Category Archives: List Candidates

SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) – THE CANNES CUT REPORT

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This essay discusses the recently-released “Cannes Cut” of Richard Kelly‘s cult satire, Southland Tales. You may want to refresh yourself by reading Alice Stoehr’s original review of the theatrical cut.

Fifteen years have passed since Southland Tales‘ premiere, and more than a decade since our first review of the theatrical cut. At that time, the verdict was “Borderline Weird.” Is Southland Tales an indulgent mess? Yes it is. There’s no way around that, and that’s probably a deal-breaker for most. But the film has a solid structure that holds seemingly disparate elements together into a cohesive whole, rather than a mish-mash. The Cannes Cut supports that view (though there will be those who will disagree, of course).

Most of Southland Tales problems come from it’s ambition: it was a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the iPod Generation. Kelly has stated that his original conception was to make something like one of those madcap romp/chase movies that were staples of 60’s cinema (so maybe more of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the iPod Generation?) The script acquired more of political angle after 9/11, however.

Southland Tales is a 10 -13 episode Netflix show, conceived before Netflix was even a player, stuffed into a 2 1/2 hour running time. There’s so much information to absorb, and Kelly didn’t help himself by filming this as the last three parts of a six-part tale! You don’t need a lot of backstory to enjoy Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back/Return of the Jedi (the prequel trilogy is therefore pretty useless, to be honest). But for Southland Tales, that background is necessary to fully understand the plot. Ths backstory is present, but in the Cannes Cut it plays out mainly in dialog and mise en scène; the viewer is thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to sink or swim. The theatrical cut, by contrast, attempted to provide some context and clarification, with the “Doomsday Scenario Interface” montage sequences incorporating panels from the graphic novel prequel. Still, I would also argue that the information overload in the Cannes Cut is intentional, and part of the humor. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension attempts the same trick, though its overload is fairly straightforward in comparison to Southland Tales.

The Cannes cut is 13 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, 158 min versus 145 min, and I think that it plays slightly better; but I also don’t mind getting thrown into the deep end. Some of the CGI-fx work was not yet complete when the film debuted at Cannes (mainly some sweetening for the zeppelin, and extra damage in L.A. from the insurrection). Some scenes were later shifted around in the theatrical cut.  The movie’s over-the-top element is more pronounced in Continue reading SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) – THE CANNES CUT REPORT

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

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: NO TRACE (2021)

Nulle trace

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DIRECTED BY: Simon Lavoie

FEATURING: Monique Gosselin, Nathalie Doummar

PLOT: After a smuggler escorts a woman and infant across the border, her draisine is stolen; she encounters the woman she smuggled on her trek back north.

Still from No Trace (2021)

COMMENTS: If Andrei Tarkovsky had made a film about a human smuggler in a post-civilization world, it would look (and feel and sound) like Simon Lavoie’s No Trace. The mystical energy of Canadian wildlands is punctured only by a pair of iron rails as our nameless protagonist navigates her track-bound wagon through the soft palette of black and white trees and scrub. Religion and doubt vie for dominance. And soft aural cues warn of danger. As with the journey into the heart of “the Zone“, metaphysicality in No Trace flourishes the farther our hero travels from her anchor to civilization.

What little civilization She (Monique Gosselin) comes from is made abundantly clear at the start. There is no state, just men with guns. But men with guns are often open to bribes, and so She has a living. Her latest job is transporting a young mother (Nathalie Doummar, credited as “Awa,” though I do not recall her name ever mentioned) and an infant girl across a border whose demarcation is all too unclear. The smuggler’s vehicle breaks down after She receives another assignment, and She is forced to hide in the wilds near the rails. Awa is there. And, in a tragic way, so are her daughter and husband.

No Trace‘s strangeness is carried primarily by its steady drip-drip-drip of unlikely filmic characteristics. The score is spartan, but when the “doom western” chords swell and plang, it’s all the more powerful for it. I’m at a loss for another example in which the primary musical cues climax after a fade to black. The black and white cinematography is as beautiful as the world is bleak, with soft greys highlighting the lush variance of the ever-present forest. And the dialogue, scarcely present in the first half (maybe half-a-dozen brief lines), merely elucidates what little exposition that isn’t made clear in the image.

The subtlety of the action and the actors further renders No Trace a contemplative picture. The slightest raising of the smuggler’s hand in a key scene resonates far more than any flailing histrionics or wild gyrations could. This and the surrounding quietude scream Tarkovsky, yes, but it’s the film’s climax that swerves No Trace into spiritual wonderment. Awa and the smuggler are in a ragged shack, and Awa— a devout Muslim—asks the smuggler, “You are not a believer?,” to which the smuggler coldly replies, “I’m not that desperate yet.” The closing scene, with Awa embraced by leaves and the smuggler embraced by her precious railway, culminates in a theological twist worthy of the late Russian master.

