Tag Archives: Low budget

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: ANALOG (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Ebbëto

FEATURING: Fábio Norat, Giovanna Velasco

PLOT: An android tasked with guarding a lone man in hibernation on a deep-space journey takes radical steps to protect his charge, including creating a female companion and acting to protect the pair from sin.

Still from Analog (2012)

COMMENTS: Surely we’ve learned by now that leaving an artificial intelligence in charge of the future of all life on a lengthy space voyage is a risky proposition. The supergenius mainframe might become homicidal. A highly damaged android might implant the embryos of a malevolent race of unstoppable killers. An autopilot might plot to prevent humanity from returning to its ancestral home. There’s a good argument that those pesky AIs can’t be trusted with our safety at all, and Analog provides us with a new reason to be skeptical: the dang thing might try to become God.

Filmmaker Ebbëto (in addition to directing, he also takes credits for screenplay, cinematography, editing, and 2D animation) makes his intentions clear in his own description of the film: “Strange events with biblical analogies begin to occur, disturbing the machine and making it rethink its priorities.” The obviousness is not overstated. Sensing his charge’s loneliness, The Machine extracts a rib for the purposes of crafting a companion creature. Later, he will probe the minds of the pair and discover desires that he cannot sanction, as though they had new knowledge of themselves. What Analog brings to the table is an appalling realism: the cutting, bleeding, and growing attendant with these procedures are made explicit. So, too, is the humans’ punishment for their sinful thoughts. This is Adam and Eve retold as horror.

Analog is a marvelous example of the remarkable potential of DIY filmmaking. Ebbëto creates a number of immersive settings, including the cramped, industrial spaceship. It’s not always completely realistic – the green-screen technology sometimes gives off that DVD-ROM cut-scene vibe – but it’s thoroughly otherworldly and cleverly overcomes its limitations. There’s a lot of mileage to be gotten out of smart cables, rotating tubes, and robot repair.

But what little story there is amounts to a kind of grotesque punchline. The biblical beats hint at critique or satire but are really just the excuse for an outline, and once you’ve admired the bang-for-your-buck ethos, there’s not much more to it. Analog works best as a proof-of-concept for Ebbeto’s filmmaking skills; that’s the more interesting genesis story going on here.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Analog definitely isn’t going to be for everyone. It is slow and obtuse, and while I tend to dig that kind of deliberate, cautious tempo, I’ll admit, the whole thing does feel too long… Analog is still an interesting watch. There is a creepy ambience, and while that blanched out visual style can overwhelm your eyes from time to time, the look is consistent and unique.” – Brent McKnight, Giant Freakin Robot 

(This movie was nominated for review by Lesharky. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: FP 4EVZ (2023)

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FP 4EVZ is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

Recommended*

*Frrlz

DIRECTED BY: Jason Trost

FEATURING: Jason Trost, Tallay Wickham, Ryan Gibson, Leigh Myles, Mike O’Gorman

PLOT: The wet shit threatens to 187 the FP, and so JTRO and CHAI-T must B.E.A.T. into the futuredoo with their daughter to save the nowsies.

COMMENTS: Let me be abundantly clear: there is no reason for this movie to be this good. No, we are not talking love-child of and Harron—that’d be a real masterpiece. FP 4EVZ, a passion-continuation of Jason Trost’s lifelong FP passion-project, is not high cinema, or even middle cinema. But it’s a refreshing blast to the face, made in the difficult style of haute stupidité. The premise is idiotic—as it has been, it seems, for over a decade now; for those of you not in the knowsies, Trost has been exploring the intersectionality of dystopian living and DDR (re-named in this universe “BEAT”, probably for legal reasons, but also because “Balance/Expeditiousness/Aggression/Tempo” is a delightfully silly sum-up of that whole arrow-stomp-dance nonsense) for his entire professional career.

I have not seen the first three parts of the FP franchise, but that’s okay: this chapter begins with a thorough recap of the machinations so far. Space Ducks once lorded over humanity, which was saved by a visitation from a cosmic entity who brought with it a comet-ful of booze. Civilizations have risen, and fallen. Humanity—or at least, sober humanity—is hanging on by its finger-nails. JTRO, the scion of a BEAT bloodline, is married to the warrior queen CHAI-T, and their daughter CHAI-LATTAY is the chosen one. Chosen to what? Dance. Dance at the direction of flying neon arrows.

There are many flying neon arrows. And countless examples of dum-dum “modern” speak rips and dialogues. No other framework could allow a destiny child be praised as having “the body of a mortal—but the blood and soul of a duck.” Or for a long-dormant thinking machine to not only insist on being referred to by name (“Monsieur Computer”), but sport a stupid beret on its Frenchie AI head graphic.

