Tag Archives: Low budget

12*. JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY (2019)

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“I think we’re living in a world that in fifty years we’re not going to recognize, because now we produce real objects. But with augmented reality… we’re going to transform the world.” -Miguel Llansó

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DIRECTED BY: Miguel Llansó

FEATURING: Daniel Tadesse, Guillermo Llansó, Gerda-Annette Allikas, Solomon Tashe,  Lauri Lagle

PLOT: Agents D.T. Gagano and Palmer Eldritch must enter the CIA-created alternate reality, “PsychoBook”, in order to investigate a sentient computer virus, Soviet Union. Abandoned within the virtual reality, Gagano finds himself in _Beta Ethiopia, where strongman/president/superhero-villain BatFro conspires with Soviet Union to distribute a VR byproduct known as “the substance.” Gagano’s reality-side fiancée, who hopes to open a kick-boxing academy, must now live with the prospect of him being trapped in a portable television display.

BACKGROUND:

  • An Estonian computer museum provided inspiration for the hardware aethestic in Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, but the machines on screen were mostly Apple products from the early 1990s.
  • Solomon Tashe,  who plays the African strongman dictator “Batfro,” , is a much-loved Ethiopian media personality.
  • The unusual name “Mister Sophistication” was lifted from John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. However, like other characters in Llansó’s films, he was based on a regular at the Club Juventus, a gathering spot in Addis Ababa for Italian ex-pats and other larger-than-life clientèle.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Take your pick. Perhaps it’s stop-motion Richard Pryor and Robert Redford investigating a house infiltrated by a computer virus assassin. Perhaps it’s the “Jiminy Cricket” CIA AI spouting knee-high advice to Agents Gagano and Eldritch. And perhaps it’s the melodramatic conversation between a super-sweetie BBW kick-boxer and her television-bound lover. For the record, however, the official “Indelible Image” is cross-dressing super-spy, Captain Lagucci, sprinting off a roof to save a portable television. Much like Miguel Llansó, Lagucci just… runs with it.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Coked-up Batfro to the rescue!; CIA Man trapped in a TV

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Llansó manages to make an “anything and everything” approach to imagery, symbolism, dialogue, and scenario gel into a unified whole. Obviously the plot for JSYtWttH is bonkers, and that’d be enough, but its mountain of antiquated tech, dizzying opening credits, vibrant colors, bug aliens, MIT conspiracizing, Cold War derring-do, and… You get the picture; just about everything in this movie makes it weird.

Trailer for Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway

COMMENTS: “Loading. Please wait.” Not a typical beginning for a Continue reading 12*. JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY (2019)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HAM ON RYE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Tyler Taormina

FEATURING: Haley Bodell, Cole Devine

PLOT: A large group of teenagers gather together at a restaurant for an assembly to determine their future.

Still from Ham on Rye (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Ham on Rye is essentially a “coming of age” drama, but the fact that it never reveals what exactly is going on makes this uncomfortable viewing for many, and deliciously odd for those who have a stomach for ambiguity.

COMMENTS: Tyler Taormina kicks off Ham on Rye with a simple visual hook: a cigarette lighter refusing to ignite. For minutes. Until it does, and the tension is released as it lights up a firework. Throughout, there are shots of birthday party attendees waiting for the release. The sun shines brightly, the gifts are stacked high, and we wait, and wait, and wait. While we do get the satisfying resolve of the party pyrotechnics, in the narrative itself there is no resolution to speak of; at least, not for most of the characters—and certainly not for us.

Ham on Rye‘s first half shows us a little bit about everyone as they head to “Monty’s,” a diner which we are informed “recently painted the hand on their sign green.” As the teenagers, all dressed to the nines (in a sartorially inept high school kind of way), enter the restaurant, they each in turn press their hand against the painted hand on the window, and brace themselves for their fate. After a meal, they awkwardly dance along to songs playing on the jukebox. Then, when “Tonight I’m Gonna Fall in Love Again” cues up, they immediately snap to attention and a bizarre ritual begins. Some are lucky, partner up, and then disappear from the film; the rest are left to an ambiguous doom.