No Trace is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By stripping away artifice and taking a surrealist route and view, Lavoie ponders what lies beyond what we think we know, about an uncertain and obscure future.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: A FAMILY (2019)

Родина

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jayden Stevens

FEATURING: Pavlo Lehenkyi, Liudmyla Zamidra

PLOT: Emerson hires a cast of amateurs to play his family in his home movies, but a walkout derails his ambitions.

COMMENTS: “Protagonist” describes A Family‘s leading man on only a technical level. (Even the term “leading man” lends him a bit too much weight.) Emerson is in his late 40s (I’m guessing) and has no real family to speak of (I’m guessing). I’m guessing a lot because other than what’s shown on screen, there is no backstory for this oddball—a man who appears to be one bad day away from becoming Erwin Leder’s serial killer in Angst. If you’re looking for an awkward “family” comedy, nothing could be more apt than Stevens’ feature debut.

Located just before the cutoff for “antisocial” on the personality spectrum, Emerson (Pavlo Lehenkyi, channeling some sort of After Last Season dramatic persona) is a perfectionist with a knack for inept communication. The affable folks he’s hired to play his “father”, “mother”, and “brother” all try their best (the “brother’s” scripted reaction to his Christmas gift, “A puzzle! Seven-hundred-and-fifty pieces!”, is picture-perfect over-enthusiasm), but the newly cast “sister”, Olga (Liudmyla Zamidra), throws a spanner in the works. Her personal life interferes with Emerson’s strange production, and after a wage dispute, the others quit in exasperation. This forces Emerson into the unlikely position of auditioning for the role of “husband and father” in Olga’s own dysfunctional family.

A Family‘s strength lies in its social-realist approach and complete lack of explanation for any character. The opening shot of Olga’s “sister” audition cements the distance right from the start. The “scripted domesticity” scenes are, oddly, the most conventional-feeling element in Family. With the “home movies,” we see what we’d expect to see, for example, a family Christmas get-together (albeit a sad, sad, awkward one). The corny acting on display whenever the “family” is filmed rings true to the thespionics gracing millions of home movies the world over.

Emerson is a perfect example of the “how is this person even real?” archetype. That’s not to say there isn’t an authenticity to his character—I believed every moment with him—but by focusing on one of the oddest of ducks ever captured by film, Stevens constantly wrong-foots the viewer. His unscripted conversation suggests almost alien behavior (“My car travels up to ten times the speed of the average cyclist”; “You should never blame a frozen treat for your form”; “Do you serve nachos? I’ve never eaten them, but I’ve seen them on television”). The fact that these statements come from such an obviously broken man spikes the hilarity with sadness. A Family seems to be about life’s quiet desperation and the importance of loved ones. At the same time, it’s probably best to hire good actors if you want a quality family life.

A Family is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unfolding in spaces shared with Atom Egoyan, Yorgos Lanthimos, Aki Kaurismäki, and Charlie Kaufman, A Family nonetheless finds an unsettling absurdity that is all its own.” -Anton Bitel, Eye For Film (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UROTSUKIDŌJI: LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND (1987-1989)

超神伝説うろつき童子

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DIRECTED BY: Hideki Takayama

FEATURING: The voices of Tomohiro Nishimura, Hirotaka Suzuoki, Youko Asagami, Maya Okamoto

PLOT: The three realms—human, demon, and beast-men—are in for an apocalyptic reconfiguring once “the Overfiend” is born anew after a 3,000-year dormancy.

Still from UROTSUKIDŌJI: LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND (1987-1989)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It’s hard to establish a new film genre, much less one as famous as “tentacle porn,” but that’s only one of the reasons this gooey mind-blast deserves our attention. Beyond the fantastically grotesque violence, Urotsukidōji‘s features banal, “young adult” comedy stylings. By pairing these two extremes, Takayama has made a movie that constantly wrong-foots the viewer’s expectations, leading to plenty of mental whiplash throughout its epic length.

COMMENTS: In a case of life imitating art, the story of Urotsukidōji‘s various releases is nearly as convoluted as the story Urotsukidōji tries to tell. The cast of characters—all animated, of course, but all assuredly “at least 19 years of age” per one of the (half-dozen+) advisories on the DVD I watched—runs the gamut from dweeb school boy to jock school boy to jock school girl to sociopathic “beast man” to the son of Doctor Munchausen, giddy-Nazi scientist extraordinaire. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. That last character features in the possibly-non-canon followup, Legend of the Demon Womb.

