Tag Archives: Low budget

40*. MODUS OPERANDI (2009)

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“The more beautiful, free-spirited women you can get into a low-budget film, the easier it is for the audience to forgive your script.”–Frankie Latina

DIRECTED BY: Frankie Latina

FEATURING: Randy Russell, Danny Trejo, Mark Borchardt, Barry Poltermann, Nikki Johnson, Michael Sottile

PLOT: CIA agent Stanley Cashay—the best in the business—is dragged out of retirement to recover a pair of stolen briefcases in exchange for the name of the operative who murdered his wife. A network of spies around the world assist him in his quest, while the cases repeatedly change hands in a bloodthirsty quest. When he discovers that they contain videos of sadistic ritual murders, Cashay is spurred to action.

Still from Modus Operandi (2009)

BACKGROUND:

    • Latina has described the movie as his attempt to make his own version of his favorite movie, Apocalypse Now.
    • The film is credited as being “presented by” adult film star Sasha Grey. Lending her name appears to be the extent of her involvement in the film.
    • Danny Trejo filmed all his scenes in a single eight-hour stint before he had to catch a plane back to Los Angeles. These were the only scenes in the movie that Latina shot with on-set sound.
    • Latina accomplished the Tokyo scenes by using the proceeds from his job at a casino to send actress Johnson and a cameraman to Japan to capture the footage.
    • Most of the film was shot in Latina’s hometown of Milwaukee, and he takes advantage of some of the region’s architectural wonders to serve as the backdrop for his globetrotting hero. Among the locations featured in the opening credits are the dramatic angles of Santiago Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum, the Domes of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, and the Infinity Room at the notorious House on the Rock.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It feels like half of Modus Operandi consists of people sitting around receiving phone calls. They’re just minding their own business, drinking cocktails or hanging out in a hot tub or drinking cocktails while hanging out in a hot tub, and then a phone call comes. This tic reaches its apotheosis when a man takes such a call while he is grooming himself and while his female companion is casually shaving her pubic region. She’s totally nude, her crotch is completely covered in shaving cream, and she’s right up in the guy’s face with it. It’s the most perfect example of this film’s unique blend of overt sex with zero sexiness.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Casey Thunderbird requests the pleasure of Black Licorice’s participation in a spy venture; you got your porn audition tapes in my spy movie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Modus Operandi feels like the movie you would get if aliens were asked to make a James Bond movie and did all their research by asking a drunk at a bar. With its intense focus on crowd-pleasing violence and nudity (of both the male and female varieties), it’s the cinematic equivalent of all dessert/no veggies, except the desserts were created on Nailed It! The infectious joy of making the movie is paired with an extraordinarily high level of amateurism, making for a movie that knows it’s ridiculous and yet somehow manages to become even more ridiculous in the process.


Original trailer for Modus Operandi

COMMENTS: Frankie Latina sets the tone before a moment of Continue reading 40*. MODUS OPERANDI (2009)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: HAGGARD (2003)

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DIRECTED BY: Bam Margera

FEATURING: Ryan Dunn, Brandon DiCamillo, Bam Margera, Jenn Rivell

PLOT: Ryan, aka “Random Hero,” is depressed over having been dumped by his girlfriend Glauren (‽) in favor of a dim-yet-confident lunk named Hellboy; his sulkiness irritates best friend Valo, who determines to break him out of his funk.

Still from Haggard (2003)

COMMENTS: If all Bam Margera and Brandon DiCamillo ever did was the CKY (Camp Kill Yourself) series of videos, they still would have staked out a tiny corner for themselves in entertainment history. These collections of outrageous stunts, puerile pranks, and skateboarding tricks earned a following that eventually included the producers of MTV’s “Jackass.” Invited to contribute to the show, the CKY crew generally did their own thing out in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to be edited into the Hollywood hijinks later. The transformation of Jackass into a movie franchise only brought them more fame, but Margera & Co.’s wildness became too much even for Johnny Knoxville and his band of idiots. Margera got fired, and troupe member Ryan Dunn died after smashing up his car while intoxicated leagues above the legal limit. 

