Saturday, July 19, 2014

Independent Eye: Little Films You Should Check Out

Today marks the debut of what I hope to become a semi-regular feature, spotlighting noteworthy independent films that might have slipped past your radar.  While it seems as if more people than ever are making movies these days, few filmmakers have the chops to assemble a talented cast, pull off a captivating narrative, or display unique visuals. Here are a couple examples of independent movies that are more than worthy of your time and attention:

A Measure of the Sin (2013) Directed by: Jeff Wedding; Written by: Kristy Nielsen and Jeff Wedding; Based on an original story by: Kristy Nielsen; Starring: Katie Groshong, Starina Johnson and Stephen Jackson; Available on DVD or VOD (Amazon Instant)

Rating: *** ½

This meditation on mental and physical slavery tells the story of Meredith (Katie Groshong), a woman raised by her mother in an isolated farmhouse, under the watchful eye of a domineering man (Stephen Jackson) who shrouds himself in religious zealotry.  She shares her repressive abode with two other women who seem resigned to their fate as virtual property.  A Measure of the Sin features excellent cinematography, shot in Tennessee on 16 mm film by director/co-writer Wedding, and the wonderful haunting score by J. Alan Morant sets a somber mood throughout.  The film, based on a story by Kristy Nielsen (who also co-wrote the screenplay) paints a portrait of hopelessness and desperation, ultimately leading to a heartbreaking finale.

Meredith’s voiceover narration is the film’s strength and weakness.  There are some lovely poetic passages that reveal Meredith’s inner thoughts, but in this case less could have been more.  In some instances, I was hoping for more than the occasional snippets of dialogue between Meredith and her captor.  We never learn very much about him, or his motivations, making him appear more like a caricature than a three-dimensional individual.  Compared to the rest of the film, the bear is a bit overwrought as a metaphor for Meredith’s adversity.  These are only minor quibbles, however, about an otherwise impressive film.  Groshong deserves special notice for her courageous performance, and Wedding does a terrific job maintaining a pervasive sense of melancholy and despair.  A Measure of the Sin proves that Wedding is a filmmaker to watch.

Standards of Living (2012) Written and directed by Aaron Mento; Starring: Scott Yarborough, Bill Ferris, Derek Houck, Emily Marsh and Randy Raphael

Available online through

Rating: ****

The fact that writer/director Aaron Mento shot Standards of Living on an iPad 2 didn’t exactly engender confidence that the finished result would be watchable.  The fact that he pulled off a cracking good yarn demands our respect. With a story consisting of equal parts absurd, creepy and funny, Mento proves you don’t need a Hollywood-sized bankroll or elaborate equipment to create a compelling movie-watching experience.

Peter (Scott Yarborough) runs a not-too-successful comic/soothsayer act. With the assistance of his lucky charm (a circus peanut spray-painted silver) he makes half-assed prophecies and tells unfunny jokes to a less-than-appreciative audience (he’s attacked by a pregnant woman).   To his surprise, he gets a call from one of the audience members, asking him to make a private appearance for 100 dollars.  Eager to meet one of his admirers and earn some quick bucks, Peter arrives at the caller’s house to find a sickly man and his assistant (played by Bill Ferris and Derek Houck, respectively).  Peter soon learns about the true nature of his visit, which has little to do with any talent.  The man possesses the ability to make objects disappear for 10 minutes and re-appear, and wants Peter to be a part of his latest experiment – to find out what lies beyond.

I don’t want to spoil the odd chain of events that follows, but you can probably guess it doesn’t go very well for our hapless protagonist.  Not all of the random elements thrown in (including a visit from a sadistic hired thug) work, but Standards of Living hits much more frequently than it misses.  With a plot that keeps us guessing and a twist ending that would make Rod Serling proud, Mento reminds us to be careful what we wish for and there are tradeoffs with everything.  Standards of Living has more interesting characters and situations than you find in half a dozen typical productions – and you can watch it for free through the official website.  So what are you waiting for?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Cinematic Dregs: Glen or Glenda?

