Tag Archives: Independent film

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UMBILICAL WORLD (2018)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of David Firth, Paul MacKenzie, Christian Webb

PLOT: A remixed collection of David Firth’s absurdist flash animation cartoons, like “Salad Fingers” and “Health Reminder,” assembled into a stream-of-consciousness feature with some new material.

Still from Umbilical World (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The nature of the project—an anthologized (though “remixed”) collection of previously published material as opposed to something originally conceived as a unified piece—makes Umbilical World somewhat suspect as an official List entry. There is enough bizareness here to merit the “” tag, however, and that will be more than enough endorsement for many folks.

COMMENTS: Umbilical World begins with “Salad Fingers,” the sweet green goblin with vegetable digits (and David Firth’s most popular creation) struck by lightning and dissolving into a puddle, out of which a glistening umbilical organ rises and glides into low Earth orbit, where it grows on to have relations with celestial objects.

It’s totally and delightfully surreal, of course, but this opening is also a way of implying connectivity between these shorts, although in reality there is no serious connective tissue between the segments. The absurdist miniatures here range from the silly tale of Salad Fingers adopting some sort of oil-soaked battered tin war surplus cylinder, to a skit with skinless gangsters using twisted Prohibition-era slang to order drinks, to straight-up satires of ads and public-service announcements, to a truly nightmarish bit involving a razor-taloned doctor puppet who wounds a horse and feasts on its blood. (Those who have only been exposed to Firth’s lighter, satirical side may be shocked by how terrifyingly dark he can go.) There is, at least, a unity of style and attitude, themes of insanity and death and despair and tubes suck through your skull, and a consistent vein of coal-black humor used to cope with these existential terrors. Extra-weird bits include a character vomiting scrabble tiles when questioned by a head sticking out of a tree stump—not to mention a baby-faced umbilicus entering a photograph of a vagina, emerging from a photograph of an anus, and vomiting eyeballs. There’s a new insane concept once every thirty seconds on average. And there are a surprising number of decapitations—usually not fatal—running throughout the work.

The transitions between the sequences are new material, with ideas like Salad Fingers taking place on a microscopic world on a piece of moldy bread. Characters also watch new cartoons on televisions embedded in the back of other characters heads. Stylistically, much of the animation remains true to Firth’s original flash versions, updated to HD; there are also segments dabbling in an ultra-grotesque form of cutout animation, with cross-eyed photorealistic heads bobbling unsteadily on animated bodies. One extended, trippy bit of digital manipulation, where 21st century  amoebas morph in pseudo-3D over the image before exploding into a fractal supernova and then turning into a stop-motion / homage with mannequin heads and a spinning plate of fruit and sundered body parts, ventures into brave new territory. The music—by Flying Lotus, the late Marcus Fjellström, and others—is eerie and well-matched to the mood. And while the individual pieces featured here may work better as shorts—there can be too much of a good thing, at least in one sitting—the experience is like leaving Firth’s YouTube channel on autoplay while waiting for the drugs to kick in, then checking in just when you’re peaking to find something on that plays like a collaboration between , , and a serial killer.

On a personal level, I was only familiar with the three Firth shorts previously published on these pages, plus a few more we screened and passed over for another day. I suspect someone like me may be in the best position to appreciate this collection. If you have too much familiarity with Firth’s work, you might be disappointed in how little new material is here, or be upset if your personal favorite was left out. If you have too little familiarity with Firth’s work, you might miss out on a bit of context or some of the umbilical connections, or simply be stunned by the mix of -style jokes with nightmares that would make bolt up in bed screaming. In any case, there is an obvious pitch to this work: Firth has worked hard publishing on YouTube to build a fan base, but paltry streaming advertising revenues don’t pay the bills for 99% of content providers. Like a Kickstarter reward, Umbilical World offers fans a chance to show him a little financial support, and to receive something new and exclusive in exchange. Umbilical World also immortalizes Firth’s work in a less ephemeral fashion. It’s available streaming (click here for options), or on DVD with a bonus “making of” documentary and director’s commentary.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In terms of the vibe, think Bill Plympton crossed with Eraserhead.”–Joe Bendel, J.B. Spins

ED WOOD’S TAKE IT OUT IN TRADE (1970) BLU-RAY

As we approach the New Year, it would be wise to remember the timeless words, of the great prophet: “Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”

Isn’t it refreshing to see long-overdue appreciation of Edward D. Wood, Jr? Whoever would have guessed that his Holy Grail directorial swan song, Take it out in Trade (1970), would be  discovered, restored, and given such a gorgeous Blu-ray treatment by American Film Genre Archives (AFGA), in collaboration with Something Weird Video? May blessings eternally be bestowed upon both of them.

