Tag Archives: Low budget

CAPSULE: THE PEOPLE’S JOKER (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Vera Drew

FEATURING: Vera Drew, Nathan Faustyn, Lynne Downey, Kane Distler, David Liebe Hart, Griffin Kramer

PLOT: While on the pathway to becoming an Anti-Comedienne extraordinaire, the People’s Joker confronts her troubled past and her chaotic present to attain self acceptance—and dethrone the domineering normies plaguing Gotham City.

COMMENTS: It possibly says something about me that, when Vera Drew mentions early in the film about her revelatory experience “seeing the world’s favorite orphan,” I immediately thought, “Annie?” But that doesn’t say what you might think. Because I have my particularities. So does Vera. So does everyone. This film is a personal anecdote, framed within a (veerrry) loose construct of plot. The specifics of the fictional battle are moot anyway, as whatever narrative through-line is there merely acts a metaphor. Do not misunderstand me, however: this is an effervescent experience, with swirling bubbles of pathos and confession perpetually subsumed with self-aware humor.

Vera Drew has made a stylish movie, and an all-too-uncommon one. Heavy use of CGI, saturation, and stop-motion—sections hark back to flash animation of yore—combine with trashy-classy costuming for the villains (comedians and misfits all), maintaining an unreal comic book tone from start to finish. We enter Harlequin the Joker’s (Vera Drew) world through a montage of fake, early-’90s-baked advertisements and talk show clips. Vera’s narration is with us throughout, as she provides her take on the tragic life she led until she became Vera Drew, or Joker the Harlequin, or, ultimately, just “the Harlequin”: an ambition vaguely sensed when first she saw a somewhat notorious superhero film.

The motley crew of disaffected snarks who assemble in “The Red Hood Playhouse” have their Anti-comedy acts (comedy proper, in this film’s world, has been outlawed), and Vera’s act evolves from rambling obtusities to huffing Smylex on stage and guffawing mercilessly as other performers recount their own tragic back stories. But this manages somehow not to be cruel, but instead self-deprecatory. She bonds through these confessions, as the film itself connects with the viewer as a confession of misery, and hope. Her awareness broadens—particularly when she begins her romantic involvement with Mr J, a trans-man—and as she copes, both diegetic and non-diegetically, we come to understand how she is able to look back with such a probing and smiling eye.

Among the many admissions in The People’s Joker, there’s a tiny, joking aside that struck me personally, but I shall keep that to myself. The larger point is that everyone has their own history, with their own desires forming and formed by it. Gotham is, of course, the real world, writ onscreen as a ian trash parade. Vera learns, slowly and painfully—but certainly—that we must deal with reality, starting with who we are ourselves.  Presuming someone is not harming others, you should accept how they wish to be; this can go a long way to preventing them from hurting themselves.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“a weird little movie that everyone’s talking about…very experimental and odd…”–Christy Lemine and Alonso Duralde, Breakfast All Day (contemporaneous, video review)

WEIRD VIEW CREW: ROCK N’ ROLL FRANKENSTEIN (1999)

Beware

This review isn’t too NSFW (we’d rate it PG-13 for penile synonyms), but the movie sure is. Kids shouldn’t watch Rock n’ Roll Frankenstein. Other people who shouldn’t watch Rock n’ Roll Frankenstein: people who care about movies or about being entertained.

(This movie was nominated for review by Brian O’Hara, director of Rock n’ Roll Frankenstein. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: LADYWORLD (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Amanda Kramer

FEATURING: Ariela Barer, Annalise Barro, Ryan Simpkins

PLOT: Seven young women, unable to leave a house after an earthquake, descend into paranoia.

Still from Ladyworld (2018)

COMMENTS: A low rumble; growing chaos; a cacophony of destruction: all taking place during a black screen. A destructive earthquake traps eight young women in a house. Rubble gathers up to the window tops, blocking all known exits. We see none of this, but the impression is clear, the sensation of imprisonment rendered wholly through sound design. This background—creaks, crashes, and whirring blades of helicopter—traps us with these confined, forgotten women; a human-sound film score of yelps and bursts augments the dread. Ladyworld is an uncomfortable place, and misery for its inhabitants.

This riff on Lord of the Flies flips the script, gender-wise, exploring the trope from a wholly feminine perspective. Much is the same: feral tribalism bursts through a civil veneer, even in such a small group; spatial confinement melds with a growing hopelessness to trigger listlessness and psychosis, depending on the moment and victim; and sightings of a man lurking in the dark basement add an edge of terror to the ambient menace. By the film’s end, nearly everyone has lost it.

