Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: CANIBA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel

FEATURING: Issei Sagawa, Jun Sagawa

PLOT: Confessed cannibal Issei Sagawa monologues to the camera, his face often out of focus, and talks to his caretaker brother, who is revealed to be almost as deranged.

Still from Caniba (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Caniba would make a list of the most disturbing movies ever made—easily. Its subject is a weirdo par excellence—in fact, he may be the world’s strangest living monster—and the film takes an experimental, offbeat approach to depicting him. Yet everything shown here is tragically real, and the effect goes beyond “weird” into “despairing.”

COMMENTS: Issei Sagawa, an intelligent but shy Japanese man studying French in Paris, killed and ate a female classmate in 1981. He spent five years in a mental institution in France and then was deported to Japan where, due to quirks of the judicial system, he was freed. Since then he has lived a marginalized existence, making a meager living off his infamy. He is now weakened by a stroke and holed up in a dingy apartment, cared for by his brother.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, Harvard-based anthropologist filmmakers, chose to follow up their arthouse hit Leviathan (an uncontroversial documentary about commercial fishermen in the North Atlantic) with this perverted provocation about Sagawa. Most of the movie is out-of-focus shots of the ailing cannibal, closeups of his twisted, trembling hands or his blank face as he delivers halting, unhinged monologues (“I know I’m crazy,” he confesses). When he talks at all, he speaks as if he’s in a trance, gathering the strength to push out each phrase, about five or six words per minute, with long pauses in between. We also meet his caretaker brother Jun, who eventually reveals some shocking fetishes of his own—leading one to wonder whether there is a genetic curse on the Sagawa clan, or whether Jun was driven mad by knowledge of his brother’s crimes. Old black-and-white home movies of the two show what look like happy, normal children.  Back in the present, we have a very odd pixilated porn sequence starring Sagawa, inserted without any context, followed by a tour through the manga he drew celebrating his crime. Jun is both fascinated and disturbed by the graphic drawings of the girl’s corpse and his brother’s erection when faced with it. “I can’t stomach this anymore,” he says, but continues turning the pages. Issei, distant as always, seems embarrassed, if anything, reluctant to answer the questions his brother poses. For the final scene, they bring in a prostitute (or groupie?) dressed as a sexy nurse to read the cannibal a bedtime story about zombies, then take the invalid demon out for a wheelchair stroll around the neighborhood. The end.

I am glad someone documented these two twisted specimens of humanity with minimal editorializing, but the result is no fun whatsoever, and offers no insight to their pathologies, making it a very difficult watch on multiple levels. It’s of interest to sick thrill seekers and serious students of abnormal psychology. You should know this movie exists. God help you if you watch it. There is no guarantee it will get a commercial release. The film seems destined to remain forever underground, where it probably belongs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A weirdo documentary…  strange and unpleasant…”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

CAPSULE: THE RELATIONTRIP (2017)

DIRECTED BY: C.A. Gabriel, Renée Felice Smith

FEATURING: Matt Bush, Renée Felice Smith, voice of Eric Christian Olsen

PLOT: A couple of neurotic, directionless twentysomethings take a weekend trip that turns into a fantastical, compressed version of a relationship.

Still from The Relationtrip (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a reasonably hip twist on the romantic comedy formula with a few clever (and borderline surreal) ideas. The Relationtrip pleasantly tweaks the romantic comedy formula, but takes care not to twist it so hard that it can’t snap back into shape in time for the expected resolution.

COMMENTS: Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Depressed twentysomething loser plays video games all day. Is talked into going to a party full of strangers where he does something embarrassing. Cute girl there approaches him. They bond. Go out for tacos. Witty repartee. They complain about all their friends getting all married and boring. They dare each other to take a trip together—but promise they’ll stay just friends. They fall in love. A secret emerges that threatens their budding romance. They break up. They each have an epiphany about how fear and insecurity keeps them from finding happiness. A speech demonstrating personal growth. They get back together.