As this is from Wood’s later period, his budget seems to be down to about the $1.50 range. Also, like Wood’s later output, it’s a sexploitation flick, with astoundingly gratuitous nudity. Still, there’s a degree of renewed Woodian energy, which had been primarily missing since the auteur bogged down in fatigue in the late fifties. There is no mistaking that it Wood is in an advanced decline from serious alcoholism.

Trade actually has a story, such as it, and is different from his late work, too, in being an intentional comedy. Shirley (Donna Stanley) is missing, forcing her parents to hire a Private Dick named Mac McGregor (Michael Donovan O’Donnell). They must not have much of a detective budget because McGregor is totally inept. As he says, in typical Woodian narration: “Sex is where I come in. Dead or alive, sex is always in need of my services. A service to which I sincerely apply myself wholeheartedly—sometimes even in the daylight hours.” Indeed, he hardly does any detective work, being repeatedly distracted by sex.

Still from Take It out in Trade (1970)Wood himself shows up in drag, wearing… drum roll, please… a lime green angora sweater, topped by huge blue fake pearls. He looks bad—splotchy and bloated—but there’s a twinkle alive through all that self-destruction. Looking for Shirley, McGregor takes one international holiday after another, flying into wherever (cue stock plane footage), looking  for naked people (stock nudie films and new nudie footage), flying back, checking his office, getting bored, and flying to a new destination to see more naked people. Countries are represented by the barest minimum establishing shots, such as one of a continental dandy sipping wine. McGregor’s reactions are cartoonish, the jokes are groan-inducing, and the pacing is napalmed due to Wood’s padding to reach feature length. He apparently hoped against hope that it would all work, because he bragged in the trailer (included in the Blu-ray extras), “This one won’t be ignored by the box office.”  Of course, it was.

The twist is that when McGregor finally tires of bug-eyed reactions to naked people and goes to look for Shirley, it turns out that Shirley is a hooker. Cue Wood’s bizarro assessment of the sex trade. Shirley’s not in the gutter, she’s having fun, and indeed, what better way to make a living than being paid to have sex, which she enjoys?

Wood’s views of square sex are like Aunt Ida’s from Female Trouble, minus the cynicism, and with its cheapo international adventures, Take It out in Trade has an undeniable charm. With its acceptance of “deviants,” it could almost bee seen as a sequel of sorts to Glen or GlendaIt’s a shockingly progressive and nicely optimistic world view: accepting every brand of “deviants,” from trans couples to heroin addicts.

When Wood himself gets in drag, he’s enjoying the hell out of himself again, and its contagious when he does.

AFGA/Something Weird restored every minute they had access to, and although one wishes that about a half hour of footage would have remained lost, its a bona fide find and release.

The extras also include Wood’s Love Feast, which reverses the voyeurism with a Peeping Tom reaping what he sewed in a dog collar. Although both films show signs of age, the restoration job is clearly a labor of love, and who could argue with Something Weird?

CAPSULE: THE RELATIONTRIP (2017)

DIRECTED BY: C.A. Gabriel, Renée Felice Smith

FEATURING: Matt Bush, Renée Felice Smith, voice of Eric Christian Olsen

PLOT: A couple of neurotic, directionless twentysomethings take a weekend trip that turns into a fantastical, compressed version of a relationship.

Still from The Relationtrip (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a reasonably hip twist on the romantic comedy formula with a few clever (and borderline surreal) ideas. The Relationtrip pleasantly tweaks the romantic comedy formula, but takes care not to twist it so hard that it can’t snap back into shape in time for the expected resolution.

