box set (for the time being, exclusively available here), where it joins fellow apocrypha candidate Beyond Dream’s Door (1989) and the slasher Fatal Exam (1988) in a triple-feature of some of the best cheapo horror movies of the video store boom. It’s loaded with every possible extra feature you could imagine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie may be uneven in terms of the quality of its cinematography but it is so consistently bizarre and filled with enough seriously WTF moments that you can’t help but love it.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (“Homegrown Horrors” box set)

CAPSULE: TEN MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Erik Bloomquist

FEATURING: Caroline Williams, Adam Weppler, Nicole Kang, William Youmans, Nicholas Tucci

PLOT: DJ Amy Marlowe is bitten by a flying animal on the way to her final broadcast, and things get a little bloody.

COMMENTS: Does Ten Minutes to Midnight embody low-budget horror? Let’s go down the list. Closed environment? Check: radio station, nary an outside scene. Undercurrent of macabre humor? Check: the night manager is a skeezy, New Wave-vintage coke-snorter, while the oddball security guard spouts good cheer with a sociopath’s menace. Pile of corpses? Check: the ladies room becomes shin-deep in victims. Brief run-time? Check: 72 minutes zip right along. Throwback lead? Super check: Caroline “Stretch” Williams owns her role as DJ Amy Marlowe. But sophomore director Erik Bloomquist throws in peripherals left, right, and center. With all that weight on the sides, the center does not hold.

From the start, Ten Minutes veers into ambiguation. The establishing shot, something I always note, shows an upside-down clock positioned at—you guessed it—11:50. (The outdoor light levels and an urgent broadcast about “tonight’s” rain storm answer the “AM or PM?” question; warning: you will get very comfortable with this clock setting.) Amy’s adventure begins offscreen and the dual bite-mark she receives on her to work introduces one possible explanation for the strangeness that ensues.

As far as cast goes, aside from the over-caffeinated security guard Ernie (Nicholas Tucci, deceased) and the station’s past-his-prime manager, there’s young-guy-with-lip-piercings radio technician Aaron who might be nursing a crush for the mature blonde DJ. And oh yeah, incongruous UC Berkeley grad Sienna (Nicole Kang) is there to act as some generational counterpoint to Amy.

You cannot hope to adequately convey much with a runtime under an hour-and-a-quarter, but that doesn’t stop our boy Bloomquist from trying. Ten Minutes explores transition—Amy is menopausal and retiring, Sienna is starting a new job, Aaron just broke up with another redhead, and callers’ lives are at a crossroads. It explores aging, death, purgatory, the modern work environment. It wants to be a vampire movie, a psychological study, a meditation on mortality, and a horror comedy… Imagine you’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet that is rigged to explode unless you consume all the offerings, from the bad pizza to the passable fresh-carved roast beef, in 72 minutes; Bloomquist seems to have endured an artistic form of this hypothetical. As a rule, I don’t mind a movie leaving me with more questions than answers, and I don’t necessarily shy away from incoherence. But while Ten Minutes to Midnight left me overstuffed with bloody imagery and thematic twists, it left me hungry for something more substantial.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In the span of just 70 minutes [Bloomquist] manages to cover an awful lot of ground, creating a surrealist tone early on that he never lets up until the closing credits roll…  a B-grade feature wrapped up in a 1980’s mindset that gloriously marches to its own bizarre beat.”–Peter Gray, This Is Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE PLANTERS (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder

FEATURING: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder, Phil Parolisi, Pepe Serna

PLOT: Emotionally-stunted Martha Plant is a terrible telemarketer and prefers her side hustle of burying junk in the desert for treasure hunters to dig up; things change when she offers her spare room to a recently released mental patient with multiple personalities.

Still from The Planters (2019)

COMMENTS: The appropriately named Martha Plant is an odd woman with an odder passion: she shoplifts souvenir shop trinkets, buries them in the desert, posts the GPS coordinates on a lonely bulletin board, and then digs them up later to find the cash left behind by grateful treasure hunters. (“It’s one of the most successful enterprises in the area,” she brags.) Martha is such a great crackpot that all she needs is an equally oddball sidekick, and the script almost writes itself. Enter Sadie, who literally comes careening down a sand dune, padlocked into a bicycle helmet and carrying a red suitcase, and crashes into Martha, the only landmark visible for miles. Laid-back, whimsical wackiness ensues.

Well, there are a couple more complications. One, Sadie has been released—or rather, cut loose—from a mental hospital that’s gone bankrupt. And she has multiple personalities, which show up over the course of the film. Two, while working at her day job selling air conditioners by phone, Martha develops a friendship with a lonely widower who’s just as socially awkward as the two women. And three, when Sadie peeks into the tins Martha buries, she sees biblical scenes (which play out in claymation): Jesus carrying on a casual conversation with the two crucified thieves, Moses parting the Red Sea, that sort of thing. Sometimes Sadie sees herself inside these little clay parables. These hallucinations are obviously the weirdest feature of a movie that otherwise merely leans to the absurd side of quirky, but it sets up a final scene that, for what it’s worth, indeed goes all the way into the surreal.