OK, maybe you have. But have you heard these? The couple peel each others’ faces off at breakfast. They lie in a hammock that turns into a cocoon. Turns out the girl is a never-nude. There’s a dead angel stripper stag film. A visit from a giant mommy. A couples counselor in a pillow fort. A fight with an abusive beer-drinking puppet.

The Relationtrip takes the pop-psychology clichés of screen (and real) relationships and serves them up as big, absurd, literal metaphors. It’s an idea that’s clever enough to be amusing without being subversive. It’s a parody, not a satire, and the movie still believes in love and in all its expected obstacles. The young actors are good-looking and likable, although their constant armor of hipster irony can grow wearisome. The concept is high enough that I can’t help but wonder whether this might have been a box office hit with better-known leads, a quirkier best friend confidant, a killer one-liner or two, and a script that dialed back the surrealism just a tad. And a less clunky title, of course.

Although the word “weird” gets bandied around a lot in discussions of this one—they even stuck it in the official synopsis—you’re not going to mistake Relationtrip for does When Harry Met Sally or anything. On the other hand, if you’re reading this site, you’re probably not a particular fan of formulaic romantic comedies; this is one that you’re likely to find tolerable, and maybe even involving.

The co-writers/co-directors are a real-life couple. You might recognize Renée Felice Smith from “NCIS: Los Angeles.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As the road trip rolls on, ‘The Relationtrip’ gets weird. Not cute-silly weird, but clever-smart weird, all bolstered by Smith and Bush’s fun and easy chemistry.”–Kate Erbland, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: APOCALYPSIS (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Eric Leiser

FEATURING: Maria Bruun, Chris O’Leary

PLOT: In a dystopian future/present/alternate history, a saintly albino woman has visions while reading the book of Revelation, and tries to convert an atheistic conspiracy theorist/hacktivist who’s being hunted by agents of the New World Order.

Still from Apocalypsis (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This straight-faced CGI-Revelation cum New World Order paranoia piece, steeped in psychedelic visuals, is a curiosity piece; a worthwhile trip if you want to follow the author’s off-center obsessions for 90 minutes, but it’s not essential weirdness.

COMMENTS: Taken at face value, Apocalypsis is an ecumenical outreach from the end times crowd to the chemtrails crowd, with bad acting and cheap but surprisingly effective acid trip visuals sprinkled throughout. I think that writer/director Eric Leiser is correct in assuming that people who will swallow a main character trying to use organite to shut down “the Grid” are also likely to find the Book of Revelation as credible a source of solid factual information as Infowars.

You have to grant that Apocalypsis avoids the pitfalls of boring, preachy “faith-based” films in favor of something more challenging. It replaces those pitfalls with conspiracy theory rabbit holes, but I’d much rather fall into those. Your spinster great aunt who goes to Bible study five nights a week is probably not going to dig Apocalypsis. It’s informed by experimental movie aesthetics, with about twice as many trippy montages as plot points. (Maybe Leiser’s recruiting the acidhead crowd, too?) The movie starts off by peering into some sort of cosmic whirlpool and never looks back, giving us double images, time lapse photography, fisheye lenses, negative images, and so on throughout the film to give it an on-the-cheap “mystical” aura. Most notable are the heroine’s Revelation visions, where you will see, among the CGI fractals, crudely animated scenes of what look like child’s dolls playing out Bible verses involving prophets, skeletal angels, seven-eyed lambs, and other briefly seen figures, accompanied by a “whooshing” sound. It’s surprisingly effective; going for too much realism would have been a huge mistake. It somehow seems right that the Archangel Michael and a seven-headed dragon are sculpted out of plasticine, and their choppy stop-motion battle is almost as unnaturally memorable as one of Ken Russell‘s bizarro green screen compositions in Altered States.