Some people might be surprised to discover that the CKY videos weren’t all Margera & Co. did. In fact, they made more than one attempt to graft their brand of messy, violent humor onto a narrative. In doing so, they followed the number one maxim of storytelling: write what you know. In this case, what they know is bumming around town looking for something to do, drinking too much while depressed over being dumped, and skateboarding.

The film makes no apologies for the fact that nearly all its characters are emotional adolescents. Our Random Hero is deeply unpleasant, launching into a harangue at a girl in a coffee shop so intense that she stabs him in the eye with a fork. Glauren is a tramp with the emotional needs of the men who wrote her. (“I can play all the games I want at the bar,” she teases Ryan.) Side characters include a nude video-game playing distributor of advice called Naked Dave, a toga-clad old man who hangs out in a hot tub while topless girls feed him grapes, and a bunch of women who appear near the film’s conclusion primarily to facilitate a set of makeout sessions.

As you might expect, there are a lot of crazy, gross-out moments thrown in to hold your attention. These range from the genuinely hilarious (a random man clocks Dunn over the head with a watermelon) to the disappointingly crude (Valo and Falcone tape turds to Glauren’s garage door) to the outright inexplicable (Ryan injures himself while perched naked atop a bathroom sink masturbating). The film also traffics in randomness as a source of humor, most notably in a side plot about DiCamillo trying to invent a “reverse microwave.” It’s the kind of small joke that would serve as a minor running gag in most movies, but here gets a lot of screen time to explore the hunt for supplies, the competitors in an invention contest, and the diamond-crusted bicycle that serves as prize.

And when there’s nothing else to say or do, everybody goes skateboarding. Too much stress in everyone’s lives? Skateboarding. Flashing back to happier times? Skateboarding.  (Who’s that making a cameo as a cop who arrests Ryan for hurling his empties at a cinderblock wall? Why, it’s skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, of course.) Considering that’s how he made his name, it’s not at all surprising that Margera would hold a special place for street surfing, but it’s pretty funny how little effort he makes to disguise Haggard’s hidden agenda as a skateboarding delivery system.

As a director, Margera is not untalented. The film moves along briskly, the cast of mostly amateurs is enthusiastic and game, and he enlists cohort Joseph Frantz behind the camera to capture some intriguing angles and settings. But as a storyteller, he’s way too sure that he and his friends’ hijinks and witty repartee are enough to do the job, and they just aren’t. Margera thinks he’s making Clerks with skateboards, but sadly, Haggard doesn’t have a tenth of the wit of Clerks. Making a narrative movie out of a series of stunt videos is a bodacious trick. Haggard just can’t land it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Well, if you loved MTV’s obnoxious, over the top dumb-stunt show Jackass then you’ll love this weird, profane comedy as well…”–The Indie Film Cafe

(This movie was nominated for review by JoE, who raved “If i could compare it’s comedy to anything, it would be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but then confessed “It has my official seal of approval, which means absolutely nothing lol.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

FANTASIA 2023: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: WHERE THE DEVIL ROAMS (2023)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Toby Poser, John Adams, Zelda Adams

PLOT: A scrappy family trio travel Depression-era Catskills pursue an ascension into big time carnival show-biz, all while executing harsh justice.

Still from Where the Devil Roams (2023)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: It probably shouldn’t—if not for that final shot. My goodness.

COMMENTS: Dark times bring forth dark magic in this meditative and macabre motion picture from the renowned indie horror team the Adams Family. They entered our collective awareness with The Deeper You Dig, knocked off socks (and knocked out ear-balls) with the metal-infused follow-up Hellbender, and gloriously return once more with Where the Devil Roams. Tobey, John, Zelda, and Lulu continue to hone their craft as a family-filmmaking team (and unlike the Ormonds, these are fun-time, fun-filming folk). Their “tiny” movie explores big ideas, delivers big gore, and proves to have a big heart beating at its tattered core.