Amanda Kramer plays a risky game with her story. Its strengths and weaknesses are the same cards. There is much repetition—dialogue, montage, and shots—which at times grows tedious; but, that’s the point. Kramer emphasizes the differences between feuding factions—Olivia’s civil-minded, and smaller, cadre on the one side, and Piper’s gangster-clique on the other—more and more over time. Every corner of living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, closet, and, of course, the forbidden basement, becomes trashed, nicely reflecting the state of the party. We see these rooms and developments again and again. And again. You may want to scream, “Enough, already!” But just think of how the characters feel.

Ladyworld is up front in putting its characters and setting right in the title, and it delivers a discomfited vision. It is a film to be endured alongside the story’s victims. While it would have done well—maybe—to be trimmer by a quarter of an hour, it might had less impact. After the opening black screen shot and its destructive sound establishes the ambient tension, it only ratchets up. The audience bears witness to the strain until the unlikely, but apt, finale, when the ladies’ world bursts asunder.

Yellow Veil re-released Ladyworld on DVD and Blu-ray in January 2024, with alternate and deleted scenes, a director’s commentary, two Kramer short films, her otherwise unreleased debut feature Paris Window, and even more extras.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“...it proves its own surreal, savage and superbly performed creation… painfully real in its emotions yet dreamily unreal in its atmosphere, an effective and haunting combination which is heightened by image and soundtrack choices.”–Sarah Ward, Screen Daily (festival screening)

CAPSULE: REFLECT (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: Dana Kippel

FEATURING: Dana Kippel, Ryan Jack Connell, Grace Patterson, Marissa Patterson, Ariana Williams, Jadelyn Breier

PLOT: Five women travel to Sedona, Arizona to win a cash prize for completing a “spiritual obstacle course” (which turns out to be a front for an alien reality show).

Still from Reflect (2023)COMMENTS: Reflect, a girls-trip comedy that morphs into a psychedelic journey of self-discovery, seems to be aware that some of its ideas may come across as ridiculous. That may be the reason for the playful subplot pretending that character’s spiritual pilgrimage to the energy-vortex-ridden metaphysical mecca of Sedona is also an interdimensional alien reality show. Their lisping spiritual guide, Hermes, is a holy fool, bleating like a lamb, laughing off his own spiritual declarations, and engaging in silly hijinks like playing maracas while walking backwards, then giving status updates for the alien TV audience. Before embarking on the journey, the bougiest participant howls, “Time to get our chakras aligned, bitches!” And the movie is peppered with a few trailer-ready quips like “I’m down for being abducted. I’m not down for being killed by shadow people.”

But while Reflect sometimes presents as a comedy, at other times, it’s harder to tell whether it’s joking or not: our protagonist, Summer, tells the carload of down-to-chakra-align babes “so, aliens are basically higher versions of ourselves, right? So maybe these vortexes are doorways to other dimensions, like a wormhole.” The other women scoff, but maybe Summer’s just read the script. The gentle jokes—which never get within spitting distance of satire—are a preemptive defensive reaction: writer/director/star Kippel showing that she’s not taking all this too seriously. This language may sound silly to you, but it’s all really just a metaphor to help you… reflect. But the humor slips away as the movie progresses, and the script grows more earnest. By the midpoint, another guide delivers the monologue “Pluto is in Capricorn until 2023. This means that Pluto is forcing an upsurge of awareness of the current patriarchal ruling that uses control, fear, and destructive practices of the industrial world. It is time for a triune society…” without an ounce of irony.

What we have here is a bunch of basic white girls (even the black girl) with the optional astrology upgrade, off on a drug-free vision quest. A helpful opening scorecard associates each participant with a Tarot card and describes, among other relevant facts, their “shadow.” (One of the girls’ shadows is listed as “depression,” which is not exactly in-depth analysis, but I guess it’s OK given the space allotted). The “spirituality” they seek is amorphous, but is really more about basic psychology, overcoming generic neuroses about sexual orientation, suburban trauma (nothing too dark), and resentment towards their mothers. The ladies achieve insights into the source of their psychological quirks—I mean, “shadows”—and then, for unexplained reasons, fail at whatever undefined test the obstacle course/alien reality show is proposing. Summer goes through exactly the same process as the others, and passes the test (although the movie cuts off before she receives her cash prize). Enlightenment is a mysterious thing.

Fortunately, we do get some trippy surface weirdness in the second half to complement the subtextual weirdness of the movie’s vaguely ridiculous belief system. A series of eccentric guides, nightmare flashbacks, glowing spheres, blurry double-image lenses, and encounters with a trio of sarcastic goth vampires highlight the film’s hallucinogenic character (which, again, is explicitly not tied to drugs). But for many, Reflect‘s true surrealism will come from gawking at a the relics of the New Age subculture. This film is aimed at a specific demographic, and they have eaten it up. But it’s easier to believe that aliens are using the Sedona vortexes as sets for their interdimensional reality shows than that a low-budget indie sorta-comedy full of unknown generic blondes deserves the same 8.1 IMDb rating as Jaws or The Seventh Seal. The good news is that there is a market for tiny subcultural niche films like Reflect. The bad news is that, when those of us not in that subculture see it, we must resist the ungallant urge to mock that which we don’t believe. It’s an internal struggle not every viewer will be able to overcome.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Writer-director-star Dana Kippel might be exploring the psychic scars of the mother-daughter bond (she herself is adopted) via the characters and their trippy encounters and hallucinations on this vision quest… [but t]he ‘insights’ are trite, the characters thinly-sketched irritants and the indulgent, self-absorbed ‘journey’ story makes too little sense to be easy to “trip” through.”–Roger Moore, Movie Nation (contemporaneous)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: ROLLER BLADE (1986)