The main character, Evelyn Rose, is impossibly good, impossibly white, and persecuted by agents of the NWO for feeding the homeless. Leiser likes to shoot his albino subject in overexposure, to create glowing white-on-white compositions. Subplot visions send her to Japan to help with a nuclear disaster, but mostly she spends her time trying to convert her atheist friend Michael, who does an underground radio show where he warns listeners about the NSA trying to wipe out dissidents by nanobots, or radiation, or something. Michael has the squeakiest voice of any leading man in a 2018 feature, which is probably why his radio show’s ratings are so low. After Evelyn takes him to Church, he squeals, “That was so awesome!,” but he still professes “self-divinity” for a while. Black helicopters and such follow them both around a lot, and there are also guardian angels wandering around in the script. Much of it seems to have been shot in Central Park. According to the director-supplied IMDB synopsis, the whole film takes place in “a parallel universe entering a black hole,” although the screenplay doesn’t reference anything of the sort. It is, at bottom, a weird movie, for reasons both intended and unintended.

Apocalyspsis is actually the third part of a trilogy, although neither of the leads appear in the previous installments. Maybe the other two films explain more about that black hole, though. If anything, Apocalypsis feels like the opening movie in a trilogy; instead of resolving anything, it leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. Like, what just happened? Did we just get raptured through a black hole or something?

Apocalpysis is available solely on VOD at the present time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s as though David Lynch and Ridley Scott fell asleep in a candy store and collaborated on the same psychedelic dream.”–Porfle, HK and Cult Film News (DVD)

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE CLAY (2017)

Chi o sû nendo

DIRECTED BY: Sôichi Umezawa

FEATURING: , Shinoda Ryo, Tsuda Kanji

PLOT: Students in a rural Japanese clay workshop accidentally awaken a possessed being crafted by a failed sculptor who died under mysterious circumstances.

Still from Vampire Clay (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sôichi Umezawa gets a tip of the 366 Weird Hat for his creative directorial debut, but its Cronenberg-in-clay trappings are firmly in the realm of a (somewhat) standard scary movie.

COMMENTS: “Understated” and “body-horror” rarely sit side-by-side as descriptors, but Sôichi Umezawa pulls off this fairly impressive parlor trick with aplomb in his directorial debut. Primarily known for his make-up effects (and best known to us for his work on The ABCs of Death 2), Umezawa spins us a yarn set in an unlikely place (a rural clay-sculpting academy) about an unlikely antagonist (a creepy-cute blood golem thing). The action, such as it is, fits into that Horror Genre Standard Time of under ninety minutes. The result? A fairly memorable outing that won’t burn your entire evening.

Sensei Yuri Aina (Kurosawa Asuka) runs a very small school for aspiring sculptors somewhere in not-Tokyo, Japan. When she is forced to set up shop in an abandoned painter’s studio after finding her own workshop damaged by an earthquake, she unearths a bag of dried powder while digging in the studio’s garden. Thinking nothing of it, she places it in her school. Young up-and-comer Kaori (Shinoda Ryo), fresh from a stint at art school in totally-Tokyo, Japan, is one of Aina’s pupils. Kaori’s bucket of clay is used by another student, which prompts Kaori to re-hydrate the powdery remnants that Aina had put aside. Life returns to the cursed clay at the first spritz of water, and soon the students fall prey to a malevolent, inhuman force.

All told, there are just eight characters in this melodrama about rejection, competition, and the evils of industrial waste. The back-story of the evil clay beast is sufficiently over-the-top without slipping into giggle territory; I actually found myself rather moved by the tale of the failed sculptor who literally put his lifeblood into “Kakame”, the smiling vampire golem. The attacks on the students (who comprise five of the film’s eight characters) are all clever—think Cronenberg in high school art class. I imagine creativity and patience were Umezawa’s watchwords, as the budget for this movie must have been on the very low side. In one particularly unsettling bit, Kaori’s chief rival gets enveloped by the clay monster and tries to communicate to the other students the next day from within a sculpture. (I was reminded of the creepy short, Alma.) Other bits of violence—both gruesome and creative—are found throughout. The end veers heavily into the “Apocalypse-as-Revenge” genre, in perhaps a personal attack by the director on those who may have doubted his talents in the past.