The slow death of the carnival business grinds down the poor carnies of upstate New York, perhaps none more so than Maggie, Seven, and their daughter Eve. This trio aspire to earn a place at the “Buffalo Horror Show,” the last remaining big to-do in the circuit. While traveling along with their bare-bones circus group, they drop in on various ill-doers—a cruel landlord, a crooked financier—smiting the enemies of the little man with a smiling viciousness. Maggie wields the weapon, Seven speaks the scripture, and Eve, born mute, captures their handiwork on camera with a quiet relish.

Taking a moment to consider the inputs for this film—third- and fourth-hand props and costumes, self made sets, musical chairs camerawork (who ever was not in a frame at the time was typically behind the lens), and the mystical fusion of American myth with homemade magick—the film is impressive. But then, it feels impressive even without that qualifier. I mention those elements to share how much heart and soul went into this little wonder; and that’s not mentioning the blood. Papa Seven cannot abide further carnage after his time as a medic in WWI, so Mama Maggie applies his blindfold before the blood and fury. These grisly doings are a grisly delight: either through the sheer bluntness of a chiming skillet, or a deadly harpooning with a fire poker, it’s always fun to watch these righteous murderers. And with the black magic tied in (heh), there is an unreal aura whose moral ambiguity becomes darker and darker.

The image gets a bit dark, too, and strange: beginning in a full-palette, it flickers and devolves into grainy, black-and-white harshness. By the end, as the family’s already meager fortunes collapse (along with a couple of their bodies), we enter a saturated, white-light nightmare.

Which brings me to the punchline. In the penultimate shot, our heroine Eve has transformed from an angel of light to one of darkness, who escorts an unknown entity down one of those looong corridors typically reserved for nightmares. With a reassuring bend of her finger, she beckons to her follower, along with us, to go through the final door to end stage. A song emerges from her lacquered lips, a spotlight jolts into life, and BAM!

Listen to Giles Edwards’ interview with the Adams family about Where the Devil Roams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a conscious homage to early cinema traditions… Formally, the film is audacious, again pulling off stylistic flourishes that in the hands of less confident, skilled filmmakers could feel hokey or cliched.”–Alexandra Heller-Nicolas, AWFG.org (festival screening)

MIKE MCCARTHY/JMM – A (SOMEWHAT LENGTHY) PRIMER

Mike McCarthy – or JMM?

Twins?

Actually, both are one and the same. When John Michael McCarthy started in comics, he branded himself with the JMM logo. And if you’ve seen JMM’s work either in comics or movies, your impression is probably:

GIRLS! (Nudity!!)

GARAGE! (Rock and aesthetic)

GARISH! (look, plotting, dialog, attitude)

ELVISNESS!

Basically, what was/is considered to be the rudiments of American pop culture of the 20th Century. If you really want to get into subtopics, specifically Southern American Pop Culture, including the films of David Friedman, early , and lots of others I can’t begin to list…

JMM started in the late 80’s/early 90s, just ahead of the Nu Garage/Greaser/Glam Explosion* of the late 90s, which he and his work helped spread.

[* – NOT an official genre term]

McCarthy’s pinnacle (?) was possibly Superstarlet A.D., which was picked up for distribution by in 2000, making it the easiest of his films to find. After that… that Garage/Greaseball/Glam Boom slowed down and got overshadowed by Whatever New Thing was current. And although McCarthy got notice and acclaim overseas, back home he was just what was called a “cult figure”; an interesting but obscure branch of underground film. Meanwhile, others in the Memphis film scene broke through to studio interest, and money.

As McCarthy has stated himself, as a mantra: “My work is UNPOPULAR“.

I’ve long wondered why. Full disclosure: I was a crew-member on Superstarlet A.D. for the last half of shooting. But I was a fan of McCarthy’s before that, having seen The Sore Losers in Kansas City during the “Vice Parties” tour. My San Francisco roommate was a fan of Russ Meyer, which is how I started discovering that particular corner of film. So when an opportunity came to check out that type of filmmaking, I jumped right in—but that’s another story for another time…

Afterwards, I delved more into McCarthy’s work, and tried to keep an eye on what he was up to. If there’s a genre label for McCarthy/JMM, it’s “Redneck Art-house.” He remarks in the Blu-ray commentary for Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis that a reviewer once referred to him (and the film) as a “Pawnshop .” Both terms sound derisive, initially; but they’re both on-the-nose and correct, and not in a bad way.

