Tag Archives: Independent film

CAPSULE: LUCKY (2004)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Cuden

FEATURING: Michael Emanuel, David Reivers, Piper Cochrane

PLOT: An alcoholic writer finds inspiration when a stray dog starts telepathically dictating scripts to him—and then orders him to kill.

Still from Lucky (2004)

COMMENTS: Lucky is an ugly little movie—shot on video, dimly lit, and occurring almost entirely in one trash-strewn house—but that may be an appropriate aesthetic, since the story is about an ugly little man.

Lucky begins as a black comedy about Millard Mudd, a schluby alcoholic writer specializing in cartoon scripts. Early on, there’s a long series of sketches where Mudd goes on “dates” with various women: a masochistic prostitute, a nun, his own half-sister. These segments employ an R-rated type of sitcom humor, with a mild touch of the surreal. Even when there’s a decapitation by chainsaw, the severed head is so silly and unrealistic that the effect is light. But things take a turn toward the grindhouse when the talking dog Lucky arrives and grows increasingly abusive in his telepathic dialogues. Mudd’s loose hold on his mind slips further, and he gives himself over to sadomasochistic sex fantasies. An interlude where he discusses the tortures he plans to inflict on his victim as she lies there bound and nude, objecting to his plans with no greater distress than if he had insisted on ordering out for pizza when she was in the mood for sushi, is particularly disturbing. For the final murders, even the pretense of comedy fades away. The way the perversity slowly ratchets up, while (mostly) maintaining the same deadpan style throughout, shows skill, but obviously won’t be to everyone’s taste.

The editing is good, shifting back and forth between fantasy and reality to create a sense of pace and action that the producers  couldn’t otherwise afford. The acting is adequate—the most impressive performance, perhaps, is given by Sydney the dog as Lucky (kudos to her trainer). And while it would be hard to make the case that the movie as a whole succeeds as more than a curiosity, the screenplay (by Stephen Sustarsic, who had previously produced scripts for “The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”) is actually solid. Much of the story is told through Mudd’s internal monologues, a technique which locks you into his mindset and makes the movie seem like a translation of a novella. The speeches never feel too intrusive or like they are substituting for something that could have been conveyed with action, and they’re always to the point. Lines like “I made three big changes during my life. I switched beers when I was sixteen. I switched back when I was thirty. And I killed a girl last week” tell you all you need to know about the character—and all you need to know about the movie. That quote either intrigues you, or immediately turns you off.

We waited so long to review this one, unfortunately, that the DVD went out of print, and the film is not available streaming. Used DVDs should be obtainable, if you are interested.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No matter how weird things get, you’re willing to follow this character along his twisted little journey, hoping that maybe he can pull himself out of this hell he has created for himself.”–Film Threat (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Jasper Oliver,” who explained, “On paper it looks like standard cheapo horror comedy fare but in actuality it’s an immensely flawed and disturbing little film that sits with you long after viewing.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: LIGHT YEARS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Colin Thompson

FEATURING: Colin Thompson, Russell Posner, Makenzie Leigh

PLOT: A man takes psychedelic mushrooms on the anniversary of his friend’s death and relives a mushroom trip they had together when they were sixteen.

Still from Light Years (2019)

COMMENTS: The hinted-at plot in Light Years never really develops. Instead, what happens is that we watch a trio of likable kids nervously score mushrooms, take mushrooms, try to hold it together without their parents finding out they’re high on mushrooms, go to a high school party on mushrooms, chop wood at midnight (on… you get the idea), and generally just hang out. The movie is light, as its title implies. The mood is nostalgic, like The Wonder Years—on mushrooms. There’s not a lot in the way of a meaningful ongoing story— although there are lots of incidents—and really only token character development. The story is framed as an elegy for Kevin’s friend Briggs, who died under circumstances that aren’t relevant to the movie, and what it does well is to capture the carefree pleasure of teenage camaraderie. You can tell, without even looking at the end credits disclaimer stating that the film was inspired by actual events, that it’s based on writer/director Colin Thompson’s real life experiences. There’s no other possible explanation for the movie’s existence.