I eventually gave up on scribbling down the saga-style exposition, the pun-soaked quips, and the genuinely heartfelt speeches, all of which were crafted in an hilarious pastiche of idiotic slang from the past decade. It was all delivered ably—and delivered in all seriousness. And that is the main reason why FP 4EVZ works as well as it does: it never winks at the audience. All the DDR combat, the plot-twists, the CGI desolation: never once did I disbelieve. So take my recommendation with a few grains of salt, perhaps, but Trost’s latest outing is something to revel in—preferably, as they themselves advise before the feature, with at least a few drinks in you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Z grade in the best of ways. Damn near every shot takes place in front of a green screen, with some cheap After Effects to populate the space. But it’s clear they’re going for a certain aesthetic. It’s all cheese, all the time. There are never any weird elements fading in and out; the effects are well-executed, just a little strange and cheap.”–Tyler Nichols, JoBlo (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ALCHEMY OF THE SPIRIT (2022)

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Alchemy of the Spirit is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Steve Balderson

FEATURING: Xander Berkeley, Sarah Clarke, Mink Stole

PLOT: Despite his wife having just passed away, Oliver agrees to create an art installation piece.

COMMENTS: There is a moment of raw delight near the end of Alchemy of the Spirit, when Oliver is explaining his artistic ambitions and process to his latest buyer, Mrs. Sonnenberg. Alex, his agent, stands behind the wealthy patron, fearing the worst. Oliver has been rambling for some time as he attempts to delay showing the new piece—and Alex seems to have been unable to breathe. Finally shown the work, Sonnenberg quietly remarks, “Oliver, it’s perfect.” And Alex’s gasp of relief punctures the scene.

As a general rule, it is poor form to reveal the ending. But the ending in Alchemy of the Spirit is incidental. And, as is so often the way in real life, the events leading up to Alex’s stertorous outburst, are what make Steve Balderson’s film the quiet, but satisfying, narrative artwork that it is. In fact, the film’s beginning is as much a punch as anything else in the film.

Oliver (Xander Berkely) wakes one morning to find that his wife, Heather (Sarah Clarke), has passed away. He cannot believe it; he cries at the tragedy; he refuses to accept it. And then he does something unlikely before laying his deceased wife in an ice-filled tub: he crafts a death mask for her. Over the coming days while she unhurriedly decomposes, Oliver works on a new project his agent agreed to for him. While working, he has long conversations with his wife.

The gauzy lens work, the orchestral score—brought right up in the sound mix—and the occasionally aphoristic lines all manage to gel beautifully, as if their clunky nature becomes softened, and functional. This is a sweet movie; a bittersweet chronicling of one man’s grieving process through art. It is always compelling, and spiked with enough odd mundanity (the plumbers’ visit becomes hilarious in its thriller-like execution, and Mink Stole’s performance as Oliver’s agent is a delight) to make what could have been a saccharine, melodramatic bit of blech into something endearing. Alchemy of the Spirit, like life, comes and goes in a flash; and like life, it’s worth taking a closer look at.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…there’s nothing traditional about Balderson’s Alchemy of the Spirit. From Xander Berkeley’s beautiful performance to the magical realism that floods every frame and the script itself. It’s a very weird and atypical depiction of grief. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t understandable.”–Federico Furzan, Movie-Blogger.com (contemporaneous)

SLAMDANCE 2023: NEW RELIGION (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Keishi Kondo

FEATURING: Kaho Seto, Satoshi Oka, Saionji Ryuseigun

PLOT: Still grieving from the accidental death of her daughter years ago, escort Miyabi’s dreary routine is shaken up when she meets a strange client who only wants to take pictures of her individual body parts.

Still from New Religion (2022)

COMMENTS: New Religion arrives at Slamdance with an assured style and polished look that belies its low budget. Using little more than colored filters, an evocative soundtrack, and some remarkable microphotography, Keishi Kondo delivers a crowdfunded wonder, shot mostly on weekends with a first-time cast, that most of the time looks like it could have come from a major Japanese studio.

New Religion relies heavily on atmosphere: its full of slow, portentous glances scored to ominous drones, hinting at horrors unseen. The sound design is a key element, so see the film with a good stereo system, if possible. The opening credits set a tone of mystery: scritching strings accompany a pan over a blood-red cityscape, which merges into a tinted tour of moth anatomy. This is followed by shots of abstract organ-like structures and a possible fetus that forms and melts before our eyes, as the music swells and resolves into a desperate drone. This moody experimental-film opening deserves comparison to the disquieting prologue of Under the Skin. We emerge from that brief storm into a quiet drama, with main character Miyabi recalling the loss of her daughter and remembering a photograph taken with the child on a beach. A scene of her and the girl staring out to sea, then slowly turning to face the camera, will recur a couple of times; its significance is eventually revealed—perhaps, although as her strange client Oka says, “memories can’t be trusted.” Miyabi moves through her life in a sad daze, obsessively watering the plants on her balcony or sitting in near silence in a grungy basement with two other prostitutes, waiting to be called up for a date. For most of the movie no one expresses much visible emotion, even when angry or frightened, which makes Seto’s desperation as her mind breaks down in the film’s second half stand out: her grief is set free, along with an irrational hope.