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DIRECTED BY: Donald G. Jackson

FEATURING: Suzanne Solari, Jeff Hutchinson, Shaun Michelle, Katina Garner, Sam Mann

PLOT: During the Second Dark Age in the City of Lost Angels, a holy order of avenging roller-skating nuns battle evil mutants.

Still from Roller Blade (1986)

COMMENTS: It’s extremely important not to overthink Roller Blade, because Donald G. Jackson, the Z-movie legend who thought up the thing, absolutely did not overthink it. This is, after all, the man who dreamed up “Zen Filmmaking,” a commitment to scriptless, why-the-hell-not productions that make everyone else look as obsessive as . So let’s try and embrace the spirit of Roller Blade and just get to the heart of the matter.

This is a film that is made up almost entirely of lunatic choices. Placing the fate of humanity in the hands of a group of nuns on roller skates who wield switchblades that heal the wounded should clue you in, but Jackson happily goes further. The forces of good all speak in faux Shakespearean patois, even the highway patrolman who is the sisters’ only ally. The villains, meanwhile, consist of a man in a steampunk luchador mask and his mini-me, a wrinkly puppet that looks and acts like a bleached Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. (Speaking of which, one of the nuns is an actual dog.) The voice of wisdom is the order’s mother superior, a wheelchair-bound sage with a Latka Gravas accent and a propensity for astounding cosmic aphorisms like “The Cosmic Order of Roller Blade is the only force on Earth where all weapons and battle techniques are converted into tools of love” and “My visions have shown me a new world where it will one day be easy to trust every beast.”

The nuttiness extends to the filmmaking as well. The opening credits intercut incomprehensible images of women dressed like garden gnomes, a writhing woman enduring a restless slumber, and a group of hooligans on the attack, all to the tune of bombastic music cues that crescendo long before the list of names is complete, meaning the score has to keep restarting. With no natural sound, everyone is dubbed in the fashion of a Japanese monster movie, and the filmmakers are so committed to not showing moving lips that one character manages to play harmonica through a bandana.

And let’s not overlook Jackson’s commitment to crowd-pleasing nudity. Early on, three of the sisters are kidnapped and forced to engage in a naked catfight. When they are later rescued, they are brought back to the sanctuary to step naked into a recuperative hot tub and rub each other back to health. A character quickly peels off her bodysuit after being splashed with acid, and later kneels before a dying man to bless him with her uncovered body. Jackson has an audience in mind, and he’s prepared to fulfill their expectations.

It’s fun to list all that is quite nuts about Roller Blade, but the movie is actually less than the sum of its parts. It’s very slow, nobody’s motivations are entirely clear, and the tone is wildly inconsistent, swinging from broad comedy to awkward earnestness at random. So there’s no argument that there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on, but it never really coheres into anything watchable. It’s just Jackson coming up with ideas and immediately finding ways to film them. An impressive accomplishment, but an iffy product.

Creatively, it might be a mess, but Roller Blade was a financial smash, grossing $1 million off its $20,000 budget and earning Jackson the right to make the iconic Hell Comes to Frogtown. But his heart never strayed far from his humble beginning chronicling the adventures of bodacious babes in roller skates. Although he didn’t make good on the promise of the closing title card (advertising Roller Blade 2: Holy Thunder), he eventually helmed four sequels, each of which has a reputation for being strange. Donald G. Jackson wasn’t skilled, but he had audacity, and given how many times we’ve seen the reverse, his is a career to salute.

Roller Blade has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray and is available on vintage VHS only. At this writing, it can be found on Tubi, however.

A BRIEF HISTORICAL NOTE: Despite what the title might imply, no one in this movie who skates (and nearly everyone does) wears the inline skates of the title, but rather classic roller skates. That is because the product bearing the trademark “Rollerblade” was first commercially available in 1987, the year after this movie came out. I’m not saying that the movie inspired the mode of transport, but it does explain the confusing lack of Rollerblades in Roller Blade. 366 Weird Movies: out here doing the hard work so you don’t have to.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…embraces its cheesy, campy, exploitative and bad qualities to produce something bizarre, like a cheap Mad Max made while on acid and horny.”–Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

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