(1953) Written and directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.; Starring: Bela Lugosi, Edward D. Wood, Jr., Lyle Talbot, Dolores Fuller

Rating: ***

“I’m a young punk and here I’m working with the great master and I was fighting the fact that am I doing right by the man; am I doing right by the film?” – Ed Wood (on working with Bela Lugosi, excerpt from Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., by Rudolph Grey)

“To me, Ed Wood was the Orson Welles of low budget pictures.” – Dolores Fuller (excerpt from documentary The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr.)

Schlock cinema finally gets its due in the AccidentallyHilarious blogathon, hosted by film writer/researcher extraordinaire, Fritzi of Movies Silently. I’m proud to contribute with my review of the film that entrenched Edward D. Wood, Jr. in the collective unconscious of bad cinema connoisseurs everywhere, Glen or Glenda.  So, without further preamble, get out your blonde wigs and angora sweaters, because it’s gonna be a wild ride.

One of the most common nuggets of advice to fledgling scribes is to write what you know.  Triple-threat (writer/director/star) Wood, a cross-dresser himself, obviously took this advice to heart, in his exposé of the soft, satiny underbelly of transvestite culture.  Mr. Wood, under the pseudonym Daniel Davis (you’re not fooling anyone, Ed) starred as the title character, who grapples with his dual identity.  Produced by George Weiss for $26,000, Glen or Glenda was released in some markets with the more lurid titles I Led Two Lives or I Changed My Sex.

Bela Lugosi, as the Scientist, appeared to be acting in a completely different movie (or universe).  When he’s not sitting in a chair, providing oblique commentary on Glen/Glenda’s dilemma, he’s performing science-y experiments with beakers and test tubes.  Lugosi threatens to steal the show from Wood as the sage overlord, with proclamations such as “Beware of the big green dragon that sits under your doorstep” and “Pull the string!”  Ever the consummate trouper, he deserved an award for treating Wood’s material with more dignity than it probably deserved.   

Wood spares no opportunity to milk the cross-dressing theme for all it’s worth, as Glen grapples with revealing his secret to his fiancé Barbara, played by Wood’s real-life girlfriend Dolores Fuller.*  He apparently didn’t know the meaning of the term “heavy handed,” with depictions of Glen walking by a department store window to admire women’s apparel, or lovingly stroking a nylon nightie.  Later in the film, Satan makes a guest appearance at an imaginary wedding, and women cavort in sheer negligees, mocking Glen’s gender-inappropriate clothing decisions.  At one point, the narrator stops to chime in about our protagonist’s sexual orientation: “Glen is not a homosexual. Glen is a transvestite, but he is not a homosexual.” (Do you get it, audience?  He’s not a homosexual.  Why would you even think that?  Bad audience.)  The second half drags (Ba-da-dum!  I’m outta here.) a bit, with several minutes of footage added by producer Weiss of women lounging around in lingerie,** and an extended sequence about a gender re-assignment operation (thus justifying the alternate titles).  Although Wood or Weiss couldn’t secure the rights to tell the life story of the first transgendered individual, Christine Jorgensen, the film lapses into a lengthy explanation of  the sex change procedure. 

* In an interview, Fuller claimed she didn’t know about Wood’s fetish for women’s clothing prior to filming Glen or Glenda.  When she discovered his secret, she commented, “I wanted to crawl in a hole somewhere” (The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood., Jr.).  After Fuller left Wood a couple years later, she found her niche as a songwriter, collaborating on ditties for various artists, including more than a dozen Elvis Presley tunes.

** Weiss needed to pad out the film in order to push the film’s running time to 70 minutes, necessary for securing distribution (Nightmare of Ecstasy).

Because this is a “serious” examination of transvestitism, get ready for a half-assed explanation by a psychiatrist (Timothy Farrell, who doubles as the narrator), explaining Glen’s predilection toward wearing women’s clothing: his mother wanted a girl, and his father didn’t pay attention to him.  We’re also informed that Glen’s condition can be cured if Barbara is dedicated enough to him.  In addition to espousing specious behavioral science claims, Wood’s film is a treasure trove of quasi-profundities (“…All those cars. All going someplace. All carrying humans, which are carrying out their lives.”). 

