Actress and comedian Nina Conti has carved out a healthy alt-comedy career in her native U.K. and earned a small stateside following thanks to YouTube videos of her lateral-thinking ventriloquist act.
Conti apprenticed early in life to British experimental theater guru and roustabout Ken Campbell and in fact the two carried on a May-December romance for years. Conti's beautiful debut film, Her Master's Voice, is a tribute of sorts to her former lover and mentor, and one of the best hidden gems you'll find on DVD and digital this year. Voice won an Audience Award at this year's SXSW film festival, but it's not the kind of movie that gets theatrical distribution. This is a movie you'll have to track down.
It's worth it. Voice is a road trip documentary, essentially, but one in which the camera is pointed directly back at the filmmaker. It also folds in elements of mockumentary and a kind of neo-Vaudevillain performance art.
The film begins with Conti learning of Campbell's death in 2008, and finding out that old prankster had willed her his large collection of ventriloquist puppets. This happens to be awkward timing for Conti, who has just decided to retire her own ventriloquist act, which Campbell himself initiated and encouraged.
As a final tribute, Conti decides to undertake a pilgrimage to Vent Haven, the Kentucky resting place for puppets of dead ventriloquists. Here, she plans to attend the annual ventriloquist's convention, and lay to rest Campbell's own beloved puppets.
Things get very interesting, very quickly. Conti describes her traveling companions — Campbell's puppets — as “uniquely bereaved.” They are creatures who have literally lost their voice and animating spirit. Throughout the film, Conti has conversations with the various puppets — a randy dog, an old granny, an abusive tuxedo-wearing cad. It's partly a put-on — Conti really is a gifted ventriloquist and gets good laughs from the scenario she's set up.
But it's also an eerie variation on the tragic monologue, as you realize that Conti is literally talking to herself. She's processing the grief of her old love, and perhaps her fading career. Conti's other companion on the trip is her own alpha puppet Monk, a smart-ass monkey who gives voice to Conti's doubts and insecurities.
It's a trip, man. In depressing Kentucky hotel rooms, Conti jokes and argues with her companions, sometimes drinking heavily, and sometimes seeming to lose control entirely. Overall, the tone is pretty light — Conti interviews other ventriloquists at the convention, and this stuff is mostly played for laughs. Conti even finds the funny in stately Vent Haven, surely the planet's most profoundly creepy museum.
Voice is a bit rough around the edges — image and sound quality are all over the map. But that's part of the appeal. Extras include footage of Conti's stage act, and a surreal interview where Conti fields questions from the monkey.
The film's executive producer is Christopher Guest, master of the tragicomic mockumentary, but Voice is something different. It's more personal, more experimental, weirder. That it's often just as funny as Guest's films is icing on the cake.
Also New This Week:
Wes Anderson's latest, Moonrise Kingdom, concerns a pair of runaway 12-year-olds in 1950s New England and the all-star posse that chases them down. Starring Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis and Tilda Swinton. The DVD/Blu-ray pack adds some behind-the-scenes details and a set tour with Murray.
A spinoff of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, the recently departed Adult Swim show, Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule stars John C. Reilly as host of a small-market TV newsmagazine segment. For fans of avant-garde comedy, it's awesome. Great job.
Aficionados of early Cronenberg might consider the horror film Excision, which examines body trauma and other dark side delights, with appearances from Traci Lords, Malcolm McDowell and John Waters.
Plus: Family-friendly animation with Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted; nuclear horror with Chernobyl Diaries; dubious election year rhetoric with 2016: Obama's America; and the compellingly titled European import Sexual Chronicles of a French Family.
TV-on-DVD: Season collections from Mad Men, Touch, The Firm, Psych and Alcatraz: The Complete Series.