COMMENTS: Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Depressed twentysomething loser plays video games all day. Is talked into going to a party full of strangers where he does something embarrassing. Cute girl there approaches him. They bond. Go out for tacos. Witty repartee. They complain about all their friends getting all married and boring. They dare each other to take a trip together—but promise they’ll stay just friends. They fall in love. A secret emerges that threatens their budding romance. They break up. They each have an epiphany about how fear and insecurity keeps them from finding happiness. A speech demonstrating personal growth. They get back together.

OK, maybe you have. But have you heard these? The couple peel each others’ faces off at breakfast. They lie in a hammock that turns into a cocoon. Turns out the girl is a never-nude. There’s a dead angel stripper stag film. A visit from a giant mommy. A couples counselor in a pillow fort. A fight with an abusive beer-drinking puppet.

The Relationtrip takes the pop-psychology clichés of screen (and real) relationships and serves them up as big, absurd, literal metaphors. It’s an idea that’s clever enough to be amusing without being subversive. It’s a parody, not a satire, and the movie still believes in love and in all its expected obstacles. The young actors are good-looking and likable, although their constant armor of hipster irony can grow wearisome. The concept is high enough that I can’t help but wonder whether this might have been a box office hit with better-known leads, a quirkier best friend confidant, a killer one-liner or two, and a script that dialed back the surrealism just a tad. And a less clunky title, of course.

Although the word “weird” gets bandied around a lot in discussions of this one—they even stuck it in the official synopsis—you’re not going to mistake Relationtrip for does When Harry Met Sally or anything. On the other hand, if you’re reading this site, you’re probably not a particular fan of formulaic romantic comedies; this is one that you’re likely to find tolerable, and maybe even involving.

The co-writers/co-directors are a real-life couple. You might recognize Renée Felice Smith from “NCIS: Los Angeles.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As the road trip rolls on, ‘The Relationtrip’ gets weird. Not cute-silly weird, but clever-smart weird, all bolstered by Smith and Bush’s fun and easy chemistry.”–Kate Erbland, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

358. MANDY (2018)

“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall … and Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” –Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Panos Cosmatos

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré

PLOT: A cult is passing through the forested countryside in 1980s Pacific Northwest where Red Miller, a lumberjack, lives peaceably with his love, Mandy. When she catches the cult leader’s eye, dark beings descend upon her and Red, robbing Mandy of her life and Red of his sanity. Red mercilessly exacts vengeance upon all who wronged him.

Still from Mandy (2018)

BACKGROUND:

  • Mandy is Panos Cosmatos’ second feature film, and his second film to be Certified Weird. So far, all of his movies have been set in 1983.
  • Cosmatos originally wanted Nicolas Cage to play Jeremiah Sand, but Cage preferred the role of Red. Co-producer smoothed things out and got the two to work out their disagreements, resulting in Cage playing the protagonist.
  • The character of Jeremiah Sand was based on cult-leader Charles Manson, another failed musician and acid head. Linus Roache, shortly before being cast as Jeremiah Sand, had dropped out of a cult after its leader had a meltdown.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Mandy provides a full menu for this indeed—even if you winnow your options down to just Nicolas Cage looking crazy-go-nuts. However, the choice becomes clear upon reflection of whom this movie is actually about: Mandy and Jeremiah Sand. Mid-acid-trip-speech, Jeremiah’s and Mandy’s faces fade in and out of each other, capturing both of their haunting visages in continuous oscillation between the poles of Mandy’s mystical innocence and Jeremiah’s mystical evil.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Demonic apocalypse bikers; The Cheddar Goblin; Heavy Metal death axe

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Described by the director himself as “melancholic and barbaric”, Mandy plays like a Romantic era poem that collides violently with one helluva nightmare. Mandy‘s signposts of color saturation guide the eye along the paths of love, wrong, and vengeance while the dirgy soundtrack cues the ear like a Greek Chorus. Mandy is almost a movie to be felt more than watched. And even putting aside all the artistry, a cursory look at its basic ingredients screams “weird” as forcefully as Red screams “You ripped my shirt!”