Now that Sôichi Umezawa has proven he can maintain a feature-length narrative as well as scare his audience, I’m hopeful he’ll move on to some more challenging material. Vampire Clay takes you on a quick journey into one of the few remaining unexplored corners of the Gotta-Have-Blood monster genre while laying the ground-work for what will hopefully be a fuller career in weirdo-creepy motion pictures.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The notion of Vampire Clay is a fun thought experiment, and Umezawa seems to intend it that way, too, embracing both the utter ridiculousness of sentient hunks of plasticine and its endless creative applications…  the film has a better chance taking root in the imagination than in theaters, because the idea of vampire clay is so much more potent than actually watching it in action. Nothing this absurd should be this boring.”–Scott Tobias, Variety

CAPSULE: SCARLET DIVA (2000)

DIRECTED BY: Asia Argento

FEATURING: Asia Argento, Jean Shepherd, Joe Coleman

PLOT: A hot young Italian actress has dirty sex, encounters Hollywood scumbags, and does too much Special K while looking for true love.

Still from Scarlet Diva (2000)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This semi-hallucinatory semi-autobiography, the directorial debut of ‘s actress daughter, is merely a curiosity, though frequently an outlandish and entertaining one. It’s made with all the taste and subtlety you would expect from a woman with an angel tattooed over her crotch.

COMMENTS: Scarlet Diva is an experimental art movie that wouldn’t have been out of place on Cinemax After Dark. Asia Argento, the writer-director, asks Asia Argento, the actress, to do full frontal nudity, multiple sex scenes, a lesbian scene, and a couple of attempted-rape scenes. To freak out in front of a mirror while tripping on ketamine. To smoke, drink, and get into a mosh pit while pregnant. To pathetically pine for a pretty boy rock singer who doesn’t have time for her. To imagine herself as the Virgin Mary. Asia Argento, trooper that she is, eagerly complies with all these requests.

Scarlet Diva is timely because, among its many unsavory anecdotes, it includes a fictionalized version of the actress’ sexual abuse at the hands of now disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein. (In this version, she gets away, and he chases her down a hotel corridor as the camera focuses on his hairy ass). Yet that episode is only one of the many chaotic tales in this rambling confessional that plays like a trashy tell-all bestseller brought to life by an ambitious film student who hadn’t quite decided whether she wants to direct for the arthouse or for the late night cable market. So you get a hog-tied nude roommate, childhood flashbacks, a puking scene, dream sequences, a drug trip complete with an out-of-body experience, a religious bestiality icon, aerobics in leopard-skin panties, screaming into the void, an encounter with a horny heroin-addicted genius, Asia nude shaving her underarms while Nina Simone sings “Wild is the Wind,” and so on. And exchanges like, “That’s the first time I’ve ever made love.” “Don’t tell me you’re a virgin?” “No, I’m a whore.”

It’s pretentious, sure, but in the most enjoyable way: honest, over-the-top, passionately personal, and never boring. Scarlet Diva is not, by most definitions, great filmmaking. And yet, there’s an excellent chance you’ll find yourself entertained by it, in a guilty pleasure way.  And you’ll also feel legitimate pity and affection for Argento, despite the occasional clumsiness with which she makes the case for her own debasement. It’s better than a so-bad-it’s-weird movie, but it’s in the same general region, in the sense that it’s as often interesting for things it does wrong as for things it does right.

Film Movement Classics treats Diva like a Criterion-worthy masterpiece. There are tons of supplements, including an 8-minute “making of” featurette; an archival Asia Argento interview;  multiple versions of the trailer, including an 8-minute promo; and an odd piece called “Eye of the Cyclops” where Joe Coleman talks about his role in the film while showing us his titular conceptual art piece. It’s capped off by a very personal, even uncomfortable commentary track where Argento almost breaks into tears at times, curses Harvey Weinstein, and refuses to discuss certain painful scenes in detail.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It is, by conventional standards, a fairly terrible movie — crudely shot on digital video, indifferently acted (in three languages) and chaotically written (by Ms. Argento) — but it is also weirdly fascinating, a ready-made Eurotrash cult object.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (U.S. debut)

CAPSULE: MOM AND DAD (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur

PLOT: Parents all across the world suddenly snap and start trying to kill their kids, leading to an all-out generational battle royale. Still from Mom and Dad (2107)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Mom and Dad is actually a challenging movie to comprehend on first grasp. There is nothing in the execution of this film that says “weird,” but the premise alone is audaciously novel, and the tone is consistently off-rhythm. Maybe a list of “the 1000 strangest movies” would be a better fit for this movie.