Allow me to begin again. Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend is a three-part, adults-only “Erotic Horror” film released over a few years in the late 1980s. Stateside, it was published on VHS by the good people at Penthouse Video. Their intended market? I couldn’t begin to tell you. Takayama is doubtless a household name to some, but I imagine they’d be hesitant to admit it. Manga-based depravity (and I honestly don’t intend that designation judgmentally) is one thing; I know from hearsay (I swear) that there are countless volumes of “niche” comics. But giving life to the bodily explosions, demon/cheerleader rapes, energy-beam penises, and—naturally—invasive tentacles rips these otherwise static musings from the printed page and bombards the eyes with pulsating images that one will likely never be able to unsee.

Legend’s story is nothing short of epic, with each segment featuring an admonition against “arrogant humanity.” From the get-go, we know humanity is screwed. The agent of this enscrewment is the ominously (and unsubtly) named “Overfiend”, who will be incarnated in a human vessel. That vessel is Tatsuo, a lecherous whelp of a high school (?) student whom we first meet while he’s peering into the girl’s locker room and jacking off. Up in the rafters, there’s Amano, a sort of beast-faerie fellow who’s been prowling around the human world on the hunt for the Overfiend. There’s the spunky cheerleader, Akemi, the prime object of Tatsuo’s lust (and who becomes lamentably less spunky as the demonic madness builds). And last but not least, there’s Megumi, another faerie-beast thing and sister of Amano—though their familiality doesn’t prevent them from being rather… “open” with each other.

Urotsukidōji is impressive despite the narrative incoherence. The “young adult” comedy is cutesy, but often amusing. The apocalyptic imagery is wonderfully grand and desolate. The sex is graphic, but also erotic—though it becomes differently erotic at the drop of a hat. Whatever your views on the subject matter (young romance, demons, apocalypse, philosophy, cosmic renewal, tentacle rape), the result is a credit both to the writer of the original manga (Toshio Maeda certainly deserves this name drop) as well as Hideki Takayama. Tinto Brass had a vision of hardcore pornography becoming common-place in otherwise normal movies. Takayama must think that innocent yen to be rather quaint.

Purist warning: please note that the affordable DVD linked above (titled “Urotsukidoji: Legend Of The Overfiend: Movie Edition”) is, apparently, a condensed and censored cut of the film. Commercial copies of the uncut version (on DVD or VHS) are out-of-print and can go for several hundred dollars; if you’re still interested, you can try this search.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Imagine the convoluted interlocking relationships of a soap opera filtered through a World Wrestling Federation script… Oddly enough, the eventual Chojin comes off like a cyberpunk version of the demon from Fantasia‘s ‘Night on Bald Mountain,’ albeit hyped on steroids and speed.” -Richard Harrington, Washington Post (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THINGS (1989)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Jordan

FEATURING: Barry J. Gillis, Bruce Roach, Doug Bunston, Amber Lynn

PLOT: Don visits his brother Doug in a remote cabin infested by things; Doug’s wife suffers a miscarriage and the two brothers investigate the fuse box after the power goes out.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This cinematic monstrosity is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, horror or otherwise. But it pushes the envelope of ineptitude so incredibly far that it turns a corner, reaching Zen levels of disorientation and otherworldliness.

COMMENTS: The closing credits begin with a notice that is probably more telling than the filmmakers intended. After we see the hapless Don Drake running through the woods, we are told, “You have just experienced THINGS.” I certainly have. I experienced many things: dismissiveness, confusion, disgust, and ultimately, wonderment. I watched this movie under the impression that it was a purposely bad, contemporary movie designed to invoke the strange era of straight-to-video horror. Upon discovering that this was actually from that era, I felt confusion, betrayal, surprise, and once again, wonderment. Things does not seem like it could have been made as anything other than a joke. That it stemmed from ambitions other than snarky tomfoolery blew my mind.

Things kicks off looking like a ’70s porno from Hell. A young woman in a Lucifer mask is propositioned by a skuzzy Canadian named Doug who wants her to have his baby. She disrobes, and then withdraws a baby—in a carrier—from a nearby shower stall. The man is pleased until the unseen infant nips his hand. Doug awakens on the couch, his encounter just a dream. His reality sucks even worse, though; his wife is in horrible pain from some procedure (which we later learn was performed by the evil Doctor Lucas), and his brother Don is coming to visit. Doug, Don, and Fred (an affable friend of Don’s) exchange bizarre remarks and make allusions to previous, infinitely superior horror movies. But as needs must, the “things” begin appearing and zed1-grade gore ensues.