Ed Wood has often been hyped as the worst director of all time, but I call shenanigans.  While his movies will never be considered AFI-worthy, they’re far from the worst ever made.  One of the biggest crimes a film can commit is being boring, and Wood’s handiwork is far from it.  He approached Glen or Glenda with the naïve assumption that he had something profound to say – the fact that he so utterly missed the mark is our gain.  This accidental ineptitude makes his movie entertaining in a way that self-conscious, pre-fab dreck by filmmakers who should know better (I’m looking at you, Sharknado) will never match.  It’s tough to beat Glen or Glenda for pure, misguided entertainment value.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Blogathons, Guest Posts and Theme Months, Oh My!

I’m not sure where the time went, but the Goldblumathon, a celebration of all things Jeff Goldblum, is less than a month away.  I just wanted to extend a big thanks to everyone who’s signed up, expressed interest in, harrumphed their disdain, or expressed support for my little blogathon.  It really means a lot (and the checks are in the mail).*  If you’d like to contribute a Godblum-related review or retrospective, it’s not too late to join in on the festivities.  Feel free to respond to this post, email me, or send a tweet.  You can find more details, including a current list of participants and FAQ here.

* Checks may take several decades to arrive.

Eagle-eyed (or bored) readers might have noticed my recent appearances outside of Cinematic Catharsis, spreading my Cthulu-like tentacles of movie lovin’ all over the web (Yes, I realize how creepy that sounds.  Don’t judge!)  Rupert PupkinSpeaks, the gold standard in movie blogs, invited me to contribute to their Underrated Detective/Mysteries series.  You’ll find my top five picks here.  Also, the fine folks at Movie Fanfare, the blog for Movies Unlimited, re-posted two of my previous posts, ‘80sMonster Movie Faves, and my Das Boot review.  And just in case you missed it, you can hear my caffeine-infused rant about Battle Beyond the Stars, as a guest on Forgotten Films’ Forgotten Filmcast.

Later this month, I’ll be taking part in the Accidentally Hilarious blogathon, hosted by silent film sage Fritzi of Movies Silently, with my review of the immortal Ed Wood classic Glen or Glenda.  In August, I’ll be reviewing Werner Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream for the 1984A-Thon, hosted by Todd of Forgotten Films.  Last, but not least, I’m planning a review of a title to be named later for the ongoing Troma Super Summer Spectacular Blogathon, hosted by the wise and powerful Vern of The Vern’s Video Vortex.

But wait, there’s more.  As if that’s not enough, Silent September and Horror Month will return,  along with a special theme month to be named later.  Whew! 

Thanks to everyone who stops by on a regular or semi-regular basis. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome and encouraged.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

June Quick Picks and Pans – Germany Month

Antibodies (2005) Writer/director Christian Alvart (Downfall) ponders the nature of good and evil in this complex thriller. The title serves as a metaphor for the inherent trappings of civilization and notions of morality that protect us from damaging thoughts and destructive impulses.  When pious cop Michael Martens (Wotan Wilke Mohring) is tasked with interviewing serial child killer Gabriel Engel (André Hennicke) about his crimes, Engel gets inside his head.  Shrouded by his religious faith and blinded by delusions of living a virtuous life, Martens becomes susceptible to Engel’s dangerous ideations as surely as a virus.  As the infection spreads, he begins to doubt himself and his family.  Alvart suggests that everyone, no matter how upright, has demons that we dare not reveal to the rest of society.  Given the heinous crimes perpetrated by Engel, Alvart shows commendable restraint, revealing just enough to set your mind reeling, but not enough to turn away the audience.  The tense atmosphere kept me on the edge of my seat for the duration of the 2-hour-plus film.  Just when it appeared to be heading one way, there were surprises in store.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

