Tag Archives: Low budget

CAPSULE: FRIEND OF THE WORLD (2020)

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Friend of the World is available for VOD rental.

DIRECTED BY: Brian Patrick Butler

FEATURING: Alexandra Slade, Nick Young

PLOT: The lone survivor of a mass-execution awakens in a bunker to find that an eccentric ex-military survivalist is her only company.

Still from friend of the world (2020)

COMMENTS: There is a small detail I’ve often noticed concerning low-budget films: they are either stuffed to the gills with smartphones, or such technology is mysteriously absent. Such dystopias fall broadly into two categories: “we’re all connected, and it’s horrible”; or, “once we may have all been connected, but a terrible event occurred, and it’s horrible.” Given a choice, I’d opt for the latter—which is to Friend of the World’s credit.

Taking place (almost) exclusively in an underground warren of rummaged-through rooms and cluttered corridors, Friend absolutely nails the claustrophobia of subterranean survivalism. Faces regularly dominate the frame, both skewing the sense of scale as well as bringing the characters’ personality extremes to the fore. “General” Gore (his claim to the title is questionable) dominates his frames, with one of those expressive—even “burly”—faces found on military blowhards through much of cinema’s history; Diane Keaton (no, not that one) is a millennial who survived a nasty massacre of many in her age group. Gore saves her, sort of, and then he saves her when they’re exposed to an unspecified-but-ubiquitous disease. Sort of. Then, hallucinations start. (You guessed it… Sort of.)

Friend‘s strengths, and weaknesses, are the double-edged swords of exiguous narrative, exaggerated performances, and elevated Art-Housery. Nick Young, who plays the gruff old-timer who never met a young person he could take seriously, had better be a stalwart of his local am-dram society. Half the time his bitter excesses are what’s needed, the other half, well, to quote a cohort he dislikes, are a bit “meh.” Innovative body horror spices up the proceedings with regularity (or at least as often as might be hoped for over a fifty-minute movie)—I’ve never seen one man excreted, fully formed, out of another’s back. The story contains an unclear sociopolitical agenda that is enthusiastically conveyed through audio cassette and Super-8 within the story. And then… well, it just kind of ends.

So I will, too.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A hybridised blend of Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), Friend of the World is low in budget, but big in ideas, mystifying the viewer with its surreally lysergic adventures in underland.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures

(This movie was nominated for review by Dan B., who described it as “…a bizarre, dialogue driven story that follows two complete opposite characters working out their differences while finding their way through a body-horror post-apocalyptic bunker.. a surreal and absurd existential trip into madness with elements of social satire, scifi and horror.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

CAPSULE: GELATERIA (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Arthur Patching, Christian Serritiello

FEATURING: Arthur Patching, Christian Serritiello, Carrie Getman, Tomas Spencer, Daniel Brunet, Simone Spinazze, Joulia Strauss

PLOT: A picaresque tour of a town on a remote island where a man leaves his girlfriend on a train and is scorned by an old childhood companion; an Italian speaker leaves his job addressing party guests in the unfamiliar language to attend an art show where a singer sings of anarchy; a getaway driver meets a UFO watcher at a remote hotel; and an artist travels to a remote island to find out what happened to the paintings she submitted to an art show.

Still from Gelateria (2019)

COMMENTS: We begin with a man standing on a rocky shore as he stares resolutely into the wild, swirling forces of nature. Finally, he screams, unleashing all his inner turmoil into the void. But we can’t hear anything at all. Whether he is unable to give it voice or it cannot be heard above the din, we cannot be sure. But the scream is silent, doomed.

Gelateria says as much in that first minute as it does in the 60 that follow. Playing out like an extended Monty Python episode that isn’t especially interested in being funny, the film bounces from one set piece to another, with one character or another delivering us to the next sketch like an off-kilter La Ronde. Like that opening vignette, much will be said but very little will be heard.