Taormina plays the premise straight, and only reveals modest details through snatches of conversations. Something important is going to happen to these young adults: after the tension-lighter introduction there follows an extensive montage of the youths getting dressed and ready, followed by dropped hints about impending risk and efforts by each group to pump themselves up. When a father sees off his boy in a carpool heading to Monty’s, he begins all gratitude and reminiscence, but as the car pulls away, he incongruously shouts after it, “DON’T MESS IT UP! DON’T MESS IT UP!” until he’s out of earshot. What shouldn’t be “messed up”? It is is never made entirely clear.

Ham on Rye‘s second half follows the leftovers from the ritual. Night has fallen on the city, and aimless depression has sunken in. One kid, who works at Monty’s, is reassured, as it were, by a friend, “Look, man, it sucks, right? And you can let it suck… or not let it suck. Or something.” We see the world they’re in no differently. Humdrum suburban life. Backyard barbecues. Drinking. Games of Uno. But the lucky ones have disappeared. So are they living a fate worse than death? Taormina refuses to tell us. He discourages us from even trying to understand. At a post-Monty’s party, one of the lads who didn’t get lucky remarks (about something, also left unspecificied), “You can’t see it. But if you get a really good microscope and look really hard… You still can’t see it.” This movie will confound anyone seeking narrative clarity, but its absence is exactly what makes Ham on Rye such an appetizing enigma.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At first glance, Tyler Taormina’s ‘Ham on Rye’ plays like ‘Dazed and Confused’ with more poetry and less connective tissue, or ‘Eighth Grade’ with benevolence in place of cruelty. Then things get weird…  a work of gentle, genuine American surrealism…”–Ty Burr, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Russ Joyner, who called it “an utterly unique film — come for the American Graffiti-through-a-Lynchian-lens aesthetic, stay for the surrealistic soul-crushing aftermath of snuffed out dreams — but with the faintest whiff of optimism.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

366 UNDERGROUND: SISTER TEMPEST (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Joe Badon

FEATURING: Kali Russell, , Holly Bonney

PLOT: Anne must defend her version of a complex series of misunderstandings, tragedies, and hallucinations before an inter-dimensional tribunal.

Still from Sister Tempest (2020)

COMMENTS: I do not research a film before watching it. This typically works in a film’s favor: having formed no preconceptions of what it should be, I tend not to measure it against the wrong yardstick. As in general, so with Joe Badon’s sophomore feature–a rather messy, rather creative, and rather abstruse story about two sisters, several dramatic mishaps, and the nature of memory. Sister Tempest (or, as the credits arrange the title, “Sister Temp Est”), over the course of two hours that felt alternately drawn-out and hasty, presents me with some difficulty. I want to make this review a pitch for it, but I don’t think I can. And I feel a little awkward about that.

It starts off with a breezy sense of promise. The death-of-parents montage that begins the movie had the not-uncharming feel of a Maddin and Brakhage co-production for Troma Studios. The “confession” gimmick, involving a six-entity tribunal headed by a cosmic judge who could moonlight as a Rankin/Bass cartoon-land king, was perhaps an obvious choice, but that didn’t make it a bad one. Slices of temporally re-arranged scenes are smattered alongside hallucinations and false awakenings, but the crux of the narrative is: older sister, Anne the art teacher, alienates younger sister Karen after years of acting as a parent figure. Karen leaves in a huff to spend time with her drug-dealer boyfriend; arriving in her stead is Ginger Breadman, a fragile young art student who appears one day in Anne’s class.