Felidae (1994) Director Michael Schaack’s bold animated film, based on a novel by Akif Pirinçci, is reminiscent of The Plague Dogs, mixed with The Aristocats.  We follow the exploits of intrepid feline protagonist Francis as he investigates a rash of murdered cats in his neighborhood.  As the mystery unfolds, he uncovers a plot bigger than he ever imagined, involving the human and cat worlds.  Due to Felidae’s adult themes and graphic imagery, it was probably considered unmarketable in the U.S., and never received a proper domestic release. While the depictions of sex and vivisection are admittedly strong stuff, it deserved better.  Few animated films outside the realm of anime have dared to explore similar territory with such a frank approach.  Felidae avoids the sort of formulaic elements many American viewers have been conditioned to expect, such as throwaway comic characters or extraneous musical interludes.  Lovers of international animation, as well as anyone tired of animated films aimed at 8-year-olds, will likely find a lot to like.  While Region 1 residents are out of luck regarding a home video release, it’s currently available on YouTube.  Catch it while you can.

Rating: ****.  Currently unavailable on DVD (Region 1).

NoBody’s Perfect (2008) Niko von Glasow’s eye-opening documentary is a bit like Calendar Girls with a twist.  The film chronicles a nude photo shoot featuring 12 victims of Thalidomide (a potent sedative that was prescribed to expectant mothers in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and resulted in infants with physical deformities).  While the material could easily have devolved into an exploitive freak show, von Glasow chooses to focus on the participants as individuals, each with unique stories of dealing with prejudice and struggles to fit into society.  Instead of a reductive examination of their defects, we are treated to an exploration of their strengths.  We spend the most time with von Glasow (a Thalidomide victim himself), as he grapples with his feelings of inadequacy and reluctance to visit a public swimming pool with his daughter.  Another narrative thread follows his attempt to seek restitution from the German pharmaceutical company that marketed Thalidomide.  I would venture to guess that most people, regardless of his or her physical appearance, would be reluctant to agree to such a photo shoot, but the fact that a dozen people with misshapen and/or missing limbs consented to the project speaks volumes.  NoBody’s Perfect avoids being heavy-handed, addressing issues of vanity, body image and courage with equal doses of humor and poignancy.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Chingachgook: The Great Snake (aka: Chingachgook, Die Grosse Schlange) (1967) An East German Western?  You betcha.  From 1965 to 1982, East German DEFA studios produced a dozen Westerns (known as “Indianerfilme”), all starring Yugoslavian actor Gojko Mitić.  Based on James Fenimore Cooper novel The Deerslayer and historical events, Chingachgook takes place in 1740.  Mitić plays the title character, a former Mohican now living with the Delawares.  When the Hurons, a rival tribe, capture his intended, he embarks on a peril-filled quest to rescue her.  He finds a friend and ally in white hunter Wildtöter (Rolf Römer), who shares his distrust for trigger-happy colonists and British soldiers.  Enjoyment of this movie requires a certain suspension of disbelief, considering there wasn’t a single Native American in the cast, or the mountainous territory (filmed in Slovakia and Bulgaria) was incongruous with the region of the story.  But the movie manages to be consistently entertaining thanks to a charismatic lead and a suitably epic scope.  Taken in the right context, Chingachgook is a fun alternative interpretation of the venerable Western genre.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Tears of Kali (2004) This slow-moving, loose horror anthology, comprised of three short films by writer/director Andreas Marschall, deals with mental illness and the dark side of therapy.   The framing segments take place in India with a guru who developed a vaguely described treatment for emotional disorders.  The second segment, about a man with anger-management issues who’s sent to a court-appointed therapist with unorthodox methods, is the best.  It’s squirm-inducing in spots, and there are some good gore effects for the budget, but the film is hampered by its cheap shot-on-videotape look, poor pacing and an atrocious English dub (the DVD’s German Language option doesn’t include subtitles) that adds some unintentional comedy to this somber mood piece.

Rating: **½.  Available on DVD