In some respects, a movie like this is review-proof. If the premise is interesting enough, it can hold your interest for several minutes until it has to bounce to the next one. Consider a scene on a yacht where a wealthy man has paid top dollar for someone to come and speak words that no one can understand. It’s a quirky situation, and the confusion of the speaker is an entertaining contrast with the blissful ignorance of the party guests. When that starts to lag, we can spend a few moments observing how no one even seems to be able to party properly, and we even get one final burst of absurdity when the host sneaks off to scarf down a hot dog. Once the speaker makes his exit, we’ve just about wrung all we can out of this scenario; it’s the perfect time to move on.

And Gelateria, like its namesake, has a variety of flavors for us to sample. Haunted: an early scene where a man contemplates his failing relationship, represented by the camera’s inability to keep his girlfriend in focus. Shocking: a singer exhorts her audience to revolt against the system, then begins shooting members of the uncooperative crowd. Giddily silly: a policeman offers to help a desperate visitor, but only in exchange for her attendance at a play he’s in. The subsequent play is wonderfully unhinged, as it appears to be falling apart right before our very eyes. (“Of course you will eat it,” an actress says of the pasta that is accumulating on the table. “It’s a play. They expect reality.”)

There’s not much reality here, of course, so what are we actually getting from it? It doesn’t have to be about anything, of course, but there’s a preponderance of evidence to suggest that the whole movie is a meditation on artists and their relationships with their patrons and audiences. Nearly everyone is either performing in some way or putting their heart on display for all to see, and the responses – from feigned appreciation to apathy to outright hostility – are not soul-enriching. If the metaphor-for-art explanation appeals to you, I encourage you to peruse David Finkelstein’s more detailed exegesis of the theme, but if that is the right interpretation, then it’s hard not to view the whole enterprise as an exercise in navel-gazing.

You see, possibly the most delightful interlude is a fun little cartoon (animated by Tiago Araújo) which introduces the character we will follow for the remainder of the film: an aspiring painter whose work has vanished as the result of what seems to be a scam. She seems a pitiable sort, but when we meet her in the flesh, she is played alternately by both writers/directors/editors/producers/cinematographers Patching and Seritiello in an inoffensive drag turn that seems to have more to do with giving credence to the closing title card “This film was inspired by true events” than anything. They are the artist, you see. But that means this whole amusing, well-shot motion picture is just a way of telling us how put upon they are as artists. And that kind of ouroboros is clever, but it’s not very fulfilling to watch. It ends up being a hollow pursuit.

All of which is to say: Gelateria is an enjoyable little piece of alt-comedy. It has a strong farcical tone, the premises hit their marks and get out promptly, and everyone really commits to the bit. But the underlying thread of self-pity subtly undercuts the modest successes, making a sweet taste turn sour. Tell it to the wind.

Gelateria is available on Vimeo for the reasonable price of $2 to rent or $5 to own.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Gelateria is a beautifully shot, weird, and truly hell-ride of a film… With personal camerawork seeming to slide in and between the realms of reality and a dreamlike world, you’ll quickly find yourself trapped.” Jordaine Givens, Film Threat

 

CAPSULE: THE SCARY OF SIXTY-FIRST (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Dasha Nekrasova

FEATURING: Betsey Brown, Madeline Quinn, Dasha Nekrasova, Mark Rapaport

PLOT: Two roommates rent a bargain flat on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that was previously owned by Jeffrey Epstein.

Still form The Scary of Sixty-First (2021)

COMMENTS: The awkwardly-titled The Scary of Sixty-First is equally awkwardly made. It feels like an adaptation of a Jeffrey Epstein conspiracy podcast that realized it didn’t have enough crazy ideas to spin into a feature film, so a horror movie subplot was added. At least half the film is spent rehashing the Epstein case without developing any deranged (or even interesting) new theories: there’s the discovery of some arguably pedophilic tarot cards, some real estate research to see if Epstein’s properties form a pentagram, and a doppelganger of Ghislaine Maxwell (who looks almost nothing like the now-convicted socialite—intentionally?) walking around Manhattan, but the hints of occultism never really take root. A lot of potential craziness goes uncrazed: if they could have Q-Anoned the Epstein case into some kind of pareidoliac parody involving the ghost of RFK running a secret cabal out of a fleet of taco trucks or something, they might have had a movie.