COMMENTS: Mom and Dad‘s tagline reads, “They brought you into this world. They can take you out.” That line actually comes from an old Bill Cosby joke during his stand-up days, and is reused in the pilot episode for The Cosby Show. Cringing yet? Get used to it! Add to that the facts that the writer-director of this movie also did Crank, and that Nicholas Cage, in my book, is still serving time for what he did to The Wicker Man, and you can well appreciate how I entered this movie: with my expectations roughly south of cold coffee. The artsy opening credits sequence gave me a sprinkle of optimism; the contrast of soul-rock with James Bond-ish split frame montages set me up for a happy sick humor party. What would have done with this idea?

Back to reality. The movie focuses on suburban beehive hell and the nuclear family of Brent (Nicolas Cage) and Kendall (Selma Blair) and their two kids Carly (Anne Winters) and Josh (Zackary Arthur). Scene 1: bratty little brother interrupts big sister’s phone call to her boyfriend, so she chases him downstairs yelling she’s going to kill him and chucking a framed family portrait after him. Foreshadowing. While the family breakfasts, reports of parental filicide (that means killing your own kids) play on the news. The family argues over Carly’s date conflicting with grandparents expected for dinner, reading like a campy parody of American sitcoms. Their servant, Sun-Yi (Sharon Gee), seems used to it. Throughout their day, the family, even the adults talking to each other, bicker in casual passive-aggressive ways, not a joyful scene to be had. In school, Carly’s teacher is a mean jerk.

The whole world of Mom and Dad is a bleak landscape of sneering nastiness regardless of who’s talking to whom, which builds up to all the parents showing up early to pick up their kids from school—and it’s not to take them out for ice cream! It turns into a spontaneous riot, with the too-few cops failing to keep order as parents leap fences and gates and start stone cold assassinating their kids using any means at hand. Kids run, parents chase, bedlam, uh, badlams. Talking heads on the news spread the same story, and of course no one knows why this is happening. A lengthy delivery room sequence with Kendall’s sister picking today of all days to give birth terminates in a post-natal abortion as mom strangles the newborn. Elsewhere in the hospital, new parents press their faces against the glass of the maternity ward, locked out.

All this blurs by, less like a movie and more like an anthology of connected scenes. It’s exactly like a million zombie apocalypse survival scenarios, only the zombies are all repoductively fertile adults. Notably, no parent is homicidal towards anyone else but their own offspring, unless somebody gets between them. The kids of our central nuclear family return home to find their housekeeper Sun-Yi mopping up the blood from her own filicide. The kids have to fend for themselves, and marshal defenses such as taking their parents’ gun; which gives us a satirical recitation of home firearm statistics after a parent gets shot.

Speaking as one who favors the darkest side of humor… I’m a little let down, because there’s not much dark humor here, except in the general concept. Cage does his Cagiest, and his trademark freakouts carry every scene he’s in—singing the “Hokey Pokey” while demolishing his pool table with a sledgehammer after a minor marital dispute, that sort of thing—but he’s not even in the bulk of the movie. The thing about Nicholas Cage is, his act is starting to get old. After your 100th Daffy Duck cartoon, seeing him act like a loon isn’t a surprise anymore. Outside the Cage, the rest of the movie seems like a particularly bleak number. I would hope repeat viewings could help the flavor to come through, like a Captain Beefheart album, but that’s doubtful, giving the limp ending.