The acting is unexpectedly decent. Pimply Briggs (Russell Posner) actually looks and acts like a high school sophomore, with an unselfconscious awkwardness and endearingly goofy mannerisms, like the ghoulish open-faced smile he routinely breaks into. He and Kevin have a real chemistry, sharing a private ritual where they spar with improvised dialogue in increasingly silly voices. This chemistry is more remarkable due to the fact that young Kevin is (most of the time) played by old Kevin, the heavily-stubbled-and-clearly-not-a-teenager Colin Thompson. Thompson also plays—again, most of the time—the third friend, Larry; and, in drag, he also takes the roles of his own ex, and the mom of the kid who’s throwing a keg party for the high schoolers and bringing along a tray of jello shots, and a lot of the extras. All these Kevins appear partly because of a subtext that Kevin is a narcissist. But mainly it’s just a part of the director’s trip-disorientation strategy, one that also includes abrupt changes in film stock, occasional collage-style montages and music videos, video warping and glitching, and animated characters appearing in the unused corners of the film (recurring cartoon characters like a cutout of adult Kevin’s dog, and some kind of derp-faced flying cat in a sailor cap).

The thought that Light Years inspires most in me is the question: is psychedelic cinema a legitimate subgenre? Despite the possibilities for deep introspection psychedelics promise, the “trip movie” rarely features any kind of serious plot or philosophy; it’s almost always an excuse for stylistic and technical experimentation. A short line of (almost) non-narrative movies beginning with The Trip seek to recreate the feeling and experience of being on psychedelic drugs for the audience. The hallucinatory qualities of psychedelics are easy (and fun!) to symbolize visually, but the experience of having your brain’s natural neurotransmitters temporarily pranked by chemical interlopers—the complex combination of euphoria, wonder, anxiety and confusion—is harder to reproduce. In the most successful trip film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, scenes of Hunter S. Thompson enjoying cocktails in a Vegas lounge surrounded by kitschy dinosaurs, or trying to redeem his hotel reservation while the desk clerk’s face warps unpredictably, effectively recreate the edginess of druggy disorientation. But that movie works on multiple levels: as drug porn, sure, but also as a straight-out comedy, and as a dual-edged social satire of both the dominant 1960s culture and of the very subculture it superficially celebrates. Light Years is not quite light years away from that achievement, but it does suggest that hallucinations alone can only take a movie so far. LSD has been around, on film and in life, for six decades now; it’s no longer novel or outrageous, merely naughty. A trip is not enough to sustain a great film; you need a plot and/or a deeper theme to carry you across the finish line.

CAPSULE: WELCOME TO THE CIRCLE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: David Fowler

FEATURING: Taylor Dianne Robinson, Ben Cotton, Matthew MacCaull, Hilary Jardine, Cindy Busby, Andrea Brooks, Michael Rogers

PLOT: After a bear mauling, a man and his daughter are rescued by a strange cult in the woods.

Still from Welcome To The Circle (2020)

COMMENTS: “The meaning is the message.” “And the message is the meaning.” “So what is the message?” “That is exactly the question.” “What is?” “We have to figure out what it is.” “What, the message?” “The meaning.”

No, that’s not a transcription of a first draft of a discarded sketch where Abbot and Costello meet the Dalai Lama; it’s a typical “circular” dialogue exchange in Welcome to the Circle.

To be fair, this cult’s dogma is supposed to be mumbo-jumbo; and given all the crazy things people believe in nowadays, it’s not too much to ask us the audience to take the seductiveness of this verbal jujitsu on faith. The decision to give the Circle’s philosophy no intellectual content whatsoever is deliberate; the movie’s thesis is that the things we believe can override reality, and so it’s important to focus not on the strings, but on who’s pulling them.

It’s a thoughtful idea rife with possibilities and potential allegories, but unfortunately the message gets lost under too much obfuscating trickery. It’s relatively straightforward horror ride through the first act, but then the plot loses its way with information overload (founder Percy Stevens’ strange and confusing backstory, in which a tiger shark plays a role) as it’s simultaneously diving into a rule-free, anything-can-happen abyss. It’s a nice touch that cult membership includes an unusually high number of creepy mannequins—most of the prop budget went to this small army—but other ideas don’t pay off. Too many sudden cutaways to stock footage montages (marionettes, chess moves), too many portals that pop characters from one location to another, too many ostentatiously delivered Zen warnings that “nothing has any meaning” and “the thing we have to do is nothing.” It’s tough for a movie founded on such a free-floating structure to work, unless it has the budget to pull off some majorly distracting special effects, or a long series of catchy/scary surrealist ideas consistently pitched on the level of a .