While Scary does nothing wrong, cinematically, there is a strong “first film” sensibility at work here. As bold as the choice to center the movie around a contemporary atrocity might be, the rest of the stylistic choices tend to the conventional. The acting isn’t up to snuff: co-writer/director Dasha Nekrasova is fine, but co-writer Madeline Quinn (as roommate Noelle) gives some distractingly flat line readings, and minor characters (a crystal shop owner) go too far into caricature. Fortunately, Betsey Brown’s Addie saves the day—after she gets possessed—with sexual hysterics that include what surely will be the most bizarre Prince Andrew-themed masturbation sequence of the year.

Noelle, and Dasha Nekrasova’s nameless conspiracist, are humorless (although sometimes funny—“Have you heard of Pizzagate?”), and their investigation goes nowhere. Nor do their characters provide psychological insights into their obsession—as far as we can tell, it’s simply a product of boredom, and maybe too much White Claw and Vyvanse. Addie, on the other hand, is neurotic and (it’s hinted) kinky even before being possessed by the spirits haunting this orgy flophouse of the damned. Her erotic antics provide the freakiest moments: besides her multiple self-pleasure scenes, including one that’s intercut with an asphyxiation, there’s some really out-of-bounds roleplay during intercourse with her douchey boyfriend that ends with a nod to The Exoricst. Rent it for the promised rabbit hole horror; but if you chose to stay, stay for the sex in this surprisingly horny female-driven horror.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One oddity worth a look for the adventurous is Dasha Nekrasova’s The Scary of Sixty-First, which is exactly as peculiar and WTF as that not-quite-grammatical title… too eccentric for any easy classification.”–Dennis Harvey, 48 Hills (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: KING KNIGHT (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Angela Sarafyan

PLOT: The leader of a Wicca coven falls into disgrace when a secret from his past is revealed.

Still from King Knight (2021)

COMMENTS: I don’t know if Richard Bates Jr.’s depiction of Wicca life is accurate or not, but many of the rituals (like the Beltane festival) seem believable, as do some of the practicalities involved (the coven’s priestess refuses to host a big bonfire this year because celebrants tend to overindulge: “I’m not trying to be a buzzkill, I just want to have one Beltane celebration that doesn’t involve a trip to the hospital.”) When King Knight is working, it’s because the script is making the Wiccans lives seem normal, despite their peculiar habits. Sometimes, the tone is mildly mocking: “Are you going to eat the placenta?” asks one congregant upon finding another is pregnant. “Obvi,” is the terse response. But there is no satirical bite here, and when it comes down to it the film is wholeheartedly on the side of these outsiders against the normies.

The thin conceit here is that the coven’s male leader, Thorn, harbors a guilty secret: he was popular in high school. While that fact would have made for a decent standalone joke, it’s hardly a satisfactory engine to drive an entire feature. It leads to unbelievable group dynamics: the coven’s excuse for shunning Thorn isn’t at all convincing, and their sudden about-face is just as difficult to swallow. Furthermore, I didn’t find most of the script very funny: the long discussion about “poo in the butt,” which becomes a sort of slogan, is tediously drawn out, getting less and less humorous as it drags on. But despite the clumsy setup, the movie soldiers on, and remains watchable because of the exotic milieu and its genuine fondness for its characters. The acting is solid TV-star quality, but there are welcome turns by icon , the voice of Aubrey Plaza, and a cameo by (which is similar to his appearance in Bates’ previous Tone-Deaf).

One thing that King Knight does really well is its long psychedelic scene, admirably achieved on an obviously low budget. It’s a masterclass for low-budget filmmakers in how hallucinatory effects can be conveyed with competent editing, lighting, and makeup, embellished with small bursts of simple but efficiently deployed optical tricks (Thorn’s third eye) and that always dependable standby, animation. Throw in a doppelganger, a talking pine cone, character development via phantasmal dialogue, and a smattering of Jungian symbolism, and you’ve got yourself a memorable trip.