The film works as a melancholy drama, but contains eerie notes which are not fully expressed, haunting the story like fleeting memories. Oka, a purported survivor of throat cancer, speaks only through an otherworldly electrolarynx. He is obsessed with moths, and might be indirectly linked to a series of homicidal rampages and terrorist bombings. Who Oka actually is isn’t made completely clear, but he is a catalyst for an inhuman transformation, and he feeds on women like Miyabi whose deep emotional traumas make them receptive to whatever voodoo he performs through his photographic project. Oka’s motives are as murky as Miyabi’s grief is vivid. In the end, what he offers seems to be voluntarily entanglement in a web of dreams: dreams where the dreamer dreams of another dreamer, while simultaneously being dreamed themselves.

Kondo’s curious concoction will mesmerize and enthrall many art-horror fans. Others will find the deliberate pacing more of a chore—while still being intermittently mesmerized and enthralled. But there’s no doubt that this is a promising debut, and we salivate thinking what Kondo could do with a bigger budget—if he is able to maintain his independent sensibilities. It would not shock us to look back years from now and realize that New Religion founded a cult of Kondo.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the strangest, most refreshing edge-of-genre films in recent years.”–Kim Newman, The Kim Newman Website (festival screening)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: VEGAS IN SPACE (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Phillip R. Ford

FEATURING: Doris Fish, Miss X, Ginger Quest, Ramona Fischer, Lori Naslund, Tippi

PLOT: Space troopers go undercover on the planet Clitoris in the fabled women-only city of Vegas in Space, where a plot to steal Queen Neuva Gabor’s jewels threatens the galaxy.

Still from Vegas in Space (1991)

COMMENTS: Can you critique camp? Is there even any point? The very act of trying to evaluate it immediately denotes you as someone who could never “get it.” If you’re not turned off by the credit “Based on the party by Ginger Quest”, it’s not as though a cogent analysis of the plot is going to scare you away.

So let’s raise a martini glass to the DIY-fabulous vibe that permeates Vegas In Space. For a sci-fi epic, the film is almost deliberately ramshackle, with landscapes that look less realistic than the opening credits of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and sets that rival After Last Season. But who cares about covering the walls with tinsel and tin foil when you’ve got a chance to put your energies where they really count: costumes and makeup. This is first and foremost a drag show, and the queens of Vegas In Space take advantage of the opportunity to go beyond the usual outrageousness of the format, combining the traditional bitchy repartée with an array of colorful skin paints and unusual alien prosthetics. If you paid your money for “intergalactic drag show,” you will not walk away disappointed.

There’s a charmingly catty spirit to the enterprise. The film is loaded with entendres that barely work up the nerve to be single. Snipes are mean but toothless. But the filmmakers seem to actually be interested in the plot, of all things, which leads Vegas In Space to commit the sin that would be most appalling to any self-respecting drag queen: it gets boring. As the space captain and Vegas’ queen of police bicker over who stole the jewels and what the consequences will be for the galaxy, it’s impossible to avoid thinking, “Who cares?” We’re here for the drag queens; do not try to save the cat.

With the main joke of the movie out of the way early on, filling out an hour and a half is going to take some (and I really am sorry for this) padding. There’s an eyebrow-raising interlude in which Captain Tracey and Queen Veneer encounter an ancient creature called a Drag, who is surmised to be the missing link that led to the evolution of womankind. There’s also a creepy dream sequence for one of Tracey’s lieutenants, the secretly competent Sheila Shadows, who has surreal visions of the coming catastrophe. But even the film seems to recognize these are mere distractions, as we quickly get back to the plot development that matters most: the Earth trio’s cabaret show. 

As mentioned, the overall vibe is “we’re amazing and we don’t really care what you think,” and for a film allegedly based on a party, that’s fitting. And it’s to the filmmakers’ credit, in light of the considerably more fraught behind-the-scenes tale. Ford and Fish shot the movie in fits and spurts over the course of 18 months at the start of the 80s, and then scrounged up money wherever possible for post-production over the course of the next eight years. Fish actually died of complications from AIDS before the film was finally released, meaning Vegas In Space stands as an unlikely valediction. So there’s a level at which it’s remarkable we got a film at all.

Ultimately, whether or not this ends up being a fun night out likely depends on the audience. For the devoted, Vegas In Space is a long-awaited induction of sci-fi into the drag canon. For the curious, it’s a novel diversion. For weird movie aficionados, it’s probably a busted queen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Vegas in Space certainly earns its cult status just for how weird it is, especially with its intentionally tacky aesthetic… If you’re a fan of campy sci-fi, you might get some enjoyment here, but there are better options. Overall, Vegas in Space might appeal more to drag fans, but it’s only watchable as a curiosity.” – Matt, Film Nerd

(This movie was nominated for review by Baal, who deemed it “Troma crossdressing campsploitation.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)