Needless to say, Welcome to the Circle can’t match these standards. There’s no one we strongly care about to interest us in entering this circular labyrinth. Greg, bear victim and loving father, should be the character we identify with, but there are a couple problems. He’s  too slow on the uptake: he leaves his daughter in the care of the winsome twenty-something females who put her in a creepy happy-face mask for a couple of days, before finally thinking to look for his cellphone to call for medical help after his mauling. And Greg is pushed to the sideline relatively early in favor of a new main character, a stoic cult deprogrammer (who talks, one character observes, like a “stoned robot”), headed into the Circle intent on rescuing one of the females. It’s a bold narrative gambit, but we would need to be much more invested in the overall stakes of this story than we are for this perspective shift to pay off.

Ultimately Welcome to the Circle lacks the budget and, unfortunately, the imagination to fulfill its lofty ambitions. The film’s meaning gets lost in its message—or maybe it’s the other way around.

David Fowler’s previous credits were mostly writing the narration for Disneynature documentaries like Elephant and Penguins. A low-budget surreal horror film was an unexpected choice for a directorial debut. Artsploitation Films picked it up and debuted it on VOD and physical media in late 2020.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…starts out as a familiar horror movie before descending into complete trippy nonsense.”–Josh Bell, Crooked Marquee (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SHE DIES TOMORROW (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jane Adams,

PLOT: Amy is convinced that she will die tomorrow.

Still from She Dies Tomorrow (2020)

COMMENTS: Amy plays an LP of Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” over and over. She calls her friend Jane, who can’t come over because she has to go to a birthday party, but sounds worried about her. Amy drinks a bottle of wine, slithers into a cocktail dress, and climbs up on the neighbor’s wall with a leaf-blower—never a sign of good mental health. Jane finally arrives, and Amy tells her that she’s going to die tomorrow, and asks if Jane will ensure that her body is made into a leather jacket after she’s gone.

Kate Lyn Sheil carries the opening act of the film, mostly alone and silent, conveying a despair that builds to resigned madness. The opening features a lot of extreme close-ups of tear-filled eyes, a half-full wine glass, red blood cells; shots that suggest both loneliness, and an uncomfortable intimacy. This solitary mood is sustained about as long as it can be before Jane (Jane Adams) shows up to introduce a more dynamic note. Jane, an artist, dismisses Amy’s premonition of death as a self-pitying drunken ramble; but when she leaves, she begins thinking about mortality… and convinces herself that she, too, will die tomorrow. Jane then hauls herself to the birthday party, with predictably dire results.

If I were to assign a genre to She Dies Tomorrow, it would be “macabre drama.” Writer/director Amy Seimetz takes a simple irrational conceit—what if we were inalterably convinced that we would die tomorrow?—then it fully explores the dramatic ramifications through multiple characters. It’s the sort of idea that would have turned into a satire, but the tone here is forlorn. There is humor, to be sure—a conversation about dolphin sex, Jane’s panicky visit to an emergency room physician, Amy’s desire to be turned into a post-mortem apparel—but black comedy is not the predominant mood.

Neither is it a science fictional, “Twilight Zone” conceit; there are no firm answers given to why Amy is struck with a paralyzing consciousness of death. Scenes of rainbow-colored flashing strobe lights accompanied by the sound of garbled radio transmissions only confuse matters. The crucial fact that Amy’s morbid thinking is contagious converges with 2020’s pandemic, creating a layer of accidental relevance to contemporary times—one that you may find too relevant for comfort. A crowd-pleaser, She Dies Tomorrow is not; a worthwhile challenge for the brave and introspective, it is.

With its crushing sadness and lack of answers—much less solace—She Dies Tomorrow will frustrate the hell out of some viewers, which is a compliment. Seimetz is onto something desperately human here, a truth we’d rather avoid. We like to imagine that if we knew the date of our own deaths, we’d be freed to truly live life, not worrying about next month’s rent, pursuing our bucket list, renting a dune buggy. But Seimetz’s characters are instead paralyzed by knowledge of their impermanence, unable to enjoy their last moments on Earth or appreciate the simple beauty of a sunrise. The movie is an elegy for us all. True to its own despair, She Dies Tomorrow offers not a ray of hope.

She Dies Tomorrow counts and among its producers. Our readers will remember Amy Seimetz best for her performance in front of the camera in Upstream Color. This is her second feature film as director, and it’s a great leap forward from 2012’s promising but incomplete Sun Don’t Shine (which also featured Sheil as lead). Seimetz continues to act and direct TV projects, but she’s paid her dues, and let’s hope she doesn’t have to wait another eight years between features. She might die tomorrow, and that would be a great loss to the film world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a gripping seriocomic apocalyptic thriller that combines classic David Cronenberg body horror and with the scathing surrealism of Luis Buñuel.”–Eric Kohn, Indiewire (remote festival screening)

CAPSULE: A SHIP OF HUMAN SKIN (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Bailey

FEATURING: Hilly Holsonback, Hannah Weir, Ike Duncan, Cameron McElyea

PLOT: Jeanie, an aimless young woman, is arrested after she murders a man with an axe; a cult of personality forms around her after a prison guard claims to see her levitating.