Bates, who has been chugging away in semi-obscurity after failing to capitalize on the momentum gained from his 2012 debut cult hit, Excision, embeds a self-affirmation in the movie, delivered by no less personage than Merlin (“everyone’s favorite fucking wizard”). “The trick is, keep making your art, your way, without becoming bitter towards those who don’t appreciate it,” Merlin tells Thorn. “Remember, everyone has the right to their own opinion. So pick a song that speaks to you, throw caution to the wind, and most importantly, have fun.” A very simple message, but perhaps the most profound lesson in King Knight.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bates’ script is so weirdly, gut-bustingly hilarious, and offers such an unexpectedly genuine insight into what witch life is like, that you’ll probably find yourself thoroughly entertained… , Bates’ film isn’t just weird for weird’s sake; the poignance at its core is genuine and represents a clear effort by the filmmaker to change how society views those operating harmlessly on the fringes.”–Shaun Munro, Flickering Myth (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GUTBOY: A BADTIME STORY (2017)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Nick Grant

FEATURING: David Homyk, MaryBeth Schroeder, voices of Will Cooper, Nick Reed, Misty Foster, Megan Rosen, Anthony Herrera

PLOT: Goot is tricked into selling his skin to Besto, and seeks revenge with the help of a similarly skinless “mermaid.”

Still from Gutboy: a Badtime Story (2017)

COMMENTS: Gutboy is a strange little creature, and the star of a strange little movie that occupies an odd niche on this site’s recommendation spectrum. The movie is slight and casual and doesn’t feel weighty or significant enough to challenge for a spot on our list of the weirdest films ever; and yet, it’s so darn weird that nearly every serious reader of this site will find something to enjoy in it. The “” tag affixed here is, therefore, an attempt to bring attention to this worthy amateur effort, while acknowledging that it doesn’t fit alongside some of the more serious or professional titles honored here.

Not that the movie doesn’t actually earn that “weirdest!” designation. (In fact, some argue that it works too hard for it.) Framed as a story told by an emcee to a sick boy who’s wheeled out before an audience of insects, the plot involves a fisherman tricked into selling his skin, who then immediately hooks a “mermaid” (a similarly skinless woman given to lines like “you learn a lot of things on the ocean floor… like how to please a man”) who tires to seduce him, and also grants him a wish. Gutboy doesn’t think to ask for his skin back, but instead asks to marry the policeman’s daughter. And the story just keeps getting odder when skin-merchant Besto breaks out his giants (portrayed by a well-toned couple of real live humans spray-painted gold) to wrestle for his amusement. Oh yes, and there are also musical numbers, ranging from show tunes to rockabilly and lo-fi punk and pop.

So yeah, it’s pretty strange. The marionettes are appropriately crude and grotesque: Gutboy and his paramour (who, after a brain-swapping mishap, becomes known as “Sophieguts Prettybutts”) look genuinely bloody, and for some reason have exposed brains. The other puppets are all quite ugly, too, bulbous and vaguely resembling antique Eastern European dolls, with sunken wooden eyes covered in black mold. The puppeteering is not particularly accomplished, but it doesn’t matter, given the project’s insouciant attitude. Any movie in which a wooden hooker on strings sings the line “porking me ain’t easy, and diddling me ain’t fun” isn’t aiming for much beyond cheap amusement.

The kitchen sink approach often turns a would-be weird movie into a unwatchable mess, but here it works to Gutboy‘s advantage, with each new quirk catching your attention, but not completely derailing the loose worldbuilding efforts. The movie is also helped immensely by its economical runtime: take out the four-minute introduction and the ten-minute post-credits “Titus Andronicus”-themed bonus short, and it runs just under an hour. Any longer, and it might have started to try your patience.