Original trailer for Mandy

COMMENTSMandy, in perhaps its only convergence with convention, follows the three-act structure to a “T”, going so far as to designate each act with a title card. The opening, “the Shadow Continue reading 358. MANDY (2018)

357. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

“When I’m making my art, it really doesn’t help me to think about the definitions of what I’m doing. So what I do comes out ridiculous, or funny, or weird. That’s because the world is ridiculous, funny, and weird.”–Boots Riley

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Boots Riley

FEATURING: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Omari Hardwick, Jermaine Fowler, David Cross (voice), Patton Oswalt (voice), Danny Glover

PLOT: Cassius Green can’t find a job and needs to pay bills, so he hires on at a telemarketing firm. Once he learns to use his “white voice,” he discovers he has a preternatural gift for selling, and while his co-workers stage a strike, he is promoted to a “Power Caller” selling questionable services to obscenely wealthy clients. When he reaches the top rung of the corporate ladder, the CEO of the company offers him a morally repugnant deal.

Still from Sorry to Bother You (2018)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Boots Riley was a rap musician, music producer, political activist, and former telemarketer for more than twenty-five years before writing and directing this, his first feature film. It was workshopped at the Sundance writing lab.
  • The idea for Sorry to Bother You originated from an unused song concept where Riley would rap as a telemarketer selling slave labor. In 2012 his hip-hop band The Coup produced an album of the same name inspired by the then-unfinished screenplay.
  • An early version of the screenplay was published in McSweeney’s magazine in 2014.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We don’t want to describe it, because it’s a spoiler. Just prepare for a shock after Cassius snorts a huge line of—cocaine?—off a plate decorated with a horse. Besides that, the iconic image for marketing purposes is Cassius in a business suit with his head bandaged and a circle of red soaking through, iconography suggesting a blend of the corporate and the revolutionary.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Commentary by earring; Mr. ___; equisapien MLK

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Boots Riley’s out-of-nowhere satire plays like something Putney Swope‘s long-lost grandson might have dreamed up after an all-night pot-smoking session. I’m not going to get swept up by the mainstream hyperbole and tell you that it dials the absurdity up to “11”—but it pushes a solid 9.


Alternate promotional trailer for Sorry to Bother You

COMMENTS: Sorry to Bother You is sneaky weird; it strangens slowly Continue reading 357. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

346. LIQUID SKY (1982)

” I’ll tell you something, too, that’s starting to annoy me about UFOs: the fact that they cross galaxies or universes to visit us, and always end up in places like … Alabama. Maybe these aren’t super-intelligent beings, you know what I mean? ‘Don’t you wanna go to New York or LA?’ ‘Nah, we just had a long trip, we’re gonna kick back and whittle some.'”–Bill Hicks

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Anne Carlisle, Otto von Wernherr, Paula E. Sheppard, Susan Doukas, Bob Brady

PLOT: A tiny alien flying saucer lands on top of the Empire State Building, directly across from the penthouse where drug-scarfing New Wave fashion model Margaret spends her nights bedding partners of both sexes. A German UFO scientist who has tracked this manifestation takes up residence in an apartment across from Margaret, spying on her through a telescope. Margaret’s sex partners begin to die off as the aliens harvest the endorphins released during their orgasms.

Still from Liquid Sky (1982)

BACKGROUND:

  • Slava Tsukerman was a Russian Jew who trained as an engineer before switching to filmmaking. He made a mostly documentaries in the Soviet Union and Israel before emigrating to the U.S. to make features. He began developing Liquid Sky after funding for a sci-fi film that would have starred and fell through.
  • Co-writer Anne Carlisle, who starts as a fashion model in the film, was a fashion model in real life. Most of the actors were art-scene punks drawn from bohemian casting director Bob Brady’s acting classes, and most played some version of themselves.
  • Many repeat the claim that Liquid Sky was chosen as the title of the film because it was slang for heroin, but according to Tsukerman he encountered the term as a metaphor for euphoria in his research, and junkies only began to refer to the drug as “liquid sky” after the movie became a cult hit.
  • Made with an estimated budget of half a million dollars, Liquid Sky grossed more than $1.7 million in 1983.
  • In a 2014 interview Tsukerman announced his intentions to make Liquid Sky 2, but no news has emerged on that front since.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: New Wave fashion shows? Neon sculptures? Flying saucers hovering in front of the Empire State Building? Margaret’s fluorescent face paint under a blacklight? All excellent choices. But we had to go with alien-eye-vision, rendered through technology that looks like a cross between malfunctioning army ranger night-vision goggles and News at 11’s stormtracker radarscope, but with a Day-Glo color scheme, and often looking like it’s peering through a microscope aimed at a dividing zygote.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: UFO/heroin connection; spontaneous hateful beat eulogy; prayer to the Empire State Building