Whoever the hell Andrew Jordan is (was?), it at least can be said of him that he knew his good horror films. No fewer than half-a-dozen classics are referenced—from Evil Dead to Videodrome—in an amusingly oblique manner (particularly Evil Dead: “How’d that movie start that you’re always talking about,” asks Don while holding a tape-recorder, “Y’know that weird one, with all the weird things?”). Even odder are the intercuts with 80s porn mega-star Amber Lynn as a newscaster very blatantly reading off of cue cards. The film claims to be set in America, but by the tenth “aboot” and the line, “Agh! The blood is just dripping like maple syrup!,” I saw through the façade. That, however, was the only revelation I could tease out of this morass of non-sequiturs and ambiguous—to put it politely—narrative spasms. (I almost wrote “narrative leaps” there,  but changed it after considering how the story never really goes anywhere.)

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what happens in the movie, and at a further loss to explain how it kept my fascination throughout. Unfortunately Things appears to be the writer/director’s only film credit (although leading man, co-writer, co-producer, etc., Barry Gillis, went on to rack up intermittent IMDb credits), so I may never view another window into his creative process. But it could be worse: I could have lived the rest of my days never having witnessed such a spectacle in the first place.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Basically, this movie is like the lovechild of Hotline Miami and Evil Dead as directed by Max Headroom. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and anyone with a stomach for gore and even a little bit of a taste for the weird owes it to themselves to give this one a try.” -Alex, Movie Russian Roulette (DVD)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: GREATLAND (2020)

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RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Dana Ziyasheva

FEATURING: Arman Darbo, Chloe Ray Warmoth, Jackie Loeb, Nick Moran, Eric Roberts

PLOT: On his fifteenth birthday, Ulysses must live up to his namesake when his friend Ugly Duck is exiled to Repentance island.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This is the only film I’ve seen that could hold its own on a double bill with Alien Crystal Palace. For those (many) of you who haven’t seen ACP, read on and I will attempt to explain…

COMMENTS: Early on in GREATLAND, an elite team of enforcers known as “The Optimists”—a flash-gay, scantily clad group of glamboyant men, one of whom is armed with a weapon decorated with shimmering hearts that reduces its target to sequins—vaporize an ancillary character. This man’s crime? He “invaded and contaminated the most sacred part of a woman,” and compounding that offense, he raised that crime’s result—his daughter, Ugly Duck—in an altogether “stone age” kind of way. Yessir, we’ve reached a post-post-post-modern future in GREATLAND, one in which there is no permitted gender or racial identity, and society seems to be tipping into no identifying as species, either. The citizens of Greatland are allowed to know only love, acceptance, and positivity.

The film’s first act seems to be an anti-progressivist screed, a reducto ad absurdum commentary on the destruction of traditional norms (gender and otherwise). An all powerful “Mother” program monitors the childlike populace with the firm-but-benevolent hand found in many dystopian visions. This film doesn’t seem like it could have been authored by your stereotypical reactionary, however. The satire is too spot-on, from the gloriously flaming gayness of the forces employed to maintain order, to the hyperkinetic “political” broadcasts featuring a wheelchair-bound, pansexual emcee who oversees the current contest for the official “Sweetheart of Greatland” (the contestants are a Dobermann Pischer and a Persian Cat).

Above and beyond the madness of its setting, this is a story about Ulysses (an altogether impressive Arman Darbo) and his pursuit of the invisible man’s daughter. GREATLAND works, mostly, as a quest narrative. Mostly. Just as it works, mostly, as a satire. Mostly. Around the halfway mark, we see a bit of the “outside world,” which starts to make some sense. “Greatland” is some kind of social-experiment-by-way-of-enslavement for the financial benefit of the inventors and propagators of the city in question. However, a minor application of logic makes this element crumble to pieces, as well. Dipping her fingers into so many subversive pies, Dana Ziyasheva ultimately upends the massive dessert tray she’s put together.

Does this make GREATLAND weaker than it could have been? Possibly—but it’s much better than my strained metaphor. The lumps of damaged pie filling and cracked crust still manage to sate both the eye (dystopia is rarely this colorful) and the psyche. The final note I made while watching this movie is an entire page covered with a question mark. A logical mind cannot hope to wrap this all together. But after finishing GREATLAND, bewildered though my reason was, I couldn’t deny the unpleasant lump in my stomach. Something dark and strange is happening in this movie, and its structural chaos and contradictions are perhaps part of the overall message. Ziyasheva seems to be saying we are doomed to terrible absurdity. Or perhaps she’s just having us on.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…(too) ambitiously weird… If GREATLAND is an allegory (and I have no doubt it is), I couldn’t tell you what it is trying to say or represent… As a simple fantasy romance, the film is perfectly engaging, but the society is way too bizarre (yes, even for me) and once the politics is introduced it becomes truly nonsensical.” -Alix Turner, ReadySteadyCut.com (contemporaneous)