It might not surprise you to learn that Gutboy was a crowdfunded project. It played well enough in limited screenings that picked it up for distribution. It can now be seen free on Amazon Prime for subscribers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a triplike piece of weirdness that defies all sorts of logic – and that’s exactly why it works so well…”–Mike Haberfelner, (re) Search My Trash

CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF SPEED AND TIME (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Mike Jittlov

FEATURING: Mike Jittlov, Richard Kaye, Paige Moore

PLOT: Aspiring filmmaker Mike Jittlov makes a wondrous, delightful short film that catches the eye of Hollywood producers; they enlist him to make a feature containing the same formula of special effects magic and raucous whimsy, but sinister forces conspire to prevent Jittlov from realizing his dream.

Still from Wizard of Speed and Time

COMMENTS: Moviemaking is a cutthroat business, you know. Maybe you got a hint of that from a film like The Player. Or possibly  Barton Fink. Could have been The Big Picture. Or perhaps State and Main. Come to think of it, it might’ve been Living in Oblivion. Or Bowfinger or Hollywood Shuffle or My Life’s In Turnaround or In the Soup or …And God Spoke or any number of films where Hollywood takes a look in the mirror to catch a glimpse of the laborious and fraught process of trying to get a movie made. When filmmakers are instructed to write what they know, there are plenty who do exactly that.

Well, you can add Jittlov’s sole feature to that list, with the twist that what he knows is how to make lively low-budget special effects. In 1979, he created a short film exploiting his editing and stop-motion photography skills. As these things often do, the short became Jittlov’s calling card, a golden ticket into the world of Hollywood filmmaking. That turns out to be the starting point for this feature-length exploration of his journey into the heart of the moviemaking beast. And when it comes to “writing what you know,” Jittlow keeps his focus squarely on what he’s good at: special effects. The result is… almost exactly what you’d expect.

On the one hand, anyone who manages to assemble a feature film, particularly without the aid of a well-heeled studio, has undertaken a major achievement. On the other hand, Jittlov’s production is laden with the self-awareness of this achievement, and practically demands to be recognized for its own bravery and pluckiness. To call it self-indulgent is a ground-shaking level of understatement. Self-indulgence is the point; the message seems to be, “Everybody deserves a piece of this genius.”

For a zany comedy, The Wizard of Speed and Time is notably angry. One subplot of the film is Jittlov’s ongoing battle against moviemaking’s gatekeepers. Studio indifference, greedy vendors, apathetic accountants, zealous cops, guild oppressiveness (boy howdy, does this movie hate unions), gawking tourists, and general grownup shallowness are just a few of the forces lined up against the filmmaker’s pure and simple goal to make jolly little movies. Atlas Shrugged wishes its heroes and villains were drawn as starkly as this.

So this movie stands as Jittlov’s demonstration of what the Magic Store could be like if there wasn’t so much red tape and cynicism in the business. That being the case, let’s hear it for the bad guys, because The Wizard of Space and Time is exhausting. Determined to pile on the charm, it never lets up. Every jokey moment is slammed up against another jokey moment, with irony-laden captions, a music score taken directly from a theme park, undercranked footage, goofy sound effects, and so much post-production audio looping to guide you along the way. It’s so breathlessly insistent, it makes Airplane! look like a film.

The Wizard of Speed and Time is undeniably weird (or, as the movie itself jokes, “WHOLLY ODD”), but it’s so invested in its zany iconoclasm that it’s impossible to enjoy on any terms if you’re not Mike Jittlov. The climax of the film features a complete re-creation of the original short. This is a smart move; it reminds the audience that there is something genuinely charming here. What Jittlov does with little money and a whole lot of imagination is quite remarkable. And probably best appreciated in a small dose.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Created by cult animator and weirdo Mike Jittlov, this 1988 hella-low-budget film follows a talented but jobless special effects wizard as he navigates Hollywood… Jittlov’s enthusiastic DIY production earned a generation of cult fans, who allege he slipped over 1000 subliminal messages into the film. Spooky.”–Chase Burns, The Stranger

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