Tag Archives: Independent film

SLAMDANCE 2023: A PERFECT DAY FOR CARIBOU (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Jeff Rutherford

FEATURING: Charlie Plummer, Jeb Berrier, Oellis Levine

PLOT: Before committing suicide, Herman gets a call from his estranged son Nathaniel; meeting at a cemetery, Nathaniel brings his own son—who goes missing.

Still from A Perfect Day for Caribou (2022)

COMMENTSMuch as the film’s father and son teeter along the edge between acquiescence and despair in this ambling dialogue of a movie, Jeff Rutherford teeters along the edge between “indie” and “weird” with A Perfect Day for Caribou, his feature debut. While we generally prefer to bring attention to stranger films, if we can take the time to highlight slow-core tedium, we can take a moment here to talk about something melancholy, oddly humorous, and quietly hopeful.

Against the back-drop of close-knit upholstery, the movie begins with Herman (Jeb Berrier) dictating a final message to his son Nate (Charlie Plummer). From his scattershot remarks, it’s clear Herman’s anecdotes, pre-apologies, and side notes seem much like his life: unfocused, lacking purpose, and a bit sad. He’s prepared for his final moment, much as he’s prepared for his son to not care much what he has to say; despite this, he’s recording this rambling confession of sorts because even though he’s grasping at straws, “…the straws you grasp at—you should grasp them.” His would-be final words are interrupted when Nate calls him on his mobile phone, and the father and son meet up at a nearby cemetery, Nate’s autistic son Ralph in tow.

Thoreau said, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”; and Herman and Nate quietly face the mindless and unavoidable sadness they have endured throughout their lives, with ample cigarettes. We watch two men travel the Oregonian countryside in search of young Ralph, interrupted only be surreal memories and hopeful imaginings. Herman spends most of the film carrying a sealed parcel his ex-wife, Nate’s mother, left behind. The men meet another lonely soul on their hushed, unhurried quest: a woman who accidentally shoots at Nate followed by the immediate heartfelt shout of, “Sorry!” No big deal. They all chat, share some water, and part ways.

As a general rule, I eschew anything so overtly art-house, but there is an odd satisfaction in watching these two broken men attempt to makes peace with themselves and each other. The sweeping vistas contrast their tiny existence. Nate is wise, either in the face of or because of his fractured background. His anguish is captured by his wish for his own son: “I don’t know if these type of people exist,” he says, “but I want Ralph to feel very limited hurt.” The best he can imagine is less pain.

Nate and Herman pursue the lost boy, who leaves clues behind for them to follow: a soccer ball, a toy truck, a plastic bag; the strange—and defiant—undercurrent is underscored by Herman’s closing scene. He’s opened the box, donned a pair of novelty reindeer antlers, and can’t quite find the right position for the gun barrel on his body. Everything’s wrong, nothing fits into place, so you’ve got to keep trying, I suppose, and maybe something will eventually click.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in its best moments, [Rutherford’s] debut reaches for the mournful everyday poetry of Wim Wenders’ ‘Paris, Texas’ or Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Old Joy.’ Elsewhere, the film feels a little determined in its minimalism, a little too cute in its brushes of absurdism. Still, it promises significant things from its young writer-director, who shows more formal nous and rigor than many neophyte directors of comparable U.S. indies.”–Guy Lodge, Variety (festival screening)

CAPSULE: BREATHING HAPPY (2022)

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Breathing Happy is currently available for VOD rental or purchase (or free with a Fandor subscription).

DIRECTED BY: Shane Brady

FEATURING: Shane Brady, June Carryl, Augie Duke, Brittney Escalante, Katelyn Nacon, John D’Aquino, Hugh Scott, Owen Atlas, voices of , Sarah Bolger,

PLOT: A recovering addict undergoes a metaphorical hallucination on Christmas Eve, which happens to be the anniversary of his first year sober.