Mom and Dad does have many strong points in its favor. It is intelligently handled, has an original and daring premise, and explores that concept in depth. There’s just enough Nicholas Cage to flavor it without overpowering it. The rest of the cast is competent; Selma Blair gets several good scenes. But… it seems to not know what it wants to be. It nibbles on some themes, like punk nihilism, anti-consumerism, and social parody of the generation gap, without committing to any of them. It could have been a lot worse, so perhaps its biggest achievement is making this edgy premise work. It aspires to mild interest, achieves that capably, then quits while it’s ahead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The phrase ‘I swear I could kill that kid’ is no longer an exaggerated statement of infuriation, as some mysterious phenomenon creates a gloriously weird amalgam of ParentsThe Purge, and Dawn of the Dead in Brian Taylor’s jet-black horror-comedy.”–Blake Crane, Film Pulse (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE WICKER MAN (2006)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kate Beahan, ,

PLOT: Responding to a letter from his ex-girlfriend, Officer Edward Malus decides to recuperate from a harrowing traffic accident by investigating a missing person on an island inhabited by a cult of nature-worshiping women.

Still from The Wicker Man (20016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The weirdest thing about this movie is somehow this island of goddess-obsessed females didn’t all get seduced by mid-’00s Cage’s snarky charm. Seriously, though, the actual weirdest thing I came across was that the “Director’s Cut” was presented in full-frame on the DVD, with the PG-13 theatrical release in wide-screen on the reverse side.

COMMENTS: When under the direction of talented filmmakers, Nicolas Cage nothing short of amazing. And as for his many bad movies, I’ve never been unhappy to see him on the screen whenever he appears. So, Neil LaBute’s the Wicker Man does not deserve the lowly “3.7” score to be found on IMDb; it merits at least a solid 5. Nicolas Cage provides a competent performance in a competent PG-13 atmospheric horror film remake. That said, to come anywhere close to succeeding with a reimagining of one of the great scary movies starring some of Britain’s best actors from the ’70s, “competent” is far, far away from “worth-while”.

The story, for the few who may not know it, concerns the mercy mission of California cop Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage, in one of his many roles as a member of law enforcement). While taking some wellness leave after being injured during a dramatic (and recurring) car and truck crash, he receives a letter from ex-girlfriend Willow (Kate Beahan), requesting that he help her find her daughter, who has gone missing on Willow’s hometown island off the Pacific Northwest coast. This island is populated almost entirely by women, all of whom are members of a mother-goddess cult. As Malus’ investigation continues, their ominous harvest festival approaches.

I apologize for not having much to say about this movie, but there really isn’t much to go over. Technically, it’s put together competently ($40-million can get you that kind of quality control); the acting across the board is competent; and… then what? I volunteered to watch this having somehow spent my years between 2006 and now without having seen the movie that brought to the internet the famed “Not the bees!” meme. Indeed, I very nearly missed out on that singular treat for reasons alluded to in the “Why it won’t make the list” section. While a newer release probably would have served me better, the original DVD pressing had the director’s (read: “Not the bees!”) cut in full-frame presentation, something I avoid unless the film was intentionally made in the Academy ratio. I was quite perplexed when I finished the wide-screen version on my first go-around, having spent much of it idly taking random notes to kill time until the infamous bee scene; in the end I had to flip the disc and re-watch the finale, in full-frame. That was the most interesting part of my viewing experience. Now far bee it from me to sound so dismissive, but even though I could drone on some more if I felt like it, instead I’ll leave it that the Wicker Man rather fully lives “up” to the buzz.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Whenever we think our man Cage is totally sucking, it’s probably that he’s just so far ahead of the curve we’re afraid to follow lest we get hit by a truck careening around the bend. Not unlike the character he plays in the BAD LIEUTENANT 2, Cage’s cop in WICKER doesn’t care if we root for him or not, he’s got his own road to ho, an arc that transcends words like ‘reckless’, ‘brave’, ‘idiotic’ or ‘inspired.’–Erich Kuersten, Acidemic