I try to eschew dismissing opinions as being “wrong.” But now, having read up a bit on Sister Tempest, I wonder if my own opinion is in error. (The rest of the IMDb-ternet appears to be in love with this thing.) The film has quite a lot to unpack—symbols, metaphors, metaphoric symbols, allusions, illusions, nods, acknowledgements, Jeff the Janitor—so I wouldn’t say it lacks substance. I never really mustered the will to care, though. It didn’t help that the film was sliced into eight pseudo-cryptically-titled chapters that came across as a, “Hey guy, check out these Smarty-Pants we’re putting on,” more than as anything narratively useful.

From what I’ve read about Badon’s first movie, I presume that he’s improving, which brings to mind the opening sequence’s wrap-up.  Alone at a desk, manning his typewriter, sits the screen-writer. Rolling out a sheaf, we watch him read it, crumple it up, and toss it aside. His presence echoes throughout the film, as distant type-clacks occasionally occupy the soundscape. It was an interesting scene that set up an interesting aural motif. There was also good fun to be found in Sister Tempest (even the final iteration of the “gingerbread man” joke got me laughing). But spare me the Looney Tunes gimmicry; spare me the needless musical numbers; and for Heaven’s sake, spare me the multi-Messiah finale. In Tempest‘s spirit of cryptic cognomens, I shall thus conclude with, “The Movie’s Blood is in the Execution–Please do not get blood everywhere.”

Sister Tempest is in online theatrical release until May 31. You can find information on how to watch the film at the official website.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Club MC Jason Johnson (playing himself) introduces a karaoke act on stage with the words: ‘I’m gonna show you something new tonight, something ethereal, something trippy, something you haven’t ever seen before.’ His words might as well be describing Sister Tempest itself…”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Barkett

FEATURING: Steve Barkett, Christopher Barkett, Tera Hendrickson, John Henry Richardson,

PLOT: A bounty hunter haunted by the memory of an old flame who was killed by a Satanic cult swings into action twenty years later to bring them to justice and solve the remaining puzzles.

Still from Empire of the Dark (1990)

COMMENTS: The first thing you will notice about Empire of the Dark is that it’s a passion project by writer/director/star Steve Barkett, he of only two directing and three production credits. But give it a chance. Barkett is at the opposite end of the shoestring auteur spectrum from the likes of Neil Breen. Barkett is self-aware, has a sense of humor, and places the audience first. He has every opportunity to turn his story into an ego fulfillment fantasy, but cheerfully writes his script with a female character turning down his advances just to deconstruct that trope. Every decision he makes is based on producing the most entertaining movie possible, given his limited means. Even though Empire of the Dark is a low-budget production with plenty of rough edges, it is by far the best budget vanity project your humble reviewer has ever watched. You can even riff on the silly parts. Recall my rule about distinguishing brainless movies from stupid movies. This is one of the brainless, fun ones.

We open on a Satanic cult hiding out in a cave which is accessed by a portal in the wall of a house. Blades aloft, cultists are about to sacrifice both a woman, Angela (Tera Hendrickson), and her baby on the same altar. Enter our hero Richard Flynn (Barkett), who fights his way through the fanatics, making it to the altar with one bullet left. Two cultists are bringing their knives down on two victims, so he has to choose. Angela screams at him to save her baby; Richard obliges by shooting one executioner and rescuing the kid, running away with him in his arms even as Angela meets her fate. 20 years later, that baby grows up to be Terry Nash, returned to town with a mysterious photo of the cult leader and some news that the Satanists are behind a present-day string of murders deemed the “demon slasher” case. Meanwhile, Angela appears to Flynn in dream sequences, to get good use out of that fog machine.