Still from Breathing Happy (2022)

COMMENTS: It can’t be stressed enough that Breathing Happy is made with a particular audience in mind: people within the recovery movement, and specifically, people within the recovery movement who also enjoy oddball movies. Within that extremely niche demographic, Breathing Happy‘s audience clearly loves it. Like faith-based movies, recovery movies are fraught with the danger of relapsing into the preachy and pedantic. Shane Brady here uses disorientation, impudent comedy, and a high (if seldom difficult to decode) level of metaphor to overcome those pitfalls. Mostly, it works: insider jargon and platitudes rarely intrude, are often subverted when they do, and the movie never feels like a lecture. And it is provocative—almost perverse—to make a recovery movie that plays like a psychedelic trip movie.

And Breathing Happy, a movie which features not one but two talking doors, is trippy through and through. It begins with a man sitting alone doing magic tricks with multicolored playing cards, intercut with a series of shots of blossoming clouds of colored pigments, emerging into a rapidly changing montage of decades-spanning home video footage, before slowing down a bit to introduce Dylan, its one-year-sober protagonist, alone on Christmas Eve. Things quickly take another turn for the surreal when he almost immediately awakens from a short winter’s nap to find his dog missing, alarms going off all over the house, weird lighting, and his old dealer, who talks like French Stewart, eating the Christmas pudding in his living room. From there, we embark on a non-linear journey of memory and discovery, achieved mostly through schizophrenic dream-logic editing that cycles through ghostly visitations, flashbacks, a comic 911 call, fractured bits of therapy and meditation sessions, and hallucinatory conversations with a couple of talking doors that represent the poles of sobriety and relapse. Breathing Happy rarely pauses to catch its breath, instead expressing the racing thoughts and regrets of its protagonist, who at one point tearfully confesses that his mind is like “a popcorn machine, fireworks, a bunch of hyenas fighting for attention…” The film dedicates itself to realizing that confusion, although it also sorts it out at the end and provides the expected happy grace notes.

Recovering addict Dylan’s backstory is revealed slowly and in a fragmentary manner. He’s adopted into a multiracial family, suffers a gruesome hockey accident that presumably puts him on the Oxycontin highway to hell, alienates everyone in his family, and loses everyone in his family—and then his dog gets cancer. Let’s face it, the guy’s going through a lot. The film is sympathetic to Dylan—maybe to a fault. Everything is seen from the addict’s perspective, how his addiction affects him rather than those around him. Sure, it’s hinted that his family has legitimate reasons for shunning him, but we’re not directly made privy to them: it seems like he ruins multiple Christmases through nothing more than impoliteness and slurred speech. We never see a big rock bottom moment, no stealing of his mom’s jewelry, no taking a swing at sis, not even nodding off face-first into the mashed potatoes at dinner. His sisters’ decision to cut Dylan out of the family therefore comes across as needlessly cruel. The movie is overprotective in its sympathy for the addict; the same events seen through an Al-Anon lens would have a quite different tenor. We don’t even know what Dylan’s drug of choice is (we default to polydrug addict popping whatever comes along, but I would have found it more interesting to take a deeper dive into the particular failings of a junkie, a tweaker, or a dedicated drunk). Dylan is at the same time incredibly specific in his personal history, but extremely generic as an addict: likely a deliberate choice to make his story as universal as possible. Still, I personally would have preferred Breathing Happy to include more direct and honest dysfunction, to show us more of Dylan’s drug-induced transgressions, to treat him with rougher gloves. The film’s pro-addict bias is admirable, but overplayed.

Although I am not part of Breathing Heavy‘s primary target audience, I was never bored with the movie, which always has a new angle at the ready. If you like weird movies, I suspect you will find it an easy watch. If you like recovery movies, I suspect you will find much to identify with. And if you’re a recovering addict who also likes weird movies—what are you waiting for? This was made specifically for you.

Breathing Happy is obviously a labor of love for star Shane Brady, who has previously been glimpsed as an actor in weirdish indies like The Endless, Tone-Deaf, Synchronic and King Knight. Brady wrote, directed, and edited (good job there) the film, as well as holding down the role of Dylan. and ‘s Rustic Films produced, and the acting/directing duo cameo as disembodied voices.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird Christmas redemption story that defies genre… a mind-bending story about recovery, redemption, and grief with a pinch of magic for good measure.”–Sharai Bohannon, Dread Central (festival screening)

30*. THE CONGRESS (2013)

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DIRECTED BY: Ari Folman                  

FEATURING: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sami Gayle, Paul Giamatti, voice of Jon Hamm

PLOT: Film actress Robin Wright agrees to sell the rights to her image to a studio which will use the captured data to showcase an eternally young avatar in their productions. After 20 years, the producers invite her to extend the contract, and she travels to the meeting of a futuristic congress where all the participants ingest a chemical that allows them to invent their own reality and become anyone. When the congress proposes sharing this drug with the masses, Wright rebels, but her resistance is put down, and another 20 years on, she surveys the world that has resulted.