With its squared-off mise en scene, bright colors, deadpan line deliveries, twee musical selections, and eccentric characters, comparisons to are inevitable. And although that’s a great touchstone to determine if this might be your bag, Anderson rarely gets anywhere near this weird. Readers of this site might instead find connections to a similar mismatched-oddball desert buddy comedy, Rubin & Ed (although The Planters never gets quite that wild or aggressive). At any rate, it’s unfair to write this original comedy off as simply ersatz Wes. It’s its own weirdo thing.

The Planters has a terrific DIY backstory. It was created almost entirely by the two lead actresses/co-directors, from scriptwriting to costumes, sets, lighting, props, and sound, with no other crew. Begun in 2016, it took half a year to shoot, and spent a couple more years in post-production (Sam Barnett’s claymation creations took a while), finally arriving at film festivals in late 2019, and getting a very limited theatrical release in December 2020. The best part about it all is that, watching the film, you have no idea that the actresses are alone on set; everything seems to flow naturally from deliberate stylistic choices rather than result from filmmakers scrimping to cram their vision within their limitations.

The Planters is currently free on Amazon Prime for subscribers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Odd. Quirky. Deliberately stilted at times. Colourfully shot with interesting camera angles. Filled with eccentric characters.”–Carey, OrcaSound (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE EMPTY MAN (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: David Prior

FEATURING: James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, Sasha Frolova, Stephen Root

PLOT: James Lasombra, ex-cop and widower, offers to help find his friend’s daughter and discovers he’s being pursued by a malevolent spiritual force.

COMMENTS: David Prior’s feature debut is a horror movie, a thriller, a melodrama, and an exploration of dark spirituality. It’s stuffed to the gills with cultists, menace, and twists, all drizzled with snark. It’s brimming with so many ideas that its title becomes nearly ironic. Sure sure, it features a tulpa with an appetite whose current manifestation evokes the “slender empty man.” Additionally, the protagonist is empty on the inside: his wife and son died some years prior. In fact, the introductory scene (a thorough twenty-two minutes) culminates with a hapless hiker slipping into an empty space in some Bhutanese mountain. But if any one criticism is to be leveled against The Empty Man, it’s that there is just too much of everything.

It stars with excessive location detail. The Bhutanese mountain in question is precisely identified in a superimposed opening title card, scored by foreign drone-singing, and emphasized further by a passing bus-load of Buddhist monks, a wall of spinning prayer bells, and bunches of fluttering prayer flags. Guess where those four random mid-’90s mountaineers are? Exactly where they shouldn’t be. After they meet their grisly but otherwise nebulous fate, we’re brought back home (and to present-day) with the title card “Webster Mills, MO, 2018”. In case we didn’t trust their word, there’s a shot of a water tower with the town’s name slapped across it. In the (second) introductory scene we meet James Lasombra, a grizzled forty-something who runs a home security business. His adventure features teen disappearances, teen deaths, expository expostulation from a goth-pixie daughter figure, the “covertly” sinister Pontifex Institute, and recurring flashback nightmares breaking through his doxepin regimen.

This rich vein of material coupled with countless I-don’t-trust-the-audience reminders made me feel that its 137 minutes was both too brief and overly long. The camera might linger obviously on a detail in one scene and then swing back to it when James reaches the relevant point in his investigation. As he drives through the rainy nights of Webster Mills, earlier lines of dialogue repeat in his memory. And Prior makes the regrettable choice of providing an uncut version of a key flashback that would have left things more interesting, and still adequately explained, had he trusted his viewer to have been actually watching the movie.

But I can’t dislike a movie for its eagerness to tell as much story as it can. An opening credits tip-off strongly hint that The Empty Man has something to do with a comic book universe, which helps explain the problem. Prior’s movie should have been no shorter than a mini-series. It could then explore: the Himalayan incident in more depth; the unclear history between James and Detective Villiers; the mythos of “the Empty Man” in contemporary American society; and the socio-spiritual machinations of the Pontifex Institute. In future, I hope Prior adopts either an exhaustive or a less-is-more approach−not both.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Advertised, however slightly, as a traditional horror film, this is a truly surreal and strange piece of work, anchored by some top-notch craft elements, but weakened a bit by a bloated running time and a conclusion that likely left the few people who saw it in theaters more annoyed than thrilled… How do you sell a film as surreal and unsettling as ‘The Empty Man’? You don’t even try. If you’re lucky, the audience finds it on their own.”–Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com (contmporeaneous)