What follows is a swashbuckling yarn as Flynn, an unlikely action beefcake who knows exactly how out of shape he is, shoots and stabs his way through bad guys. This will take him through a painfully amateur and yet thrilling pursuit within a small-town grocery store, an ambush in the woods from sword-wielding cultists dispatched with exactly one bullet each, and ultimately back to the foam-rock caves of the cult’s lair to confront them and a testy summoned demon. Flynn’s sidekick in this quest is local cop Eddie Green (John Henry Richardson), who plays it hilariously straight as a hard-boiled stereotype who is not the least bemused by demon-summoning Renaissance-fair rejects. Consultations with a nun and a psychic take just long enough to drop a clue, throw in some ham, and move on to the next body-count scene. While the dialog is hokey, with the occasional glib line, there is mercifully little of it. The pace jogs along nicely, with just enough reflective inter-action palette cleansers to allow you to catch your breath. Even though the gins never run out of ammo and can be blessed by the local clergy in preparation for taking down Satanists, Flynn and his team will sometimes abandon them for swords.

While Steve Barkett isn’t exactly a major talent, as a producer he has a talent for spending the money where it counts. Empire of the Dark is chock full of ballsy stunts, cheesy late-80s monster-madness special effects, and a full orchestral score which punctuates the whole movie with a trite, but ear-friendly, action soundtrack. Cinematography is on point and the shooting location (which I’m guessing is in the U.S, Northwest?) does it many favors. Just be advised, it still gets silly! Every cultist is dressed in an identical Dollar Tree hooded robe and mask costume. One after another, they die like flies, yet there seems to be thousands of them, like a video game level you can’t clear. The big bad demon is sometimes a puppet and sometimes stop-motion animated. The fake blood is played by what appears to be dainty smears of raspberry jam. Vast plot holes are never explained. But this movie doesn’t care beans whether you’re cheering it or laughing at it, as long as it kept you amused.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this is the exact movie all of us would have liked to make when we were 14 years old. Empire of the Dark is best served with a bag of Halloween candy and an ice-cold Mountain Dew. The fact that this movie is not better known, even as a cult weird-o fan favorite, is flabbergasting. But that’s life when you’re a vanity project.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Enveloped by an exceedingly melodramatic and non-stop symphonic score, and peppered with delirious optical effects and endearing stop-motion monsters, Empire of the Dark is a trampoline of a movie, repeatedly reaching its ambition before hilariously tumbling down into sublime silliness.”–Laser Blast Film Society

(This movie was nominated for review by “Penguin” Pete Trbovich, whom stumbled upon it thanks to a lucky random Tumblr click. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: VERSUS (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Ryûhei Kitamura

FEATURING: , Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka

PLOT: Two escaped convicts make their way to the location where gangsters are supposed to pick them up; double-crosses follow, complicated by the fact that the rendezvous spot is a mystical forest where the dead quickly return to life.

Still from Versus (2000)

COMMENTS: Although there’s a token plot involving a gate to Hell and reincarnation, Versus is basically nonstop dopey comic book violence, choreographed by filmmakers who don’t care as much about logic as they do about making sure the actors look cool while shooting zombies. From about the ten-minute mark until the credits roll after two hours, the movie  is one long melee, with a few pauses to catch its breath.

Because the dead pop right back up as zombies here in the “resurrection forest,” there’s seldom a lack of victims; if the script temporarily runs short of bodies, it just brings in another platoon of yakuza or cops from off-screen and the killing starts again. The cast is so large that you lose track of who’s killed who, and how many times. Sometimes it only takes one bullet to take down a zombie; sometimes twenty are needed. For variety’s sake there’s ample kickboxing, knife fights, some kind of combination machine gun/bazooka, and samurai swords pulled out for the final showdown. The violence is often played for grossout laughs—Evil Dead II is a big influence here—with heart-eating, a bad guy who can punch straight through heads, and eyeballs stuck on the ends of fingers. More conventional comic relief comes in a cowardly yakuza, and there’s also a tiresome running gag where the hero keeps knocking the heroine unconscious. The mythology motivating the massacre is serviceable, the leads look good, and the action is sold in bulk. And that’s about it.