Still from The Congress (2013)

BACKGROUND:

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The trip through the animated landscape of Abrahama City is rife with psychedelic visions and eye-catching creations. The scenes within the animated universe are densely populated with caricatures of the famous and celebrated, representing alternative identities whom a disaffected humanity have chosen to take on in place of their own. Naming them all would be impossible, but I’d like to offer a particular shout-out to the person who decided to become Magritte’s apple-faced businessman. But the image that stays with you is a lonely and scared Robin Wright standing alone in the middle of a large and inhuman motion-capture dome, presenting a prism of emotions as the computers capture her every nuance. It’s an ironic manifesto for the value of human acting, as Wright the actress manifests the uncontrolled feelings of Wright the character.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Entrance to Abrahama City, Robin grows wings

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Animation has always reveled in its power to bend reality, making it an ideal medium for fantastical visions and deep dives into the imagination. The high-wire act that The Congress has to walk is literalizing animation’s attempt to slip the surly bonds of the real world. It’s not enough for this fantasy landscape to be trippy; it has to be a logical extension of the very real world being abandoned. It’s only appropriate that a movie star, the very avatar of a flesh-and-blood figure creating something artificial for our amusement, would be our guide. The film deftly juxtaposes the two worlds, each commenting upon the other and dramatizing the wonders and perils of our ongoing quest for escapism.

Original trailer for The Congress

COMMENTS: The most recent episode of the excellent podcast Continue reading 30*. THE CONGRESS (2013)

CAPSULE: MASKING THRESHOLD (2021)

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Masking Threshold is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

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DIRECTED BY: Johannes Grenzfurthner

FEATURING: Voice of Ethan Haslam

PLOT: A man performs experiments in an attempt to find the source of the tinnitus that is driving him mad.

Still from Masking Threshold (2021)

COMMENTS: It’s no surprise that Masking Threshold isn’t getting a big theatrical release; it’s more of a miracle that it was able to play in a few theaters at all. This has nothing to do with the film’s quality and everything to do with its style: this is a film that is (almost) entirely narrated by the protagonist, while the camera focuses (almost) exclusively on closeups of objects for the entire runtime. A movie that plays like a paranoid podcast illustrated with a succession of moving slides—sort of a contemporary feature-length version of La Jetée—is a hard sell in any climate, but particularly at a time when movie theaters are struggling to put butts in seats.

Fortunately, the scaled-back nature of the project means it will play well on small screens (although it would be nice to hear that crucial sound mix emanating from Dolby surround-sound speakers). Despite the fact that it may only be a MacGuffin for the protagonist’s deeper psychological issues, sound—the rustle of fabric, turning of pages, test tones the protagonist generates for his own reference—-provides the texture of the film. The movie quietly ushers us into the protagonist’s mind, as we hear none of his background tinnitus in the early going, but the hum slowly and subtly creeps into the soundtrack, scarcely noticed, until by the end we hear these subtones too. These minute variations in drones, unidentifiable rustlings and buzzings, and oscillations have tremendous significance to the protagonist, but to us they remain esoteric. The movie’s production values are low, so visuals cleverly rely on extreme closeups of carbon dioxide bubbles, slices of bread, algae, ants, and mouse corpses, supplemented by various charts, graphs, alchemical prints, blinking diodes, repurposed memes, and so on. The protagonist’s face is never clearly visible. The movie is presented as a YouTube diary by one of those “independent researchers” whose peculiar-to-insane preoccupations fail to strike a chord with a mass audience; his impassioned Reddit posts leave him the subject of trolling and lols.