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Liquid Sky is like an alien’s attempt at making a film set in the No-Wave Greenwich Village art scene in 1982, if their only previous exposure to movies was the works of , , and Rinse Dream. Neon, nasty, and occasionally tedious, but there’s nothing else quite like it.


Original trailer for Liquid Sky

COMMENTS: Liquid Sky is about aliens, and it might as well have Continue reading 346. LIQUID SKY (1982)

LIST CANDIDATE: RONDO (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Drew Barnhardt

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

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

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTRondo un-apologetically wrings the viewer through a stylized world of manneristic camera, Edward Hopper-esque lighting, gratuitous violence, and a purposely intrusive soundtrack. It plays like a bare bones revenge murder fest spiked with dubstep Greenaway.

COMMENTS: Even before its international premiere, Rondo was creating mumblings among reviewers who had seen it in the screening room. At the debut, the normally raucous Friday night crowd was uncharacteristically quiet in the theater. Then Rondo unleashed its singular form of magic. Having decided on a whim to catch this, I was very impressed at not only its vitality, violence, and humor, but also its incredible audacity. The director, Drew Barnhardt, started this project with the intention of making, without compromise, the movie he wanted to make. He succeeded spectacularly.

Rondo begins as the story of Paul (Luke Sorge), a young man dishonorably discharged from the army and shattered by PTSD. His daily life consists of drinking whiskey and lying on his sister’s couch. Troubled by her brother’s depression, his sister Jill (Brenna Otts) recommends a therapist who herself recommends that Paul should explore Denver’s fetish scene. Provided with an address and a password, Paul visits an opulent apartment building in which he encounters two others who have been solicited for having intercourse with a doped-up businessman’s wife. But don’t worry, the role-playing and strange demands are all “part of the fun,” insists Lurdell (Reggie De Morton), in a speech teaming with ominous guide-lines (“keep it on the plastic.”) Paul has a cigarette out on the balcony while waiting his turn, looking inside at where the action is taking place. His bad habit ends up saving his life.

Rondo relies heavily on two nondiegetic sound techniques to keep the viewer detached from the goings-on. The first is an advertently intrusive hardcore electro-trance soundtrack that acts as a dissonant counterpoint to much of the on-screen action. Brooding scenes are imbued with a strange, unsettling energy with each musical cue; I could easily imagine Rondo slipping into melodrama otherwise. Narration also spikes the proceedings. With an officiousness of tone to compete with Colin Cantlie in The Falls, Steve Van Beckum simultaneously clarifies and undercuts the narrative flow, adding another barrier between the audience and the action. Whenever his radio-style voice courses from the speakers, it purposely reminds us that Rondo is a movie, while at the same time anchoring us to the movie’s world.

And that’s just the sound. Stylistically, much of Rondo works like Peter Greenaway at his most ZOO-ily formalistic. Scenes are designed more like paintings than real life. That’s not to say that the action is missing, but more that Barnhardt knows what he wants us to look at, and goes to great lengths to make us do so. I mentioned Hopper earlier, and the candy-noir of his paintings springs up again and again. Then there’s the story itself. Narrative twists are a convention for many of the movies we review; Rondo‘s take is more of a narrative convulsion. Ultimately, the finale is the one that we necessarily had to reach, but the path there is like having our arm twisted behind our back (but, paradoxically, pleasantly so). In Rondo, baroque verbiage and baroque violence come together in a celebration of blood-sodden deadpan.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“How much can one ninety-minute film reasonably do within its timeframe? Can a film successfully go from awkward laughs to gore, from femmes fatales to OTT-ultraviolence, and from slacker humour to shock? Rondo (2018) believes it’s not only possible, it’s all part and parcel of its overall appeal.”–Keri O’Shea, Warped-Perspective.com