Still from A Ship of Human Skin (2019)

COMMENTS: I always appreciate it when an independent film is aware of the limitations of its budget, and opts to make use of those limitations to enhance its atmosphere and themes.

Such is, for the most part, the case with Richard Bailey’s A Ship of Human Skin. The film is very minimalist in its presentation; the cast is small, and the sets are limited (the film gets a great deal of mileage out of some gorgeous shots of the Texas landscape, and a fifteen-minute sequence that covers several months of Jeannie’s life is shot entirely in a single room). However, this minimalism lines up well with the narrative, which follows a pair of young women who feel isolated and frustrated by their monotonous lives in “the boonies.” By confining these characters to a sparse handful of backdrops and surrounding them with only a small group of people, the film directly evokes the protagonists’ sense of seclusion, and of having been “handed over from birth into emptiness.”

Of course, thanks to its constrained budget, there are also aspects of the film that feel underdeveloped. Ship suggests that Jeannie has amassed a cult-like following. However, its limited resources mean that it can only convey this mass fascination through a few scenes of a small number of secondary characters discussing her supposedly mystical nature. While we’re frequently told that Jeannie is as a messianic figure, it’s an element which doesn’t feel substantial. Instead, the central focus is on studying Jeannie as a character, as well as the environment in which the murder she commits takes place. We examine her dispassionate attitude to societal convention that ultimately leads her to an unhappy life of prostitution and dope-dealing; and we’re shown how, despite her lack of education, she is sharp-minded in her own way, with opinions on such matters as personal identity and the internalized significance of particular words. It’s an overall engaging look at a character who, neglected by society, is forced to channel her considerable intelligence into seeking meaning in abstract concepts and alternative belief systems, which leads her down a path of paranoia that ultimately drives her to violence.

Of course, a character-driven film depends upon a strong cast; but A Ship of Human Skin is middling in that regard. The cast consists mostly of unknowns, and a good number of them carry their roles well (Hannah Weir, in particular, does a largely excellent job of bringing out the meek and rather simple, yet fiercely loyal personality of Jeannie’s close friend Saribeth). However, Hilly Holsonback, who plays Jeannie—while not a bad actress by any means—does not quite exude the fierce charisma and conviction that Jeannie is treated as possessing. Nevertheless, she bears through the film’s emotional climaxes relatively well, and manages to convey the character in her more subdued moments.

The film plays fast and loose with its presentation, alternating between styles of a documentary and a theatrical narrative. All the way through, however, it maintains a deliberately slow pace and dreamlike atmosphere, further emphasizing the slow and monotonous existence that the main characters endure—which, in turn, inspires their drug-fueled search for significance in the abstract philosophies that they create for themselves. Much like the secondary characters who introduce us to Jeannie, we are made to feel very much like curious outsiders looking in on Jeannie’s life, knowing only vague details at first, and slowly piecing together the mindset and circumstances that drove her to violence. Truth be told, the ultimate explanation for Jeannie’s actions ends up anticlimactic and mundane in comparison with the strong air of mystery that the film builds around it; but nonetheless, it is set up well, lending the film an unusual combination of surrealism and logical progression.

A Ship of Human Skin is first and foremost a character study. It does an admirable job of balancing a haunting atmosphere of dreamlike minimalism with a refreshing look at the path that intelligent but disaffected young women like Jeannie can be forced down. There are aspects that could have been built up or ironed out; but overall, Richard Bailey’s feature-length directorial debut shows a resourcefulness and a talent for evoking a strong atmosphere that will surely serve him well in any future forays into weird cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Problem is, these girls cannot act and it comes off as unintended comedy… Before we get to them, the film starts off in cheesy poetry done by a weird G-Man impersonation…  if you are a fan of fun-bad movies like The Room, or more closely, Fateful Findings, you will have ‘Decent’ enjoyment with A Ship of Human Skin. For everyone who wants to watch a good thriller about drug abuse, there’s a million better options out there, trust me!”–Pond’s Press (festival screening)

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 it’s 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)