In hindsight, Versus is not an incredibly weird film, although the mix of samurai, yakuza, zombies, and nonstop gore was novel at the time. The movie was significant as a proto- film, however. Not only did it launch the career of cult action star and subgenre icon Tak Sakaguchi, but it’s also the first screenwriting credit for , who would go on to mix the absurd violence found here with -style body horror in Meatball Machine (2005) to launch the line of bioweapondry-obsessed B-movies that grew increasingly ridiculous throughout the early 21 century.

Arrow Video’s 2021 “Limited Edition” Blu-ray is another Criterion-quality set from the specialty releaser, with numerous extras and a second disc housing the “Ultimate Edition” of Versus. This 131-minute cut provides an additional 11 minutes of fighting footage that was newly shot in 2003. If you’re surprised that they went back to the forest to film even more fight scenes, rather than some extra exposition or character development, then you’re probably not in the target audience for Ultimate Versus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Kitamura’s gonzo flick is overstuffed to the point of nausea, its barrage of gory outrageousness becoming wearisome after the first fifty fatal mutilations…”–Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Martin,” who described it as a “Japanese gangster, zombie, martial arts, apocalypse movie. Mind blowing.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

366 UNDERGROUND: THE MAN WITH NO PANTS (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Matthew A. Peters

FEATURING: Stephanie Ward, Ryan Santiago, Joe Cappelli

PLOT: Trinix Spade, junior space detective, has no fear; Colt Cory, outlaw, has no pants. Together they must win a series of death matches to apprehend the Shogun.

Still from Man with no Pants (2021)

COMMENTS: Some viewers might ask of The Man With No Pants, “Why?” I’m more inclined to ask, “Why not?” I have a simple challenge I put to every movie I review: does this entertain? If yes, I can be forgiving. The Man With No Pants, as the title suggests, is intentional nonsense. It’s anti-hero, Colt Cory, channels the traditions of “The Man With No Name,” but moreso his less known counterpart, the Stranger. Trinix Spade captures the enthusiasm of the Indominatable Female Reporter archetype. And the Shogun—well, for some reason I couldn’t help but think of Vampire Burt, whose “serenade” I found simultaneously inept and amusing. Half of this brief movie is combat between unlikely goons: “Master Manchu”, a foppish black fighter with a streak-blond wig, and “El Gatito con Zapatos Azules”, a luchador, being the standouts. But alas, this simple set-up is executed with, to be blunt, imperfect technique.

Conducting a little research while watching No Pants unfold, I discovered that writer-director Matthew Peters has been at this for a while now. I was curious as to how much of a neophyte he might be, as something weighed heavily on me from the start. No Pants is very, very silly, but it was obviously made with joy. This goes a long way, but not quite far enough. I was surprised to find that it was good enough that I wished that just a little more care had been taken in its production. Peters could do with a competent sound guy. The audio was often choppy and obscured. (On the plus side, the soundtrack was pitch-perfect). He could also do with tighter fight choreography—particularly if he’s going to feature combat so prominently.

That said… I could see the foundation of a nichely famous B-movie director here. No Pants had enough zingers that I found myself laughing often, particularly with the running gag about Colt Cory lacking pants. With Ryan Santiago’s husky dead-pan, the spite-filled rejoinder, “You know damn well what happened to my pants!” carried more chuckles than could rightfully be hoped for. Seeing as he’s cranked out a dozen or so features as well as smaller projects, I’d like to challenge Matthew Peters to channel all his focus into his next film. He’s got a “vibe” going, as well as a knack for ridiculous dialogue. It remains to be seen if he can hone the good points, improve on the clunkiness, and launch his actors into the zany orbit he’s so obviously striving for.

Man with no Pants can be rented exclusively from Vimeo through links on Mad Angel Films homepage.

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAN UNDER TABLE (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Noel David Taylor

FEATURING: Noel David Taylor, John Edmund Parcher, Ben Babbitt, Katy Fullan

PLOT: A nameless screenwriter tries to write a movie (the movie we’re watching), while his peers’ careers seem to be taking off faster than his.