McCarthy’s work follows two distinct paths:

JMM comix adaptations. McCarthy’s lo-fi versions of his own personal Cinematic Universe: Damselvis (1994), The Sore Losers (1997), and Superstarlet A.D. (2000) fit in here, along with his comix “Cadavera”, “SuperSexxx”, and “Bang Gang.”

Mike McCarthy graphic novel adaptations. These include features Continue reading MIKE MCCARTHY/JMM – A (SOMEWHAT LENGTHY) PRIMER

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TODD TARANTULA (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: Ansel Faraj

FEATURING: Ethan Walker, Kelly Erin Decker, Nathan Wilson, David Selby

PLOT: Todd Tarantula’s prized motorcycle is stolen; more disconcertingly, he keeps slipping through time.

Still from Todd Tarantula (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Todd Tarantula renders L.A. in neon-sparked hues, a surreal effect heightened by the underlying grit of the smog-soaked city. The slippery narrative coursing beneath the death-candy visuals touches on ancient Pueblo lore, modern ennui, technological immortality, and a pleasing finish that is fairly rare in our corner of cinema. Also, there’s a skull-headlight time-travel motorbike.

COMMENTS:

I can’t tell if this is blood or snot! Can somebody help?

The scene is set with efficiency, because for Ansel Faraj, time is of the essence. This pressing speed is somewhat ironic when one considers that the protagonist, ne’er-do-well business scion Todd Tarantula, has time on his side. Well, more accurately, he has time at his disposal. This stubbled James Dean stand-in has his share of troubles—deceased mother, estranged father, dead-end life—but  at least hehas a bitchin’ bike: his treasured means of escape from the demons that pursue him. But over the course of an evening, he loses that, and considerably more.

Tell me one—just one dream—that’s all I ask.

Rotoscoping is a wondrous technique, creating what is possibly the uncanniest of valleys. Grafting animation on to filmed reality anchors us in form and flow, while allowing unfettered tinkering. Faraj’s peripheral tinkering is limited, for the most part, to a glorious color skew. Murky nights shift from green to black. Dazzling sun-lit cityscapes become a Technicolor kaleidoscope. Negative space morphs into clingy radiance. When Todd finally encounters his father, the wire-and-bandage-wrapped patriarch appears as a tethered angel amidst his array of hospital machines and plastic draping. During a car ride with Lucifer (a business rival of his father), the power of animation emphasizes Todd’s claustrophobia and draws the eye to the old gentleman’s skull-topped cane, hinting at the unspoken cost of the business deal playing at the tip of Lucifer’s tongue.

News of death travels fast; dare I say, ‘I’m sorry’?

Ansel Faraj’s film is not perfect. The performances are inconsistent, and the narrative thread sometimes veers too far from the main stitching. However, he has an interesting story to tell here, and it is told entertainingly, with many clever bursts. When he learns of his father’s demise, and the deceased’s disrupted attempt to achieve digital immortality, Todd is idling at the La Brea Tarpits—site of others who have failed to achieve a favorable form of perpetuity.

I don’t know what’s real any more, and I’m really fucking tired of it.

As events unfold (and, in some cases, re-fold), Todd Tarantula slows its pace, drawing everything together at the end for a finish that some will consider a touch too trite. I, on the other hand, was pleased, and relieved to see something pleasant and astounding befall this troubled bohemian nomad. Todd Tarantula sears the eyes, bends the mind, and has the good manners to elicit a satisfied grin.

Todd Tarantula is currently streaming free on Tubi.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The search for his missing motorcycle takes Todd on a journey into the darkest and weirdest byways of Los Angeles… Todd Tarantula is like the lovechild of an unholy union between an urban dungeons and dragons quest and a ‘50s teen angst movie. To bless the union, Faraj and company digitally rotoscoped the footage in post production to make the colors, characters and scenery pop like a cross between a live-action graphic novel and an acid trip.”—Brian Schuck, Films From Beyond (contemporaneous)