This is a strange movie, in that the first-person monologue script would work just as well as a short story; in a way, Masking Threshold is nothing but multimedia-enhanced prose. But that makes it a triumph; a movie literally constructed from objects found around the house or bought at Home Depot, Best Buy, and Petco, is inspirational. The protagonist is erudite (the movie is full of fascinating trivia) and arrogant; his inner monologue is profound when discussing the philosophy of science, and myopic when interpreting the results of his own experience. His narrative voice put me in mind of the antihero of ‘s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” while the madness resulting from his investigation onto cosmic phenomena evokes any number of victims. (It’s noteworthy that both authors get a “thanks” in the credits). Not to say that Grenzfurthner’s script (co-written with Samantha Lienhard) lives up to those classic influences—but it does update that psychological horror template with timely references to Internet culture, Q-Anon, and “doing your own research.”  Masking Threshold is a successful, immersive, and credible experiment in diving into one man’s particular rabbit hole universe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…his paranoid, obsessive quest digs its own rabbit hole of increasingly unhinged weirdness, escalating from the unhygienic ick of growing algae and such to… well, if you suspect a narrative like this must inevitably lead to homicidal violence, you’d be right.”–Dennis Harvey, 48 Hills

 

CAPSULE: KUNG FURY (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: David Sandberg

FEATURING: David Sandberg, Jorma Taccone, Leopold Nilsson

PLOT: After his captain is murdered via telephone, policeman Kung Fury must travel back in time to kill the assassin, Kung Führer (AKA Adolf Hitler).

Still from Kung Fury (2015)

COMMENTS: Kung Fury is one of the most ridiculous things I have seen. It is also one of the funniest. Even more impressively, it is that rarest of silly comedy films: one that has the wherewithal and willpower not to overstay its welcome. Apart from its other (considerable) qualities, I’d tip my had to Sandberg for shutting up shop and spinning the closing credits well before he wore through the already well-worn tropes that are the bread and bullets of the genre. From the opening skateboard car-flip to the smugly defiant Hitler soaring amidst the high-rises of 1985 downtown Miami on his mechanized Nazi eagle, it never felt forced, fatigued, or unfunny.

Even before (or… after?) Hitler’s appearance in downtown Miami, the city’s not a pretty sight. Street toughs hassle cops with impunity, flipping their squad cars like skeet discs for target practice. Arcade machines flash a nasty “Fuck You!” to the unhappy gamers who kick it after their sky unicorn is shot down on-screen. And transformer death machines spring to life, smashing up passing motorists and menacing passing canines. These hassles are all in a day’s work for… Kung Fury: a super cop who does not play by the book. The chip on his shoulder is as real as his sardonic gruffness is fake: years back, he lost his partner and mentor at the hands of a Kung fu master; before young Fury could pull the trigger on the assailant, he was “…hit by lightning and bitten by a cobra.” The rest is history.

And there is quite a lot of history: ancient Vikings astride their dinosaur mounts, the mighty god Thor (who utters his immortal words, “Stop! Hammer Time”), and, of course, the requisite hundreds of Nazi goons ready to fall under the righteous bullet spray sof Hackerman, Triceracop, Barbarianna and Katana. Oh, and a second welcome appearance from Thor and his epic pecs. Added to all this inspired lunacy is Jorma Taccone’s performance as a martial arts fascist; the actor perfectly captures the bizarre speechifying articulations of the erstwhile Führer.

Kung Fury is first and foremost a lampoon of ’80s crime/martial arts television and film. The creative team is spot on with everything—gaudy New Wave score, “futuristic” Tron-style animations, and even a seamlessly included advertisement for a newfangled mobile telephone. It’s as resourceful as it is silly. Leaning heavily on the retrowave vibe, occasional “tracking” issues conveniently crop up to disturb the image just when the most expensive effects sequences might take place. The fight choreography is masterful, too; during the Nazi fight, it switches to a long uninterrupted side-scroller video game ballet. Absurd surrealism pops up as well, as when Fury’s boss is shot through a telephone. (A similar stunt from a classic ’70s film comes to mind.) Sandberg is informed, witty, and has an eye for action timing. Kung Fury is, admittedly, no “Must See”, but I would be hard-pressed to recommend it enough.

At the time of this writing, the producers have made Kung Fury available for free (see below).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an insane and ultra bizarre film…”–Martin Hafer, Influx Magazine