June 6, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK: Stingray Sam

[DISCLAIMER: Cory McAbee has a tiny role in The Guatemalan Handshake, a Benten Films DVD release.]

Stingray Sam

Stingray Sam
Directed by Cory McAbee
2009, 62 minutes, U.S.A.
[currently undistributed]

Stingray Sam Rocketing through another monochrome corner of the gently surreal, weird-humored universe shared by his lovely, Lynchian 2001 intergalactic musical The American Astronaut (any film with characters named "The Blueberry Pirate" and "The Boy Who Actually Saw a Female Breast" makes my cut in this decade's cult canon), musician-filmmaker-actor Cory McAbee again follows his heart and whimsical mind to the outer limits with Stingray Sam. Modeled after old Buck Rogers serials and the like, McAbee's musical space-western yarn spans six serialized episodes, each "presented" by fictional every-corp Liberty Chew Chewing Tobacco, a satirical stand-in for the annoying overlap between entertainment and consumer culture (commercials, ubiquitous product placements, having to whore oneself to make a living).

Stingray Sam—not the film, but the ultra-cool, genteel, black-clad cowboy convict McAbee plays—reunites with his "little bit nice and a little bit mean" pal The Quasar Kid (Crugie), and together, in order to earn their freedom, they must rescue a button-cute moppet (Willa Vy McAbee, the director's daughter) from a genetically manufactured idiot overlord named Fredward (Joshua Taylor). Interspersed throughout are hyper-colorful cutout animations reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python collages or even the pages of Spy Magazine, which help relay (along with wry, convoluted narration by David Hyde Pierce that sounds like he's reading from a lost Douglas Adams novel) the twisted plot details that a limited budget wouldn't allow for, including a corporate mascot rehabilitation program, a wealthy planet full of pregnant men, and well, anything filmed out of the atmosphere.

Stingray Sam The premise lends itself to some oddball cliffhangers, but the music, man—the music! McAbee, whose ever-evolving band was once called The Billy Nayer Show but currently plays as American Astronaut, has been toying with genre (rock, punk, cabaret, comedy), the autoharp, ukulele, et al. for over two decades. From rockabilly freakouts to an acoustic lullaby, the soundtrack here is diverse, catchy and easily the film's most exuberantly charming quality. These giddily choreographed show-stoppers are evenly peppered throughout, so any segment can stand alone without the context of an overarching narrative. (This is one-hundred-percent true: I was hooked after only seeing Part 5 at the Sarasota Film Festival the first time around.)

The episodic structure serves a dual purpose, too. It's not a coincidence that Stingray Sam—the film, not the character—takes place in a sci-fi realm, because McAbee is clearly looking to the future for artistic inspiration. After being commissioned by Sundance in 2007 to make a short film for mobile phones (Reno, aesthetically, is an obvious precursor to this feature), McAbee wanted to create a work that could be viewed on the biggest and smallest screens alike. Thus, Stingray Sam is populated with characters and action that fill the screen in high-contrast medium shots and close-ups; the film is visible enough to be a fun iPod diversion on an airplane, but it blossoms bigger than life in movie theaters. ADHD-addled kids can watch 10 minutes at a time, or take on the whole shebang in a lightning-quick hour. Who knew that such an otherworldly romantic could be such a pragmatist, too? Maybe McAbee himself was genetically engineered.

Stingray Sam screens tonight in New York at Rooftop Films, at the Brooklyn International Film Festival on June 8 and 13, at CineVegas on June 12 and 13, and at the Southside Film Festival (Bethlehem, PA) on June 19 and 20. For the trailer and other pertinent schtuff, visit the official site.

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Posted by ahillis at June 6, 2009 12:15 PM


Not sure when/if we'll get this up here in Toronto, but you've made me want to crack open my Guatemalan Handshake DVD again. Cory McAbee played the wonderful Spank Williams in a very cool segment that I think he directed for Todd Rohal.

Posted by: James McNally at June 10, 2009 1:51 PM

The American Astronaut is one of my favorite films and gets plenty of rewatches at home. Can't wait for whenever and however this one is released for purchase.

Posted by: Mike at June 13, 2009 6:08 PM
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