Still from Man Under Table (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This microbudget meta-movie about a nameless screenwriter unabashedly gazes at its navel until that navel becomes a self-contained universe teeming with surrealism and satire.

COMMENTS: Ever since 8 1/2, directors have been making movies about the trials and tribulations of being themselves making a movie. It’s an ambitious undertaking, fraught with pretension, but the subgenre is not tapped out yet. Man Under Table relocates the conceit to a new milieu: the fringes of the indie movie scene, a world which itself exists on the fringes of Hollywood. It’s a purgatory for creatives. Everybody urgently wants rush out a movie about “identity politics” or “fracking” or, preferably, the intersection of the two—but they actually spend most of their time in bars, at parties, or in men’s rooms, talking about their hopefully soon-in-development projects. The film doesn’t really have much of an idea how to end itself, and it plays around with some intriguing possible plot angles (such as the suggestion that another character is the real author of the screenplay) only to abandon them. But that abandonment itself is both a meta-joke and an honest reflection of the script: the movie consistently, from being to end, does not know what it is, and it is all about its own lack of insight.

Such a premise would be insufferable if played straight; it can only work as a comedy. And Man Under Table has a nasty comic bite, with the movie itself, and its screenwriter, as much the target of the satire as the phonies who hang out in this plague-ridden alternate Los Angeles. Our nameless (itself a plot point) antihero is writing a movie, but he spends most of his free time bragging to all his acquaintances about how he’s writing a movie. He’s arrogant, short-tempered, neurotic, presumptuous, whiny, and obviously angry at himself but taking it out on everyone around him. His targets include screenwriting rival Ben (who looks a lot like David Foster Wallace stripped of his bandana), up-and-coming director Jill Custard, a vapid but omnipresent YouTuber, and a pair of buzzword-devouring—producers? Agents? He’s also taking advantage of Gerald, an older man with money who has an idea for a movie but needs help with the “technical part” (i.e., writing it), and who insists that there shouldn’t be any of that “modern movie gay stuff.”  You personally don’t know any characters like this, and characters like this could in fact never exist, yet you believe they are caricatures of real people—or at least, that they’re caricatures of real caricatures.

Man Under Table plays out on minimal sets—a bathroom, a barroom, an apartment, a warehouse, a blank void—and moves from scene to scene with little flow or causality. The order of incidents could be shuffled about without making much difference; it’s set in a netherworld of eternal project development. “This isn’t a movie, it’s just random scenes about some guy,” our screenwriter complains midway through. At one point, he finds himself unwittingly cast in—and cut from—someone else’s project, which breaks out around him as he’s trying to order a beer. The movie also draws attention to its own movieness by introducing deliberate continuity errors (a disappearing drink becomes a running gag).

Where Man Under Table shines, and sometimes becomes laugh-out-loud funny, is in writer/director Taylor’s charmingly obnoxious performance as his own alter-ego, and especially in his ear for cutting dialogue that exposes the shallow ambitions of his characters. His generic pitches to the movie-producing couple are brilliant (he throws the word “content” in at random and their eyes get huge). A parody of a competitor’s production shows a knack for capturing ridiculously poetic indie dialogue (“I always imagined that leaving prison was like being ripped from the womb all over again—you emerge screaming, wet, and pale.”) Other great lines include “I didn’t really want to talk about it either, I was just asking you questions I wanted you to ask me” and “I’d like to be suicidal again, but I can’t even get there with all the garbage you’re saying.” Some of the dialogue even achieves poignancy: “Sometimes I get excited about all the possibilities there are, until I realize none of them are available to me.”

As boorish and self-absorbed as our hero is, you gradually begin to feel for him. He is trapped in an absurd, dystopian world peopled entirely by poseurs, a universe that seemingly exists only to crush his dreams. Oh yeah, and then there’s all the weird stuff that happens to his character in the movie, too.

Man Under Table is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This film is definitely weird.”–Lorry Kitka, Film Threat